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A Fencing Life

Nick Evangelista

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A Fencing Life

By Nick Evangelista

 

I have been writing about fencing for around 40 years. It seems longer. It should be noted, regarding this feature of my fencing life, that many people take umbrage at what I say. There is an article lurking somewhere on sport fencing’s cheerleader, fencing.net, entitled, “Why Fencers Hate Nick Evangelista.” I take great pride in this.  Not that I go out of my way to offend or provoke anyone.  I can only offer in my defense that I always say what I believe to be true. Hence, I do not retreat from what I write, nor do I offer my words from the safety of anonymity.

Winston Churchill was once approached by someone who was complaining that he was being attacked in public for his beliefs. Churchill replied, “So, you have enemies. Good. That means you stand for something.” I would say I have a writing history that has always stood for something. If someone wants to hear sportie chatter or classical anachronisms, they should avoid me.  

Here are some of my thoughts on various fencing-related topics, some of them autobiographical, some not.

Fencing and Me

When I was growing up in the 1950s, fencing always seemed to be in front of me. In movies and on TV, and in books, sometimes comic books. When I was around 14 years old, The Three Musketeers was my favorite novel. Any and everything with swords got my attention.  Fencing seemed so exotic and otherworldly.  I thought it was the most amazing thing in the world, and I wanted to learn how to do it. I didn’t have any idea how this would come about—I didn’t know any fencers, or where there were any fencing schools--but somewhere in the back of my brain, I had a feeling I would one day fence. In the end, many things conspired to lead me to fencing. Actually, I sometimes think fencing chose me rather than the other way around. I should add, though, that it was not an easy union. I had to work hard for everything I’ve accomplished.

 Fencing Injuries: Personal and Otherwise

In all the years I have been fencing, I have never had a serious injury. Nothing beyond the normal bruises, welts and scrapes one encounters during the day to day of bouting. When I was learning to fence, I was taught balance, timing, and distance. Form was stressed: bent knees to lower one’s center of gravity, the use of the back arm as a counter-balance, the placement of the feet. Basically, I was taught to control my actions. You don’t get hurt when you have control over your actions. Nor do you hurt others.

My background is a traditional fencing game. Falcon Studios was peppered with successful fencers, from former Olympians to local champions.  No one gave an inch. Everyone fenced hard. It was very competitive. When you were bouting, the only thing your opponent wanted to teach you was that they were better than you. But it was fencing, not the running, poking school of bipedal jousting. The fencing I learned is the same fencing I teach to my students, and in 43 years of transforming everyday people into fencing people, I have never had a student injured beyond the aforementioned bruises, welts, and scrapes.

On the other hand, I have been injured by everyday life. Broken body parts, and the like.  And I have most certainly had to adapt my fencing to these hurdles. One of my most challenging injuries was having my right hand—my fencing hand—crushed in a car door twelve or so years ago. I remember the sound of crunching celery as my metacarpals were being reduced to puzzle pieces.  How did I deal with this intrusion to my fencing? Actually, I just kept teaching, because my fingers weren’t broken, and that’s all I needed to maneuver my foil. With every personal injury I’ve had, I just keep teaching, adapting to the situation, until I heal up. Fencing is what I do. Of course, I do not recommend this regimen to anyone else. Today, for me, old injuries regularly suggest impending bad weather. 

Outside my own fencing sphere of influence, the injuries I see most in modern fencing are to the knees and ankles.  To me, whatever the level of the fencer injured, these problems imply poor training, a fencer lacking proper balance. For all outcries to the contrary, there is something to be said for good, old-fashioned fencing form: an attack with a straight arm, measured foot work, timing flowing from the fingers, the free arm being employed for balance. No silly leaping, no over-extended lunges, no toe-to-toe jabbing, no feet going in ten directions at once.  It doesn’t surprise me that so many fencers are being injured in the modern fencing world. The only place where chaos turns into order is on page one of the Bible. Everywhere else, it leads to serious problems.

My Writing

My last book was published in 2001. At the same time, I was both the Fencing History editor for Encyclopedia Britannica, and the publisher of Fencers Quarterly Magazine. Since then, I have gone to college, earned a BA in History, and am now on the verge of my Master’s in History. Lots of writing there, but on topics dictated by educational requirements.  More fencing books? I have at least five in my head. Plus, I have my website, where I can pursue short term fencing ideas that interest me. I have a number of options, but I need to get my Master’s Degree out of the way first. It hangs like an albatross around my neck.

Pistol Grips/French Grips

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People have commented –often in a derisive fashion--on my dislike of pistol grips. There is a reason why I don’t like them. They are totally incompatible with the requirements of traditional French fencing techniques. The pistol design promotes a heavy-handed style of play that clashes with French subtleties.  I tried letting students use pistol grip weapons early on in my teaching career, but it was like trying to mix water and oil, and more oil.  It was an impossible mixture. As for the French grip, it has, over the years, fulfilled my notions of what Fencing should be…for me.

Today, my students use only French weapons.

I should also mention--for those who are too young to remember the 1980s--that the Federation Internationale d’Escrime (F.I.E.), the world fencing body, recommended in 1982 that pistol grips be banned from fencing as extremely dangerous. This pronouncement, issued by the F.I.E. medical board, stemmed from some well-publicized fencer deaths. It had to do with the unrelenting, vice-like grip produced by the pistol design. When a blade broke, it did not snap harmlessly away from the target, it punched directly forward into whatever was in front of it. If a blade broke with a sharp angle, that was a real problem. But, because of the uproar this suggestion of exile generated among pistol grip users around the planet—coaches blaming accidents on bad officiating--the F.I.E. instead began issuing equipment requirements to offset and withstand the life threatening potential of  said engines doom.     If you have ever wondered why there is an “F.I.E. seal of approval” on some pieces of fencing gear, this is where it came from. (For those who prefer historical fact to hysterical denials, I recommend that you read, “A Propos d’un Accident,” by Raoul Clery, American Fencing, Volume 35, No. 1 and 2, 1983.)  

Ultimately, pistol grippers, sporties, whoever, can do whatever they want. I really don’t care.  I’d just like to warn as many potential fencers away from the p. trap as possible. Official fencing sites on line can explain why fencers—probably all of them—hate me.  It won’t change what I know to be true. I grew up in fencing’s Cretaceous Period, right before the scoring box proliferated beyond tournaments--crashing headlong into everyday fencing to become a substitute for brains--and wiped out all rational, intelligent thought on organized fencing strips.

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When I was first learning to lunge and parry, almost everyone fenced with French weapons. It wasn’t mindless consensus, it is what worked amazingly well. A few old-timers still showed up at tournaments proudly toting the tools of the Italian school. That always brought up questions like, “Where’d you learn Italian?” As for pistol grips in the early 70s, they were not the ubiquitous items they are today. More common in European circles, they were still an oddity to many American eyes.  But things were changing. By the 80s, there was a saying in vogue to justify major, confusing changes on U.S. fencing strips: That’s the way they do it in Europe. The Soviet Union had long embraced the pistol grip, and found they could dominate the scoring box by force. We might describe this as, anything for a touch. Karl Marx would have said, the end justifies the means.  

Amid all this sportified politics of the fencing world, I have stayed with my French weapons for almost 48 years.  If I could find something better, I would use it. But I have not. I actually used a Belgian pistol grip in a tournament once while my foil was being repaired by the armorer. I won with it, but it felt as foreign to me as a crowbar. I have always relished the calm feel of a French grip slipping easily into my hand. After a while it becomes part of you, an extension of your nervous system. It does take a while to learn to manipulate it from the fingertips. The mastery of anything is never easy. But once you do, fencing stops being a mundane, forceful accumulation of touches, and becomes a game of surprising possibilities. Words like precision, economy of motion, maneuverability, creativity, point control come to mind.  The French call the finger play derived from their grip, doighte (pronounced, “dwah”). Anything less, to me, seems like a grand waste of time, shouting “champions” amid electric impulses, medals and all.

 My Fencing Regimen Today

I have not competed since the 70s. My business is teaching. My fencing master once said to me, “You can be a great teacher or a great fencer, but you can’t do both at the same time.” I teach because that is what I enjoy the most. But I do fence with all my students who have graduated to bouting. I fence with students who come to me from other salles, as well. I do not hold myself aloof from the world. And, yes, I fence hard. You never let anyone win. Acting as a brick wall is the only way to pull the best out of a student. Anything less than that is a lie, and gives the student a false sense of confidence. They have to earn their touches. Mastery is forged in opposition. Skill is earned under fire. I learned this at Falcon Studios more years ago than I care to remember.       

My Training Aids

I think what helps my students the most is continual one-on-one lessons with me, which includes mechanical training and regular bouting. There is always a continual dialogue that runs through these sessions, which allows the student to apply critical thinking to his or her situation. My ultimate goal is to produce creative, independent fencers, who can easily function in any fencing situation without my assistance.

I also employ aspects of Behavioral Psychology in my teaching. Let’s face it, when you teach someone to fence, you are obviously attempting to modify their behavior, inserting the good, expunging the bad. If you know specific behavioral techniques, this can make the procedure much easier. When I was an undergrad in college, and minoring in Psych, I wrote a 56 page study on the use of behavioral techniques in training fencing students. They do work.

If someone reading this is thinking, “What about cross-training?” I am not a big fan of cross-training. I believe that the best training for fencing is fencing. Lots of fencing. To practice fencing effectively, you need active human opposition to overcome. Everything else is everything else.

