Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Of Novices and Masters, Foundations and the Foundationless

My friend told me that, during some discussion, his opponent made the self-covering statement that, in the Chivalric Arts, “we are all rank amateurs.” This statement makes sense, from a certain point of view, as it itself came from what I consider a “rank amateur,” in most relevant respects. I don’t mean this in a negative or hostile way, but I strongly disagree with the statement, as I have explained in articles past. I will define what I consider a “rank amateur,” or an ignorant novice, and conversely elaborate a bit on what I consider a Master, and what makes them so, in my opinion, of course.

For a bit more on rank amateurs, see our short past piece entitled Hand to Hand: the Unarmed Arts of Europe.

The “rank amateur;” the ignorant novice, in this case, is one who jumps into playing at swords with no foundation for doing so. This is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly with a legitimate1 instructor (who will instill a foundation, at least to a degree). But many do not, and they learn directly from books and the company of other such amateurs. While it has been said by the Masters (Fiore in particular) that one cannot learn, that is to say, retain, much of the Art without books (for it is so vast; that’s saying something), he did not mean that books were a replacement for the kind of teachings that books cannot give (the ignorant novice will not know what these things are). That is; training from human being to human being. The devil is in the details. Books are technical references, largely for things one has already learned, in one combination or another.

As I have said many times before, I take Master Ringeck at face value when he said Alles fechten kompf vom ringen. This was not his idle musing. This is because my background in martial arts has allowed me to forgo a massive amount of “interpretation.” This is why, as I have explained before, we are not all “rank amateurs,” and the Art could have been developed to an appreciable degree far more quickly if qualified martial artists had taken a larger part within the Chivalric Arts revival, as opposed to re-enacors, boffer fighters, and novices who just wanted to “sword fight.” An experienced martial artist; one schooled in proper martial motion, can simply recognize and decipher the vast majority of techniques and concepts depicted in the manuals, at least with a good translation to verify things. Thusly, by comparison to the foundationless amateur, I take Master Ringeck at his word. One can say that “It’s easy to play the quote game,” but they are obviously at odds with the Masters when they so adamantly argue against them and those who follow their advice. Why they fight those Masters they claim to emulate is beyond me.

To give an example of how such things work for the ignorant novice trying to sword-fight, let’s go with the “duck walk” (I’m tired of the rock ‘em sock ‘em longsword example). Say our amateur begins to notice the images in the source literature that show people’s toes pointing outward. Now, the martial artist with a foundation to work from may have taken these images for granted for a decade (or whenever he first viewed the images), knowing exactly what they are, how they are used and what they are for, because they are commonly used in the martial arts of the world to this day. However, a decade passes and the baseless amateur notices these images. He says, “Wow! Look at this discovery I’ve made!” and begins to duck-walk for the sake of duck-walking, not knowing what the use of the foot maneuver is, yet using it anyway, perhaps experimentally. Perhaps he names it the “duck-walk,” and in a fit of the worst linguistics reasoning ever, thinks, “Well, I call it the duck-walk because when I do it, it reminds me of a duck, walking. You know, the English had this thing called a cock-step. They’re both avian, so even though I don’t know why or how to duck-walk, perhaps the cock-step is the duck walk!” “Ooooh, aaaah” say the smurfs.

Anyway, the rank amateur has no foundation, and often mistakenly takes for granted that there is no foundation, when in fact there absolutely is; the Art of Fighting and knowledge of motion in antagonistic application. Motion, that beautiful word, is what it is all about. Both a mental and physical knowledge of martial motion and its effects. At the very minimum, 80% of the content of our source material never required “interpretation” in the first place, when viewed by qualified practitioners, because it was already alive and well, in one form or another. Blasphemy you say? Because it goes against what a rank amateur, by very definition, has caused you to accept? I can prove different.

To again paraphrase the Masters; more in the feet than the hands, and all fencing comes from a foundation of unarmed skills. What is left but the strengths and weaknesses of certain unnatural weapons?

In the same vein, I believe qualified practitioners of Japanese swordsmanship, with proper translations, could have significantly shortened the reconstruction time of the Art of the Longsword, despite the cultural and weapon differences, because of their foundational knowledge of universal core principles, such as feeling, timing, stances, extant drills, etc. that fill in the gaps between foundational unarmed knowledge and that required for a specific weapon, if they’d had the inclination to do so. Instead, they laugh at the foundationless taking baby steps, making the Chivalric Arts look less than appreciable. Yet we have had those very boffer fighting, re-enacting, “rank amateurs,” with the loudest voices, tell us that it’s “bad,” and “wrong” and only harm will come from it. Well, those who began the Chivalric Arts with a foundation will universally disagree. If you want to know the difference between having no foundation and trying to learn a hip throw from a book, and performing the same from extant knowledge and human contact, read any interpretation of Master Ringeck’s book, and then watch a Judo video. You’ll see “rank amateurs,” and then you’ll see what Ringeck knew.

As I said, it had been said in the past that it is not necessary to “fill in” any gaps in our knowledge with, for example, knowledge from Asian fighting arts. And again, this came from a foundationless, rank amateur. For but one example, you can spend ten years learning how to perform a hip throw, like a baby learning to walk, because it was said to perform one in a 600 year old German book (all the while making “startling discoveries”), you can learn how to hip throw from someone who already knows in a significantly shorter time, or perhaps you already knew how to hip throw. Which is the most efficient method for you? There is no “stylistic infection,” when you follow the Master’s direction. It was begun as a statement by a rank amateur in an attempt to keep himself “on top,” or, shall we say, “foremost,” despite his lack of foundation.

