"The Pugilist at Rest" by Thom Jones - a review and analysis
In “The Pugilist at Rest”, Thom Jones has set forth what could be seen as a story about his experiences in Vietnam. When we look deeper, however, this story becomes one in which those events take a backseat to a commentary on the tragedies that can occur from excess.
“We are like lambs in a field, disporting themselves in the eye of the butcher, who chooses out first one and then another for his prey. So it is that in our good days we are all unconscious of the evil Fate may have presently in store for us - sickness, poverty, mutilation, loss of sight or reason.”
War can be a terrible thing as Jones illustrates in this conjuring of the philosophies of Schopenhauer. Young men, blinded by their own patriotism, yearning for new experiences but without an understanding of what they are truly getting themselves into, being sent off to fight a war and paying the ultimate price. They can be killed in combat, or scarred forever by their experiences. Then, if they survive , they return to their old lives, clinging to whatever shattered pieces of their old self that they can salvage and expected to put whatever it is that they endured behind them. It is a story that has been told before. It is a story that always needs retelling to keep it fresh in the minds of every individual lest they make the same choices without being aware of the consequences.
Jones’ is a story of himself, or what is to be understood as himself as the first person narrator, becoming a Marine. He passes through training camp and is sent on reconnaissance missions in the jungle. He boxes. He relates the tales of those around him, his friends, his enemies. It could be seen as just a simple story of a man who has heeded the call of his country and has been thrust into what has become common knowledge an intense and grueling situation. Here, one could stop with the belief that this story is simply another lesson of the tragedies of war.
There is an underlying motive here however, one that is somewhat different than the one that was just laid out. In this essay, I am going to try to explain that “The Pugilist at Rest” surpasses the lesson of the consequences of warfare and delves into a deeper understanding of the consequences of excess.
We know what these can be so it will not be time efficient to explain them except in minimal terms in hopes of aiding an understanding of how far types of consequences of excess can reach. On a small scale, an example would be an obese person who has indulged in sweet and fattening foods to the point that they become hazardous to his or her health. This idea of overindulgence can be spread across the spectrum to encompass all ways of life, however, for when they warn of the consequences of too much of a good thing, those consequences can come from too much of any thing. In fact, I find it hard to dream up an instance in which too much of something is consequence free.
Let us look at my life for example. I have grown up in, as compared to much of the rest of the world, very decent living conditions. They are middle class by the standards of America but are next to royalty when one thinks of the horrible living conditions of poorer people, who are not lesser people by any means but have been forced to subsist in a degraded environment simply because my middle class living conditions were not present. Yet still, I, who have grown up in this comparative lap of luxury, wish for more. I feel deprived because I do not have the same car as a richer friend of mine. I have no greater worth than the man that is starving and penniless but I have come to feel that the living conditions that I enjoy are my right and, in a sense, that I deserve them. This is simply a side effect of a life that I have come to know as normal. No matter how good my conditions are, I have found a way to become bored with them and not appreciate them for what they are. I have become unhappy with a situation that others would envy. This is a consequence of excess, one that I hope will help to see how far this topic can reach.
The question now is how the idea of the consequences of excess is applied to Thom Jones’ “The Pugilist at Rest.” To start with, this is a story of war, the excesses that revolve around war and their implications. Jones shows the reader that so many can be found in only a certain aspect of peoples lives. Despite it being true that war can be grand in nature and that its qualities can be transformed into a tool of commentary on greater aspects of life, it is, after all, still only a part of just some people’s lives. I have come to hypothesize that to use war, as it is a subject that Jones seems to know a lot about, is a way of illustrating the near infinite and far reaching amount of excesses that can occur by examining their nature at a small scale. It seems to leave the reader with a sense that anyone who has a working knowledge of any subject could find as many examples of the consequences of excess in their own field. That being said, we will begin to consider exactly what it is that Jones wants us to and allows us to do very easily as he breaks down the events of this story into specific categories of excesses.
First of the categories is his demonstration of the consequences of an excess of violence. It is understood that any amount of violence has a terrible potential. But controlled violence, the type that is constrained and only released at the time that is most necessary, can be considered a necessity. It is a brutal end to a brutal means. The question remains whether the ends justify the means and then really whose ends they justify. If the ends are ones that have been concocted with malicious intent then violence ceases to be a rationalized form of compromise and instead takes on the attributes of whoever is conducting it. The ends are the consequences of excess.
