Saturday, October 31, 2009

What is Character?

James Toback has just given us an incredible documentary on Mike Tyson, the youngest Heavyweight Champion to ever win the World Title. My fascination with Toback's other films, such as Two Girls and a Guy and Black and White, eventually grew into a fascination with Tyson, because Toback himself was fascinated with Tyson.

In the movie, Black and White, Tyson appears briefly, strongly contrasted by another one of Toback's favorite actors, Robert Downey Jr. It is an interesting scene between the two. Robert Downey Jr. plays a closeted homosexual and actually comes on to Tyson, who is playing himself. Tyson appears startled, afraid, and agitated by turns. Then his characteristic rage comes out, and you know he is not acting.

What is character?

There are some words in the English language that contain multitudes. And then there are some words that want to contain multitudes, but they cannot hold the weight of their meaning.

In the beginning of the documentary, Tyson is describing his relationship to Constantine "Cus" D'Amato, his first manager and trainer . . .

Tyson spent much of his early adolescence in juvenile penitentiaries. His family moved to Brownsville, NY from Brooklyn when he was ten years old, a neighborhood he describes as "gruesome" and "promiscuous". His mother died when he was sixteen years old, and Constantine D'Amato became Tyson's legal guardian.

D'Amato, in his late seventies, felt a deep affection for the young Tyson. In footage from the documentary, the older man says that the boxing prodigy gives him motivation to live. Tyson recalls his relationship with Cus:
I did everything he told me to, and I won. I won every championship at the amateur level--and I started believing in this old man . . .

I turned my whole life over to boxing. He brainwashed me so much. I was like his dog. If he told me to bite, I would bite.

It's like a father and son relationship even though he is my manager and trainer.

Cus trained me to be totally ferocious.

He spoke with me every night about discipline and character, and I knew that nobody--physically--was going to fuck with me again.
Tyson lived with the D'Amato family in a fourteen bedroom Victorian mansion in Catskill, NY. His entire focus was on becoming the youngest Heavyweight Champion of the world. He studied boxing. He practiced. He trained. Every night from the ages of 14 to 21, he watched fight films that dated back to the early days of boxing. D'Amato had a collection of them and the young Tyson would pore over the great fighters. He knew their every punch by heart.

A poignant moment in the documentary comes when Tyson is recalling what D'Amato used to tell him about the different fighters in history, and what made each of them great in their own way.
I have a great deal of respect for Cus--I believe everything he said. His word in boxing is Bible to me. When he described fighters, he talked about their good points. He talked about Jack Dempsy's ferocity, he talked about Rocky Marciano's will and dedication; when he discussed Muhammad Ali, he talked about character. He said that's the only reason why Ali is the best--because he had more character. I thought that was funny--I was a young kid. As I grew older, I realized what he meant.
Most definitions of the word "character" emphasize moral strength. But "moral strength" is only slightly less conceptually vague than the word "character". What does character really mean?

Character embraces the whole person, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. Character seeps into the physical person as well, blending fluidly with the emotional, becoming habits, tics, and what we call "characteristics".

Character is the person's root in this earth, their essence day to day, and over a lifetime.

There is nothing greater than character; only destiny. And a sage once pointed to the connection between character and destiny.

Let me be concrete now. Writing this essay about character, the one you are reading right now, was not a choice for me. For days, I will go without a single igniting flame in my mind, and then, I'll watch a movie or read a passage in a book or have a conversation with a stranger, and suddenly, I must write. There are ideas wildly ringing in my ears, connections and metaphors that were not there the day before.

Writing is my form of boxing. From my earliest memories of childhood, I was writing. My father disciplined me to read classical literature and write on a regular basis. I wrote ferociously through high school and college. There was this root of my personhood that needed to be expressed in writing.

Now, I pick up electricity in the world, in the things I read, in my experiences and relationships, I pick up the current of whatever happens to be rushing though my reality in a given moment, and I express those ideas for people to read, for myself to understand. This is what the Blog of Innocence is all about. It is about bending raw, open questions into language.