Choosing a Weapon

This is my recipe for knowing which weapon is for you: 

Start with foil, and fence it for a year.  Foil will teach you the fundamentals of fencing thought and behavior, which are embedded in its conventions. Year two: add epee, which will hone your timing, point control, and judgement. During this time, shift between epee and foil. Year three: Add sabre. Sabre always comes last. It is the most divergent from the other two weapons. But, here, you can easily integrate the point control of foil and epee into sabre. In this third year, fence all three weapons. At the end of the third year, you will not only have a solid grounding in each discipline, but you will also know which weapon speaks the loudest to you. Unfortunately, many students coming to fencing want instant gratification, and immediately pick the weapon that seems the coolest to them, and many coaches will let them do this.

French School versus Italian

The two traditional schools of fencing are the Italian and French. The Italians began developing systematic fencing systems first during the early 16th century. This, to take the place of armor that was being abandoned in the wake of firearms. The French became serious about establishing their own approach to fencing during the 17th century, chiefly because they liked neither Italian fencing masters, nor their theories of swordplay.

Although today there are structural similarities between the two fighting systems--the Italians having borrowed from the French at the end of the 19th century to establish a more cohesive method of operation--the philosophies of the two remain widely separated by temperament. The Italian system primarily stresses the dynamics of strength, speed, and aggressive manipulation.  To physically dominate opposition is its goal. The French approach, on the other hand, is built on finesse, economy of motion, and strategy. The well-versed French fencer looks for ways around his opponent’s strengths, rather than meeting them head-on. To my way of thinking, this makes the French school more flexible and creative than the Italian, which tends to be more dogmatic. I might also add that the French school, with its non-confrontational approach, easily fits a wider range of physical types and demeanors. This means, you do not have to be the strongest, fastest, or most aggressive fencer in town to win.  

The Point d’Arret

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The question of the value of the point d’arret sometimes come up. When you have the proper spirit and training, fencing is fencing. The best fencing is an internal expression.  What does using that sharp little crown of thorns say about the person using it? I’m a serious fencer? Sport fencers can’t make fun of me?  My soul was forged on a bed of nails? As far as I’m concerned, the point d’arret is a “classical” affectation.  Period. It is no more necessary to excellent fencing than scoring boxes.

My Favorite Movie Duels

I am often asked about fencing in the movies. My fencing master, Ralph Faulkner, was known as “the Fencing Master to the Stars.” He worked with all the greats during Hollywood’s Golden Age: Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Ronald Coleman, and Basil Rathbone. I worked with many actors when I lived and taught fencing in Southern California. I have written about films with fencing in them. It is expected that I know something about swashbuckler films.

My favorite movie duel of all time is from the 1940 Mark of Zorro, between Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone. To me, it is the most balanced and cleanly executed sword fight ever produced. Also, it is carried out without any background music, something of a rarity in filmed action.  But you don’t really notice this lack, because the sharp ring and changing tempo of the clashing blades more than fills the gap.  It is a wonderful sword fight.

Runner up: The final duel between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). If the Zorro duel didn’t exist, I would pick this one. In all other aspects, I think Robin Hood is the superior film.

One more plug: I also recommend the fencing in the French movie, On Guard. It is one of the best modern swashbuckler films I know of. All the sword fights are superior, the story, based on an 1858 French novel, is interesting, and it even has a wonderful, though anatomically flawed, secret thrust. A good movie to own a copy of.

The Sword that Cuts Itself

Nick Evangelista

The Sword that Cuts Itself

By Nick Evangelista

The sword that cuts itself, in Japanese samurai tradition, is a symbolic reference to finding an opponent’s most potent attribute or maneuver and turning it against him, making it his personal downfall.

The sword represents the samurai himself. The cut symbolizes his strongest attribute, as the sharp cutting edge of his sword is its strongest point of reference. When this personal element is undermined and cannot be corrected, it is said that the sword has cut itself. Strength becomes debilitating weakness. The swordsman has caused his own defeat—an excellent strategic principle to remember.

In western fencing lore, we can look back at the classic story of Domenico Angelo versus the infamous Dr. Keys to see this concept in action. Angelo, trained in the traditional French School of Fencing during the 18th century, was a scientific fencer of much renown. Dr. Keys, his adversary, was an unrelenting brute, who relied on muscle alone to see him through. Angelo, instead of meeting his powerful foe head-on, allowed him to thrash about impotently and tire himself out before systematically vanquishing him soundly with ten well placed touches. Certainly Keys had something that worked for him in other encounters: he was, after all, as Angelo’s son Harry described him in his Remembrances (1828), “...reputed the most expert fencer in Ireland.”  But Domenico, still remembered today as one of the greatest fencers of his age, simply turned the good doctor against himself.

In modern fencing, we can find the same sort of opportunities to beat an imposing opponent. We are not talking about romantic legends now. We are simply dealing with observation and intelligence: the Science of Fencing.  When you look at another fencer, and see only a brick wall, you will doubtlessly lose. When you see instead a situation, a trait, an urge, to be exploited, you have found a key to opening locked doors.

Find something that your nemesis does well, and often (if he does it well, he will most likely do it often*), something he relies and counts on, something he expects to beat you with, and turn it against him. How do you do this? Do not react to it, do not try to fight him at his own game. Mold your own response to manipulate his actions. If it is the best thing he does, and suddenly it’s gone, he will be thrown off balance mentally. Encourage his insistence to force his favorite maneuverings to work, and you will overcome him. This is not an impossible feat. Anything anyone does on the fencing strip, no matter how overpowering or unstoppable it may seem, is a sword begging to cut itself.  There is no action that cannot be countered.  You don’t have to make a big production of it either. Sometimes it just means changing some small part of your strategy.

I can give you an example of my own fencing experience:

Once, in a team foil tournament, many years ago, I came up against a fencer who had just easily beaten both my teammates. This individual was tall, fast, and strong, and possessed a long lunge that could catch up to and penetrate the best of retreating defenses, which was how he defeated my partners. This fencer was not complicated in his attacks, but with his aggression, power, and speed, if you ran away from him, he could catch you and force a touch right through your parry. As imposing as he was physically, however, his attack of choice consisted of nothing more than an arcing straight hit. His blade would shoot out, beginning with a high point, and drop down just as it was ready to nail its victim. And, as far as I could tell, this individual never varied from this tack,  most likely because it worked so well for him. Having watched my two teammates fall prey to this basic maneuver as they sought to flee from his attacks, I knew if I followed their strategy, I would be bested by him as well.  So, I came up with an alternative plan to losing….

When this juggernaut attacked me, instead of retreating and opening the distance between us, I stepped forward, closing it. At the same time, I crouched slightly, contracting and lowering my target area, and stop thrusted him for all I was worth. Because of his high point when he attacked me, my advance kept him from fitting his point between us, and from achieving his desired maneuvering distance. His foil tip actually shot right over my head, the side of the blade slapping harmlessly off the top of my mask. Five times he attacked this way, five times I countered him with the same simple move. I beat him five touches to zero.

This athletic fencer never once changed his tactics against me. It may be, based on his stubborn adherence to his one note approach, he had nothing beyond his furious charges to fall back on. On the other hand, having found a winning formula in strength, speed, and aggression, as limited as it was, he was satisfied with his course of action. And, like Dr. Keys, centuries before him, he went on to topple those fencers without the ability to assess and resist a process riddled with weakness.

In the end, to be able to accurately analyze another's strengths, as well as his obvious weaknesses, is vital to a reliable fencing game. Without knowledge, we fence blindly. With knowledge, we may stop the seemingly unstoppable. And, yet, to realize the scope of our own abilities is also of paramount importance. We all do things in fencing from time to time that undermine our efforts. That is being human. Happily, such flubs, by and large, are easy to recognize and fix. They fall like chucks of lead on the fencing strip.  But to be ignorant of the flaws lurking within those attributes we consider our most excellent skills is to foster our future undoing.

It is a fact that the sword that cuts itself cuts both ways.

 

 

* In Behavioral Psychology, there is a concept known as Thorndike's Law of Effect. It states that people will do more of the things they are rewarded for, and less of the things they are punished for. We see this trait exhibited on the fencing strip when someone relies on a particular action or set of actions, to the exclusion of all else, simply because the former possibilities proved initially successful, while the latter did not.

 

 

 

Names and Definitions

Nick Evangelista

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Names and Definitions

By Nick Evangelista

 

Do you know the language of fencing? Can you speak it? Names and definitions? How you translate the fencing information you possess into action will determine how fully you realize your potential on the fencing strip. In psychology, thoughts are considered behavior, because the way you think gives birth to a     physical outcome.  If you believe all the technical stuff of fencing is simply old-fashioned and a waste of time—you just fence to make a touch--then you do not know fencing. If fencing is something you just do, what are you doing?  If you are winning with nothing in your head, you are sadly bouting with individuals who know less than you do.

Fencing is a game of depth and variety. It is an art and a science. If you fence without the knowledge that has been provided to you by centuries of fine tuning, you cut yourself off from the real power of fencing. Worse, you surrender your fate, a fate that could be manipulated like paint on an artist’s brush,   to a cold electronic box that is neither intelligent nor discerning nor wise.  Fencing is more than just poking someone. It is method. It is judgement. It is understanding. It is being on purpose with everything you do. If you do not know the names of actions, and what they mean, how can you possibly conjure them up effectively, if at all, when they are needed?

