Thursday, June 06, 2013

The Art of Fighting

This Saturday I’m going to have my first lesson in German longsword fencing, which I have high hopes for as a source of exercise, entertainment, and organization while here in New York. I don’t know if I will like it, or if it will turn out to be affordable in the long term, but let’s say that I will and it will. Why fencing, and why German longsword in particular?

I’ve been vaguely interested in fencing for a long time, as I suppose anybody is who consumes much fantasy literature or roleplays in any pre-modern setting. But more than that, it has long seemed to me that a proper philosophical appreciation of force requires - or at least significantly benefits from - experience with a killing art. Force may be much more than killing, forming (I think) an essential part of character, morality, honor, spirituality, sex appeal, good parenting - but I don’t think it can be divorced from killing. If I want to study all the various aspects of force, at some point I need to do at least some study of killing.

I suppose it’s worth mentioning at this point that I am not unaware of the many benefits martial arts study brings even to those who never kill or attempt to kill anybody. Many of those benefits, I think, are still force-related. But I am getting ahead of myself.

In addition to the philosophical study, there is also the need for athletic activity. I think I was probably in the best shape of my life during college, when I was generally dancing at least three and sometimes seven days a week, and I rediscovered something then that I think a lot of people (especially geeks) forget when they leave childhood: athletic activity is fun. I like being in shape. Muscles want to be used. It feels good to know that my body is ready to do whatever I want it to do. It feels manly. It feels mando. It feels right.

That said, I hate exercising, and I do not yet have sufficient self-discipline to exercise in order to stay in shape. I am much better at exercising in order to achieve some other goal - in order to dance, in order to attract a girl. As New York is apparently something of a vintage dance wasteland compared to the Bay Area, that may not be possible, and while I do want to be physically attractive for Thayet, being in love with somebody doesn’t provide the same neurological feedback as courting somebody. Exercising in order to fence seems like it might be an achievable goal, though, since I take it as axiomatic that all martial activity, be it harness fighting or tank driving, is founded on physical fitness.

So why German longsword in particular? The kunst des fechtens, as it was called when actually practiced, has a few features that are particularly attractive to me. The first is that it is about killing - that is to say, it is not an art that is aimed primarily at achieving physical fitness, spiritual enlightenment, or athletic or exhibitionist skill. Those are all valid goals for athletic activity, but they don’t appeal to me. They feel like sports, like games, and I have never been particularly motivated by sports or games. Then too, I don’t think that force is a game. Force - even if only used to build character - is deadly serious. Actually attacking somebody, especially with a weapon, is at least as serious as building character. I want to study a martial art that is comfortable with, and will invite me to wrestle with, the fact that the use of force in defense of oneself or others is serious business. (This is why I sometimes call it “fencing,” from the 16th century English usage, meaning, roughly, the art of self-defence.)

The second appealing feature of the kunst des fechtens is that it is the kunst des fechtens; that is, the art of fighting. It is not actually the art of swordfighting (another reason I prefer the term “fencing,” which in original usage was not sword-specific even though it is now). As I understand it, KDF (like all the medieval and Renaissance-era European martial traditions I’m aware of and, I shouldn’t be surprised to learn, all non-sport martial traditions everywhere) attempts not so much to teach students how to fight with this weapon or that weapon as to teach students how to fight, period - which happens to entail the use of weapons. This seems to me like a much more martially authentic approach than one focused solely on a given implement, even if the longsword is the basic or exemplar weapon of the tradition. It also seems much more athletically authentic to me, based on my very limited experience with athletic activity. Certainly I don’t feel like a waltz dancer or a polka dancer or a swing dancer - all the kinds of dance I know influence all the other kinds of dance I know.

Nevertheless, a third appealing feature of KDF certainly is that it teaches how to kill people specifically with swords. I cannot deny that I think swords (and polearms, etc.) are cool. I would like to expand my martial education into how to kill people with firearms as well, which may well be the more practical pursuit of the two (even if both are, I think, mere variations on the art of fighting). It may well be equally profitable in terms of exercise. Why start with KDF? It’s cheaper, for one thing, which is certainly an attraction. But to be honest, I just think it sounds cooler.

And fourth, there’s a historical appeal as well. KDF is, as far as I know, the earliest European martial art for which we have enough period texts (that is, texts written by actual practitioners who lived when the tradition still had an unbroken history of practice) of sufficient quality to attempt reconstruction. It isn’t the earliest historical European martial art, not by a long shot, but it is the earliest one for which reconstruction can be attempted - and I think that’s pretty cool too.

So ... here's hoping.

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