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.


Tandava said...

This is an interesting topic, though I admit to never having wrestled with it directly myself, nor studied any martial arts that would bring up the question for me. Nevertheless, I’ll offer my responses….

To the question of whether death and killing are or are not “bad,” my response would be that neither one is bad per se, so long as you believe that our true reality is the soul, as opposed to the body. But in order to get a more practical answer, you would need to specify first what you think happens when the body dies. If you think the person’s soul will go to either heaven or hell, then this could be either good or bad. If we don’t know where they’re going, then it’s risky, at the very least. If you believe in reincarnation, then it’s a little safer. I would say at worst it’s a setback for someone who was using this life to make good spiritual progress. At best it’s a learning experience for the soul to carry into its next life.

But then you have the question of whether causing death is bad. And this is where Jesus’ example that you allude to comes in. I don’t know that reference off the top of my head, but presumably if he’s equating killing and the desire to kill, then he’s doing so in the “not recommended” category. And similarly, the concept of ahimsa is not strictly non-violence in a physical sense, but even more importantly a lack of desire to cause harm. Why is desire so important? Because what’s really at issue is the state of our consciousness, our souls, however you want to put it, and not “the stark fact of biological existence,” which is, after all, dependent on the soul. When we even just want to harm others, we’re affirming a false, separate, egoic reality, apart from God. When we actually become aware of everyone’s unity in God, we automatically lose the desire to cause harm. This is the level that things like the ten commandments, the yamas and the niyamas, etc. are really trying to get us at, even if they had to be phrased in ways that people in the coarse, matter-centric consciousness of earlier eras could understand.

In general, of course, someone without the desire to kill will not often do so. However, there is no commandment against not doing things you don’t want to do if at some point it becomes necessary. So when would it be necessary? I don’t think it comes down to one life being worth more than another. If you’re killing a mass murderer on a rampage, then you could argue it simply from the numbers. But even if it’s just two people face to face, and one of them is definitely going to die, I think the right thing to do is arguably for the victim to kill the aggressor in self-defense. Killing from a motive of duty rather than desire will accrue less bad karma (if any), and hopefully give the departing soul a lesson in what not to do next time.

Even so, there is no such thing as a fixed rule, because every circumstance will be unique. This is where your comment about self-possession is important. If we have control of our will and our actions, then we’re less likely simply react from fear or anger. You set aside for the moment the question of determining right action, but I’ll just add that if we want God to use us for His purposes, then it behooves us to have that kind of control. How can you give God something you don’t already own? So as you say, self-possession comes first.

The part that keeps tripping me up is the death-forgiveness link. “When you would forgive someone” doesn’t even sound to me like something one should be explicitly deciding, because in doing so you necessarily are deciding when not to forgive. Why should we limit ourselves like that? Shouldn’t we just do our best to rise to whatever situation we’re given? Similarly, what do you mean by “settl[ing] for yourself when you would kill someone”? How much do you see that as something that’s a fixed rule vs. a method of determining right action in the moment (plus the self-possession to carry it out)?

Natalie said...

Sorry it's taken so long for me to respond to this. I'll start by saying that as I have thought more about this comment, it occurred to me that I draw something of a distinction between that which is bad and that which is wrong. For instance, the lesser of two evils may be "right" in the sense that it is the right thing to do, but the fact that it IS evil means that it's still bad. I think there's a decent argument that killing a mass murderer on a rampage is the right thing to do - but I don't think it follows that the death of that human being is anything but bad.

(Side note: I don't personally subscribe to the notion that the "true" reality is the soul. I do BELIEVE in souls, but I also believe that human beings are fundamentally, and meant to be, material creatures. It follows that as I hold it, a human being who consists of a soul with no body (i.e., has "died") is not obliterated, but is in a temporary state of incompleteness. That said, my belief in the essential badness (!= wrongness) of death stems more from the Judeo-Christian tradition that in the "next life" (whatever form that takes exactly) there will be no more death more than it does from the fact that death necessarily sunders body from soul.)

As to the death-forgiveness link, which intuitively feels very strong to me despite my fumbling attempts to explain why ... I think what I was trying to get at with the "when you would forgive someone" allusion is a tension I see between forgiveness and killing, precisely because I think Jesus' answer to "when should you forgive someone?" is "Always." Forgiveness must be an inexhaustible well. And yet, there is a finality to killing someone that seems at odds with that. By killing someone, you are deciding to cut short their life and all its potential. No matter how bad a person's past or present actions may be, there is still an infinite variety of good that they MAY do, an infinite number of ways in which they may love and be loved. The decision to kill someone is to deny them those possibilities. To me, this feels - intuitively, at least - very unforgiving indeed, and thus at odds with my equally strong moral intuition that there are circumstances in which killing is the right thing to do (few such circumstances, to be sure, but more than zero). How is one to reconcile this tension? It seems that one must find a way in which it is possible both to forgive and to kill - and while I'm not 100% sure what that looks like, it seems to me like self-possession must be a big part of it.

Tandava said...

Well stated about bad != wrong, and the badness of death also makes sense given the clarification of your beliefs about souls and bodies.

Forgiveness can mean either the cessation of negative feelings on the part of the forgiver, or a literal cancelation of a debt. So if we think that forgiveness should be “an inexhaustible well,” then we have to decide what definition we’re using for it. I would say only the former makes sense. Our own internal state is the only thing that we always have with us and can always work on. As for canceling a debt — do we even have the authority to do that? Sometimes we can do something on a human level, e.g. getting someone out of jail, paying a fine for them, etc., but often we can’t even do that. And even so, ultimate judgement will come from God. But even if the offender happens to die in unrelated circumstances and seems beyond any practical (from his perspective) forgiveness, there’s still work to be done in our own hearts regarding our feelings toward him.

