In high school, I used to attend the wrestling meets. I'm not sure why. I hated spectator sports, having endured a brief period of sullen cheerleading where I found myself unable to whip up a frenzy over first downs or sis-boom-bah on command.
Among the high school wrestlers I watched, there were some who elicited greater and lesser degrees of sympathy or repugnance, while one--though otherwise an inarticulate hulk--was transformed on the mat into a figure of grace, performing pins swiftly and cleanly. Barthes' wrestlers comprise more explicit types, e.g., the bastard, the image of passivity, the image of conceit, the bitch, etc. Wrestling, in Barthes' view, becomes a starkly defined conflict, where virtues and vices as personified by the contestants, engage in a battle that is a virtual psychomachia.
Barthes' world of wrestling, then, emerges as allegory in its purest, most elemental sense. Wrestling's landscape, drained of entity save the combatants, emerges as the opposite of mimesis. Here, time and causality recede into the background. For Barthes, wrestling, like biblical narrative, occurs on a horizon so blank, every gesture becomes a clear act of signification. The rapidly changing positions of the wrestlers splinter the narrative into thematic junctures, like a slide show where each frame of action, perfectly fused with meaning, replaces another.
Our interpretation at these points of thematic juncture involves a movement into myth--as Barthes explains it--for we simultaneously generalize and impoverish the meaning of the action on the wrestling mat. Within the construct of myth we create for wrestling, there operates a coherent system of conduct, a sort of decorum of indecorum, where "foul play" becomes "legitimitized," but the "absence of punishment" (29), the rupture of the tit-for-tat balance, is taboo.
Wrestling, Barthes proposes, provides intense satisfaction for its audience, where for once there is "an ideal understanding of things; ...the panoramic view of a univocal Nature, in which signs at last correspond to causes, without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction" (29).
In this essay, like the others Barthes presents in this collection, he emerges for me as the sharpest and most provocative of those writing on semiotics and structuralism.