Every controlled action begins with a thought. Every mindless reaction begins with an emotional knee-jerk reflex. Reflexive behavior is undirected, and it most certainly repeats itself. Therefore, it is predictable. Predictable fencing behavior is easily discerned, and easily taken advantage of by those who think. Moreover, if you can’t communicate with yourself, how can you possibly understand your opponent? If fencing comes down to strength, speed, and aggression, then the strongest, fastest, and most aggressive fencer always wins.  Even worse, if you do an action well, and you don’t know what it was, then you can’t repeat it. If you do something not so well, you can’t eliminate it from your behavior. In a very real way, you become the victim of yourself.  Of course, with no cunning to fall back on, the older you get, the less responsive your younger opponents will be to being beaten.

I have heard young fencers say more than once, “How will we know whose touch it is if we don’t have a scoring box?” I would reply, “You are there.  You do an action. Your opponent does an action. Why are you not cognizant of what has happened?” Ignorance of what you do when you fence locks you into a kind of combative Groundhog Day. You do not improve. You do not gain mastery. Every touch merely snaps you back to ground zero.  And so it goes.

Fencing is more than a running, twisting, poking foot race--a repetitive, pedestrian jousting match--to see who can make the scoring box “sing” its empty approval first. To continually improve as a fencer through one’s life, to move into a more competent future, requires the never-ending processing of information, connecting the dots, knowing how tab A slips into slot B. But this requires an awareness of what ingredients you are putting into your recipes; and the sooner you gain this awareness the better.  I once overheard a fencing teacher tell his student, “I’m going to teach you as little as possible. That way you will have fewer chances to make mistakes.” That person was insane--and an ass. Knowledge is power.

***

Fencing Terms

The following is the information sheet I give every new student who comes to me. Everyone is expected to know what I know. Not all at once, but in time. If you are familiar with everything on this list, I applaud you. If it is all brand new to you, maybe it is time to start learning the basics of fencing.

Foil/Epée/Sabre: The three weapons of modern fencing.

Supination: Palm up.

Pronation: Palm down.

On Guard: The position of readiness—offensively and defensively—in fencing.

Lunge: The action that propels your attack forward.

            Sword arm fully extended from shoulder level.

Blade tip pointing at one’s opponent, parallel to the ground.

Sword hand in complete supination (thumb at 3:00).

Back/rear leg the fencer forward by snapping straight (no stepping).

Back/rear leg completely straight on the end of lunge.

Back/rear foot flat on the ground.

On the end of the lunge, the front knee is directly over the front ankle.

The front foot is pointing straight ahead.

As the back leg straightens, the back/free arm is snapped straight back, palm up.

When the blade hits and bends, it should bend in the direction of the sword hand’s thumb.

Valid Attack: An attack in which the attacker, having begun his attack before his opponent has launched an attack, includes both a completely straight arm and a blade point that is pointing at the opponent’s valid target area.

Lines of Engagement: The body is divided into four quarters called lines. For each line there are two hand positions, one in supination, and one in pronation, that govern the offensive or defensive moves being made. Four supinated hand positions, four pronated hand positions, giving us eight lines in all. The lines have names which are numbers. Prime (1), Seconde (2), Tierce (3), and Quinte are pronated hand positions. Quarte (4), Sixte (6), Septime (7), and Octave (8) are supinated hand positions.

High Line (Dessus): The lines situated above one’s hand guard.  Tierce,  Quinte, Quarte and Sixte are located in the high line.

Low Line (Dessous): The lines situated below one’s hand guard. Prime,  Seconde, Septime, and Octave are located in the low line.

Inside Line (Dedans): The lines closest to one's chest. Quarte, Quinte, Prime, and Septime are located in the inside line.

Outside Line (Dehors): The lines closest to one's back. Sixte, Tierce, Seconde, and Octave are located in the outside line.

Engagement: two blades are said to be engaged when they are touching, or very close together.

Change: Changing the line in which one is on guard.

Target Area: The area of the body which is considered valid for attacking.

Foil: The trunk of the body.

Epée: The entire body.

Sabre: From the waist up, including the head and arms.

Off Target: Those areas of the body deemed invalid for attacking. Touches cannot be scored on these parts of the body.

Touch (Touché): The act of hitting an opponent with the proscribed portion of one’s blade.

Simple Attack: An attack made up of time, speed, and distraction in which the goal is to hit before one’s opponent before they can execute a successful defensive move (parry).

Straight hit: Attacking in the same line in which one is on guard. A direct attack

Degagé  (disengage): Attacking into the opposite line from which one is on guard in, by passing beneath an opponent’s blade. An indirect attack.

Coulé   (running): Attacking by running along an opponent’s blade. A direct attack, with light contact.

Coupé   (cut-over): Attacking into the opposite line from which one is on guard in, by passing over the top of an opponent’s blade. An indirect attack.

Beat: Knocking an opponent’s blade away offensively.

Parry: Knocking an opponent’s blade away defensively.

Lateral Parry: A parry that covers one’s target area in a straight line.

Counter Parry: A parry that covers one’s target area in a circle.

Semi-Circular Parry: A parry that passes from the high line to the low line transcribing a half-circle; or a parry that passes from the low line to the high line, transcribing a half circle.

Composed Attack (Composite Attack/Complex Attack): An attack made up of a feint of an attack (an implied offensive threat made to induce one’s opponent to make a parry), and a deception (evasion/dodging/avoiding) of one or more parries.

One-Two: A feint of disengage, followed by the deception of one lateral parry.

Doublé: A feint of disengage followed by the deception of one counter parry.

The one-two and the doublé are the two basic composed attacks, but composed attacks can be made by joining any attacks—simple or composed—into various novel combinations.

Remise: A continuation of an attack in the same line, after a successful parry.

Redoublement: A continuation of an attack in the opposite line, after a successful parry.

Ideally, a remise or redoublement should be attempted when one’s opponent fails to riposte.

Riposte: A counter attack following a successful parry. Generally, a lunge is not included.

Direct Riposte: A riposte made in the same line following a successful parry.

Indirect Riposte: A riposte made into the opposite line following a successful parry.

Bind: An action that envelopes or angles an opponent’s blade, guiding it away from one’s target area using leverage.

Liement: The offensive version of the bind. It includes a lunge.

Croisé: The defensive version of the bind. A parry and riposte in a single flowing action. No lunge is included.

Stop Thrust (Counter Attack): An extension of one’s blade into an approaching attack. Made ideally against bent arm attacks where an offensive advantage has not been established.

Time Thrust (Counter Attack): An extension into an opponent’s valid attack that both blocks the advancing blade and hits the attacker at the same time.

Priority: In conventional terms, establishing through one’s actions who is the recognized attacker and who is the recognized defender at any given moment on the fencing strip.  The underlying truth of this fencing concept is when you have created a physical advantage over your opponent, you attack; your opponent has established an advantage over you (a disadvantage) you defend. Traditionally, priority is guided by what is referred to as, the logic of the sharp point: do that which will keep you alive; avoid that which will get you killed.

 

Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night

Nick Evangelista

Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night

By Nick Evangelista

 

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

                                                                                 -- Dylan Thomas

 



A remarkable feature of fencing is that it appears to imbue a long and fruitful life onto the active fencer. That is, barring catastrophic intervention.  For instance, there was famed Hungarian master Laszlo Borsody, who was killed in a pistol duel; American fencing champion and Olympian George Calnan, who was killed in a dirigible crash; and the French fencing master Augustine Rousseau, who was guillotined during the French Revolution. The rewards of fencing could do nothing to waylay these unhappy demises. Yet, all things being equal, for those of us not destined to be run over by school buses, hit by meteorites, or eaten by Amazon army ants, there is, through the application of fencing, hope for a lucid and productive antiquity.

There is much circumstantial evidence in the form of very old active fencers and fencing masters to suggest that fencing, if not the fountain of youth, is at least a fountain of not-dead-and-hanging-in-there. We can look back through fencing’s extensive history for numerous examples of the active senior fencer and master.

Sixteenth Century

Maestro Achille Marozzo, fencing master, the first author of note with regard to a unified sword fighting theory, lived well into advanced age. Nineteenth century writer Egerton Castle alludes to this fact in his Schools and Masters of Fence (1885), when writing about another famed master, Salvator Fabris. “Fabris was born in Padua in 1544, and began his profession of arms when Marozzo was teaching in his old age.” In a time of plagues, nonexistent hygiene, and poor dietary practices—not to mention an ever-present opportunity for a quick death on some dark Renaissance avenue—Marozzo’s advanced age was a testament to a robust life following the sword.

Ridolfo Capo Ferro, sometimes known as “the Grandfather of Modern Fencing,” was the leading fencing master of the city state of Siena, in what is now north central Italy. Capo Ferro’s treatise on rapier combat, Gran Simulacro dell’arte e dell’uso della Scherma, publish in 1610, fixed many concepts of present day fencing, such as the lunge, into standard practice. Although little is known biographically of Ridolfo beyond his location and his vocation, we can infer from the portrait of him appearing in his book, that he was a no-nonsense, sturdy, proud man. His age in the 1610 illustration has been set roughly at 52 years, a laudable number of years in such a violent profession. His age when he died has proven rather elusive.

Seventeenth Century

Fencing master and gladiator James Figg, known as the Atlas of the Sword, was a dynamic individual well into his last days. He was the leading prize-fighter of his day, participating in nearly three hundred public contests of sword skill for money. It was said of him, even in his old age, “In him, Strength, Resolution, and unparalleled Judgement conspired to make a matchless master.” When public exhibitions of sword fighting lost favor in the public’s eye, Figg took up bare-knuckle boxing to earn his daily bread.

