Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
I was a fight fan in my youth. On Friday nights, my dad would pop home after his arduous work week with a quart or two of Eastside Old Tap Lager in hand—or when he was feeling flush, the slightly pricier Miller High Life—and we’d tune into the Friday Night Fights hosted by Don Dunphy, whose voice remains permanently etched in my memory. (Exactly where, is what I want to know, and how does memory encode itself into my brain matter to so clearly remember a voice?)
Anyway, this was a weekly ritual, my brother and I sipping RC Colas (cheaper than Coke) and sneaking an occasional sip of beer when Dad went to the bathroom. It went on for years, at least as I remember it, until this very brash and intriguing figure named Cassius Clay came on the scene after he’d won the gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics.
My dad couldn’t stand Clay, with all his preening and “Look at me!” braggadocio. The heavyweight champ at the time was Sonny Liston, a taciturn ex-convict who’d done serious time, had a hulking physical presence, and a dead-on intimidating stare. My dad laughingly insisted that Liston would “murder” Clay when the two met in the ring.
It is not difficult to imagine the delight Whitman would have taken watching Ali dance across this earth, dazzling the masses and singing his own body electric.
Clay struck me as a compelling figure, full of himself, to be sure, but also full of fun and frolic. Even at my tender age it was obvious he was playing the media like a merry fiddle and wink-winking his way to notoriety and ever heftier paychecks. He was young and handsome and outrageous, and he definitely owned every room he ever stepped in. When the time finally came for the titanic Liston-Clay match in February, 1964, my dad gave me 10 to 1 odds that Liston would win—his dollar to my dime. The fight wasn’t on network TV, so we listened on the radio, transfixed and hanging on every word about every punch.
It was a fight full of intrigue and strange turns, the rich details of which you can read via Google at multiple sites around the Internet. Suffice to say that I won my dollar, and Clay, announcing after the fight that he was changing his name henceforth to Muhammad Ali and embracing Islam, went on to eventually become one of the more notable and widely beloved figures in history.
Ali’s stepping into the historical moment with such crackle and snap was partly about the rise of the black man, the 20th century’s version of throwing off the chains and ropes and shuffling “Yah-suh, No-suh”-ism that had kept blacks so oppressed for a full century after the Civil War. But it was about another large current in American history as well: the full blooming of the Age of Vanity.
Today, “celebrities” who do little but celebrate their celebrity ham it up for gossip television and magazines during lavish spending sprees with Daddy’s money in San Tropez, while even high school football players rise from the turf after gaining two ho-hum yards and begin pounding their chests and prancing back to the huddle, as if they’ve just scored the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.
As we creep up on the half-century observance of the Liston-Clay bout next year, we have Ali to both praise and blame for the rich inspiration and dismal preening that came to be so closely identified with his legacy.
And you know what’s coming down the pike, of course: the eventual implanting of tiny chips in our brain that will be set to record every moment of our lives for automatic downloading to You Tube…
Before Ali, athletes were taught to be humble and dignified amidst the battle, allowing their performances to speak and sing for themselves. “Travis, next time you get to the end zone, act like you’ve been there before,” Green Bay Packers football coach Vince Lombardi reportedly admonished his kick returner Travis Williams after the latter had scored a touchdown and done a victory dance with a tad too much flourish for his dignified coach’s liking. (This was back in 1967, at the very beginning of what has become the obligatory self-celebration we see after virtually every average play in every sport.)
But Ali, more than any other single figure, gave himself and thus others permission to dance around and point to themselves, reveling in the crowd’s attention. “Come on, it’s just a game and this is entertainment, it’s theater; it’s supposed to be fun!” he was implying. “No reason not to enjoy and celebrate yourself!”
Fair enough, though Ali, wily creature that he was, had larger purposes in mind as well. To the degree that he put the country’s still entrenched racism in front of itself by insisting that it look at him and accept the fact that a beautiful, bright, skilled, loquacious black man could rise to unparalleled heights of accomplishment and popularity, then he was every bit as great as he jokingly liked to suggest with his theatrical “I am the greatest!” proclamations.
In one sense, Ali was fulfilling the voice—from the other end of the racial divide—of he-who-celebrated-himself Walt Whitman some 75 years earlier, another visionary seeking to free humanity from its shackles of dull conformity to herd thinking and social-sexual repression. It is not difficult to imagine the delight Whitman would have taken watching Ali dance across this earth, dazzling the masses and singing his own body electric.
Whitman’s and Ali’s celebration of the self—the noble, joyous, exuding, particular Self, writ large across the firmament for all to see, is among the greatest contributions that American culture has bequeathed the world. They are rather like soul brothers in this matter, exemplifying, in a profound way, our Founders’ propagation of individual liberty, the right to conscience, and the pursuit of happiness.
In a less profound way, we have now evolved to the ever-inviting vanity of Facebook, where one can, if one chooses (and some do), keep the world informed from post to post on such matters as “On the way to SFO!”…”Stopping for coffee!”…“Boarding now”…“Landed and heading for baggage claim!”
Earlier this week I was at a bike shop counter and beheld a helmet video cam, tapes of which were playing on a computer monitor that showed cyclists careening down trails and splashing through creeks. One can apparently put these cameras on all manner of head gear and thus record, if one chooses, virtually all of one’s life as it plays out in front of the Self to which Whitman and Ali sang such praises.
And you know what’s coming down the pike, of course: the eventual implanting of tiny chips in our brain that will be set to record, without the cumbersome weight of an external camera, every moment of our lives for automatic downloading to You Tube, so all our friends can see what we’re up to at any given moment. Only problem being our natural tendency to watch the tapes of our own lives first, and since these chips will be set to record 24/7, we’ll find the tapes and the Self they portray so addictive that we won’t have any time to watch any of our friends’ lives.
So there we’ll be, our lives laid out in full for audiences of one (ourselves, with earbuds fully intact and eyes glazed), leading to the timeless and profound Buddhist question, “If a Self thumps its chest and preens without anyone watching, is there a Self there at all?”
This oldie-goodie will likely be recognizable to readers of a certain age. Enjoy!
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Deep appreciation to the photographers!
Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at the top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: email@example.com
Child in mirror photo courtesy of Brett Neilson, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/brettneilson/
Muhammad Ali Center in Louisviile courtesy of aacool, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aacool/
Adult in mirror photo courtesy of Kevin Simpson, Santa Barbara, CA, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at:: http://www.flickr.com/photos/videocrab/