But I want to try to answer this question, "What is character?" Because I believe that some of us, like Mike Tyson, have enormous talent, skill, and intelligence. Remember D'Amato's words, "Each great fighter has something different; something that makes them great."

To answer this question, I hold up two icons of boxing, Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali as examples.

Mike Tyson reached the pinnacle of boxing fame before he was 21 years old. In art-world terms, he was the Basquiat, who I write about in another essay . . .

After this enormous staggering success--a result of Tyson's many years of rigid apprenticeship under Constantine D'Amato, a string of tragedies unfolded. The death of his father-figure and trainer, a divorce, a rape conviction.

Under the new circumstances of his life, Tyson could not be the same man, the same fighter. No reality is permanent; and Tyson's reality dramatically shifted into a complex web. His character was tested on a grand scale.

A boxing match provides an illuminating metaphor for spiritual fitness.

Literally, you must be healthy to fight; you must train hard; and prepare yourself.

Spiritually, the outcome of the fight depends on the strength of your character in a single moment of your life.

You may win the World Title, as Tyson did. You may win it again, and if you are lucky, another time too. People will venerate you and you will feel, as Tyson did, like you are on top of the world--

But for success to happen once or twice, for victory to occur, does not imply greater character. Character endures over time, and brings success and victory full-circle. And your greatest successes are always your future ones; because your wins keep getting bigger, more unfathomable.

But let's be honest, who can stay on top forever? Nobody can. Which is why those with the most character stand out from the crowd--and this is not the usual crowd--this is a crowd made up of Presidents, Olympic record breakers, and world champions of every stripe from chess to literature.

Lincoln. Mahatma Gandhi. Muhammad Ali. Nelson Mandella. We know them by heart, their stories are woven into our national histories.

In the world of boxing, Muhammad Ali was a three time World Heavyweight Champion, and "suffered only five losses (four decisions and one TKO by retirement from the bout) with no draws in his career, while amassing 56 wins (37 knockouts and 19 decisions)."(1)


D'Amato: "The only reason why Ali is the best--he had more character."

Now I think about my life and how quickly things change. States of emotion, my outlook, my thoughts. And, it seems, every day is different from the last one. Like Tyson, there is turmoil in my life, and I wonder if I can still fight like I once did.

How can I continue to fight?

How can I continue? This existence?

I'm not even talking about suicide. I'm talking about being unable to fight, unable to win anymore. You need character to win. You need character to fight every day, and then to do it again the next day.

We each have our struggles. We've all been on the razor's edge before . . .

But if I've learned anything from my past, it is that there is life after death. I may sink into despair because of the choices I make. I may be unable to enjoy the most basic things, sleeping, eating, loving . . .

All it takes is a series of unlucky events, like the events that destroyed Tyson's career, to knock one of us out of the ring--

But character is what lives through all of that. If the self dies a hundred times in one lifetime, if the self dies a thousand times, one's character grows with every death. It is the thread that cannot be broken.

And we remember the person by that thing which cannot die--even long after they are dead.

Image Credits:
Favorite Ali Fight Photos (Sports Illustrated)
Ali: A Look Back in Photos (Time)
Mike Tyson through the Years (Sports Illustrated)



Byron said...

This is poignant. This essay/article is exclusive in it's raw, pure rational truth. The logic and humility of the man/woman presence in the world is exposed. It's vicious in its fluidity at pin-pointing and honing in on the causation of failures and successes. There is more than this. Thank you.

DOT said...

'There is nothing greater than character; only destiny.'

I wonder if the two are not intimately entwined. Another great character, Winston Churchill, had a clear vision of his destiny. (And, thank God, speaking as post-war, boom baby, he did or this comment would not appear.)

"Because I believe that some of us, like Mike Tyson, have enormous talent, skill, and intelligence."

I am more generous than the apparent inference of this observation. I believe every individual has enormous talent, skill, and intelligence. The boundaries by which we measure each of this qualities is more a gauge of the times we live in than the individual. However, I accept the fact there are people who step outside the limits of their age, and so I return to my first observation that the true measure of character is the person who has a sense of fate, of their own destiny. It is a trait first identified by the Greeks.