Donald McBane, a crusty contemporary of James Figg—with a hard life as a soldier, swordsman, and pimp under his belt (and a silver plate in his head)—went on at the age of 50 to become an illustrious prize-fighter. In all, he fought in thirty-seven matches. In his last public appearance, at the age of 63, he thoroughly defeated an opponent a fraction of his age, giving him several severe wounds and breaking his arm. This contest was later immortalized in a ballad. McBane then went on to write a book, The Expert Swordman’s Companion, which doubled as an autobiography and fencing manual.

Eighteenth Century

Famed maître Domenico Angelo, the leading exponent of fencing as part of a healthful and cultured life during the second half of the eighteenth century, and the author of the classic,  L’Ecole des Armes (1763), the most popular fencing book of its age, taught until a few days before his death at the age of 86.

Said to be the greatest fencer of the eighteenth century, The Chevalier Saint-Georges excelled at all that he put his hand to. At once, he was hailed as master swordsman, composer and musician, dancer, horseman, and the champion of all popular sports. Born in Guadeloupe, in the French Indies, Saint-Georges was the son of a rich Frenchman and a black woman known as la belle Nanon. Taken to France at an early age by his father, he was put in the care of the elder La Boiessiere, one of the great fencing masters of that age, to learn the art of the sword as well as the social skills of a gentleman. Saint-Georges followed the way of the sword for most of his life. He died at the age of 66.

Spy, fencer, and transvestite, the Chevalier d’Eon lived to the age of 82. At the age of 60, he engaged in a celebrated fencing match with the famous swordsman, the Chevalier Saint-Georges, who, at the time, was a third his age. Despite being hampered by wearing a dress, d’Eon scored seven strong touches against his much younger opponent.

Henry Angelo, known as Harry, Domenico’s only son, and a successful fencing master like his father, died at the age of 82, after a productive life of teaching fencing. In his latter years, more than any other fencing master, including his father, Harry single-handedly set out to popularize fencing as a sport in England. His small book, with the big title, A treatise on the utility and advantages of fencing, giving the opinions of the most eminent Authors and Medical Practitioners on the important advantages derived from a knowledge of the Art as a means of self defence, and a promoter of health, illustrated by forty-seven engravings (1817), is a testament to his aggressive efforts to bring fencing to the masses.

Nineteenth Century

Modern Olympics founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin was an avid fencer for much of his life. He, more than anyone else, made sure fencing was included in the first Olympic Games in 1896. The baron, a perpetually vigorous man, died at the age of 73.

Author and avid fencer Egerton Castle led an active and creative life, dying at the age of 62. He wrote the celebrated Schools and Masters of Fence (1885), perhaps the greatest fencing history ever produced. He also wrote numerous romantic novels with his wife.

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A fencer from the time of his youth, Sir Richard Francis Burton wrote the scholarly anthropological study, The Book of the Sword (1884), and The Sentiment of the Sword (1911). A prolific author, he also penned his own translations of the Arabian Nights and The Kama Sutra, plus many other books. Burton, who was also a soldier and explorer, said towards the end of his days, “Fencing was the great solace of my life.” He was 69 when he died.

French fencing master Baptiste Bertrand was the most successful teacher of fencing in Victorian London. Moreover, he was the principle arranger of theatrical sword duels for the stage. He also championed fencing for women, at a time when it was still entrenched as a “men only” sport. And, like Domenico Angelo before him, he founded a dynasty of fencing masters that survived for generations. Bertrand, active and teaching to the end of his life, died in his late 70s. 

Alfred Hutton, soldier, writer, antiquarian and swordsman, helped to orchestrate the first English revival of historical fencing in the late nineteenth century. He also wrote a number of fencing-related books. He was active in fencing until his death at the age of 71.

Twentieth Century

Regarded as one of the legends of modern fencing, Cuban Ramon Fonst won gold medals in the Olympics of 1900 and 1904. Beginning his winning ways internationally at the age of 16, he was still reckoned a formidable fencer late in life. He died at the age of 75.

The great Spanish master Julio Castello, involved in fencing his whole life, died at 91. Although old age slowed him down in later years, his interest in the development of young fencers never flagged. Almost to the end, cane in hand, he could be found surveying classes taught by his former students.

Giorgio Santelli, fencing master, duelist, and five-time U.S. Olympic fencing coach, started fencing at the age of 6, and never retired. He was 88 when he died. A few years before his death in 1985, Santelli once noted, “Being my age, I cannot move very fast anymore. But the moment I put a foil in my hand, I start to move. I get a kick seeing myself hopping around.”

Italo Santelli, the father of Giorgio Santelli, was one of the greatest of modern fencing masters. He is credited with bringing various fencing styles into a single method, which, by the end of the nineteenth century, placed the Italians among the best swordsmen in Europe. Then, in 1896, he was asked by the Hungarian government to develop fencing in that country. He agreed, establishing the foundation of the Hungarian school of sabre fencing, which produced the most successful sabre fencers of the twentieth century. Santelli taught in Budapest for almost fifty years, and was knighted by the Hungarian for his efforts. Italo was 74 when he died.

Beppe Nadi, lifelong fencing master, and father of champion fencers Nedo and Aldo Nadi, died at the age of 84.

Hungary produced a number of long-lived fencing masters. Lajos Csiszar was over 90 when he died. Odon Niedekichner died at the age of 82; and Casaba Elthes, at 83. Maestro Elthes once observed, “A good coach is like a good priest. He study until he die.”

Well-known German fencing master Hans Halberstadt, coach of the greatest woman fencer of all-time, Helena Mayer, died at 82.

Belgian Fred Cavens, fencing master at the age of 21, went on to a career as a movie fencing coach and fight arranger in Hollywood, putting together swordplay for films likeThe Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and The Mark of Zorro (1940). Cavens kept active and working almost up to the end of his life, his last job being the 1950s Disney Zorro television series. He died at 72.

Fencing coach Julia Jones Pugliese, founder of the National Intercollegiate Women’s Fencing Association, and never far from fencing, died at the age of 84.

Maestro William Gaugler established the first fencing master training course–the Military Fencing Master’s Program—in the United States, in 1979. This program is credited with revitalizing the traditional Italian School of fencing when it was at its lowest ebb in America. Not only did Gaugler teach fencing, but he fenced well into his 70s. He was also a much respected Archaeologist and author. He died at the age of 80.

Lastly, I look to my own fencing master, Ralph Faulkner. A member of two Olympic teams (1928 and 1932), and a movie fencing coach, Faulkner never relinquished his hold on fencing. At times, it almost seemed like he would live forever. During the 1984 Olympics, he was officially touted as the World’s Oldest Living Olympian, and he spent long hours as a fund-raiser for the U.S. Olympic Committee. He was 92 years old at the time. He just went on and on and on. In fact, he taught right up to a few weeks before he died of a stroke at the age of 95 and ½, with over 60 years under his belt. Faulkner once said of his life in fencing, “How can you retire from something you love? When you do that, you might as well be dead.”

The list of long-lived fencers, of course, doesn’t end here. I have only hit on a few examples. With some extensive research, I could doubtlessly write a book.

Finally

Anyway, in closing this essay, I will add one more tidbit to the mixture of fencing and longevity: my own personal experience as a fencer. After all, this is what sparked my interest in the fencing/age issue in the first place.

After 46 years of continual fencing, at the age of 67, I find myself in the surprising position of being a senior citizen. But I do not feel like a senior citizen, nor do I think of myself as one, even though the Social Security Administration and Medicare have labeled me as such.  I teach fencing, and I fence with my students daily, without hesitation. And I enjoy it.  It is surprising to many of those I teach to find out how old I am. One of my kid students announced, upon learning my age, “You’re older than my grandmother!” I told her, “I always take off my mummy wrappings when I teach, so I don’t trip over them, and break a hip.” Last week, I took a 14 mile walk, just because I was having a slow teaching week due to inclement winter weather, and thought I needed some extra exercise. My blood pressure is generally around 110 over 60. And I have weighed 150 pounds for the last 17 years, without dieting. And not so long also, after a physical checkup by my doctor, he announced happily that he thought I’d most likely live forever--unless I got run over by a pick-up truck. I promised to wear my glasses when crossing streets. So, basically, going into my so-called old age, I am in good shape for any age. By the way, I plan on being the first 100 year old active fencing master. That’ll be one for the Guinness Book of World Records. I only have thirty-three years to go!

Cognitively, I might add, I am still thinking the useful thoughts. Every single day of my life, I have to illuminate the whys and wherefores of fencing for students. I pride myself in being able to explain everything I teach, and why I teach it. I enjoy being put on the spot with questions. Why this, and not this? What does this mean? Where did this come from?  Said the Greek philosopher Pericles, “One who forms judgement on any point but cannot explain it clearly might as well never have thought at all on the subject.” I believe in this statement emphatically.

To me, there is no life without the mind, and no mind without life. By life, I mean a dynamic, persistent, personal interaction with the world. I have long advocated the idea that the real game of fencing goes on between the brain and the hand. It is a subtle blend of the mental and physical that manifests itself between the fencer and his opponent. And herein lies the issue of fencing and longevity. More and more, medical science is finding how the physical and the mental interact and support or hinder one another on a deep cellular level.

