Sunday, February 9, 2014

Advance / Retreat

As much as I love powerlifting, I have missed practicing a martial art. The deeply personal and meditative experience of lifting heavy weights has gotten me through the most challenging and stressful moments of graduate school so far, and I would say has greatly contributed to my more creative scholarly breakthroughs. I will always practice powerlifting, because not only do I find it important to be physically strong in order to be mentally adept, but also because it is a solitary practice that involves toiling stubbornly and independently towards achievement - much like writing.

But the spontaneous interaction that takes place during, say, a fencing bout is instructive, too. It trains the body to instinctually respond to the unexpected movements of others and to improvise with great rapidity. At the beginning of the semester, I joined the CU Fencing Club on campus and was embarrassed to discover how slow my reflexes were and how easy I was to stab, but delighted to be honing my martial instincts again (after not having trained any martial art for about 3 years).

During my first few fencing lessons, I did not even hold a sword. Instead, I was given a glove and instructed to try to whack my opponent on the chest in one lunge, while they were allowed to retreat one step. While that may sound like a pretty simple exercise, I assure you it demanded my full concentration and coordination. The glove game began teaching me how the sport of fencing approaches the problems of distance, timing, aim, defense, and trickery.
Distance is important because over- or underestimating your opponents' reach (our your own reach) can prove to be a devastating error. Timing is just as crucial but perhaps more difficult to get a feel for. Aim, for obvious reasons, must be trained with great discipline, over and over, as the target area for the foil is limited to the torso. Good defense seems to be synonymous with good strategy, a lesson I learned firsthand when I finally got to replace the glove for a foil. In that first bout, I unleashed a flurry of entirely un-strategic attacks on my opponent who happily defended herself and used my state of constant attack (and therefore my constantly open torso) to calmly respond with her own well-timed attacks, leading her to win the bout 10-1.

And let us not forget the most elusive, yet most essential element of all in a martial encounter: trickery. The truly martial heart beats not with heavy seriousness, but with light, swift craftiness always capable of surprising and bewildering an opponent.

Fencing bouts are fought on "the strip," (or "piste" in French) which is a narrow column of floor that confines the action to advances and retreats (and keeps you from running too far away from your opponent). You must alway face your challenger head-on, while you negotiate the best way to move dynamically in a straight line. Of course, this is a wonderful metaphor for approaching academic research: no matter how daunting a project may seem at the outset, you always stare directly at the task if you are to make any progress. You must advance whenever you can, but must also never be too stubborn to retreat, rearrange the distance, figure out the best timing for an advance, take careful aim, and conjure up all of your cleverness.
Recently, I discovered that in order to advance on my dissertation work, I was going to need to retreat back to pre-modernity. That is, over the course of researching the history of Brazilian literatura de cordel, I became more and more aware of (and interested in) its literary ancestors in medieval Iberia. I found myself drawn with increasing urgency to medieval texts and the polyphonous social, religious, and linguistic environment in which they were created. The Devil character hobbles through many of these texts, wearing a variety of different guises and serving a variety of functions. My dissertation, then, will be centered around a corpus of medieval texts, and stalk the Devil character through stories from the entire Mediterranean region. (In retrospect it seems obvious that I was a medievalist all along....)

Practicing fencing not only helps me train body and mind, it also lends me new perspective on fight scenes in texts I'm reading. (In fact, the oldest document on the sport of Western fencing is from a Castilian on the Iberian Peninsula - Treatise on Arms by Diego de Valera, circa mid-XVI-century.) The recent confluence of my physical and intellectual projects makes the "retreat" on dissertation progress totally worth it - I'm now ready to advance with a much keener aim and cleverness.

(See? I'm already happily stabbing away at colleagues in my department!) 

Have you ever fenced before? Who are your favorite swashbuckling characters? How do you reconcile physical and intellectual disciplines?

Until next time-- keep rustling!

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