Is this not true of all the greats you refer to - Lincoln. Mahatma Gandhi. Muhammad Ali. Nelson Mandella?

Of specific interest in your post, is the thought that a man of destiny can be created as Tyson was by D'Amato. Perhaps created is too strong, maybe moulded is more apt, but the question of whether or not his destiny was in his genes or imposed remains; the unanswerable question of nature versus nurture.

For me, as for you, writing, creating, is an impulsion. I resist it as best I can.

Mark Kerstetter said...

From time to time I am also beset with questions about being able to continue the fight, like: 'will I wake up one day and no longer feel passion?' If that day comes, I will be dead. I would rather die a quick death than live without passion.

I believe in meditating on the things that will reward my attention. The soul must be fed, if there is to be any hope for character.

aureliomadrid said...

[Ἡ. ἔφη ὡς] ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων. [Heraclitus said that] "A man's character is his fate" fragment 119

Thank you for the nice post.

Gretta said...

Your truth speaks to me right now; I agree that nothing is greater than character, and the way you live your life with honesty and integrity is a testimony to your character when you die. It is the most precious commodity we have as human beings, and I for one, will not let those without character destroy mine.

granderwater said...

Great post. I would add that as you fall down, but get back up, you add to your reservoir of character. I don't think that character is a fixed quantity in us, but an open-ended potential, a seed best fertilized by Life. This seed often senses some dim light calling from regions of the Unknown our intellects cannot yet penetrate. Moving in that direction, and navigating the hazards along the way, gives that seed the light it needs to flower.

Zen said...

Firstly, I just want to say that you are awesome. You write without pretence, there is character in your writing. Regardless of what the trend is, you write what compels you to write. I really, really respect that.

Now about your post..

I think Character is OUR own manifestation of OUR own belief system.

I will use an example, consider the very computer you are using right now:

What is "your computer"?

The computer we use is the hardware, the software, plus the accumulation of customization and data that makes that computer unique.

A lot of people can point out the hardware, or where their photos, porns, files, documents resides in their computer. But where is the operating system?

How strange - because it is the operating system installed in the computer that defines the experience of using that computer.

Consider a 10 year old who have never seen a macintosh, or a linux and have only used windows and have only seen windows. For that person, windows *is* the computer.

Your belief system governs the manifestation of your character.

Only you, through self reflection can find out what it is. How it works. What it is like.

People who are not aware of this can only go through life with a finite character. This is why some people say that "Character is fate" After all, that's the point with fate, right? Something you can't change, that you have to go through.

But people who understand this subtle point KNOW that there exist a steering wheel in this boat that sails through life.

You don't have to be a ferocious sword that cuts through steel, flesh and bones day in and day out.

Like Bruce Lee say (the fighter who inspired me and changed my life,) - you can be like water, my friend.

"Be formless... shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle; it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot; it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend..."

Lethe said...

Thank you everyone for all of these outstanding responses . . .


I've read your response about beliefs being the core of character and I wholeheartedly agree. I also agree that until you know what your beliefs are, you are doomed to act them out again and again.

This is why I try not to hold on to too many political, religious, or moral views. We still have layers of beliefs that are subconscious, as you say, part of our conditioning, part of our "operating system" if you will.

I would like to be more like water. I would also like to be more self-aware and more knowlegeable of what my subconscious beliefs about the world, men, women, gays, blacks, immigrants, Christians, Buddhists, etc--are . . .

I try to be free. Writing is a means of expression which provides me with a way out--or should I say, a way to articulate my beliefs so that I know them. When you say that my writing has character and that there is no pretense I am really touched. That's perhaps the most genuine thing anyone has ever said about my chosen craft.

I'm going to continue living and see what happens. We only have our hearts, ultimately, to consult. I consult my heart often. The difficulty for me is that my feelings change, my heart changes, and I live in flux. Water is also transient, changing, fluid, always moving . . . but in this case I'm not sure it's always a good thing.