Fencing, then, as I see it, is one of those activities that create a powerful bond with the world, promoting health for both the body and the mind through its endless and varied challenges. Each new opponent connects us to the moment. Every attack and every parry demands our best, and tests our will.   Is it any wonder fencing and healthy old age go together? We have no choice, as long as we live, but to keep tacking birthdays onto our resume; but fencing, in its magical demand for our attention, our resolve, our ingenuity, and all our physical possibilities, keeps giving us new pages to write our story on.

In fencing, we have a stepping stone to a life of passion and experience, of creation and challenge. Certainly, in the world, there are many routes to this end. But in fencing, we also find a remedy for old age. In the end, who wants to slip quietly from existence, when you can go out to the sound of clashing swords?

 ***

Do not go gentle into that good night
 

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on that sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

 

 

A Tribute

Nick Evangelista

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William Gaugler: A Tribute

By Nick Evangelista

 

Bill Gaugler was my friend. During his lifetime, he was an esteemed professor of archaeology, specializing in Etruscan history and architecture, a noted fencing master, and the author of a number of respected books, both on fencing and archaeology. As a fencing master, Bill was the leading exponent of the Italian school of fencing in the United States, and the founder of the first fencing master program based in the United States to deal with classical Italian fencing. Moreover, his academy was the only one to have close ties to Europe, through the National Academy of Fencing in Naples, Italy. He may well have been responsible for saving the Italian style of fencing from extinction in this country. When I came to fencing in the 1970s, fencers of the Italian persuasion were few and far between. Today, thanks to Maestro Gaugler’s dedication and resolve, there is a thriving community of fencers and able masters trained in the traditional Italian method populating the American fencing scene.

Bill and I came together as friends in a roundabout way. He was initially a student of the legendary and idiosyncratic Aldo Nadi, one of the great competitors of the early 20th century. Teamed with his brother Nedo, they were Italy’s brick wall in International fencing. I was a student of Ralph Faulkner, former Olympian (1928 and 1932) and revered movie fencing master. Maestro Faulkner, known as the Fencing Master to the Stars, trained the likes of Errol Flynn, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Ronald Colman, and Basil Rathbone during Hollywood’s Golden Age of Swashbuckling.  As it happened, Nadi and Faulkner were arch rivals, and hated each other with a vengeance.  I grew up on stories of what a fraud Nadi was as a fencer, and of his many shortcomings as a teacher. I do not know what Nadi might have said about my master to his students, but he had some cutting remarks for a particular Hollywood-based fencing instructor in his autobiography, The Living Sword, which seemed to be aimed specifically at a Faulkner-like personage. Considering such extreme poles of opposition and dislike, one might easily surmise that William Gaugler and I would never meet in this lifetime, except, perhaps, with drawn dueling swords in hand. But Fate was kinder than either of our masters when it came to friendship.

In 1988, sometime after the deaths of both Ralph Faulkner and Aldo Nadi, I was working on my first book, The Encyclopedia of the Sword, and I needed some technical information that was beyond my resources. From his scholarly reputation in the fencing world, I perceived Maestro Gaugler might be able to help me, so I sent him a long letter describing my situation. A short time later, he replied to my questions, and from there, we began communicating regularly by phone. Bill also ended up writing the foreword to my encyclopedia, something I was always grateful for. Whatever grievances Aldo Nadi and Ralph Faulkner had with one another were immediately and forever buried beneath Bill’s and my friendship. Eventually, our conversations spread out to all aspects of fencing: modern, historical and personal. Our lively phone calls and letters continued for the next twenty-three years, until Bill’s death in 2011.

The following essay dealing with William Gaugler was not written by me. It was penned by another friend of mine--and another Bill--William H. Leckie, Jr., who also shared a friendship with Maestro Gaugler. This Bill, an old Texan, now living in Germany, has the only true traditional fencing school in the entire German republic.  When I first read this piece, I thought it was a wonderful tribute to a much respected fencing master; and so, when Leckie suggested I put it on my webpage, I was more than happy to do so. The following words speak not only of the man but of his ideas. And also, of course, of fencing.

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             Fencing: Art or Science?

 

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William M. Gaugler in his studio. American Artist (June 1965)

 

William M. Gaugler (1931-2011)—a friend of Klassisches Fechten Soest e.V.-- thought quite correctly that fencing was a Renaissance invention, closely associated with Italian Humanism. Many in the fencing world know that he was an archaeologist who investigated the Etruscan civilization of ancient Italy’s Tuscany.

Very few today know how important the Etruscans were to the citizens of Renaissance Florence, the city where he studied 400 years later. Even fewer know that Gaugler was an artist—a painter and sculptor—for whom the ideals and methods of Renaissance art were totally important to the way fencing should be taught and learned. The idea of emulatzione, or striving to equal the best or the classical, was a significant Renaissance virtue, and Gaugler made it his own.

Like the Swiss art historian Jacob Burckhardt, who gave us the idea of the Renaissance with his book Die Kulture der Renaissance in Italien (1860), Gaugler knew that the old humanistische Bildung, or self-improvement by lifelong learning, could not survive in modern mass society. His books, such as the Science of Fencing (1997), and The History of Fencing (1998) an seem to follow a mechanical idea of fencing as the imitation of technique by a master's command. Only in his articles for magazines such as Nick Evangelista'sFencers Quarterly (FQM) did he open a window on a wider, deeper world of fencing and culture.

Gaugler, Rabbit, sgraffito in wax (after Durer). American Artist (1965)

 

The preoccupation with mechanical ideas of fencing as a mass sport on one hand, and historical pretentiousness on the other, did not please him. But how was it possible in modern mass society to get the message out? How can we reconcile fencing instruction standardized by modern mass armies in France and Italy in the late-19th century with the cultivation of individual learning?

Like Gaugler, we think learning—emulazione--is more than just imitating something in the past or the present. It is not a rigid idea of correctness, superficial manners, costumed posturing, mechanical performance, or scoring points on a machine. We think people can learn if given the right opportunity.

To really understand what Gaugler as a fencer meant, one must know what he thought about art, and especially Renaissance art in the tradition of Jacob Burckhardt. Gaugler knew that Klassisches Fechten Soest e.V. was established to openly and aggressively revive the connection between Humanist learning and fencing.

This connection is the background to Gaugler’s ideas about teaching fencing. At his suggestion, an article in FQM about teaching was translated by Constantin van der Osten and published in fechtsport, the magazine of the Deutscher-Fechter Bund. It was originally titled “Fencing and the Teaching of Fencing,” in FQM (2004-05) but appeared as “Meister und Manieren. Eine Frage der Ehre” in the January 2010 issue of fechtsport.

We now offer to those interested another article by him, “The Importance of Method in Art,” which appeared in the magazine American Artist 29 (June 1965) 42-7, 82-3.  The article  was sent a few years ago —as part of their discussions about the meaning of fencing-- by Gaugler to the Klassisches Fechten Soest e.V. director of training. He said then that very few people knew about this part of his thought and life.

The following quotations make clear what he meant: disciplined learning is the groundwork for meaningful self-expression, for emulazione. It is important to notice he says that “it might be generalized that the artist is two separate individuals: the creator and the appreciator.”

This is the sense of self we find in Gaugler’s books and articles.

Readers will see Gaugler’s idea of learning to be an artist by first copying the methods of old masters was expressed in his idea of fencing instruction. Emulazione means going beyond just academic imitation of something hanging in a museum or what we imagine we see in an old fencing book, and requires wide and deep study. It is like die verstehende Wissenschaft (acquiring a sympathetic understanding—Verstehen-- by long study) or science associated with the German thinkers Wilhelm Dilthey and Max Weber.

“It’s always somewhat perplexing to discuss method in art. On one hand you have to enumerate for your listener the steps in a particular process, and on the other you have to keep reminding him that this is merely one way of going about it.” (42)

“Now, practically speaking, there’s little we can meaningfully talk about in art, other than method…..Any attempt to define emotions is apt to end in a fog of adjectives.” (42)

“Originality, then, isn’t jeopardized by a knowledge of traditional methods. On the contrary, this knowledge is the very soil out of which originality develops.” (43)

“Recently I visited the Roman Forum where, lying among a heap of broken marble cornices, I saw one carved with decorative masks. I was startled by their resemblance to the ones Michaelangelo had designed for the Medici Chapel in Florence….No doubt the same motif had already been borrowed by the Romans from the Etruscans, and by the Etruscans from somebody else, perhaps the Lydians or Phoenicians.” (43)

Klassisches Fechten Soest e.V. is affiliated with the Evangelista School of Fencing. Evangelista and Gaugler were friends. The meaning of art for fencing from Gaugler’s perspective can be found in Evangelista’s 1996 The Art and Science of Fencing: “I believe [fencing] is based on something real -- universal principles based on dealing with the way human beings think and move. By mastering the application of these concepts, through long, hard study and practice”—Renaissance emulazione—“a fencing student is led logically to personal control -- first over himself, then over his opponents.”

And that is classical fencing.

 

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Michaelangelo, Night Mask, Medici Chapel, Florence (1519-34).

 

 

 ©2012 Klassisches Fechten Soest e.V.

 

 

Why a Fencing Philosophy?

Nick Evangelista

                  Fencer and sometime philosopher Rene Descartes.

                  Fencer and sometime philosopher Rene Descartes.

Why a Fencing Philosophy?

By Nick Evangelista

 

If, when you read the title of this essay, you find yourself saying, “Fencing philosophy? I don’t need no stinking fencing philosophy—I just hit the other guy!” you have a fencing philosophy. It’s not a good one, but it is a philosophy nonetheless.  Unfortunately, you will find this particular philosophical slant endemic in modern fencing circles. You can see it in the faces of grimacing “champions” as they bellow their bull-ape superiority at the world from the winning fencing strip. Since a philosophical view, in one form or another, is inescapable, having some lucid thoughts on the subject is perhaps a good idea.

