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“La Gloire de Georges Carpentier” by François Mauriac (1921)

Nobel laureate and novelist François Mauriac (1885-1970) developed an interest in boxing strictly because of the compelling figure of Carpentier.  In a virtual paean to Carpentier, published the very day of the Dempsey fight, Mauriac meditates on the fact that the passion inspired by boxing is the only one that truly crosses the boundaries of nationality and class.  The power of the sport to touch human hearts and minds, he opines, transcends that of literature:

Of all human values, only that of a champion can be universally appreciated.  There aren’t fifty Englishmen or ten Americans who can understand the pleasure we derive from Phèdre, but the eloquence of the fist is accessible to any man on earth.  The “noble art,” as it is called, is particularly suited to bestowing on its faithful a precious gift: the security of knowing one will be admired.  A knockout is self-evident and if Georges triumphs over Dempsey, we Frenchmen will be sure that we have the best puncher in the known world among us.

Highly sophisticated people admire Claudel’s genius; others, just as subtle, denounce his work as gobbledygook.  Proust, whom I find enchanting, seems illegible to several of my friends.  In fact, as much as we like Claudel or Proust, some doubt always lingers: neither one of them is an entirely sure bet.  But they benefit from our indecision.  (36)[1]

In contrast to the agony of puzzling over what may or may not constitute a fine piece of writing,  according to Mauriac, a knockout answers all questions.  One man is on his feet, the other is stretched out on the canvas: end of story.  Those better acquainted with the sport than Mauriac know that  the reality of boxing is that it is in fact a fount of endless debate, much of it as subjective and open-ended as any literary appraisal, as evidence by the response to Carpentier-Dempsey. He nonetheless makes a good point, one which may help explain the appeal of boxing to literary types.  While boxing does not hold quite the level of objective certainty Mauriac ascribes to it, it does have an undeniable physical reality that provides a compelling contrast to the relentlessly abstract and ambiguous world of words and thoughts.

As Mauriac points out, boxing, at least on the level of skill possessed by Carpentier, also transcends cultural differences-- specifically those that exist between the French and the Anglo-Saxons. Anglo-Saxons can’t appreciate Racine but they can appreciate Carpentier and that alone is justification for his status as national hero. For Mauriac, he is above all a cultural ambassador, living proof that a man can be both quintessentially French (Mauriac goes on at some length about Carpentier’s Frenchness) and universally appealing

[1] François Mauriac, “La Gloire de Georges Carpentier,”  La Revue Hebdomadaire 30, no. 27 (2 juillet 1921): 36-42. It is interesting to note that Carpentier chose to begin the Carpentier-Dempsey chapter of his 1954 autobiography with a very long quote from Mauriac’s essay. Return to text