They told me, “You have to watch this interview where Mike Tyson talks about medieval history,” and so I did, and there he was at the New York Public Library in 2013 being interviewed by curator Paul Holdengräber, whose German accent strikes the American ear as both effortlessly intellectual and lightly amusing, and who would seem to have nothing in common with the face-tattooed boxer.
The two men do, in fact, find much to talk about. Their discussion is mesmerizing, because to most of us Mike Tyson is nothing but a face and fists, not a man who reflects aloud and at length about his inner life. Holdengräber prompts a reticent Tyson to narrate clips of his greatest moments in the ring, and newcomers to boxing will easily see why Tyson was such a sensation, but Iron Mike grows more animated when other matters arise.
Half an hour into the interview, Holdengräber says that their mutual friend, eccentric German filmmaker Werner Herzog, urged him to ask Tyson why he’s so fascinated by Clovis, the founder of the Merovingian Frankish dynasty, and Pepin the Short, the first Carolingian king of the Franks. Tyson’s answer, however halting, makes him come alive:
I don’t know—it all comes from my insecurity from being poor, and not having enough—to be insecure, and being—yeah, that’s what it is: obscure. I never wanted to be obscure. I was born in obscurity and I never wanted to deal with that again, never wanted to be that. And they came from obscurity.
Tyson then narrates a capsule history of the Frankish kings. He rambles, he doesn’t get all the details right, and his mispronunciation of names marks him as an autodidact, but it’s a shame to hear the audience laugh when Holdengräber asks, “Mike, how do you know all this shit?” Whether Tyson is mapping his own experiences onto medieval history or hearing echoes of the Franks in his troubled life, the credentialed, status-conscious audience is uncomfortable with his sincere interest in a past they find trivial.
Yet Tyson is the real deal, a book lover not because his peer group yaks about whichever author the New York Times has dubbed fame’s latest love child, but because he’s hungry for ideas, for meaning, for connections across time. He speaks with undisguised emotion about Cus D’Amato, the trainer and manager who turned him into a lethal boxer. Obsessed with Nietzsche and Clausewitz, D’Amato taught Tyson to see boxing as war and war as the key to decoding the world. “That is just what I do,” Tyson explains, an attentive pupil and dutiful son. “I love war. I love the act of war. I love the players in war, the philosophy of war.”
Tyson is searching for more than war on the pages of the past. Having grown up amid crime and chaos and founded his life on violence, he now relies on books to make moral and ethical sense of the world:
Yeah—they’re our most priceless possessions, because if you think about it, you know, a room without a book is like a body without a soul. It’s the only way that we can connect the future with the past. Without that, there’s no way that we can know about the future, and know about particularly the past, or the present, you know, that when you think about history, the value of history is not necessarily scientific but moral. By liberating our minds and deepening our sympathies and fortifying our will, we can control—pretty much history allows us to control not society but ourselves, which is a much more important thing to do, you know what I mean? And it would allow us to pretty much meet the future more so than foretell it, and for that reason alone, in order to predict the future we always have to look through the past, because very rarely does time not repeat itself, and it always will repeat itself.
I’ve heard a quote before in a book that we would be fools to think historically that the past is us in funny clothes, but the past is us in funny clothes, and that’s truly what it is. That’s from somebody who really said a really profound statement but he misquoted what he was saying, he must have been saying it backwards, because that’s really what the past was, it’s just us in funny clothes, in different times, that’s really what it is.
Of course, to hear Tyson cite a quip inaccurately attributed to Cicero, “a room without books is like a body without a soul,” is to wonder if he’s putting us on. Late in the interview, he jokes that if you quote books, you fool people into thinking you’re smart—but Tyson, for all his malapropisms and mispronunciations and odd mannerisms, is intelligent. He’s going round after round with big questions that many of the ostensibly educated attendees at his book-talk don’t bother to ask.
When Holdengräber suggests that Tyson’s knowledge of history didn’t improve his behavior, Tyson calmly disagrees. He compares himself to the fictional Ben-Hur, a fellow athlete and celebrity who achieved glory but was doomed to be unfree until he set his priorities in order: “He may not have been famous again,” Tyson points out, “but he got his family, and that was his success.”
After listening to Mike Tyson—childhood criminal, devastating fighter, struggling alcoholic and recovering drug addict, convicted rapist, pop-culture eidolon—speak for an hour and a half, I still don’t quite know who he is. He may be the closest thing 21st-century America has to a Robert E. Howard character, a born barbarian who’s ignorant of social niceties but possesses earned wisdom that the civilization around him disdains. I don’t know whether he’s all in on his bookish pursuits or one slight away from again gnawing off someone’s ear. Whether he’s a good man or a bad man feels foolish to ask about a professional punch-thrower who reads Nietzsche, but Tyson looks like a better man, one who has perhaps searched harder for his humanity than the onlookers snickering from the safety of their library seats. What has their pride gained them? Tyson’s, by contrast, has brought him perspective, and with it the humility to admit that his story is still being written—and has been before.