A philosophy is a way of seeing the world, and how we see the world informs our interaction with it. Our philosophical perceptions become our road map, guiding our thoughts and behaviors throughout our daily endeavors. Sometimes we fashion our own philosophies, sometimes we adopt the prefabricated worldviews of established philosophers. Some people may only think of philosophers as people without real jobs, or ancient Greeks drinking poison to show their disdain for society, or men sitting around trying to decide whether or not they exist. “I think, therefore I am,” is a good example of this latter type of philosophical reflection.1 But whatever we may think of philosophers, in their quest for truth, they have helped shape the central beliefs of mankind for centuries.

But back to fencing and fencing philosophies.  

As a fencer, just what will having a well-defined philosophy do for you? Well, for one thing, a philosophy will determine both your approach to the fencing process you are following, and how you translate it on the piste. An I-want-to-learn-and-master-this-amazing-art-and-science-for-my-own-personal-growth approach will take you along different lines than, say, an anything-for-a-touch notion of fencing. Your philosophy will, like the tinted lenses in a pair of glasses, color your entire fencing perspective. It will influence all the choices you make throughout your fencing life, everything from what school of thought you follow (i.e.:  Italian, French, or Sport), to your avoidance or worship of the electric scoring box, to sportsmanship and the reliance of skill or cheating and the use of performance enhancing drugs. It will determine how deep or shallow your understanding of the game will be, the level of your attained skill, your personal behavior on the fencing strip, how you handle winning and losing, the length of your tenure in fencing, and how others see you as an athlete. Later, if you become a coach or fencing master, it will determine how many students you help, or how many you turn into raging monsters.  All this from your worldview.

When I began fencing many years ago, my thoughts went no further than I wanted to learn to fence. By that, I mean fence well. That was my only goal.  I was in awe of fencing. To me, it was other-worldly in a magical way. The day I first stumbled across fencing equipment in a Hollywood sporting goods store, I felt like I’d discovered a hidden treasure. I wanted to learn to fence no matter how long it took, or what obstacles or unpleasantness I might encounter along the way. I didn’t set out to win medals, or to become a fencing teacher, or to write books about fencing. These things simply happened. Like an excellent touch, they flowed naturally out of a specific mindset, how I saw fencing. More than anything else, my love of fencing.  I am sure if I had tried to aggressively force the issue and push my way to these ends, I wouldn’t be discussing this subject with you right now. I would have failed, because that is not me, or how I see the world. And in nearly forty-six years, my feelings about fencing have changed very little. I take fencing seriously, and I very much respect fencing. This is at the core of my fencing philosophy. But, in my later years, I also regard fencing as great fun. I enjoy fencing for its multitude of wondrous possibilities. I see it as an art to continually master, a science to explore and re-explore, and, the older I get, as a fountain of youth.

You might look at the above, and say, “Well, forget him. He’s just a classical fencer.” And you know something? You’d be wrong. Please do not confuse what I do with classical fencing. I do not talk like Cyrano de Bergerac or pose like a musketeer. I do not engage in ceremonial artifice that has no meaning in the present. And I do not accept the classical label.  I could not spend 45 years of my life walking around with my nose in the air, like I had Domenico Angelo, full grown, shoved up my backside.  I fence hard. I teach my students to fence hard. Also, do not imagine I am some sort of hybrid sportie. There’s no running, leaping, or contorting in my fencing room.  I teach a thinking game, a controlled game, a practical game, all of which is based on conventional fencing wisdom. However, if you’re not giving it one hundred percent, it’s not fencing. We don’t uses a scoring box, because I want my students to rely on skill rather than artificial crutches to produce discernible touches. To my way of thinking, if you are on the fencing strip, weapon in hand, shouldn’t you know what’s going on? Shouldn’t your opponent know? My goal has always been to create fencers who are aware, fencers who are on purpose.  This is woven into my philosophy as a teacher. And not strangely, when brains are exercised, they excel at defining the moment.  Sometimes mistakes are made, but we accept that in the name of being human. It’s a philosophy that places the responsibility of winning and losing on the shoulders of the individual fencer.2

Over my years in fencing, I have known a zillion fencers, all of whom have had their own distinct philosophies about the nature of fencing, some full of agreeable self-awareness, some not so much, expressed more as primal urges.  The best are always joy to bout with. They are supportive to beginners, and inspiring in both their skill and demeanor. Their philosophy always seems to be: fencing for the sake of fencing. The other type of fencer is another story. As I grew up in fencing I encountered them as visitors to my teacher’s school, and as opponents at tournaments.  There were those for whom fencing was nothing more than a dodge or an ego trip, a way to dominate and control situations and people in a world where they otherwise may have had no real power. This includes both fencers and masters. Others were difficult when it came to the realities of competing: some were angry and argumentative, some fearful and complaining, all of them attempting to substitute the burden of emotional blackmail for real skill. There were cheaters and bullies, and those who never gave the dynamics of fencing a single thought, or even, in their ignorance, realized there was a whole fencing world to be perceived and employed beyond the limited reactive abilities they possessed.

All of these individuals were off-kilter with their doubtlessly unconscious philosophies. I don’t believe one of them enjoyed fencing for its own sake. All I ever saw in their actions was a profound lack of respect for fencing. I never cared to know any of them beyond the occasional bout, but I’d venture a guess that their view of life was as dim as their relationship to fencing. I don’t think any of these fencers had any concept of fencing tradition, history, or manners. Generally, they never lost a bout, because they always had an excuse for their poor performance.3

Today, the lack of philosophical grounding is even more pronounced. One might call it rampant.  Many fencers ignore saluting, refuse to shake hands, argue over touches, display aggressive behavior to judges in an attempt to influence calls, throw tantrums, and generally engage in all sorts of unorthodox nonsense to make a touch. I have the feeling that, to their way of thinking, fencing did not, in fact, exist before they chose to honor it with their presence, and so everything is fair game for their inspirational interludes. I see this sad behavior in many of the present generation of kid fencers.4

My students come to me with questions about unusual fencing they see on the internet.  They say, “What is this? What is that?” I tell them, “If it doesn’t have a name, don’t touch it.” To my way of thinking, if you respect fencing, you take the time to learn to fence to the very best of your ability. This makes you the best fencer you can possibly be. That has been the goal among the serious of all disciplines for centuries.

Without a real philosophy, fencing simply descends into the single-minded acquisition of the designated meaningless “somethings” before somebody else gets them first, because that, according to modern sensibilities, is what winning is about. To get more or the most is an established mantra of our time.  The question is, for today’s fencer, do you want to learn to really fence or count beans?  The philosophically-friendly mind says, learn to fence well, and the touches will take care of themselves. Quality leads to quantity.  A sound philosophy, then, provides a positive point of reference.

In the end, having a healthy philosophical sense provides the fencer with all the tools he or she needs to form a foundation for a lasting and satisfying attachment to fencing, allowing anyone to weigh and judge and explain those foreign or questionable things that may be pushed on them by others. Philosophy is not consensus, nor is it the loudest, most insistent voice; but it can provide a successful buttress against oppressive, overwhelming opposition. Knowing where you stands in a storm gives anyone the ability to find firm, reliable footing. Today’s traditionally-minded fencer needs that.

 

1            Interestingly, Rene Descartes, the Frenchman who uttered those famous words during the 17th Century, also fenced in his youth. He once wrote a friend, confessing that he was enjoying fencing so much, he was neglecting his studies. By the way, I have taken Descartes’s aforementioned statement, and refashioned it for my fencing students, to remind them of one of fencing’s great necessities: “I parry, therefore I am—still.” Philosophies can also be practical, as well as speculative And just so you know, this reworking of Decartes is mine, and it is copyrighted. © Sorry! If you want to make T-shirts, you have to pay me.

2            Interestingly, the fencing world doesn’t seem to know who I am. Historical fencers call me a sport fencer, sport fencers call me a classical fencer, and classical fencers call me a modernist. I call myself a traditionalist, because, in my fencing philosophy, I am driven by traditional human values.

3            The great fencer Aldo Nadi once said, “The fencing strip is the mirror of the soul. Unerringly, it portrays the character of the individual."

4            The Federation Internationale d’Escrime (FIE), the world organization governing fencing, has had meetings to discuss the breakdown of etiquette in modern fencing. This from the minutes of the International Fencing Federation 86th Ordinary Congress Madrid, Spain, 24 and 25 November 2007: The President of the FIE, René Roch: “…..We have got used to not saluting at all, and we have since been able to make the fencers salute. If we also ask them on top of that to place themselves on guard in the middle of the piste before saluting, it is going to be difficult. We will succeed, but it will be a long process. It is not something that will happen overnight as old habits die hard…..” Nancy Anderson (USA): “Mr. President, I understand why we want there to be order in our sport, but I think the emotion, the joy from winning and to be able to express emotions, we do not leave this expression (sic) . Sometimes, with the television, they want to see the joy of the winner and the sadness of the loser. With this situation, we will lose some of these expressions….I believe that we must not forget that it is a sport; there is a winner and a loser, and it is important to see their emotions…..”René Roch: “We are not going to discuss this here. We have different positions regarding ethics. I understand you do not have the same ethics as others. I do not have the same ones either…..” The FIE also has an ongoing concern with the use of performance enhancing drugs.

