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“Nous avions autre chose à faire durant la mortelle épreuve que de croiser le fer ‘pour rire.'”
[“We had other things to do during the deadly ordeal than to cross blades ‘for fun.'”]
—Poet and muse Emma Lambotte writing of the disbanding of “the Ladies’ Fencing Club of Anvers” at the beginning of WWI. Many of the fencers volunteered to serve as nurses during the war. The club was never reinstituted. From Lambotte’s essay L’Escrimeuse (Paris: Éditions du Nord, 1937).
Some reflections for those who have been unable to return to fencing, or to any passionate pursuit for that matter, or are disappointed that things are not the same.
Put plainly, this is not the time to bemoan any temporary loss or abatement in fencing practice, however passionate you feel about swordplay.
Worldwide, we’re living amidst an obvious historical moment that affects everyone. In the US, we’re amidst an even greater one: a pandemic combined with great social change and political consequence. It is a time of great personal, moral, and political danger.
This isn’t the first such moment in modern history, nor for many of us not the first in our lifetimes. And for many of us it probably won’t be the last.
For fencers who are missing the sport, or have had their participation reduced, it’s a time to remember that swordplay is not going away, no matter that its principles have long been under siege by a sport mentality. If you haven’t already returned to it to some degree, you will be able to one day.
Further, you should remember that no matter how much swordplay means to you, there are more important things in life–and what’s most important about fencing is its connection to these important things.
I came of fencing age in an era in which, for many of us, swordplay was still strongly associated with a sense of honor and associated duty, unlike today in which many competitors and their coaches regard it as pure sport where winning at almost any cost is expected. (Happily, though, many “average” competitors still prefer to view it traditionally.)
It was this traditional sense that drew me when I first started fencing more than forty years ago. Many of our fencing masters back then, not to mention many of the veterans we fenced with, were true swashbucklers who, although they competed in fencing, saw swordplay as something beyond mere sport.
A few had actually fought duels, while others had trained duelists. Some had served in the military in the final days of the sword on the battlefield. Many had lived through the trauma of two world wars. Some had fought in them. Others had escaped or fought against repressive regimes in the manner of adventures as might be found in a novel by Dumas or Sabatini.
At the very least, most had been trained by those who had come of age in an era where the sword was still a weapon both of the military and of the duel. Many were true adventurers with a powerful sense of duty and honor, of moral, rather than legal, right and wrong.
Many had proved themselves of great moral and physical courage, though none ever mentioned this. You had to learn it from those who had long known them.
All understood that fencing competition was ultimately a mere substitute, not an end in itself. Medals, although fun to compete for, were in many ways secondary, and their value ultimately illusory. A drawer filled with dusty old fencing medals is in its essence exactly that, nothing more. It is only the acts that earned them, and the context in which they were earned, that matter.
My first fencing master, Dr. Francis Zold, pointed this out to me more than forty years ago when he noted that most people only remember who came in first place, and then usually only in regard to the Olympics and World Championships, and then often not for long. Aladar Gerevich was one of the world’s greatest athletes, yet most sports fans have no idea who he was. Nor, sadly, do most fencers.
In other words, not only were we expected to fence honorably and regard medals as the ultimate illusions they are–mementos of transient fortunate, often happy, moments–but we were expected to carry this expectation of honor and duty far beyond the strip. Camaraderie, derived from mutual respect and shared experience, bolstered this.
Even today one can easily judge a fencer’s character off the strip by their behavior on the strip. If a fencer, coach, or referee will game the system or cheat on the strip, they’re likely do so everywhere else they think they can get away with it. Those you can trust on the strip under pressure can probably be trusted off the strip.
In practice, this associated sense of honor and duty meant that some of us, as I did, gave up promising competitive potential for military service, or the Foreign Service, Peace Corps, medical volunteerism, or even simply to provide for a family or care for loved ones.
Several fencers I know had to give up significant competitive potential due to injuries received in the line of duty. Others had their participation upended by war, revolution, natural disaster, economic failure, accident, or disease. Similarly for aspiring fencers: I’ve had many beginning students in their sixties and seventies whose delay in learning to fence was commonly due to decades of circumstances beyond their control.
