There’s a scar over my right eye. Faded, after fourteen years, to off-white, maybe two centimetres long, it travels a short arc from SSW to NNE, bisecting the eyebrow. Any injury to the head that breaks the skin bleeds like a scene from Macbeth. I had two inches on the guy; he had twenty pounds on me. I didn’t bother getting it stitched and woke the morning after, very late for work, having to peel the pillow from my face in a chorus of crackling, tearing noises. Lost: a job, some bedding, a few friends for a time (their expression of moral indignation), some red blood cells and pieces of my idea of myself.
Not too long ago, a theory was set afloat from one of the many ports of the social sciences as to why war happens, or I think in this case it may have been closer to why civil war happens. Broadly sketched, it claimed that populations of young men left to their own devices during times of severe unemployment and economic crisis will tend toward violence. That, when the lives of young men reach a saturation point of boredom, purposelessness and acute insecurity, they will band together and find some Other to hate and, eventually, attack. Bleak thought, that the male of the species needs a bone to chew lest he become murderous.
Not being a political theorist and having never been anywhere near the kind of civil strife referred to in this polemic, I had no way of verifying or disproving what it was claiming and, therefore, spent next to no time thinking about it. At least no time thinking about it in the contextual package in which it arrived. I simply hadn’t the information available to genuinely imagine with anything close to confidence what the life of a young man in Belfast, Palestine, Angola, Sri Lanka or anywhere else really looked like. What I did do, however, is transplant the outline and causal equation onto the only form of empty violence between young men I’d ever witnessed: fighting. Scraps, punch-ups, donnybrooks, poundings, etc.—the names for this event, generated regionally, almost town by town, and changing over time, might be an infinite set.
Montreal, autumn of 1990: a group of friends are rivering out of a bar on St. Catherine Street at closing, shoulder to shoulder with strangers as inebriated as they are. There is the jostle and jocularity of sexual possibility, alongside the highly strung, insistent individuals for whom beer is like speed. For them no night has an end. Conversations are loud, fractious. A thing is barely heard before it’s responded to with a yelped remark, amped up and barely cogent but funny. Some are wandering into traffic; the bleating horns are agreeable, knees are floodlit and, if a cab passes, the invective’s another rush. To sit and be still is to risk sliding down a snowbank of consciousness. Then a kind of pocket of chilled air opens where seconds before was a throng; a few figures now silhouetted in the moneyed glow from a bank’s glass pane. With the first flurry it looks like two people facing each other, laughing, the way their shoulders bounce; but there’s a soundtrack beneath of clenched-air grunts in a high tenor. In the time it takes onlookers to discern that this is, in fact, one of theirs, exhaustion has set in, and one of the two has reduced the risk of real injury by grappling the arms of the other, pulling them close. There’s a sheen of sweat and laboured breathing. Some are castigating their participant from just inside the fringe of light, calling him asshole and demanding he stop. This stops no one. A messy sort of upright wrestling happens that is openly advantageous for whoever commands more brute strength in the upper body. One weakened form gets thrown against the bank’s glass, meeting it at exactly the furthest extension of the other’s arms’ reach; it’s like using the chest, shoulders and head as a protective covering for both hands in order to shatter the pane without shredding skin. The cold, piercing, uprising note of an alarm is heard almost before the glass comes down, and it comes down in sheets, like a guillotine, hitting the pavement and inside floor of the bank with a sound of cymbals crashing that barely covers deeper, tensile moaning noises and sharp woody cracks.
This is what stops the participants: the sound of property destruction, along with the hushed silence of confounded witnesses. This was meant to be a punch-up and now it’s a bank job. Already the two who’d been fighting are strolling briskly around the corner and out of the neighbourhood and they seem to be sharing a joke. There might be cuts but they’re ambulatory. Everyone else waits for the cops, constructing wildly conflicting accounts of what went down. No one knows anyone.
I was within feet of a friend of mine who was about to mix it up with someone I knew only vaguely, and by reputation as a goer. The friend turned twenty that day and had been into the tequila with abandon. He looked like a standing sculpture in wet pasta, a tinned-meat dullness about the eyes. I didn’t intend to watch this and wanted to remove him physically. His head, in profile, opened its numb lips and said to the girl he’d been seeing, “Itsh ma birthdeh and all fite if I waan too.”
