Feature image via The Abdominal Stretch
I have been transfixed by professional wrestling twice in my life. The first time was on a night left to my own devices watching WWF Monday Night Raw as Yokozuna, the sumo-themed wrestler, continuously dropped atop his opponent. I was swept up in disbelief as this heel violated all of my childhood beliefs in right and wrong and in the superiority of Americans.
Image via Lipstick Alley
But then I discovered Akira and Predator comic books and Toybiz action figures and I quickly forgot about that spellbinding evening. Then, this past weekend, it happened again, all thanks to an episode of WNYC’s Radiolab. The episode was about breaking kayfabe, or the idea of breaking the fourth wall–revealing the fiction of the wrestling event.
It should be noted that I have a tendency to become obsessive, and I easily fall into wiki-holes. And that’s exactly what happened when I finished listening to Radiolab this weekend. I started reading about all of the instances wherein wrestlers broke the fourth wall during their performances and how following Bret Hart’s infamous “Montreal Screwjob” the lines between fiction and reality began to blur more and more.
This led me to the documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows, which documented Hart’s famous break with kayfabe. After that, I started reading up on the Hart family and I learned that Bret’s brother Owen died during a wrestling match as the result of a stunt gone wrong.
Death has to be the ultimate break in the fiction of wrestling, and as I continued to read about wrestler after wrestler–these larger than life characters–succumbing to mortality I was even more transfixed. It was then that I remembered that I had an unread copy of W. Todd Kaneko’s The Dead Wrestler Elegies. Both Yokozuna and Owen Hart are eulogized within Kaneko’s collection “Because it’s easy to hurt a man when you don’t mean to. / … / Because the heart is only as strong as the flesh surrounding it, the body only as strong as a man can stand it to be,” as he puts in his poem “Long Live the King of Hearts.”
After gorging on Kaneko’s book, I feel like I finally understand the appeal of professional wrestling. Yes, it’s the epic personas that are fun to watch, but it’s the cracks in those shiny, spandex veneers that are so much more appealing. Really, kayfabe isn’t limited to wrestling, either. I think the indie lit community is a great example: we carefully craft our Internet personas, curating the perfect snarky status updates and posting only the hippest content, but from time to time, those cool exteriors crack, and it’s when we break that kayfabe, when we let others in to see our true selves, not just the capital-W Writer or the poet, our writing shines brightest.