 

 

The Fire: A Story

Nick Evangelista

The Fire: A Story

By Nick Evangelista

There once was a young, aspiring fencer who had an opportunity to demonstrate his skill before a renowned maestro. Giving his fencing his most heartfelt effort for over an hour, the young man paused at last for the master’s hoped-for approval.

“Well, how was I?” he implored. “Was I good?” If he was given the encouragement he desired, he would dedicate his life to fencing. In time, he hoped to become a great competitor, a national champion, maybe even an Olympian.

The old man, who had sat quietly and impassively during the bout, looked squarely at the novice swordsman and, with a shrug, announced, “You lack the fire.”

The fencer was crestfallen. He rushed away, sold his equipment, and immediately found employment with a large corporation. He forgot about fencing.

A number of years later, the former fencer, now the president of his own successful company, ran into the very old fencing master at a society function.

“You changed my life,” the businessman declared. “I was crushed when you told me I’d never fulfill my life’s ambition in fencing, but I finally accepted it. Today, because of what you said to me, I am a man of business instead of a man of the sword. But tell me, Maestro, how could you tell so easily and quickly that I lacked the fire?”

“Oh, I hardly watched your fencing,” the venerable master explained. “That’s what I say to everyone who fences for me—that they lack the fire.”

The businessman staggered back, barely able to comprehend what he’d just heard. “What?  How could you do that to me?  Perhaps I could have been a great champion, a master, one of the luminaries of the fencing world.”

The old man shook his head.

“You don’t understand. If you’d had the fire, really had it, so that it burned inside you with an unquenchable passion, you would have paid no attention to what I said to you. You’d have stuck with fencing, no matter what. You’d have proven me wrong. But you gave up the first time your dream was challenged. You, young man, answered your own question.”

“Oh,” said the former fencer.

The secret of all success is now before you.

 

From Nick Evangelista’s The Art and Science of Fencing

 

Graduation Day?

Nick Evangelista

Graduation Day?

 

By Nick Evangelista

 

Some time ago, I heard a sad thing regarding fencing: that a certain element in the world fencing community was lobbying to allow ear phones to be allowed for fencers—so that their coaches would be able to direct their actions from a distance via headphones. Coaching from the sidelines of a fencing strip has not, in the past, been permitted, although it happened; so, the rationale here is that if a coach is sitting somewhere in the stands directing his fencer, then it isn’t “sideline coaching,” and it would, hence, be ok. The question then becomes, why would the close proximity of someone's coach to a piste be frowned upon? Is it due to proximity or ethical principle? Is it the idea that coaching next to the strip is simply distracting for the fencers involved in a bout, or is it that a fencer, once trained, should be responsible for his or her own fencing behavior while competing? I do know that in college, if someone obtains answers during a test on any electronic device, it is called cheating. What modern fencers might call such coaching “innovations,” I have no idea. But, to my way of thinking, a teacher engaging in this sort of bout interference would be nothing more than a puppet master pulling technological strings. It seems typical of modern fencing to entertain such “enlightened” ideas.  

 

I don’t know where this bit of electric nonsense stands today, but I hope it is dead and gone. If not, it should be.  If a fencer does not learn to think, if he is just following orders, he is merely a zombie going through the motions. Thinking is a skill that must be both encouraged and practiced or it never materializes.

 

Yet, despite the potential for stunting the mental growth of a fencer, some coaches actively encourage student dependence. Don’t leave anything to chance. Don’t leave strategy and tactics up to a mere student. When winning is number one on the hit parade, thought requires the professional touch. Winning isn’t just a job well done anymore. It is self-aggrandizement, control, reputation, and financial gain. Many students will accept this arrangement of subservience, because winning in any context is more acceptable than the alternative. Modern society designates winning as everything. Losing is loss of face, weakness, a fall from grace, social death.

 

Winning, of course, is a goal. Within a given competitive setting it allows the fencer to momentarily gauge his or her developing proficiency. Obviously, a fencer who never scores a touch in a bout is experiencing some difficulties that need to be addressed. And yet winning is not the only thing fencing is about.

 

Neither is the teaching of fencing only about creating “winners.” When beating opponents is the only focus of fencing—in either competition or teaching—fencing is reduced to its lowest common denominator: ego. What then, one might ask, from a standpoint of teaching, is the purpose of the fencing master/teacher/coach if it is not to spew champions, like an active volcano, onto the competitive landscape?

 

I would say that the first and foremost task of the fencing teacher is to impart knowledge and shape skill, and to help the fencer internalize the fencing process so that it becomes irrevocably part of his nature, thereby assisting him in realizing his true potential.  This then transforms the raw student into a thinking fencing entity.  The true task of the teacher, therefore, is to make himself redundant for his charge. Ultimately, the trained fencer should become an independent agent on the field of play. This has a doubly important result because as the student is transformed into a fencer, absorbing fencing into his mind and body, he also becomes an excellent fencer. He observes, he thinks critically, he determines, he acts with resolve. He creates his fencing, as opposed to simply reacting to circumstances. He does not settle for accident. He knows why and why not. He is on purpose. At this point, winning becomes a by-product of his developed talent. This is what the master should be setting into motion. Well, this is what the teaching of fencing was once about, when fencing was looked upon as an accomplishment, instead of a result.

 

My own teacher, to the end of his days, taught fencing as an acquired art. He expected you to listen to him, to respect and respond to his words; and yet, when you walked onto the fencing strip and came on guard, the rest was up to you. You rose or fell on your own merit. And, the funny thing was, even when you didn’t win, you learned something, and grew as a fencer. You were able to take experience, feed it into your personal processing center, and create a stronger, more resourceful fencing self. After a bit, the Maestro would add some choice tidbits of advice to round out the picture, or to connect a few wayward dots. In the end, it was about learning to stand on your own two feet.

 

Many of my teacher’s students went on to become teachers of fencing themselves. They actually had something of value to impart to others. I would not be writing these words today if I hadn’t been allowed to become an autonomous thinking fencer.

 

On the other side of the coin, the saddest thing in fencing, to me, is the student who refuses to move away from the master’s shadow, perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of laziness, perhaps out of blind obedience. It is much safer to just keep asking questions—often the same questions over and over--rather than to force one’s self to observe and reason out answers with sovereign resolve. And, yet, it true that one who continually receives answers without effort never truly understands. Words mean little when the sense of personal revelation and experience is absent. It is a shame, too, because the joy of discovery and acquisition is one of fencing’s most lasting rewards. Moreover, the fencer who shuns the opportunity to one day become self-regulating, for whatever reason, shirks the responsibility to maintain truths hard won over the centuries. To live as brain-dead, following fads and parroting officially established folly, or chanting a guru’s binding litany--and questioning absolutely nothing--is a fencing sin.

 

In the end, a teacher who does not allow his students to become independent is not a teacher at all, any more than a fencer who cannot think is a real fencer. From this concept, if we accept it, we are faced with one inescapable fact: a fencing that is built on a foundation of domination and dependence is inherently bankrupt. The future of fencing does not depend on the accumulated wins of any individual or individuals. It depends on the inherent truth of the system. Fencing’s tomorrow, beyond the contortions and shrieking of modern champions, rests solely on the knowledge and skills of proficient masters and students who are able to carry their legacy of fencing know-how successfully forward. Only thinking fencers can keep the essence of fencing alive. But this isn’t just true of fencing. This is the way of all human endeavors. It takes only one generation of rampant ignorance to lose the accumulated wealth of centuries.  

 

Learn, grow, do, and question everything. Wishful thinking and magical thinking are never enough.

No Heroes

Nick Evangelista

No Heroes

 

By Nick Evangelista

I have no heroes.

 

It would be easy to say something like, “Oh, Mother Teresa was an inspiration to me!” or “I have based my life on the teachings of Woodrow Wilson.” But defining your life by some other person is the easy way out. I admire people, but I don’t put them on pedestals.  I appreciate individuality and creativity and the heroic endeavor. But I wouldn’t want to be anyone but myself.

 

I have always felt that we should be our own heroes, to follow our own unique paths, and really live our own lives, to say, I did that! We can’t be other people, and we can’t live our lives through others. Too many people try to do that today. We get caught up in the Cult of Celebrity, famous people we both love and resent at the same time.  I can’t imagine following the daily in’s and out’s of any well-known person, who's cheating on whom, who's getting a new tattoo.  I have known a couple famous people in my life, and, for the most part, they were just people.

 

Much better to experience and explore our own lives fully. This can be scary, of course. Life leaves bruises. We make mistakes. We leave skid marks on the pavement. But we get up, and move ahead. The Ancient Romans had a saying, Magnae res non fiunt sine periculo, “Great things are not accomplished without danger.” This is a challenge to come out swinging. A life brimming with passion and experience is the truest testament to being alive.

 

I have found fencing to be my life’s passion, and everything in my life, good and bad, has come out of this. There is nothing we can do that doesn’t have its built-in pitfalls. But to do, to test ourselves, to learn, to become more than we were when we came into the world, that is something.

 

Learn a skill.

 

Travel.

 

Save a life.

 

Write a book that changes the world.

 

Love someone who will stay in your heart forever.

 

Take chances.

 

In the end, our life’s experiences are the only things we truly possess. Everything else is just stuff. Stuff comes and goes. Museums are full of other people’s stuff.

 

Do not go quietly into the night. Be your own hero.