Now, on to the Master.

In current English, Degrees used in belt ranking systems (for example) in the martial arts are so-called because they are, literally, degrees, earned by scholars of the martial arts. These degrees are earned by certain levels of expertise in various different curricula, depending upon the art and the school. The different belts, though not often referred to as degrees, are also degrees all the same. This stands true to our Western martial heritage, having ranks of Scholars, Provosts and Masters. Those titles are degrees earned more-so than titles given, just as one earns a degree in a modern university, for the two were not always so separate in the West.

While the semantics involved in these degrees are a definite issue, there is also a certain assumed standard for those degrees. The semantics are such that a degree, such as Master, will be for the curricula of the school that awarded it, I.e. one school may have very different standards for that degree than another, and that is alright, in a way. Yet because of this, a Master of one style or school may be far superior to the Master of another, all due to disparate standards and definitions.

A problem in the Chivalric Arts now is that the Art has been pre-cheapened. While there are plenty of false “Masters” in the Asian fighting arts, by and large, there is a standard of what a master is, and by and large, it is adhered to. In the Chivalric Arts, we have specialist fencers and rank amateurs who cheapen the Art and call themselves (or consider themselves) Masters. They are false Masters by all accounts but those of their acolytes.

Mastery implies a certain physical and mental dominance of a subject; a mastery of it. There is no way around this, however it is rationalized. Some will say Master simply means “teacher,” or some such thing, but mastery is mastery. A teacher must master his subject to teach it thoroughly. It is the thorough command of what one has mastered. A slave-master is so because he is master of the slave’s life and death, and the slave is his to command, and will do as he commands. The Art is the slave of the Master. A Master is not perfect; no-one is. But a Master can exert his will over his subject to a degree far higher than anyone less skilled and knowledgeable, and he knows why, not just how.

For an example, a black-belt with his 8th degree in the modern American system of Kenpo Karate is considered an Associate Master of the Arts. After the 3rd black-belt degree, the requirements for earning degrees are not so much about curriculum content, but further physical mastery of motion, time at the Art, and contribution to the Art. Apples and oranges you say? This is reflected in the old schools of Europe. They were not seemingly particularly curricula-heavy by all known accounts, such as they are, but they had mandatory, long time-delays between rank tests, during which one must actively practice at the Art. Simply waiting for your time to come around would not cut it. It is time at the Art, not time in the Art, that counts, and seven years at the Art, between degrees, is certainly something.

Now it would be difficult to get many people with the dedication to progress in the Art if we employed the time delay requirements of the schools of old. People would, in general, simply lack the patience without receiving degrees in modern society. In a way, this is compensated for now by degree-heavy ranking systems in order to retain quality standards. It can take just as long to achieve a certain place in the Art, but the mean-time is filled with degrees of lesser value. And because the degrees are now more finite, curricula must be memorized and honed in order to show progress in knowledge and skill. But in the old schools, a number of years of study would show the difference in mastery beyond doubt, no curricula-heavy content required.

In any case, one thing I am getting at is that the cheapened art is so because the so-called Scholars and Masters alike pale in comparison of knowledge and skill to the same in other extant fighting arts. No foundationless recreant fencer will ever be worthy of the rank of Master, because he is standing on a house of straw. We could certainly have Masters make a come-back to the Chivalric Arts, but so long as things continue in this way, few will be deserving. They are currently a laughing-stock due to their foundationless nature. The foundationless Scholar may someday achieve great skill with a sword, or whatever weapon he picked up in his pursuit of the Chivalric Arts, but he will never achieve a place worthy of the title of Master, as-such. A Master of a single facet of the Art is no Master at all, as he has not mastered an appreciable amount of the Art, in my opinion. This would not have happened in times past.

I just realized I’ve read this all before. Things never change.

1. Legitimate: In the early revival of any extinct art, there is no lineage of curricula, certification or knowledge to define “legitimacy.” Legitimacy is defined by knowledge, skill, and lack of pretense. Charlatans; those who claim more knowledge or skill than they in fact possess, or those who deliberately mislead for some other pretense, or claim a level of Mastery that they do not possess. However, even a relatively unskilled person can instruct others legitimately, so long as they do not breach any faith to do so, and they do not teach beyond their own skill level, and they are forward about their knowledge and position.


Copyright Jan. 2009, Casper Bradak


Lessons on the English Longsword said...

Puts "For practice is better than art. Your exercise does well without the art, but the art is not much good without the exercise..." into perspective.


Lessons on the English Longsword said...

Furthermore, this lends credence to Dobringer's warning that even a "buffalo" can take down a more formally trained fighter. He may be formally trained, but if he has a poor foundation, he could very well be screwed.

As Aristotle says: "The doctor does not treat "man" except accidentally; he treats Callias or Socrates, or someone else described in this way, who is accidentally 'man.' So, if someone has grasped the principles of the subject without experience, and thus knows the universal without knowing the individuals contained in it, he will often fail in his treatment; for it is the individual who has to be treated...Nonetheless, we do regard knowledge and understanding as belonging more to art than experience; and we regard those who possess art as as wiser than those who just have experience, on the grounds that in every case wisdom follows on knowledge. We have this attitude because those who possess art know causes, whereas others do not."

JH said...

Ahhh yes...Herein was where you appropriately referred to the Smurfs of the so-called WMA Community ;-) Thanks again.