So I think that is how it is possible to both forgive and to kill. You would have to be killing only because it is the right thing to do, and not out of hatred or anger. Which isn’t easy, of course, and requires you to also have a general method of determining the rightness of something (which is another discussion). But to me, that’s what the forgive/kill picture looks like.

I did read The Talhoffer Society since my last post (full review here), so I’ll add a comment on that, plus a *** SPOILER ALERT ***.

I was not convinced by Hastings’ talk in Chapter 23 about the motivations for the society and the tournament, but I was okay with accepting it for the purposes of the story. I was more upset that the book basically ended with a revenge killing that was accepted and sanctioned by everyone. There was no discussion of forgiveness, but everyone pretty much went straight to “A tried to kill B so C should definitely actually kill A.” So it felt like immediately giving up any nobility in the power they’re all so keen on, and dropping it to the level of brute force. I’d be curious to know your take on that.

Natalie said...

I like that distinction in re: forgiveness. And it helps close the loop I've been fumbling towards about self-possession, because if you're going to kill without hatred or anger (which can help to overcome what in most people is a natural aversion to killing) you need an extra amount of self-possession. And speaking of forgiveness ...

I didn't really feel like the revenge killing at the end was *quite* given authorial sanction. To me, it felt more like ... understanding, say. They understood Jack's feelings, and nobody felt it was their place to tell him he couldn't try. Thematically, of course, part of this is that Fischer isn't as good as his adversary, so everybody (even Kanemori) assumes going in that what they're really talking about is whether Fischer has the right to put his life on the line for what he believes. On that dimension, I felt like it worked. It's more about Jack being willing to die to see his version of justice done - if death were really the only objective, well, it's not like the Society doesn't have perfectly functional guns available with which they could forcibly execute Junichi. And I didn't find it especially implausible to me that neither Hastings nor Kanemori felt like Jack should just forgive and walk away, or that nobody seriously considered trying to involve outside law enforcement ("So, we hold this illegal tournament at which people die, and we're okay with that generally, but there was this one death we'd like you to take official notice of ...")

As for what I think of revenge killing ... I understand it, and analogizing from other serious harms people have done to those near and dear to me, I wouldn't be surprised if I felt the same way Fischer does were I put in his shoes. As a moral matter ... I find it kind of ambiguous, to be honest. Had the attempted murder taken place within the reach of a particular society's laws I would say no, because as a general matter I think taking the law into your own hands is morally wrong (and would probably be wrong in this case). But the tournament is deliberately set outside of society, both physically and in other ways, and most of the people within the mini-society seem to agree that a capital crime has been committed and the offender should be put to death. I don't really have any moral quibble with deciding that attempted murder is a capital crime.

So that brings me to Jack's motivations, because I do think it is wrong to kill somebody for revenge even if the person in question needs to be killed (not that the killing itself would suddenly become wrong, but I think it's pretty much always wrong to do anything out of revenge). Does Jack kill Junichi out of revenge? I think that's kind of ambiguous. That is certainly his initial motivation. By the time the actual duel takes place, I'm not sure he has those emotions any more, and as discussed above, that makes a difference to me.

Natalie said...

As to Hastings' little speech in chapter 23 ... I don't buy it either. Plenty of enfranchised people have been personally familiar with killing and built perfectly monstrous societies, such as the Italians of the Renaissance city-states, the ancient Greeks of the classical period, or (who stand out to me the most) the Romans. I think that being acquainted with death can be good for society, but I don't think it is inherently likely to be so any more than is acquaintance with any other part of the human experience, and can make society less good just as easily. I mean, I am on record as saying I think that part of being a good person is confronting this killing business, but I certainly don't think the key to having a good society (or even a stable society) is to pack it full of good people.

That said, I do think there is something undeniably compelling about the idea of simply facing death and coming to terms with it. The really important thing that happens to Jack by the time of his duel with Junichi is that he has found something he thinks is worth dying for. I think everybody can sympathize with that, even if they might not agree that a revenge killing/execution-by-duel is a cause worth dying for. And I think most people would agree that a person who is not willing to die for anything is impoverished by that elevation of the self.

Tandava said...

Yes, the important part of that duel was Jack's willingness to knowingly face likely death for an important cause, and I definitely respect that in general. In this particular case, though, it kind of made it worse for me. I was mentally yelling at him the whole time that "Hey! Frederica could still pull through! Don't you want to see if she'll make it before you throw your own life away?" If she had actually died already, I could have gotten behind his actions a lot better. If she's going to live, though, it seems more important to be there for her when she recovers and not burden her with the guilt of Jack's death, and then he can sort out Junichi later.

Also, I figured the ship would have some system for dealing with folks who go nuts and actually try to kill people, without having to bring in "real world" law enforcement. And I was a bit annoyed that Jack kept tuning out earlier when we might have heard those parts of the rules, so I didn't know what alternatives there really were to just killing the guy.

If Jack made the decision to kill Junichi out of revenge, would it make a difference whether he still felt that emotion or not in the actual carrying out of the act? I feel like at the very least we'd have to reconsider the decision. And he was definitely in a different state during the duel, but it was such a change that it felt more like the sudden clarity and focus from a near-death-experience (with the emotions simply waiting in the wings) than like an actual change of heart.

Natalie said...

The world-building bit didn't occur to me before, but you're right, that is something any sensible Illuminatus would think of.

As for revenge ... I think that's thorny. I mean, if one is lawfully bound to kill someone (which seems to me basically the situation the Society has placed him in) and has bad motivations at one time but resolves those before actually carrying out the deed ... like, that's fine, right? A later decision - if there is a later decision - can override the moral consequences of an earlier decision as long as both occur prior to the deed itself. So I suppose the question really is what Jack's motivations were at the time, which is at least somewhat ambiguous.