“Can I Buy That?"*

The fantasy is laughable only because it is so easy to imagine. Becky Bloomwood, heroine of Sophie Kinsella's best-selling Shopaholic series, is in a secondhand shop in London and sees a fencing mask and "sword" (aka foil? epee? sabre?). Together, they are only 40 quid (a bargain even at present exchange rates, especially for the mask), and soon she has convinced herself that she needs them.

"I've been meaning to take up fencing for ages," she tells her readers, "ever since I read this article about it in The Daily World. Did you know that fencers have better legs than any other athletes? Plus, if you're an expert you can become a stunt double in a film and earn loads of money! So what I'm planning to do is find some fencing lessons nearby, and get really good, which I should think I'll do quite quickly. And then--this is my secret little plan--when I've got my gold badge, or whatever it is, I'll write to Catherine Zeta-Jones. Because she must need a stunt double, mustn't she? And why shouldn't it be me?"*

And so it goes. Soon, Becky is imagining herself best friends with CZJ (see photo), meeting her husband Michael Douglas, playing with their baby, and featured in magazine articles on "celebrity best friends." And then her flatmate Suze walks in and the fantasy, along with the plans for fencing lessons, evaporates, as we knew it would all along.

But what exactly is it that makes Becky's daydream so amusing? It's true, after all, that fencing does wonders for your legs, if, alas, a bit unevenly for those of us who do not fence both hands. And Catherine Zeta-Jones is famous for her fencing stunts alongside Antonio Banderas's Zorro, even if (as she has said in more than one interview) she thinks of fencing as a form of dance. Clearly, Becky has no idea of the way in which competitve fencers are rated**, but who among us has not at times wished that fencing was as clearly marked as karate with black belts or gold badges to prove how accomplished we've become?*** Never mind that stunt fencing is a wholly different activity from sport fencing--why do stunt fencers make all of their moves so obvious? And why do they never actually attack?--I have yet to meet a fencer who is not excited by the fencing scenes in The Princess Bride or Pirates of the Caribbean, and I, for one, would love to meet Johnny Depp.

In addition, there is, of course, Becky's conviction that it will not take her very long to "get really good" (see ***), plus the fact that she does not seem to be aware that she will need more than just a mask and "sword" to get started. But all of this would be irrelevant if Becky had not done what she did at the outset (and what she habitually does, thus the title of the series): bought something. This, to my mind, is what makes the whole scene so funny--not to mention, profound.

The humor depends on the fact that Becky imagines a result--becoming best friends with Catherine Zeta-Jones--ostensibly wholly at odds with the difficulty involved in learning what even non-fencers must recognize as a challenging skill. Clearly, simply buying (finding, inheriting, winning) a sword does not a fencer make. And yet, it is the sword that defines a fencer. Without it, you're just somebody with a silly stance with your arms in the air. So, in a way, Becky is right: having the equipment is the necessary step, before even knowing how to come en garde.

This is not, I realize, the usual lesson we are encouraged to take from the practice of the martial arts. "The greatest swordfighter," or so we are told, "is he who never picks up the sword, but holds it only in his mind." My favorite example of this wisdom occurs in Terry Pratchett's Thud! (2005), when Commander Vimes asks the dwarf Grag Bashfullsson why he does not carry an axe. To which Bashfullsson replies, "The axe is nothing without the hand, and the hand is nothing without the mind. I've trained myself to think about axes" (p. 345). And when the time comes for Bashfullsson to act, he does, and--much to his own surprise as well as everyone else's--takes down the inflammatory, axe-wielding Ardent using only the edge of his hand. "It's like using an axe," he said to no one in particular, "but without the axe..." (p. 358).

As Commander Vimes puts it, "Sounds mystical to me." But the real mystery is surely why we accept that it is possible for a hand to act like a weapon (or a tool) without the weapon (or tool) in the first place. **** Perhaps (and here's the really mystical bit) it is because weapons like axes and swords are already by their very nature extensions of our hands, and so, likewise, of our minds, such that when we wield them, we are in fact extending our bodies and minds through them. They become, like our clothing and other things that we use, somehow part of us. At which point, mystically enough, they begin to act back on us, such that we not only identify ourselves with them, but somehow experience what they do as if it were happening to us. Cartoonist Scott McCloud has shown it this way (Understanding Comics [1993], p. 38):

Becky's daydream is ridiculous because we know she is imagining acquiring a new ability, and thus, a new social life, simply by virtue of having acquired a particular thing. It is ridiculous in the way that all such fantasies of dress-up must necessarily be: no one becomes a fencer simply by buying a sword, or a writer simply by buying a pen (or a MacBook), or a pianist simply by buying a piano. Becky, the shopaholic, is always telling herself stories like this, and we laugh because we know the lessons about things, i.e. that they do not bring happiness; that it's who your friends are, not how much stuff you own; that it's more important who we are inside than whether we have all the right accessories.

And yet, who of us has not experienced the thrill on picking up a foil (or epee or sabre) for the first time, perhaps brandishing it a bit and feeling the power flowing into our hand? Is it the thing giving us this sensation of ability or is it ourselves? Those of us who read fairy tales (e.g. The Lord of the Rings or Thud!) know the appeal that such objects as swords and staffs and axes seem automatically to have. Sometimes in the stories the objects themselves are considered the source of this power, but even magical items typically require someone to wield them. They do not act on their own, but neither do their wielders exercise the same degree of power without them.

It is all very well and good to insist that the real power behind the objects that we use lies in the minds of those who use them. But it is also the case that insofar as we exist as incarnate beings, our minds interact with the world through our bodies. "Man the Tool-user" may no longer be the hero that he once was of educational videos about the origins of civilization, but I defy anyone to pick up a sword and not feel, at least for a moment, somehow transformed. To be sure, it will take years before you can feel the tip of the sword (here, of course, I am thinking of my foil) moving as an extension of your fingers (initially, the response tends to involve the whole arm), perhaps even longer before you experience the foil not as a object held in the hand, but as in fact part of your self (see above, in McCloud's description). But the promise was there, in the first moment when you picked up the sword in the shop.

So, yes, I can buy that, if by "buy" I mean take possession of a thing and allow it to act back on me as I learn how effectively to use it. What makes Becky's daydream ultimately sad is that, having bought her mask and sword, she then does not go on to own them, to allow them to teach her to practice and so build up her legs and enable her to do all the stunts that she can imagine herself, if only for a moment, doing. And although there is, of course, no guarantee that becoming one with one's sword will enable you to meet celebrities, it does mean that you gain the ability to interact in a new way with friends. Without my foil, I'm just another spectator. But on the strip, I am engaging wholly with another human being. And that, of course, is something that you cannot buy, except with experience.

*Shopaholic Takes Manhatten (2002), p. 6.
**For those who haven't memorized it yet, here is the USFA's classification chart.
***See "Am I Getting Any Better at This?"
****Patience, all those of you who are blackbelts in taekwando or karate and know very well that your hands are lethal weapons. This is a meditation on our relationship to things and the way in which they affect our interactions with the physical and social world. If you can kill with your hand without holding a weapon, I doubt very much you can write with it unless you use your blood for ink. But why would you do that when you could use a pen?

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