A closed-circuit, right-to-choose logic passed through the higher court of the agave plant. We (the girlfriend and I and you) here represent Kierkegaard’s “universal.” Do we bind his hand and feet? Or let him raise his blade over Isaac and hope a bush ignites? I’m infantilizing the Danish theologian’s writings; but in some ways, this is the point I’m having a hard time making.
The late French thinker Emmanuel Levinas built an ethics around the act of regarding the face of the Other. As I understand it, in looking at, contemplating and accepting the human face as another like us, with its singular—and singularly unknowable to us—humanity attached, we are barred from reducing that Other to a thing of little account. In fact, it begins to share properties with the divine. We become obligated to, and responsible for, that Otherness, and by extension all humans.
Only those deeply committed to the absurd pursuit of searching out and winning serious street fights think at length about striking another person anywhere but the face. This type (and we’ve all come across them: usually bearing the evidence of some weight training, most likely half-assedly studying a martial art or six, and with the ability to talk about little else other than “doing his ass in”—language that always and immediately begs to be recorded and played back to them) will actually and ruthlessly attempt blows to parts of the anatomy that will ensure maximum pain, quite often carrying the distinct possibility of permanent injury. These men are sociopaths. One tried to bite off my ear because someone he assumed I was in a bar “with” had dampened his shirt with a squirt gun.
The rest of us who’ve ever been in a fight know that it’s pretty much limited to a kind of double-entry accounts system of landed blows to the face and received blows in same, weighed against the relative health of the hands afterward. It is impossible to take care of oneself in a fight without paying sustained attention to the face of the other. Your gaze remains attached to his face. Often for a longer period of time than an avowedly heterosexual man of that age has ever looked into the eyes of another.
Fighting—striking another person, for whatever reason—is plainly abhorrent.
—It is mismanaged emotion; the mark of a barely developed human adult. Fighting is a laughable hangover from our atavistic origins. It’s barbaric and it’s dangerous. It’s morally and ethically bankrupt, demeaning those who take part as well as those who have to witness it. An adult who loses control of all reason and lashes out in violence and rage has cause for acute shame.
After some minor rule-infractions in a lacrosse game, the player on the offending team must turn over the ball to a player from the opposing team. Both squads on the floor then make a wholesale change of players, alternating from offence to defence in the case of the penalized. The team giving up possession and shifting to defence has cause to delay this handing over of the ball for as long as possible, often by playing dumb with regards to the etiology of the whistle sound’s recent harshness and the cessation of play. The player waiting for the ball to be handed over is understandably eager and also nonplussed by this. His eagerness is usually expressed with a friendly slash on the arm, wrist or hand of the player holding the ball in his mesh, who is playing dumb, stalling, mouthing off a little, etc. Sometimes the slash carries a sting. Sometimes the sting stings enough for the staller to drop gloves, stick, ball, etc., and go at the slasher, who has taken his cue and whose gloves, stick, etc., have likewise been dropped. The next bit happens so very fast.
Watching this bit happen (with very slight adjustments for the switchover to hockey) on a TV screen in a bar in Vancouver with a friend who was then a member of the New Westminster Salmonbellies lacrosse team, this friend said, and very quietly, “Hmm, Gary Roberts. Southpaw. Found that out the hard way.”
“Back in the day. He cut me.”
“Yeah. One good one. On the bridge of the nose. My dad drove us to get stitched up. Then we joined the boys for a drink. Very affable guy.”
There’s this that happens: a kind of seepage downward from our two national sports; this low-intensity, near-ritualized aggression that is really no more than a form of communication among young men: You don’t do that. Not here and not to me. I’ll go. And there’ll be very little real animosity. Just a working out of things it would take too long to discuss. I’ve seen them head for the parking lot, engage, disengage, then re-enter the bar and decompress to the point of drowsiness.
The Romanian Emil Cioran in the 1960s: “The civilizing passage from blows to insults was no doubt necessary, but the price was high. Words will never be enough. We will always be nostalgic for violence and blood.”
There’s a scar over my left eye, just below the brow, still pink, especially under warm water. It travels ESE to WNW and is slightly longer than its twin, like a fallen, lazy, elongated second parenthesis. A month ago I walked into a cement telephone pole in the well-behaved light of day. Staggering in the circus lights of pain, I knew better than to give that pole any lip. The thing about Things is their obdurate passivity in the face of all the grief we dump at their feet. Things are so terrifyingly “cool.”