If you make a Molinello in the Woods…

Masiello, molinello to the head from the left

The question asked of sound and trees falling in the woods works for many situations. It’s especially apt as so many of us work alone thanks to the pandemic, but even in the best of times fencing is—be it conducted within a club, school, or team—a solitary pursuit. Our training partners and opponents are instrumental in our growth, and we cannot progress far without them, but the hours of footwork, conditioning, and drill honing technique is a responsibility on the individual fencer. All the flash and fire, all the joy experienced in flow during a bout, little to none of that does one enjoy advancing, retreating, and lunging, doing point-control drills, or performing molinelli against a pell. At its best it can be meditative, but normally, about as good as it gets is merely the awareness that the dull work matters, that one has successfully executed the necessary discipline, and that it’s all important. Unlike bouting, it is not “fun,” though absolutely crucial in our development.

Solo Drill & Isolation

On a another level, however, there is or can be a loneliness in fencing. In most ways it’s a journey we take alone, so that makes sense, but in the deeper waters of the Art and in trying to find other explorers at that depth the isolation, if we’re not aware of it and careful, can be detrimental to our study. With the pandemic, when most of what we can do safely is solo drill, it’s hard enough to find motivation to do the grunt work let alone fight that added sense of isolation if it assails us. Thanks to the internet this is a problem we can alleviate in some degree—few days pass where I don’t chat with the few people I know who are as keen to plumb the Art’s depths, explore texts, and learn as I am. After all, few people in our community, never mind people outside of it, enjoy the deep dive and can discuss the Art for hours on end. I know I’m not the only one who has watched a hapless friend’s eyes glaze over with the unmistakable look of a person that realizes they should never have asked us about fencing. The ability to chat with people far distant is a lifeline we’ve not always had and we should be grateful for it.

“The IT Crowd,” BBC, on sports

On a public level too fencing can be lonely. Like any more or less obscure pursuits fencing is not one of the typical dinner-party topics or likely to come up at a rave, farmer’s market, or appropriately distanced line at a grocery checkout (the six feet rule protects us not only from the virus, but small talk 😉 ). [1] American football, however, or the other sports-ball games, the latest shows on television, etc. are far more likely as topics of conversation. In short, most fencers have no one else to discuss the Art with apart from other fencers, not all of whom devote the same amount of time to it.

Moreover, with all that is going on in the world, with the dire challenges of climate change, Covid-19, social and political turmoil, and every person’s own trials, devoting time to a complicated, obsolete martial art probably seems silly or irresponsible to many people. Even assuming the fears of the conspiracy-minded sorts out there panned out, it would be a long, long time before anyone needed to use a sword again in earnest–in the US alone it will take centuries to run out of bullets–so in terms of the “practical” side to fencing it’s a hard sell. Not impossible–a cane, umbrella, or stick in the hands of a decent fencer is not something anyone should want to experience. So, maybe studying a dead martial art ranks low among the wines and spirits, but the Art can also be a healthy diversion, decent exercise, and intellectual entertainment, which are reasons enough to pursue it. It can be more than that too. The combination of physical and mental stimulation and exertion can be great stress relief.

Of the various perspectives perhaps one of the hardest is the lack of interest or even censure from other fencers. It’s hard enough to feel isolated generally, but when it comes from seemingly like-minded people it is that much harder. Typically this is something, when I’ve experienced it myself, that comes from either Olympic fencers or from similarly narrow-minded sections within “HEMA.” Truth is that everyone filters things through their own experience; reason, evidence, all that has little to do with it.

For example, in the 1990s when some of us defected from Olympic fencing to explore ways to make fencing about swordplay again, there was little support from our comrades. Impassioned appeals were usually met with laughter or hostility. I know my own disappointment and frustration with the poor decisions the FIE was making were made worse by the near complete lack of sympathy from teammates. Our vocal complaints about the system, especially with newer fencers in the mix, were not conducive to group cohesion, but we wanted those newer fencers to know there was a difference between defense-minded approaches and the slap-happy b.s. then in vogue. This is something that typically hits harder as one has more perspective. As it turns out, those of us upset about some of these changes were correct, and this is maybe one reason that to this day some former teammates haven’t forgiven us. [2]

Scene from “Gaslight,” 1944

It is extremely easy to feel gas-lighted in situations like this. I tend to hate terms like “gas-light,” but having had too much experience with it, even in fencing, it’s appropriate. Like many things, there is a spectrum for gas-lighting, but one of the most difficult to manage and overcome is the particular species wherein people believe that you believe something, but do not believe you’re correct and actively do things, wittingly or unwittingly, that make one feel like they’re losing their mind. [3] They offer what seems like positive reinforcement but which really only confuses everything–one comes away under the false assumption that they agree, when they don’t. We discover that the face they present to us is not the one they share with everyone else, the result of which breeds further confusion when in company with shared associates and it becomes clear there is a difference in what they’ve heard.

