Angle vs. Coleridge: What Modern Fans Can Learn from the Romantic Period

19 Mar

kurt angle

I’m often amazed by wrestling fans’ ability to rationalize silly nonsense.

Understand–I am using a very specific definition of “silly nonsense.” When I hear a wrestling fan complain about how an evil dentist or an incidental leprechaun on the show is “embarrassing” or what have you, I have to wonder what show this person has been watching for the past few decades. It’s possible to explain an awful lot within wrestling simply because it’s been a theater of the absurd for so long. But even within that context, when a wrestling show isn’t true to itself–when the logic on display defies belief even within this particularly wacky context–it’s enough to throw viewers headlong out of the story and leave them scratching their heads.

This is the silly nonsense I’m talking about: when professional wrestling can’t even follow its own insane logic.

A perfect example happened between the February 28 and March 7 episodes of Impact Wrestling. For the better part of a year, Aces & Eights had terrorized TNA wrestlers, with a particular zeal for one Kurt Angle. When Angle finally infiltrated the group’s clubhouse, he managed to unmask its Vice President, and while the information wasn’t disclosed on the air, the masked man was later revealed to be one of TNA’s own staff members, D’Lo Brown.

A reasonable response to this revelation, of course, would be to reveal the information immediately. Of course, Kurt Angle did no such thing. He endured the beating at the hands of the gang, sat on his hands for a week, and promised to reveal the masked man–who, it bears repeating, was a well-known member of TNA’s staff with an on-camera role as a road agent–later on in this very ring.

From a promotional standpoint, it makes sense: TNA wanted to build toward a big reveal on one of their televised shows. But it defies logic. Why wait a week? Was Kurt Angle abducted by aliens? Did he spend a week in his coffin at Transylvania recovering from the attack? And if so, can he not get any bars on his phone inside said coffin? Surely if TNA’s own staffing has been infiltrated by the villainous biker gang, the logical move is to let management know immediately so that this rogue agent can do no damage.

Which brings me back to my original point: wrestling fans are willing to put up with a lot of silly nonsense. Not long after this happened, a TNA fan on a message board I frequent responded to the story in this way:

I think this is a situation where we just have to suspend our disbelief. Surely it makes the most sense for Angle to just jump on Twitter and give up the reveal, but expecting that is effectively putting an end to many possible weekly cliff-hangers. We could look at any storyline and say that it wouldn’t make sense to wait a week for certain information/responses/reveals that can be all made on Twitter. It just is what it is…expecting it to be on Twitter ruins the fun, for me at least.

Now I am a ruthless pedant about a lot of pointless things (“Impact” is not a verb that’s a synonym for “affect,” everyone on Earth! I will die on that hill!). And I sympathize with this person’s mindset in a lot of ways; wrestling fans often want to shut their brains off and enjoy the fun. But I can’t stand idly by while wrestling fans besmirch the ideas of the great Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

samuel taylor coleridge

Coleridge was a revolutionary figure in his time, but he was also an odd bird. A seminal figure in England’s Romantic Movement in the beginning of the 19th century, Coleridge rejected rationalism in literature in favor of the aesthetic of emotion. If that sounds a bit too heady for a wrestling blog, he was also a bipolar opium addict, and one of his most famous poems described an opium-inspired dream about Kublai Khan’s summer palace. Most importantly for my purposes here, Coleridge was intelligent and well-read, with a keen critical eye for even his own work, and it was he who first coined the term “willing suspension of disbelief” in his Biographia Literaria. He used the term to describe his own work–driven by fantastic elements–could still be read in the context of the Enlightenment’s more rational view of nature:

It was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.

It’s a little arcane and poetic, but there are a few important points that we can parse here about what suspension of disbelief is or isn’t. For starters, Coleridge qualifies suspension of disbelief upon his own “endeavours”–that is, if he expects readers to be willing to follow his stories’ internal logic, he should be expected to put forth an effort on his own end. The “semblance of truth” bears this idea out: a narrative should be true to itself in a sensible way. In this way, the author can rely on what Coleridge calls “poetic faith,” a way to describe the relationship between the author and a reader who doesn’t want to have his or her intelligence insulted.

This definition is the main reason I can’t follow our friend’s reasoning above and why the explanation doesn’t make sense. The audience’s ability to suspend their disbelief is contingent on the author’s ability to create a narrative that ensures that sort of reaction.

