Thursday, August 6, 2015


Imagine this.
Imagine if swimming suddenly started to be practiced on dry land.
After all, it’s certainly SAFER than practicing in the water.  You can still do the arm movements, do the head movements, coordinate your breathing.  You can’t really kick very well, but you can walk-in-place to simulate doing something with your legs. It’s particularly good for people who are afraid of the water. You could even have contests and give prizes to the best dry-land “swimmers.” Medals. Trophies. Glitz and glamour. Hell, let’s make it an Olympic sport.
At first, dry-land “swimming” might simulate swimming in water insofar as possible, but with time -- and without water -- some people start  “gaming” the rules. Since they have no commitment to swimming in water --- because they never intend to actually do so – they start looking for short cuts, trimming corners, doing things in such an incorrect manner, that, if done in the water, they would most certainly drown. But on land, with no risk of drowning -- with no real world "feedback" --- people could indulge in all sorts of such suicidal antics and call it "swimming."
Somewhere along the line, some bright mind might point out that the swimming done on dry land seems to have lost a certain je ne sais quoit, but I don’t know what. To rediscover the lost art of true swimming, this innovator pours over the dusty texts of the “great swimming masters” and as a result of this exhaustive research, has his swimmers not only copy as closely as possible the postures depicted in these books, but also has his “swimmers” stand in a shallow trough of water, and, to polish it off, gives them a good hosing. Certain that he has captured the “essence” of swimming, he has no idea that it’s --- shall we say a “watered-down” version – that still bears little resemblance to the swimming done in water.
Of course, there are one or two people who don’t “go along to get along” with the popular trend. They look at dry-land swimming and immediately recognize that the emperor has no speedos. These folks continue to swim in water as they’ve always done --- not just in pools, but also in lakes and rivers and even the ocean!  And these miscreants pass the practice on to others – young people who then waste their time swimming in water when they could be swimming on dry land like everyone else and win fame and fortune, scholarships, “Olympic gold,” and a chance to write a memoir about how dry-land swimming changed their lives, gave them self-esteem, took them out of poverty, introduced them to the Meaning of Life.
When that happens, those who actually swim in water will be ridiculed as "old-fashioned," or "out of touch,"  “dinosaurs” or "poseurs who couldn't make it with the big boys" of the "modern sport" of dry-land "swimming."   They only swim in water, you see, because it’s easier, slower, and less athletic. They didn’t have the "talent” to swim on dry land, weren’t willing to put in the “hard work” required.  The most charitable critics will say, “it’s an old, obsolete style of swimming that once had some practical value, but has now evolved into a modern sport.”
It seems quite unreasonable to the modern-sport dry-land swimmers, that the last practitioners of the old style of swimming in water, refuse to accept dry-land swimming as a “valid” swimming style. After all, both are just variations of the same “art” and with no “objective” way to measure that one is any more “valid” than the other.
Does this little swimming scenario seem absurdly impossible?
Oh, how I wish it were.
Insert a long, weary sigh here.

Sadly, over the last 25 years or so, fencing has devolved into something that is quite the opposite of what it once was. It is no longer based on the intelligent use of the sword in a real “encounter,” indeed has lost all verisimilitude to sword fighting. The rules, once based on the realities of combat, have been “interpreted” until they mean precisely the opposite of what they once meant, in quite Orwellian fashion. “Fencing” is now nothing more than a contrived game, like baseball, with rules that are arbitrary and capricious. There is no longer any sense, any logic, or truth to it.  Even worse, while fencers were once famous for their refined, composed and courteous conduct, they now make a grand show of pique, displaying narcissistic fits of temper, screaming, crying, celebration and so on. Had they any character at all, they’d be embarrassed by these infantile outbursts. Apparently, they do not.
The very term “fencing” like the activity itself, has been misused, debased and degraded until it retains none of its former connotations.
In around 1980, when the “sport” called “fencing” began to divert radically from what fencing had hitherto been, and veered off on to an antithetical path, I began using the  term “classical fencing” to distinguish between the traditional, real-world use of the sword, the essential purpose of which was to survive a fight, and what I dubbed “Olympic fencing,” the only purpose of which was to win a medal in the Olympics.”    
 I sincerely regret having coined these terms for two reasons.
First, I regret it because subsequently the term “classical fencing” was gradually adopted by a lot of folks who had no idea what I meant by the term, and didn’t much care.  Some defined it as simply fencing without the electrical scoring apparatus.  (In truth it’s perfectly possible to fence classically WITH the electrical scoring apparatus.  I, and many, many others, did it for decades.) Others made it a form of “historical re-enactment” by claiming it was a “style” of fencing popular in the 19th century, rendering it, thereby, nothing more than a snapshot of arbitrary and frivolous fashion. These folks even copied the attire of that past time, thinking that made them more “classical,” in the same way that playing 3-chord rock and roll might become “classical” music if only you wore a white powdered wig while playing it.
"Classical fencing" became a term that meant whatever the user wanted it to mean. 
Like "love."  
And "terrorist."
In truth, I took the term “classical” from music. The Harvard Music Dictionary gives this description: (classical music) strives toward a particular ideal of "poise, balance, proportion, simplicity, formal discipline, craftsmanship, and universal and objective (rather than idiosyncratic and subjective) expression," affording us a "standard or model of excellence that has enduring value."