For fencing, an illuminating example is where people stand with regard to a silly rule that to this day affects Olympic sabre, t. 70 1 & 2, which states:

METHOD OF MAKING A TOUCH
t.70

  1. The sabre is a weapon for thrusting and cutting with the cutting edge, the flat and the
    back of the blade.
  2. All touches made with the cutting edge, the flat or the back of the blade are counted as
    good (cuts and back-cuts).
    [4]

It should be obvious why this is a problem. The decision to allow the flat of the blade to score was the FIE/USFA’s “solution” to the problem of whip-over in sabre. The logic was apparently that an attack made with right-of-way, even if it hit the guard, was valid if the light went off. Since the director cannot overrule the light (see for example t. 73.1), the only arbiter of the validity of a touch is the box, so despite the idiocy of attacking literally the strongest area of defense, one can–and people do–score by slapping the bell-guard. Because competition reflects responses to a rule-set, the nature of fencing and in time instruction (in some areas) changed.

Those of us unhappy about this were ignored, ridiculed, or told to shut up. Of these the response easiest to manage was ridicule–at least that was honest. We mined older works on fencing and photographs and illustrations of sabres with wider blade profiles. At one point, I collaborated with a close friend and fellow sabreur, an engineer, and we rigged up electric sabre kit with the closest thing we could find to period blades, schlager blades, and demonstrated that fixing the problem was as simple as returning to an earlier blade style. Whip-over disappeared. We even had one of our master’s assistant coaches try it, and while he agreed that it was better, he shrugged it off. It didn’t affect him at his level of competition–where training reflected a pre-electric mindset–so he didn’t see the issue. In his mind, the problem with whip-over wasn’t anything other than the fact that most people experiencing it were just “bad fencers.” To those of us trained as he was, but having to fence people increasingly taught to exploit this rule, it was maddening. One either adapted and did the same or quit.

The facts, evidence, the goal of helping the community fix an error meant nothing. A lot of us, myself included, felt abandoned, and it was easy to feel like it was all in one’s head. Rationally we knew the evidence supported us, but it didn’t matter to anyone else. What does one do when that happens? Our solution was to press on, and apparently a lot of other people did too, because now there are multiple companies making blades along earlier lines. There is also the classical/historical community that mushroomed in the wake of the exodus from Olympic competition.

So What?

The take away lesson is this: pursue the Art for you, for the reasons that make sense to you, and close your ears to those who mock, attack, or play Janus with you. If Olympic is your thing, do that; if classical/historical is, do that; if it’s bohurt, LARP, SCA, or anything else, go for it. So long as you’re honest in your study, with yourself, and with everyone else it’s hard to go wrong. Not everyone will see it that way, but the right people will and they are the ones who matter. They are your community even if they live half way around the world. As the pandemic continues, as we are forced to train more or less in isolation, we may as well do that the best way possible, and use this time to examine our study more closely, more honestly, and separate wheat from chaff, not only in terms of the Art, but of those who help or hinder us in our pursuit of it.

NOTES:

[1] Yes, I know, no one is going to raves or anything, but still.

[2] One of the hardest parts about owning one’s own share of the responsibility in a bad situation is that other parties will take advantage of it even so far as to use your admission against you. In this instance, both my close friend and I apologized for “souring” younger sabre fencers, but it did no good. It doesn’t matter that we were correct, it doesn’t matter that we did the right thing in owning our share of things, it changed nothing. It neither fixed that relationship or any other, and arguably it made some worse. This said, it was still the right thing to do.

[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/11-warning-signs-gaslighting

[4] See Fencing Rules (June 2018), USA Fencing, p. 42, section t. 71: 1 & 2, https://www.ncaa.org/sites/default/files/2018FENC_USA_Fencing_Rules_20180918.pdf

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