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Thursday, October 13, 2011


Disclaimer: Sometimes, I write stuff about the wonderful, positive impact that I believe martial arts and self-defense training can have on people's lives. When I write these things, it is because I honestly believe them. Martial arts can do a lot of wonderful things for people.

Other times, I write about the terrible, negative impact that I believe martial arts and self-defense training can have on people's lives, and I believe those things too. More importantly, I believe that they are the sort of things that not nearly enough people actually talk about in this industry/community/whatever we are. The media presents martial artists as these paragons of ancient warrior virtues who can do no wrong, and that's an image that isn't just wrong, but it's wrong in a very fundamental way. Martial arts are not practiced by people who are somehow better than other humans. They are practiced by humans. That's about it.

So I partly post this stuff so that others can see it, and know it's there, and not walk through their martial arts journey with blinders on.

And I post it partly as a self-check, to see if the things that I'm seeing are really there, or if it's just stuff I'm making up in my head. 

On with the show.

Thanks to a combination of reading Never Let Go, and just a general frustration with a gap in my reading knowledge, I finally got around to finishing T.H. White's the Once and Future King. For anyone not familiar, this is one of the definitive versions of the King Arthur myth, at least in modern English literature. Disney even made a movie of the first part of it, which is the part before all of the tragedy and depressing shit happens.
This post is about the depressing shit.

Specifically, it's about Lancelot, and a revelation that occurs about him somewhere in the book. I cannot remember if Lancelot himself is aware of this truth, or if it's just authorial knowledge, though I think it is the former.

Here's the deal. Lancelot is the best knight of the round table. He works himself tirelessly, almost from birth, to train himself to embody the physical and ethical ideals that Arthur has set forth for his knights. He is strong, noble, quick, skilled...he's such a bad-ass that he eventually has to start entering tournaments in disguise, because no one is willing to fight him. He is unfailingly polite to women, loyal to his friends, merciful to his enemies...he's the perfect embodiment of the chivalric knight.

The revelation that comes out in the book is this: everything that Lancelot does, all of his hard work, his strict adherence to the rules happens because Lancelot knows that, at his core, he's actually a horrible person. Let's be honest...for all he does right, he sleeps with his best friend's wife, helping to precipitate a crisis that ultimately destroys Camelot. Lancelot isn't good because he's driven to be good. He's good because he's driven to be evil, and he's trying to hide/deny that fact by burying it underneath a chivalric cover.

Ten points if you see where this is going.

Reading the Once and Future King, I couldn't help wonder--what if that's where all of this stuff in the martial arts comes from? Is all the honor, respect, discipline, and other "morality" that has crept into or been grafted onto these arts really just an elaborate mechanism to help the people who practice this stuff cope with the idea that they are training to "manufacture corpses and cripples" (Rory)? More worrisome...what if the "ethics" are there to cover up the fact that we LIKE doing this stuff?

Part of me...hell, most of me believes that's not true. But then I think back on some of the biggest proponents of the various versions of martial morality that I've met over the years, and I have to say...some of them were pretty terrible people.

Something to think over.


Tim said...

A less negative spin on the idea might be that the ethics, morality, etc. is there because yes, you are training to know how to hurt people, putting an ethics and morality onto the practice is a way for society to keep it in check. To stop at least some, if not the bulk, of practitioners from doing really bad things with this knowledge. Then there's the inherent benefit of all systems that restrict people's actions for the greater good: it allows you to have a group of people that train together and learn from each other without killing one another. You take ethics or a code of honor out of it completely and you'd end up with a bunch of cripples and fatalities rather than a functioning school, or army, or what have you. Of course, people are still people, and some are going to use the rules to their advantage, break them to their advantage, ignore them, follow the letter not the spirit etc.

It's why in The Once and Future King and the Arthur myth in general we get knights like Lancelot, but we also get knights like Galahad, and of course Arthur himself, who tries to do the right thing but doesn't always do it in the right way and makes mistakes. Like you said, these are all humans.

Jake said...

I agree with you that the ethics, morality, and such are there as societal controls, but I'm not convinced that that truth contradicts the idea that the people who do these systems may or may not be inherently bad people (I am not saying they all are, but that was part of the idea I'm kicking around).

And yeah, some kind of societal control needs to be there, and that's what this stuff is for, at least in part.

But that still leaves you with a bunch of people who think they are a lot nobler than they really are. Possibly. I'm not sure. The cynicism is a little weaker today, which is probably a good thing in the long run.