Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Pugilist at Rest

I don't know much about art. Well, next to nothing, actually. But I like this. I became aware of the sculpture by reading Thom Jones' story of the same name. I don't necessarily like every one of his stories that I've read, though I believe that I've probably read most of them, but he has some themes which resonate personally with me and some of them are excellent in any case. This one is at the top of the list and I would recommend it to almost anyone, but I digress. In a passage from his story, Mr. Jones describes the sculpture as follows:

"Theogenes was the greatest of gladiators. He was a boxer who served under the patronage of a cruel nobleman, a prince who took great delight in bloody spectacles. Although this was several hundred years before the times of those most enlightened of men Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and well after the Minoans of Crete, it still remains a high point in the history of Western civilization and culture. It was the approximate time of Homer, the greatest poet who ever lived. Then, as now, violence, suffering, and the cheapness of life were the rule.

The sort of boxing Theogenes practiced was not like modern-day boxing with those kindergarten Queensbury Rules. The two contestants were not permitted the freedom of a ring. Instead, they were strapped to flat stones, facing each other nose-to-nose. When the signal was given, they would begin hammering each other with fists encased in heavy leather thongs. It was a fight to the death. Fourteen hundred and twenty-five times Theogenes was strapped to the stone and fourteen hundred and twenty-five times he emerged a victor.

Perhaps it is Theogenes who is depicted in the famous Roman statue (based on the Greek original) of "The Pugilist at Rest." I keep a grainy black-and-white photograph of it in my room. The statue depicts a muscular athlete approaching his middle age. He has a thick beard and a full head of curly hair. In addition to the telltale broken nose and cauliflower ears of a boxer, the pugilist has the slanted, drooping brows that bespeak torn nerves. Also, the forehead is piled with scar tissue. As may be expected, the pugilist has the musculature of a fighter. His neck and trapezius muscles are well developed. His shoulders are enormous; his chest is thick and flat, without the bulging pectorals of the bodybuilder. His back, oblique and abdominal muscles are highly pronounced, and he has that greatest asset of the modern boxer - sturdy legs. The arms are large, particularly the forearms, which are reinforced with the leather wrappings of the cestus. It is the body of a small heavyweight - lithe rather than bulky, but by no means lacking in power: a Jack Johnson or a Dempsey, say. If you see the authentic statue at the Terme Museum, in Rome, you will see that the seated boxer is really not much more than a light-heavyweight. People were smaller in those days. The important thing is that he was perfectly proportioned.

The pugilist is sitting on a rock with his forearms balanced on his thighs. That he is seated and not pacing implies that he has been through all this many times before. It appears that he is conserving his strength. His head is turned as if he were looking over his shoulder - as if someone had just whispered something to him. It is in this that the "art" of the sculpture is conveyed to the viewer. Could it be that someone has just summoned him to the arena? There is a slight look of befuddlement on his face, but there is no trace of fear. There is an air about him that suggests that he is eager to proceed and does not wish to cause anyone any trouble or to create a delay, even though his life will soon be on the line. Besides the deformities on his noble face, there is also the suggestion of weariness and philosophical resignation. All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Exactly! He knew this more than two thousand years before Shakespeare penned the line. How did he come to be at this place in space and time? Would he rather be safely removed to the countryside - an obscure, stinking peasant shoving a plow behind a mule? Would that be better? Or does he revel in his role? Perhaps he once did, but surely not now. Is this the great Theogenes or merely a journeyman fighter, a former slave or criminal bought by one of the many contractors who for months trained the condemned for their brief moment in the arena? I wonder if Marcus Aurelius loved the "Pugilist" as I do, and came to study it and meditate before it."

Both the passage and the sculpture captured my imagination and I view the object as near to perfection.


Blogger Unknown said...

i also first heard of this sculpture when reading Jones' collection of stories. I became fascinated with the story of Theogenes. Over the past several years I have researched Theogenes. I haven't been able to find any formal writings about him or his life. What's most compelling to me about this sculpture is the question Jones raises with respect to the question a great person might ask themselves; would they really be better off living a simple life, outside of the pressures and risks that inevitably come with so-called "glory". I don't know.

7:44 AM  
Blogger Stone Collector said...

I am glad to come across this appreciation of these matched literary and sculptural jewels!

What brought me here was that I have just returned from a holiday on Rhodes, where our tour guide recounted the story of the death of Diagoras, and, at the end of that day I caught sight of the statue of Diagoras, carried on the shoulders of his sons.

Time loves a Hero.

3:56 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home