Too often, suspension of disbelief is wielded like a weapon to shut down criticism. Viewers are told to just be quiet and watch the show, to shut off their minds. After all, it’s “just wrestling.” I remember a particularly insulting storyline from TNA (I keep picking on TNA here, but they’re certainly not alone here.) regarding Dustin Rhodes in his short-lived “Black Reign” character. Kazarian had stolen Black Reign’s pet rat and was keeping it hostage in an effort to get at the big bad Black Reign. Kazarian would bring the rat to the arena each week, taunting Black Reign with it, until they eventually had a match in which the rat would be put on one of four poles in a closed container, the other three of which contained rat traps.

kaz reign2

As a side note, it’s odd to me that when I hear people say that wrestling embarrasses them, they point at Brodus Clay dancing and never at angles like this.

Okay! Let’s have a look at what just transpired, and why it doesn’t make sense. Yes, we understand that Kazarian needed to hold the rat “hostage” so that the thrilling Black Reign/Kazarian feud could be drawn out over several weeks, leading to a climactic match involving a gimmick that drew on the storyline. But in order for this angle to make sense, we have to believe that…

1. Frankie Kazarian was not only willing to kidnap a rat, but to take care of it–feeding it, watering it, probably even cleaning its cage–for weeks at a time, because if he hadn’t, the rat would be dead;
2. Frankie Kazarian was willing to travel with this rat to and from the arena, keeping it secure in its cage all the while; and
3. Frankie Kazarian was willing to risk his own safety in a silly rat trap match, returning the rat to TNA management in order to create the conditions that the gimmick required… just because there was a 3 in 4 chance that Black Reign would also have his fingers mutilated by rat traps.

This isn’t a case of me thinking too much about a show; this is a case of a show outright not making a damn bit of sense. But I distinctly remember being called out onto the floor about this storyline in particular. I get this reaction a lot: “Dude, why don’t you just shut your brain off and watch the show? It’s wrestling!”

But this mindset confuses where the responsibility lies. It’s not my job to shut my brain off and watch the show; it’s the job of the people who create and perform on the show to convince me to shut my brain off and watch the show.

I’m willing to accept a lot of weirdness in wrestling. One of my favorite angles over the past few years involved Kane and the Undertaker just after Undertaker emerged from his “vegetative state.” It was pure silliness, with everything from Paul Bearer hiding in caskets to the urn having the power to cast third-level cleric spells (Blindness/Deafness). It was over-the-top and self-indulgent, with Paul Bearer giving dire warnings to Undertaker over ominous orchestral strains. It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen, and I loved every minute of it, even if the wrestling itself was rather lousy. In the context of the Undertaker feuding with Kane, it made an insane sort of sense; after all, nothing that happened was outside of the twisted logic of Kane and the Undertaker’s overall narrative.

Compare this to a few years later, when Eve Torres inexplicably turned HASHTAG HOESKI live in front of a Monday Night RAW audience, implying that the reason she’d allowed herself to be terrorized by Kane for weeks on end was so that she could use Zack Ryder to further her own career, because “evil Jezebel suddenly” I guess. On the Calaway Family Scale of Wrestling Wackiness, this wouldn’t even chart, but like hell was I prepared to believe a bit of it. That doesn’t mean I don’t like wrestling; it means that it makes me crazy when wrestling can’t even follow its own nutty storytelling tropes (and when it’s hateful and nasty, but that’s a whole other conversation).

Coleridge places the onus of willing suspension of disbelief on the author. It’s a mutual agreement, sure, but it begins and ends with the parties telling the story. Maybe if wrestling fans understood this fact better, we’d be less inclined to shrug our shoulders when bookers and writers insult our intelligence.

Bill Bicknell teaches English composition at several Ohio universities and is utterly shameless about this wrestling stuff in front of his more sophisticated colleagues. He occasionally writes about writing and teaching at his blog, Bill at the End of the World. Follow him on Twitter at @BillAtTheEnd for insightful commentary, playful banter, and horrible [ed. note: delightful!] puns.

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18 Responses to “Angle vs. Coleridge: What Modern Fans Can Learn from the Romantic Period”

  1. themandibleclaw March 19, 2013 at 11:03 am #

    This is the best thing. Please be excited with me to have Bill contributing.

    • wcbicknell March 19, 2013 at 11:13 am #

      Awww, shucks. :)

    • Bret G March 19, 2013 at 4:44 pm #

      I am excited!

  2. Patrick W. Reed March 19, 2013 at 11:37 am #

    Similarly, I have always had an issue with the question of “what happens between the shows?”. Another example would be Edge kidnapping Paul Bearer, and somehow managing to smuggle him across state lines and, if I remember correctly, out of the country, all in the name of showing up on RAW to vaguely torment Kane.