It seemed like a good idea at the time.
-Steve McQueen as "Vin" in "The Magnificent Seven"

The other reason I regret using “Olympic” and “classical” fencing, is that these terms suggest that  “classical fencing” and “Olympic fencing” simply distinguish two variations on a theme, two equally legitimate “styles” of fencing, like two different flavors of ice cream.
They are not.
The distinction is, rather, between ice cream and manure.
At the time, most good fencers simply referred to that which would become acceptable as “Olympic fencing,” as  “poor” or “incorrect” fencing, as “blade bashing,” and “poke and hope.”  I should have stuck with that, and I wish I had.  But, at the time, I had many acquaintances, some of whom I rather liked, personally, who were involved in the increasingly flawed fashion taking over the sport. These were folks who wanted to make a living “coaching” fencing at the high school or college level, and who were in no position to buck the system. They weren’t the ones who changed the rules; most of them didn’t even like the rule changes. But it was “out of their hands.” They had to “go along to get along,” to get and keep a coaching job with employers who knew and cared about nothing but the won/lost tally at the end of the season. Because of my emotional connection to some of these people, I made a very bad mistake: I decided to sugarcoat the truth, to avoid hurting their feelings and to avoid estranging myself from them.  It was a very poor choice on my part. It was a very cowardly choice.  But I was young, and if nothing else, it taught me a very valuable, if very painful, lesson:  a bitter truth is better than a sweet lie.  As a result, I resolved never to make that kind of error again.
To be fair, at the time, I did not foresee how far from the Truth of the sword the sport of fencing would veer. I did not understand how ridiculously contradictory to reality and combat logic “Olympic” fencing would become. I did not anticipate such a complete abandonment and then reversal of every principle that had ever been a part of the sword, either as practical self-defense, or as healthy exercise for the bodies, minds and character of ladies and gentlemen.

"…a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”   
- U.S. Declaration of Independence, 1775

We have therefore decided to discontinue using the term “fencing” as much as possible.  Even “classical fencing” is inappropriate and inadequate because of those numerous self-styled “classical” fencers who have misappropriated and co-opted the term for their own misuses. Unfortunately, it’s probably too late to trademark “classical fencing” and redeem it.  We may yet try.
However, in the general, we will preferentially use the following terms.
Behavioral Hoplology is the study of human behavior in combat.  This broad term encompasses all manner of fighting, real and ritual, serious and symbolic.
Swordfighting. That’s what “fencing” is and it’s about as simple and clear a term as I can imagine for fighting using a sword.
Swordmastery. Refers to the discipline of the sword, the martial art of swordfighting and all that it entails and requires of body, mind and spirit.
Swordman./Swordmanship This is a word that indicates the indivisible unity of the sword and the human being. In this usage it is gender neutral.  It means “one whose consciousness is manifested with, in and through the sword.  While a fencer is one who merely uses a sword to “do fencing,” the swordman IS the sword. I consider this similar to the difference between “riding” and “horsemanship.” Riding only requires that you stay in the saddle. Horsemanship requires an intimate knowledge of, relationship with, and respect for the horse – and has practically NOTHING to do with riding, per se.

I suppose we’d better hurry and trademark these new terms before some idiot steals them, too, and claims that they refer to something involving aged cheese, fishnet stockings, and some kind of ball.


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.