Jones writes of the narrators encounter with his fellow recruit Hey Baby. His response to Hey Baby’s show of dislike for Jorgeson, a close friend, is to bash the mans skull in with the heavy butt of his gun. The decision comes through what the narrator justifies as rational means. One must understand, however, that these rational means are rational to the point of view of a man who is justified by taking action for the benefit of both his friend and the rest of his training squadron. He has become the victim of an excess in which he has let his anger and resentment drive him to exact more of a retribution on Hey Baby than was necessary. Essentially he has allowed that anger and resentment to take hold and govern his actions. He has indulged his feelings and have let them get the better of him.
Let us take into account as well the narrators admiration for the sport or pastime of boxing. He has come to enjoy the sport so much, has come to enjoy very much the channeling of his violent nature into becoming an avid boxer that he does not allow himself to concede even though his inner monologue tells him differently. Finally, what happens? He is beaten by a boxer that was a better fighter because he did not know when to stop. Boxing, just as many things, can be a great past time, a great sport, that tests your very limits. But a boxer must know when to stop fighting, they must know when it is that they have boxed as much as their body will allow for a disregard of the bodies signals can lead to dire consequences.
Secondly, Jones delves into a topic that is the subject of much controversy when military tactics come into consideration. That topic is one of a soldiers patriotism. As far as the soldier that is known only as Hanes, the narrators friend Jorgeson, as well as that of countless other men that have joined the military, is concerned, there experience is one of the only few things that they know. They are drafted and answer the call of their country. Right out of high school, before these kids have experienced any place that resembles the real world, before they have been able to discern for themselves that this country is anything that they merit as worth defending, they answer the call of the military. All it is that they understand is that they have a lot of energy, perhaps a large degree of anger that they need to vent, perhaps a need to shed the monotony of their sheltered existence, perhaps their parents have an inflated sense of patriotism, or perhaps simply because they do not see any better circumstances readily presented. As a result, in order to answer all or any of these circumstances, the young men’s minds inevitably take the bait that the military casts. This involves being a patriot and an esteemed countrymen as soon as they get out high school. It seems like quite a proposition for a young man who has no others on his horizon. So they become a patriot, they veritably leap at the chance.
Their leap, however, and the patriotism that leads them to this leap, has the power to lead to their undoing. The young men have not stopped to consider the effects of their patriotism. But what the military doesn’t tell them is the what they are getting themselves into. The military would have them understand that their service is in demand. There’s always room for more in the army. The soldiers with their blind patriotism trusts in that patriotism so much that they allow their military to decide whether they are needed and whether joining that military is in their best interest when they themselves do not know their own best interest.
Hanes and Jorgeson along with many others had leapt into the military trap. Hanes had even come very close to finishing his duty unscathed. But both of their excessive patriotism, the excess that allows them to follow their army unquestioningly, has led to their ultimate demise. Perhaps if they had been given a chance to follow their own intuitions they would not have been mowed down in that grassy field in the Quang Ti province. Perhaps they would have run for their lives at the slightest inkling of danger. Maybe they would not have been forced to make the decision to leave their fellow marines because they had never made the choice to join their particular branch of military service. If their patriotism had not been allowed to fester and accumulate to an excess, imagine the possibilities. Alas, they have paid the price with their lives.
To exemplify even further the consequences of such an excess of patriotism, Jones allows us a view into his very personality. And he is a hard ass. He seems to have a lot of anger and potential for violence within him. But, as you can see at the very beginning of this essay, the teachings of the philosopher Schopenhauer who he quotes readily, his knowledge stretches farther than that of a simple muscle head, hard ass. He has the intelligence to see not only the true nature of his predicament and as a result must be able to see the truth behind the lies that the military has led him to believe. Yet he chooses to ignore that intelligence in favor of the patriotism that he is susceptible to and knows it. In a sense, the military has set its veritable claws in more deeply than they have set themselves in other young men for the narrator knew exactly what was happening. The narrator is guilty of one of the worst excesses that exist, that of intelligence suppression. In life, it seems, one must draw a fine line between how much they let their good sense get in the way, for there must be a certain disregard for common sense and intelligence in favor of the certain degree of recklessness that it takes to make a life for yourself. But the narrator seems to have ignore all of his good sense and intelligence in favor of blind patriotism. He has chosen his excess and it has led to his downfall.
What I have come to understand while simultaneously not understanding it in the least is that in trying to understand the consequences of excesses is that there is one underlying factor in all examples. This factor is that, as in the example of the narrator that I have just made, one allows themselves without much restraint to follow the path to some sort of excess, one sometimes even makes the conscious decision to do so. I can not help thinking therefore that it is human nature to lead ourselves to our own downfall. Maybe Jones’ point then is to illustrate the futility in resisting their excess. But that is the subject of another essay.
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