East Meets West: Fencing Bear Goes to the Bookstore*

Although in human terms I am in what I sincerely hope to be my middle age, as a fencing bear I am only five years old. Being a bear hitherto more comfortable with a pen than a sword, one of the first things that I did as soon as I picked up a foil was to go to the martial arts section of my local Borders (plural) and look for books on how to think about fencing. Of course, I hoped, like all bookish bears, that there might be a book that would teach me the physical secrets of fencing, diagrams and all, but I was also hoping for something more meditative, on the psychological or spiritual effects of this martial sport.

Imagine my dismay when I found the shelves groaning (do shelves groan?) with book after book on the "zen" of the martial arts of the East but only one, Nick Evangelista's The Inner Game of Fencing, promising anything close to observations on how Western-style fencing affects the mind or the soul. Late night searches on the Internet found Aladar Kogler's One Touch at a Time, with useful exercises for relaxation and mental preparation for bouts. But where were the books on "The Knight's Way to Contemplation" or "The Spiritual Principles of the Rapier"? There were Joe Hyams' classic Zen in the Martial Arts, along with Dave Lowry's exquisite Moving Toward Stillness and Traditions with "lessons in daily life from the martial arts of Japan." And there were, of course, the great books of the samurai tradition itself: Takuan Soho's The Unfettered Mind, Yagyu Munenori's Book of the Family Traditions on the Art of War, and Miyamoto Musashi's Book of the Five Rings. But even books like Michael Maliszewski's Spiritual Dimensions of the Martial Arts, while including discussions of capoeira and yoga, had nothing to say about how working with epees or foils might teach the kind of lessons that one could learn from a katana.

Was it true that the swordmasters of the West, unlike their brethren in the East, had been simply soulless, unthinking brutes, hacking away at each other with no thought of the deep insights into the mysteries of death--and life--that their weapons might teach? My Japanist colleagues soon assured me that even the samurai were never so elevated in their sword practice as monks like Takuan Soho might like them to be. Further, they told me (now thoroughly disillusioned), the image of the spiritually-enlightened samurai so popular today in both the West and the East was itself largely the product of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century efforts by apologists like Nitobe Inazo (1862-1933) to make Japanese culture accessible to the West. And yet, irony of ironies, the whole point of Nitobe's Bushido: The Soul of Japan (1900) was to argue that chivalry was not a virtue exclusive to the West, as many Westerners had claimed, but rather "a flower no less indigenous to the soil of Japan than its emblem, the cherry blossom." I was starting to feel like Alice in Wonderland.

Why was Nitobe so convinced that comparing bushido with chivalry was the quickest way to the European heart? Because, of course, nineteenth-century Europeans were obsessed with medievalisms, above all ideals of knighthood and chivalry, even to the extent of mounting full-dress tournaments, never mind all the castles and churches "restored" or newly built in full Gothic style. And then there was Kenelm Digby's four-volume magnum opus, The Broad Stone of Honor, or Rules for the Gentlemen of England (1826-1829), later expanded (!!!) and republished with the subtitle The True Sense and Practice of Chivalry (1844-1848). What, for Digby, was "the true sense and practice of chivalry"? Christian virtue, of course. More particularly, in Digby's words, for the chivalric knight, "the service of God was considered as demanding a perfect and total devotion of mind and heart, of soul and body; the Catholic faith was the very basis of the character which belonged to the knight, [and] piety was to be the rule and motive of his actions and the source of every virtue which his conduct was to display."

Here, it would seem, was the source of my difficulty in finding practical meditations on the spiritual lessons of the Western martial arts. The particular art that I was studying had its foundations in a culture whose spiritual insights were expressed for the better part of two millennia through Christianity, and yet, for some reason, at least some of these insights were no longer associated with the practical arts upon which they depended. Suddenly, I realized, I was in dangerous territory. On the one hand, there was the Pauline letter to the Ephesians (see bottom of blogpage), with its injunction to "put on the whole armor of God" and "pray at all times in the Spirit." On the other, for reasons that I as a scholar am still struggling to understand, there was the embarrassment among many modern Westerners with everything having to do with this tradition, including its great spiritual insights, however gained. (No, I cannot, as a bear of only modest brain, explain the phenomenon of secularism in a sentence. Maybe I'll come back to this in later posts.) Clearly, I was going to have to do some more reading.

The next book I found thanks to a talk I heard by Bob Charron at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo. Students of the historical Western martial arts know that Mr. Charron has been working for some years now on a translation of Fiore dei Liberi's Flos duellatorum, one of the most important sources for the practices of sword fighting at the root of the later tradition of rapier fencing, the direct ancestor of the form of swordplay I was seeking to understand. Charron's talk was about the famous segno showing the seven postes (or guards) of the sword, particularly the four animals surrounding the master: the lynx above his head, the tiger to his left, the lion to his right, and the elephant at his feet. Each of the animals, Charron explained, represented one of the virtues that a fencer would need: the lynx, foresight (prudentia); the tiger, swiftness (celeritas); the lion, courage (audatia); and the elephant, stability (fortitudo).

Further, Charron argued, the characteristics of each of the animals would have been well-known to Fiore's fifteenth-century readers from the bestiaries popular throughout the Middle Ages. Here they would have learned some rather surprising things. In addition to being farsighted, the lynx, for example, hides its urine with sand because the liquid hardens into a precious stone and he does not want humans to find it. Because tigers are so swift, hunters who want to take one of their cubs must resort to a trick in order to get away: as the mother tiger chases them, they throw down a glass sphere. Seeing her reflection in the sphere, the mother tiger thinks it is her cub and stops to nurse it, thus giving the hunters time to escape. Lions, while courageous, are also quite clever. When they notice they are being hunted, they use their tails to wipe away their tracks. They also sleep with their eyes open. Even more curiously, however, their cubs are born dead; they are brought to life on the third day when their mother breathes on them or their father roars. Elephants have no knees and are reluctant to mate; they live for three hundred years and are afraid of mice.

What, I am sure you are wondering, does any of this have to do with fencing, not to mention prayer? Nothing, if one does not happen to have the habit of thinking of animals as anything other than fellow inhabitants of our earth. Everything, if one is thinking allegorically and seeing the animals as yet another way for God to make his mysteries known to man. In just the way that the lion hides his spoor so that he cannot be followed, so Christ hid himself from the devil by concealing his divinity. Likewise, just as the lion sleeps with his eyes open, so Christ, after the crucifixion, while sleeping in his body, remained awake as God. And, just as the baby lions come to life on the third day when their father roars over them, so the Father woke the Son from the tomb. Elephants, by their chastity, represent Adam and Eve in Paradise before the fall. Because they have no knees, when they fall down, they cannot get up. At first, a bigger elephant, representing the Old Law, comes to try to help them, but cannot. Then twelve more elephants, representing the Twelve Prophets, make the attempt, but they cannot help either. At last, a little elephant, the "most insignificant of all the elephants", comes and he raises the fallen elephants up. Just so, the fencer, embodying the virtues of the animals, embodies Christ.

This is not, perhaps, what the modern fencer wants to hear as she steps on the strip for her first D-E. But it is surely as deep a mystery as that with which Takuan Soho concluded his "Clear Sound of Jewels": "Beginning with the single thought that has no beginning, the multifarious things thus come to be. When you go and look carefully for its source, being a single thought with no beginning, you find that it has none at all. Having no origin at all, the birth of the infinite variety of things could be called a mystery." The difference here is that the Christian fencer would recognize the source of this mystery as God.


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