A little solid ground could help me out sometimes, that's all I'm saying. Thanks again, Zen.

Sulci Collective said...

Your analogy with water and flux is a good one. For as a novelist I find we only ever are able to give a sketch of our characters' 'character'. Rarely are we afforded the luxury of describing the tune a character subconsciously whistles, or what their free hand is doing while they talk on the phone. More significantly most of us have more than a single emotional response to anything, often simultaneously, for the brain is non-linear, yet in writing we have the plodding single directional linearity of a sentence, subject-verb-object... Writing is barely able to do battle with the depth of humanity.

Where I disagree with you is on Tyson's character. He demonstrated an iron will to win certainly, but that same expectation of attaining every objective he set out for in the Ring, passed into attaining every object outside the Ring too. A will to power and possession. The rape sentence was not in isolation, several previous had been covered up by money and influence (more evidence of the will to power). His character lacked any inner moral guidance system to be able to modulate his acquisitive nature. These were his character flaws, the reverse side of the coin of his indomitable strengths. His ability to be exploited financially by those around him show up greater weaknesses. One can argue that these flaws were almost inevitable given his upbringing, but they cannot be smoothed over and daubed 'unfortunate'.

The second point I didn't really follow was the notion that your character outlasts you at death. While a great man like Churchill is still talked about and offered as an example today, such plaudits don't render him any benefit. Our own families may preserve us in anecdote and photo record for maybe four generations, but as soon as we hit the generation that never met you, the light goes out and the photos are as unfamiliar as sepia ones of old. Putrefied there in the humus and loam, I can't see where our character survives us I'm afraid.

Just to offer a final thought, I always like to think whether a person is driven by ambition, aspiration or appetite. I find it a useful categorising tool.

Thanks for your post which certainly cuts to the heart of a complex notion and one that writers ought to be considering and contemplating on every single day of their lives as a writer.

Lethe said...


I've been reading your comments on my essays, and I'm honored to have such insight and provocative responses. I really like what you said about the non-linear being hard to put down on paper. A lot! I like that notion a lot, and I may even get in touch with you via email about it.

About character lasting after death, think about the stories we tell about people after they have died. This is a notion that I contemplate in my essays, that of the story, which surrounds the person, while living, and then continues after their death. See my essay on Basquiat.

The stories convey the character who lived. Abraham Lincoln's character is carried into generation after generation because of the man who lived. Going back to Greek times, it was Homer and many before Homer who told the myths, that got retold about heroes. This is character living into the future.


Sulci Collective said...

Aha, the key word you used there was myth! A version of character, George Washington and the myth of cutting down a tree "I cannot tell a lie" never even happened, but has been woven in to demonstrate his character...

Where visual artists have an advantage over the rest of us perhaps, is that we can look at the brushstrokes of their work - Van Gough being the perfect example - we can stare into the intensity of his swirls while stood in a gallery and glibly pronounce, oh yes he was crazy alright... A simplification, but I hope you take my point.

I wrestle everyday with fear of mortality and find that any artistic heritage I may leave will still not preserve me for myself in any useful way. I write, but not to console myself about my miserably short sojourn on this earth. This is the Catch 22, or as I prefer to call it, the Cosmic Joke of the human condition. Politically I used to think I could make a difference, even through the indirect medium of art, on the world and maybe contribute to it in a way that left it a better place in some small manner. Maturing seems to be a stripping away of this political delusion.

Lethe said...


While myth may not tell the factual truth, I believe it does convey the essence of a hero, modern or classical.

And your comments about mortality and artistic heritage are also very interesting to me! I can relate to your words, not knowing your impact, or whether there will be an impact at all. But from a movie, "Factotum" which I recently saw, based on the life of Bukowski, there was a curious truth to emerge by the end of the movie.

That truth is that it matters to you. And you're the only person who you're competing with to succeed, to create art, to be free, to be good. It's relevant because we don't know our end result, we are mired in the present. But to have the fight left in you is still absolutely important. I can't say I haven't been miserable, especially these last couple months, have been rough. But I still have the capacity to dream and create art.


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