Nigel Warburton

From the wrestling ring to Plato’s Cave in one easy throw

Multiple layers of appearance and reality can be found in the notorious ‘Montreal Screwjob’ incident of 1997

From the wrestling ring to Plato’s Cave in one easy throw
Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart, who lost his title as WWF World Heavyweight Champion in the Montreal Screwjob incident. Credit: Alamy
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Philosophy Smackdown

Douglas Edwards

Polity, pp. 200, £13

One of the delights of going to stay with my grandparents in the 1970s was that my grandmother was a fan of the wrestling on ITV’s World of Sport. My parents wouldn’t ever watch it. It was fixed — a pantomime. But my grandmother seemed oblivious. It was the only sport she followed, apart from Wimbledon. I don’t think she realised it was scripted.

I was transfixed by the exaggerated antics of the ‘Dulwich Destroyer’, ‘The Man You Love to Hate’, Mick McManus, who played it for the boos and whose vulnerability (as everyone knew) was his ears (‘Not the ears, not the ears’), and by the sheer bulk of Giant Haystacks — 6ft 11 and allegedly weighing in at 45 stone — a real giant from a Grimms fairy tale it seemed. Dickie Davies’s deadpan commentary played along with the ruse, as if these were real competitions, with real winners, rather than the choreographed slapstick entertainments between villains and blue-eyed stooges in tight-fitting trunks most of us knew them to be.

Many years later I read Roland Barthes’s essay ‘The World of Wrestling’ in which he examined the semiotics of the salauds, comparing wrestlers to characters in a Molière play, pinpointing the displays of injustice and exaggerated moral outrage that are the thematic mainstays of the genre. I hadn’t thought at all about pro wrestling since then. But reading Douglas Edwards’s Philosophy Smackdown brought it all back, although his terms of reference are the World Wrestling Federation and the glamorous worlds of Hulk Hogan, Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart, and Stone Cold Steve Austin, not the out of shape vaudeville players I’d watched with my grandmother.

The book is billed as being about the philosophy of wrestling, but Edwards is such a fanboy for the activity and writes so well that you don’t need to know much about either topic to be drawn in. He takes six philosophical topics — reality, freedom, identity, morality, justice and meaning — and investigates each one through the peculiar lens of pro wrestling. The result is far more entertaining than you might expect. It’s driven by the author’s enthusiasm for both activities.

He is much better than Barthes on the layers of reality in pro wrestling. Particularly fascinating is his account of ‘shoots’. As the glossary tells us, a ‘shoot’ is when a wrestler does something that isn’t in the script, something unplanned. In the case of the so-called ‘Montreal Screwjob’ in 1997, Bret ‘Hitman’ Hart didn’t like the plot he was given, which was to lose his final WWF bout to Shawn Michaels before he switched to a rival wrestling organisation. A compromise script was agreed, in which the fight would end in disqualification for both wrestlers. But this was a trick. Vince McMahon, the owner of the WWF, double-crossed Hart by calling to the referee to end the match early while Hart was held in a pre-planned hold — as if he had submitted. Hart then stopped acting. He spat in his opponent’s face and stormed off, pursued by a crew making a television documentary.

Or that’s what seemed to happen, assuming this wasn’t another layer of set up. The way this was reported included an open admission that wrestling matches are scripted — something like a magician admitting that it was all done with mirrors. It broke ‘kayfabe’ (this being the inhouse technical term for the fictional world in which wrestling matches are real contests). For Edwards, the ‘Montreal Screwjob’ provides an illustration of the layers of reality provided by Plato’s Cave: appearance, reality behind the appearance, and true reality.

By the end of the book the author is questioning whether professional philosophers who never change their views are like wrestlers who stick to a gimmick that their in-the-ring character is identified with. It’s their livelihood. Pro philosophers and wrestlers alike mostly make their names by sticking to their guns (Wittgenstein and Putnam excepted). But should pro philosophers use gimmicks, like wrestlers, or does the pursuit of truth demand that they abandon one stance for another? Should they, like pro wrestlers, ‘work’ in the sense of sticking to their scripts? Clearly the answer is no. But that’s not to say that most of them don’t.