Some fencers fared even worse for their open embrace of service. I still recall a poignant story Dr. Zold, a Hungarian, told me forty or more years ago, about an American epeeist he knew well. When war was declared, the American fencer volunteered for military service and was commissioned as a naval officer. He was killed in action aboard a destroyer in the Pacific. He was not the only such fencer.
Dr. Zold, who was no stranger to dueling and its associated sense of honor, himself put aside active swordplay for an even more dangerous, and far more noble, practice, which was to assist Raoul Wallenberg in helping Jews escape Hungary after the country was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1944. To have been caught doing so would have resulted in torture and death at the hands of the Gestapo. Wallenberg himself was abducted by the Soviet Secret Police at the end of the war and, two years later, reportedly murdered in custody.
Today, right now, some fencers are taking leave of their beloved sport, and even of family, to risk their well-being, possibly their lives, in support of others in peril from disease or injustice.
Again, we all need to remember that fencing will not be diminished forever. Our passion and practice will return in full measure. Many of us have often had to miss fencing for months or even years at a time for a variety of reasons. We always came back to it, and it to us.
In the meantime, if it’s not yet safe or practical for you to return to fencing, there’s still much you can do. You can read and study, stay fit, do footwork, practice if you have a partner at home.
One of the great lessons I’ve learned both from fencing and from particularly hazardous naval service was to be prepared for change. You may have expectations, you may have a plan, but in a fencing bout as in life our expectations and plans are often thwarted. We must always be prepared to adapt, and especially to carry our experience forward with us as life changes.
Fencing, if you pay attention, has many lessons useful in life’s trials.
Thus there is always more we can do. Simultaneously, as fencers past have done and some at present are already doing, we can seize upon fencing’s great virtues–honor and duty, camaraderie and respect, risk-taking, the courage to stand and fight alone–and via them try to make this world in danger a better place.
We need heroes today and everyday, and fencing, at its best, helps make them.
Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First published July 2, 2020. Last updated (Lambotte quotation) October 14, 2020.
Set amidst the 1665 London plague, Fortune’s Fool by Rafael Sabatini spins the tale of an English officer, Colonel Randal Holles, too often abandoned by the goddess Fortune.
It’s not Sabatini’s best work, but it’s an enjoyable read and, in particular, it clearly show’s his worldview: one romantically cynical, in that he understood well the foolishness and fecklessness, even the depravity and cowardice, of much of humankind, while simultaneously asserting that good can, and often does, triumph in the end.
Sabatini understood that to succeed honorably, even nobly in such a world, one needed not only courage, but wit as well. And it never hurt to have a sharp sword too.
In particular, the novel, whose details are almost certainly drawn from Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) and the Diary of Samuel Pepys, shows numerous parallels with today’s Covid-19 pestilence. After all, people don’t change. They lie, they deny, they seek supernatural counsel, they indulge in quackery, they hoard, they exploit, they scapegoat, they profit from the death of the members of some groups over others.
And yet, many rise above the baser nature of humanity, and behave nobly, with great courage and sacrifice.
And, romance though it is, Fortune’s Favorite shows this hopeful, uplifting side of humanity amidst death and the panicked fear of it. Even so, and sadly, our modern experience with the Covid-19 pandemic has proved Sabatini, not to mention historical chroniclers, too accurate in their descriptions of humanity in time of a deadly pandemic.
The protagonist is based on Gervase Holles (1605 – 1675) and his family. Plot details concerning widows and profane exchanges appear to be based on those of his father, Frescheville Holles (1575- 1630), but Randal himself is likely based on Gervase’s son, Sir Frescheville Holles (1642 – 1672). Sir Frescheville, originally an officer of militia and afterward a privateer captain, was, similarly to the narrative in the book, appointed to the navy thanks to the patronage of George Monck, Duke of Albemarle. Sir Frescheville, commanding the HMS Antelope, lost an arm at the Four Days Battle, was knighted afterward, became Member of Parliament for Grimsby, later mayor of Grimsby, and was made a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was killed in action in 1672 while commanding the HMS Cambridge at the Battle of Solebay. There was no real Randal Holles by name. Futher, no Holles appears on the death warrant of King Charles I, unlike in the book, given that the real Holles family were supporters of the royal prerogative, not Parliamentary rebels against the king.
Finally, and notably, the novel has an excellent description of swordplay in action too!
Copyright Benerson Little 2020. First published March 30, 2020. Last updated February 18, 2021.