    I’m willing to accept that Kane, when in full-blown uncontrollable psychopath mode, may be able to somehow travel from show to show without deciding to prove he’s a “monster”, and Chokeslamming a pool boy or setting fire to a parking valet. I can stretch my disbelief enough to accept that, for whatever reason, Kane’s random outbursts of murderous rage are confined to a three-hour slot on a Monday night. (As a side-note, this also relates to my theory that Kane can never truly be said to act out-of-character, as his character is that he’s insane, and his behaviour erratic). This, however, is about as far as I can take it.

    Going back to the Paul Bearer kidnap angle…what was going on when Edge and Paul Bearer weren’t on RAW? How did Edge get Paul Bearer from one show to the next? And, as you’ve pointed out with your Kurt Angle/Aces & Eights example, why *would* Kurt Angle wait until a convenient television taping?

    The problem, for me, is that wrestling, and WWE in particular, stopped trying to present a televised wrestling show, and started to produce a television show about wrestling. They try and present episodic television in the manner of a TV drama, not in the manner of a professional wrestling show. It’s all about tuning in next week to see the exciting conclusion! And while that might work for Sons Of Anarchy, or whatever it is the hip kids are watching these days, it doesn’t work for a live pseudo-sporting event where we’re expected to believe that these characters continue to exist outside the confines of the television show we’re watching.

  3. Ari March 19, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

    I really enjoyed this. Please write more for this site.

  4. Eamon Paton March 19, 2013 at 3:07 pm #

    Awesome work Bill. I’m going to send this to the people who always reply to my complaints about wrestling’s logica; conundrums with “It’s wrestling. Get over it.”.

    • Eamon Paton March 19, 2013 at 3:08 pm #

      *logic

  5. themosayat March 19, 2013 at 3:45 pm #

    I often see EVERYONE AGREEING ALL THE TIME on this site … and I never would want to sound like the only “I disgree with you” guy ! but, for this praticular “waaaaaaaay overthinking about the whole of it” thing … I just can’t not go on full beef mode and give my different and opposite of you opinion !!

    this was a great read ! I enjoyed it !! keep these articles coming !!! I still love you all guys !!!!

    BUT, if you can’t suspend your disbelief because you are not an idiot .. or just not an ordinary guys (because most wrestling fans fall into one of those two areas, sadly) and are a well educated and litrate person who would love for the most important sport to him to be a beautiful and logical art .. or at least, an ugly and weird but still logical kind of a show … then, if I, for one, was actully well convinced and entertained by a story like that one with angle {even though I would have liked it more to be TNA showing us footage of what actully transpired through the week, like, the aces & 8’s trying to prison angle to keep him from telling their secrets, but then, samoe joe and the bunch going to the club and saving him, and then, angle tells them about d’lo [who suddenly attacks them with the aces & 8’s until the TNA guys run away with angle (and saving the camera man with them too, ofcourse)]}

    so, if TNA actully succeeded in making me (and the majority of the fans) actully suspend our disbelife, I wouldn’t like someone to go and point out the flaws in the thing that I just enjoyed a while ago !!!

    if you didn’t always act like the smart guy (that you are for real), and maintained to contain yourself while being on the internet with your wrasslin’ friends, no one would have told you “hey ! it’s just wrestling ! take it ease, man ! try to enjoy it !” …

    you, by that, are acting like that wrestling fan in the audiance who shouts “JOSEPH PARK IS THE SAME AS ABYSS ! COME ON ABYSS, STOP ACTING LIKE YOU CAN’T WRESTLE !!!” … but the only 2 differents between you and him, is that 1. he’s ruining the excitment even before it starts, and you are ruining it after it finished .. and 2. he’s picking on the guys that we love, and you’re picking on the guys that we don’t really care about as much … ok, ignore that second one ! just the first one.

    again, I love you guys ! and I will for ever and ever ! keep those articles coming !! GREAT READ, INDEED !! I didn’t know about the black goldust before :) !!! and the rat storyline ?! poor old fabeoulus hair kaz … he must be ashamed of that and hoping that everyone forgot about it …

    • themosayat March 19, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

      also, after seeing your photo, bill, I must say that you have a wonderful beard ! and very huggable body !!!
      #CHRISTREW’SBEARDISSTILLTHEBESTONEEVER

  6. Bret G March 19, 2013 at 4:53 pm #

    So there’s “that’s ridiculous” and it’s offensive/sexist/racist/etc. which is where I put the Eve Torres thing which is it’s own category and is full of stuff that sucks.

