Monday, December 29, 2008

American Violence

started watching DeadWood this week between christmas and new years and i must say it's a pretty entertaining little vitual bubble to get sucked into. characters are strong and although cliched, believeable; story engaging... if ultimately pointless, at least it doesn't shrink away from straight forward depictions of the real stuff America is founded upon: greed, inequality, complete disregard for human rights/life, and violence without flinching or remorse.

to the show's writers' credit, there was even mention of "Rough and Tumble", a specific style of early American sport fighting, in which the opponents gouge eyes out, tear lips off with teeth, and rip the gentials off, etc.

seems like in many ways an integral part of the "southern ethic" and early American experience, but so dark, so disturbing, and so embarrassing that it is altogether swept under the rug. i think it is important to know about this stuff, in relation to the particular American fascination and relationship to violence, and a specific set of social values, which to this day in some way shapes everything from film-making to politics.

the following is a chilling artile, but fascinating in terms of social history and anthropology.

"Gouge and Bite, Pull Hair and Scratch:" The Social Significance of Fighting in the Southern Backcountry
a historical account and sociological study from 18th Century on.

a few excerpts:

... a man’s role in the all-male society was defined less by his ability as a breadwinner than by his ferocity. The touchstone of masculinity was unflinching toughness, not chivalry, duty, or piety."

"The southern ethic anticipated human evil, tolerated ethical lapses, and accepted the finitude of man in contrast to the new style that demanded unprecedented moral rectitude and internalized self-restraint."

"The lower classes are the most abject that, perhaps, ever peopled a Christian land. They live in the woods and deserts and many of them cultivate no more land than will raise them corn and cabbages, which, with fish, and occasionally a piece of pickled pork or bacon, are their constant food'. Their habitations are more wretched than can be conceived; the huts of the poor of Ireland, or even the meanest Indian wigwam, displaying more ingenuity and greater industry." [EN22] Despite their degradation - perhaps because of it - Janson found the poor whites extremely jealous of their republican rights and liberties. They considered themselves the equals of their best-educated neighbors and intruded on whomever they chose. [EN23] The gouging match this fastidious Englishman witnessed in Georgia was the epitome of lower-class depravity:

We found the combatants' fast clinched by the hair, and their thumbs endeavoring to force a passage into each other's eyes; while several of the bystanders were betting upon the first eye to be turned out of its socket. For some time the combatants avoided the thumb stroke with dexterity. At length they fell to the ground, and in an instant the uppermost sprung up with his antagonist's eye in his hand!!! The savage crowd applauded, while, sick with horror, we galloped away from the infernal scene. The name of the sufferer was John Butler, a Carolinian, who, it seems, had been dared to the combat by a Georgian; and the first eye was for the honor of the state to which they respectively belonged.

Janson concluded that even Indian "savages" and London's rabble would be outraged by the beastly Americans."

"The battle began - size and power on the Kentuckian's side, science and craft on the Virginian's. They exchanged cautious throws and blows, when suddenly the Virginian lunged at his opponent with a panther's ferocity. The crowd roared its approval as the fight reached its violent denouement:

The shock received by the Kentuckyan, and the want of breath, brought him instantly to the ground. The Virginian never lost his hold; like those bats of the South who never quit the subject on which they fasten until they taste blood, he kept his knees in his enemy's body; fixing his claws in his hair, and his thumbs on his eyes, gave them an instantaneous start from their sockets. The sufferer roared aloud, but uttered no complaint. The citizens again shouted with joy. Doubts were no longer entertained and bets of three to one were offered on the Virginian.

But the fight continued. The Kentuckian grabbed his smaller opponent and held him in a tight bear hug, forcing the Virginian to relinquish his facial grip. Over and over the two rolled, until, getting the Virginian under him, the big man "snapt off his nose so close to his face that no manner of projection remained." The Virginian quickly recovered, seized the Kentuckian's lower lip in his teeth, and ripped it down over his enemy's chin. This was enough: "The Kentuckyan at length gave out, on which the people carried off the victor, and he preferring a triumph to a doctor, who came to cicatrize his face, suffered himself to be chaired round the ground as the champion of the times, and the first rougher-and-tumbler. The poor wretch, whose eyes were started from their spheres, and whose lip refused its office, returned to the town, to hide his impotence, and get his countenance repaired." The citizens refreshed themselves with whiskey and biscuits, then resumed their races."

"I’m a salt River roarer! I’m a ring tailed squealer! I’m a regular screamer from the old Massassip! Whoop! I’m the very infant that refused his milk before its eyes were open and called out for a bottle of old Rye! I love the women and I’m chockful o’ fight! I’m half wild horse and half cock-eyed alligator and the rest o’ me is crooked snags an’ red-hot snappin’ turtle…. I can out-run, out-jump, out shout, out-brag, out-drink, an’ out-fight, rough-an’-tumble, no holts barred, any man on both sides the river from Pittsburgh to New Orleans an’ back ag’in to St. Louiee. Come on, you flatters, you bargers, you milk white mechanics, an’ see how tough I am to chaw! I ain’t had a fight for two days an’ I’m spilein’ for exercise. Cock-a-doodle-doo!"

"Davy Crockett coolly boasted, 'I kept my thumb in his eye, and was just going to give it a twist and bring the peeper out, like taking a gooseberry in a spoon.'"

and if you want to take classes and train in this style of fighting, The American Rough and Tumble Society is right in Santa Monica, California, where i have lived before. NOTE: this link is not working any more. i guess this last vestige has vanished?


michael said...

Totally tangential to your point, "tooth and nail" in English is at least 500 years old, and the same construction is recorded in Latin.

zhao said...

stand corrected!