Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Talhoffer Society, and On Killing

I just finished The Talhoffer Society.  This will not be a review as such, although I will write one of those later (probably somewhere else, where it will be seen by more people, although I may do a more personal friends-and-family review here).  I will say that it has been a good long while since I have read a book that is excellent (italicized for the Natalian).

Anyway.  As I said, this is not a review.  It's going to be a post about force, and about killing, and why I think those are important topics.

TTS is about a modern-day tournament fought using real swords, sponsored by the rich and powerful.  This is, of course, a classic martial arts fantasy (cue Mortal Kombat theme), and for that reason I should mention not only that the central premise of the book was considerably more sophisticated than I had anticipated, but that all of the places in the beginning that struck me as sloppy plotting turned out to be satisfactorily addressed by the end.
( For those who are curious, competitive fighting with real swords is not entirely fictional.  I know of one group of people that fought on a semi-regular basis with no protection and real swords that were allegedly properly sharpened.  I have no idea how good these people were, though I know that at least some of them had or went on to have actual killing experience (not of each other, thankfully).  I am fairly certain I know other fencers, of whose skill I have more direct knowledge, who have done it, albeit not as a regular activity.  I am not aware of any top-level organized live steel competition backed by what amounts to the Illuminati, but then, I wouldn't be, would I? )
In a story such as this, as you might expect, a lot of the characters' skull time is spent thinking about the relationship between martial arts, martial arts practice, and death.  Or maybe you wouldn't expect that; I don't know.  As for me, I was ... hoping for it.  I am greatly edified by my hopes having been met (but now I'm getting review-y again).

As regular readers know, I practice KDF in order to think about death.  I vacillate between thinking this is utterly ordinary and probably uncommon.  I've heard real people express the sentiment that most Americans probably don't understand that "self defense" involves killing people, or proclaim in ominous tones that guns are made For Just One Purpose, which is To Kill.  This flabbergasts me, because ... well, duh?  I'd like to think most people who own or practice with weapons understand quite well that before you can get into any nonsense about good guys and bad guys, you've got to be able to kill: to crush flesh and shatter bone; to cause limbs and trunk to part company; to turn a human being who is a parent or child and turn it into lifeless, pitiful meat; to send the spirit of another human being wailing down to hell and leave their body as a feast for dogs and birds.  Murder, combat, attack, defense, justifiable use of force - these are all legal or moral conclusions, not acts.  The act itself is simply killing.

I'd like to believe that this is a commonplace understanding.  Mostly this is because the converse is terrifying to me.  Weapons can be fun, but they aren't toys, after all.  But it's also because the converse is baffling to me.  Why the hell (if I can continue in a Homeric vein) would you want to lay hands on a weapon if not to get in touch with the stark, singular, solitary reality of killing?

Maybe this seems strange.  I've tried before to explain why I think it is important.  I have even said that I think killing is inextricably related to being a good person (not that I think being a good person is particularly important, but it's not nothing, either).  I still think that.  I don't know that I'm going to be able to do a better job of explaining now.  But TTS  offers its own meditation on the subject, and more directly than I can recall any other piece of fiction doing.  It's inspired me, I suppose, to try again.  So here I go.

I have heard it said that humanity is divided into sheep and wolves, usually with the subtext that being a sheep is bad.  I don't think this is true (though perhaps I am being Cicero here).  Certainly I think it is true that most people have a natural aversion to killing, and some people have no particular aversion to it, and some people actively enjoy it.  But I see no way in which this is of moral consequence.  What I do think is of moral consequence is self-possession: to make one's will the master of one's actions (to determine upon good actions is another matter, of course, but self-possession is a necessary precursor).  And the subject of killing, I think, tends to bring this into starker relief than do other topics.  In part this is precisely because most people have a natural aversion to killing.  But I think there's more to it than that.  Killing seems to me like ... well, like a sort of moral nexus.  Because it isn't just about the willful termination of biological life.  To borrow Jesus' example (not that he was the only moral thinker to have posed this question), what really is the difference between killing someone and being angry enough to kill someone?  Is it truly that the stark fact of biological existence is so all-fired important?  I'm certainly willing to say that death is bad ... but am I prepared to say that dealing death is bad?  I don't think so - and yet how can that be?  And of course there are the more mundane questions that killing asks of us, such as under what circumstances we would be willing to do it.  Would we really kill one life to preserve another?  Why?  Doesn't that imply that one life is more important than another?  If not, on what basis are we willing to make the choice (and yet, sheep or not, I think almost all people share the instinct that sometimes, killing is the right thing to do)?  Yet if so, doesn't that imply terrible things about the moral implications of sin and our own ability to forgive?  Or put it another way: if you haven't settled for yourself when you would kill someone, how can you have settled when you would forgive someone?  And if you aren't working to be able to kill someone, how can you be working to being able to forgive?  Does it seem strange to link death and forgiveness so naturally?  I am Christian, after all.

I've begun to wax spiritual.  And I'm not really apologetic about that, because I think people who eschew the spiritual are stupid.  But I don't wish to get too ... esoteric, I suppose.  Because these questions - death, forgiveness, self-possession - are of immediate, temporal urgency.  I mean this generally.  But I also mean it personally, in the sense that meditating on the how, why, and when of killing has helped me not to kill myself.  I keep Ruusaan in my bedroom in significant part to remind myself that I choose not to die: that I choose to live, that I choose to be forgiven, and to forgive.  There have even been times, late at night, when it has gotten so bad that I have to physically hold her in my hands, to see her edge glow in the moonlight, to feel the heft of her that wants to hew, that was made to part flesh from flesh - and to know that I hold her.