    I’m curious what makes all other things “too much” not just a matter of personal preference. Like “okay he has fire powers” vs. “okay he’s kidnapped a rat for a few weeks.” What makes the former ok but the latter not? Is it that it’s too close to real that it’s unbelievability is more insulting?

    • PhilBallins March 23, 2013 at 2:10 am #

      I think the problem is there’s no internal consistency with the characters. When Kane was introduced he had the fire powers, so that’s a leap you have to make with the character right from the get go. But the rat thing with Kazarian is just this weird, seemingly unprecedented series of actions that seem to fall apart when you look at them closely.

  7. Stacey March 20, 2013 at 10:49 am #

    Loved reading this. I think even though many of us can disagree on what we consider silly/ridiculous, I think the point Bill is trying to make is that while we want suspension of disbelief, when it strays too far from what a “normal” action is in regards to the character, it takes us out of the show and therefore fails to do what it was trying to accomplish. Which is what good old Coleridge was saying. If I expect you to willingly suspend your disbelief, I must still follow certain agreed upon standards or the whole thing goes into the proverbial toilet. Well… I’m paraphrasing of course.

    The ridiculousness of the Kane/Taker storylines is a great example. The characters themselves are so silly & over the top that you can suspend your disbelief and enjoy the “show” and only when you’re giving non-fans a rundown of the history of Kane do you realize how ridiculous everything coming out of your mouth is. This has happened to me on many occasions so I think I’m just going to buy that old Kane biography on Amazon to hand out next time.

    But if your character is say, Kurt Angle, a “character” that isn’t far removed from the man himself, sitting on a huge discovery like who the VP of A&8’s is for weeks on end, it makes no “logical” sense in regards to that character or the storyline. Yes, it makes sense in the “Ugh TNA is trying to stretch this one out again” mode of thinking but you’ve lost that vital piece of willing ignorance from the fans. Kurt is the hero. I can see someone like AJ Styles saying “I don’t give a rats ass so I’ll tell you when I’m good and ready” or someone like Austin Aires keeping it a secret as long as it benefits him, but Angle had every logical, storyline reason to tell everyone the next week. Dragging it out is solely a plot device that will eventually wear out it’s welcome. It went too long and boom we’re out of the play and rolling our eyes. I just want the writers to follow the logic they’ve put in place for us.

    On a smaller scale, it’s like when a wrestler is obviously ignoring the crowd reaction when another wrestling is behind them, ready to pounce. (See next week’s Impact for a good example). We know you’re ignoring the fans on purpose but there’s a short window before we go “Oh for gods sake, this is going on too long we know you know there’s someone behind you!” There’s a sweet spot you have to hit before our logical brains go “okay, there’s no way you could still be yelling at so-and-so. We can see you’re struggling to find reasons to not turn around yet. Please, just turn around.” We’re no longer in the moment, you’ve lost the momentum.

    TL;DR, I totes agree with Bill.

    • themosayat March 20, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

      I disagree with you, the angle character is that “toughest guy we have who is just a killing machine” or as hogan often calls him “the cyborg” !

      angle wouldn’t want to tell everybody about the guy who interfered in his work and was the reason that he got beat up ! because then, everyone else will go and beat him ! or hogan will easily fire him ! and kurt will consider that cowardness of himself and taking the easy (but logical) way out …

      angle wants to do his dirty work and take revenge alone, because after bischoff and briscoe betrayed him, he doesn’t trust anyone anymore ! especially after he discovered that one of his best friends backstage, a guy that he worked with for years now, is the VP !!

      and, I was sad to hear that next week we’re gonna see that “someone is totally cheap shotting you from behind, you must be blind, deaf and stupid to not relize it” situation that I hate so much ! you could have kept that to yourself, mrs. Stacey …

      • Stacey March 20, 2013 at 3:00 pm #

        I didn’t say there would be a cheap shot… OR DID I?! ::evil laugh::

        • themosayat March 20, 2013 at 7:44 pm #

          I’m excited again now :) ! thanks for restoring that in me ;D

  8. 907 March 23, 2013 at 3:49 pm #

    Well said, great piece.

  9. alex May 15, 2013 at 6:32 pm #

    Grazie per il vostro articolo, mi sembra molto utile, proverò senz’altro a sperimentare quanto avete indicato… c’è solo una cosa di cui vorrei parlare più approfonditamente, ho scritto una mail al vostro indirizzo al riguardo.

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