Sacrament! Religious syncretism in Quebecois wrestling

This is an excerpt from an essay I did which received an appropriately shitty mark

…Since Roland Barthes’ seminal 1972 essay, “The World of Wrestling,” the sport (as I’ll call it until wrestling is more thoroughly defined) has entered the ring of cultural and performance studies scholarship. Scholars grapple to define and locate so elusive a sport, which to Barthes was an “Exhibition of Suffering,” to others was a gendered performance, an archetypal tragedy, an orgy or fundamentally a comedy.  I shy from any teleological reading of wrestling.  It defies essentialism in its very performativity; as is often the case in performance studies, wrestling is too ephemeral, too changing, too slippery to capture in a chokehold.  It is an act of and from the body and therefore potentially tragedian, archetypal, heteronormative homoerotic, orgiastic or comedic in description, but like the rippling sinew and undulating flesh of its performers, not any one thing.  It is more accurately, as Sharon Mazer notes in her Sport and Spectacle, “a sport that is not in the literal sense of the word, sporting; a theatrical entertainment that is not theatre,” in short a performance of contradictions.

In a damp church basement in northern Montreal, these contrary bodies (opposed to definition, opposed to each other) meet every Saturday night to battle in an ICW ring. This display, a particularly Quebecois imitation of WWE wrestling, is what Barthes describes as true wrestling:” performed in second-rate halls, where the public spontaneously attunes itself to the spectacular nature of the contest, like the audience at a suburban cinema.”   Rows of metal chairs sit before a metal barrier in front of the ‘ring’ – a twenty by twenty foot square – surrounded by rope, and in the moments before the announcer’s entrance, anticipation.  Amongst the many bodies at play in wrestling are those of the audience, the standing or seated, cheering, jeering, leering consumers and directors of the performance in the ring.    Belonging to both the seamy and scholarly, wrestling has amassed an audience whose own archetypal performances shape the world of wrestling.  Primarily, there are the ‘marks’ and the ‘smarts,’ those who believe the “visual markers of authenticity” and those who participate in “fandom [as] a mode of performative consumption”(Koh).  For the marks, –who believe the narrative, who see naturally occurring heroes and villains and not managed personae, who see a steel chair to the head and not stage fighting, –the performance is ultimate physicality.  These people privilege the immediacy of the enactment over the script, but in their complete engagement and belief, are most susceptible to encountering the text within the spectacle. The ‘smarts’ are active readers of the script, watching and reading how the plan is actualized yet still engaging in the language of moments embodied on stage.  Their fixation on the spectacle is naturalized by the immediacy of engrossment, but underscored by an ironic practice of over-engrossment.

pr_injustice

 When the first match begins – with a shirtless, spandex-clad blonde hero pitted against a bandanna-sporting, skull-bedecked villain – the line between the knowing spectator and the beguiled one is erased.   Whether or not the hero’s choreographed motions (the hero is thrown to the ground, he rises in pain, he gallantly punches and pins the still-celebrating villain) are ‘real’ is irrelevant.  The audience collectively and compulsively cries out at the hero’s pain and shouts at the villain’s, the audience’s bodies receiving the true emotions mimed on stage.  Such is the peculiar pleasure of wrestling, which lies “in believing and disbelieving in what it sees at the same time” (Mazer 7).

The lack of distinction, and the lack of importance, separating ‘fact’ from ‘fiction’ in the wrestling arena opens the possibilities of a dogmatic reading – wrestling is a play of faith.  Above the bodies posing and pounding on the ICW stage hangs the body of Christ, framing the display of physicality in the space of religion.  Because of its immaterial relation to reality, the actual contest is extraneous, and the “ritualized encounter between opponent, replayed repeatedly over time for an exceptionally engaged audience” is privileged (Mazer 3).  Ritual is performed in the ring, in the makeshift pews and from the rafters.  The audience, suspending disbelief or genuinely believing, practices the rite of faith.  Here, wrestling becomes catechistic; a moralistic tale of good and evil, multiple re-iterations of man’s literal fall from grace.  The sacrifice of the body, the mutilated flesh, the spilled blood, citationally reenact crucifixion.  The placing of this even within a peculiarly Quebecois house of worship adds layers of cultural meaning to the bodies present.  Shouts of “tabernacle!” and “sacrament!” come from the audience like displaced “hallelujahs.”   Simultaneously reiterating the religious foundation of Quebecois culture (particularly in this event) and blaspheming it, worship and heresy become utterances of the same sentiment…

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