 

Democracy, Disrespect, and the Rise of Instant Experts

Nick Evangelista

Democracy, Disrespect, and the 

Rise of Instant Experts

 

By Nick Evangelista

 

Once upon a time, when I was taking an upper level medieval history class in college, a student sitting right next to me made a disparaging remark about the eminent cleric and medieval historian Bede, lauded as one of the greatest intellects of 6th century Europe. The student categorized him as a “superstitious primitive” because he believed in miracles. The history professor, himself a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship grant recipient and respected expert on Medieval France, stared at the student for one long moment, and then said slowly, “And by what authority do you make this pronouncement?” The student was stopped  in his tracks. “I just feel ….”  The teacher interrupted him. “ “What you feel means nothing to history. By what authority do you disparage Bede?” The student had no answer.

 

So, what exactly did the professor mean by “By what authority …”? In point of fact, he was pointing out in no uncertain terms that the student’s opinion had absolutely no weight behind it, because the student had nothing to support his position.  Neither facts, nor education, nor expertise, nor research, nor recognition as a scholar were in his corner.  He was a student. Not that students aren’t allowed to make valid observations, but they should always be made from the standpoint of being a student, as opposed to an assertion made by a fully qualified individual. There is no democracy of ideas in scholarship. Nor should there be.

 

The student was, in fact, a loud-mouthed jerk, and so the professor’s remark actually did little to slow him down through the rest of the semester. As it often happens with jerks, this student was so full of his own self-importance, he had little room for facts, or a recognition of true knowledge or achievement. He was, as the 17th century fencing master Sir William Hope would have said, an ignorant.

 

This, of course, leads us straight into … fencing.

 

Hierarchy and Respect

In fencing (at least the traditional fencing I grew up in over four decades ago), as in other disciplines, there is a hierarchy. There is the master and there is the student. To be a master sets one apart from the rest of the herd. There are also lesser teachers of fencing, but even these are still students aspiring to higher levels of learning which will render their instruction more complete.  Modern fencing has designated other levels of “being in charge,” but these are not important to this discussion.

 

At one time, in fencing, the concept of “master” would have been understood by students and would have been respected without question.  To dedicate one’s life to the learning of and teaching of fencing was the mark of a remarkable individual.  A student, then, would never pit his understanding of fencing against the master’s. First, this would have been a blatant display of disrespect, and would have been condemned by the fencing community. Second, any self-respecting student would have been too embarrassed to even suggest he/she knew more than a master.

 

Today, unfortunately, where apparently the mere winning of a medal bestows “expertise,” hierarchy is given little regard. Perhaps, in a politically-correct world it is offensive to suggest that this person is in some way “better” than that person. Also, to accept mastery in another may place the mark of inferiority on one’s self. Besides, masters and hierarchies speak of other times and old-fashioned concepts, things out of step with modern life. Today, we have pundits, critics, commentators, reviewers, and those who tweet. Be that as it may, fencing needs mastery and it needs respect.  It needs these things as binding forces to counter the effects of “anything goes,” because, when fencing can be anything anyone wants it to be—and it often is--it instantly becomes nothing. It is close to that now.

 

A question: Is respect in fencing even taught or required anymore? Many fencers no longer salute, or shake hands after a bout. Fencers are blatantly hostile to or scornful of directors and judges.  Tantrums are common, as are childish victory displays. Is it any wonder that respect is in such short supply?

 

Fencing is a unique activity. But in many ways it simply mirrors the greater environment in which it resides. The foibles of our modern social structure infiltrate the fencing world. The mindless pursuit of success at any price, the fast-food mentality of instant fencing, the worship of the superficial, all traits of society at large, are to be found in present day fencing, and, for us, are magnified because we constantly hold these failings up to  fencing’s  traditional values -- which are based on the logic of the sharp point -- and find them wanting.

 

Those who accept these lesser values, of course, are in opposition to tradition. Tradition, to them, is old fashioned. Tradition is a roadblock to fencing’s “ever-changing evolutionary process.” Tradition, for them, is meaningless. They hold no respect for ideas gleaned from a time when sharp points provided fencing with its conventions, and they hold no respect for those who espouse traditional ideals. That one approach has a given meaning in context with the cause and effect of a sword fight, and the other is merely a manipulation of electronic devices doesn’t faze them. “That is what fencing is now!” is the usual reply. The understanding of the implication of one’s actions, one’s behavior, has no bearing on the matter. Fencing has somehow evolved from earlier times, the saying goes. But let’s get one thing straight, change does not necessarily denote progress. A cancer cell changes from a normal cell, but no one would suggest, once diagnosed with cancer, that they were evolving into a higher life form.

 

But one does not respect what one does not understand. In a world where everything is relative, and consensus of opinion makes things so, mastery means nothing to a fencing community where “I made the light go on the scoring box!” is looked on as the main criteria for excellent fencing. To one who cannot reason otherwise, a bent-arm attack is just as efficient and valid as one with a straight-arm. It has been argued in some fencing circles that the free arm in fencing has no bearing on balance. And yet, in circles where the free arm is not employed, knee and ankle injuries are endemic. Fencers are apparently just pulled to the ground randomly by gravity spikes. Or maybe they fall down because they are off balance.

 

Society, Equality, and Mastery

Society conditions us to think that everyone has a right to their say. “Freedom of speech” and “Constitutional rights” go together like bacon and eggs, night and day, Abbott and Costello.  How can anyone criticize something that is a Natural Right, as defined by the eminent 17th century English empirical philosopher John Locke?1

 

I will do that now.

 

All men may be born equal under the eyes of God, but somewhere along the way, some achieve a higher level of mastery in certain areas of life than others. This achievement should be recognized by all for what it is. Mastery does not come without effort. There is a difficult rite of passage that must be trod. But respect isn’t always forthcoming. Many are unable to recognize true achievement; others don’t care to.  Either way, there is no respect to be shown for simple mastery, especially if it opposes someone’s personal views about fencing. The rite of passage to attainment is not always understood. Someone’s “sacred” opinion, in the world of democracy, becomes just as valid, just as important, as the real knowledge gained through years of hard work. Opinion, generally emotional and without insight, should not be mistaken for knowledge; but it often is.

 

An opinion voiced with resolve is the battle cry “I’m just as good as you are!” If one examines the source of this utterance and finds it lacking, the obvious reply is, “No, sorry, you are not.”  If an individual truly understands the reality of mastery, one also understands to gauge one’s remarks to his or her level of understanding. These would be called questions. In today’s world this gift of insight is a rare thing.

 

Internet Access and Opinion

The Internet is a great warehouse of and supporter of disrespect, when it comes to fencing, anyway. Well,  actually when it comes to everything under the sun. At one time in the history of presenting one’s ideas, one had to have some level of expertise on a topic to have one’s ideas aired in public. One had to actually convince someone who was in a position of authority to take their ideas and display them before the world. This might have been an editor, a publisher, a board or committee, an investor, a patron, whatever. But the Internet has changed all that. The Internet is very democratic. It will accept, without question, anything.  Now, anyone and everyone has access to an electric soapbox, via the Net, and opinions are aired openly and easily, without regard to their veracity. Anyone can forcefully voice an opinion, no matter how ill-informed or ignorant they might otherwise be. Find a online chat room, fencing or otherwise, and it will be rife with ignorance and disrespect.

 

Why so much vehemence? Here is one thing we know from the study of biological anthropology: when monkeys are afraid of something, they climb to the safety of the highest trees in the forest, and throw their own fecal matter down at the object they fear. Likewise, when people are confronted by a whatever that somehow threatens them, they retreat to the security of their computer, and let go with verbal equivalents of excremental monkey business.

  

For my own part, I have been the subject of numerous Internet “discussions” over the years. Some of these, most of these, are not complimentary. I am used to this. When you are in the public eye, you have to develop a thick skin.  I use myself as an example, then, not to complain, but to show the ease by which those who should not be making fencing-related observations, do. Those with time on their hands can be very “expert” from computer keyboards in the safety of their own homes. 

 

One chat site I came across by accident actually devoted about 35 pages of conversation to the topic of “Nick Evangelista knows nothing about fencing.” There was no substance to the conversation. The attacks were purely ad hominem.2 One individual went so far as to state that he’d seen me in a tournament in Los Angeles in 1983, and that that I hadn’t even gotten out of the preliminary bouts. This was an interesting observation considering I’d retired from all competition in 1978. But one can say what one wants on the Internet, and who will contradict the remark? Every small fencing mind becomes an expert. Every unsupported observation becomes a gem of fencing wisdom. There is a strong lack of critical thinking to be found in these sage circles.

 

Book review sites are common places for individuals to air their ideas. The following are typical negative reviews, in this case from beginners:

 

For the record, I am an intermediate sports fencer with a great appreciation for classical fencing. My first coach used to annul points in class if she felt they weren't proper hits. Also, I fence foil and epee with a french [sic] grip. As much as I want to like this book, I find less and less reason to go back to it. A HUGE part of it is taken up by Evangelista's personal  hatred of pistol grips ….3

 

We can stop here. Actually, if you combine all my references to pistol grips in The Art and Science of Fencing  together, they would fill one page out of 288. 4

 

A review of The Inner Game of Fencing was based on “democratic spirit” and “consumerism” (but not fencing knowledge):

           

Ok, I am a new fencer, and a novice being critical of someone as famous as Nick Evangelista may seem a bit out of line at this stage of my career. However, I did buy the book and did read the book, and I suppose in this great American republic, that qualifies me to review his work. I found Mr. Evangelista's book to be a series of essays regarding his philosophy of fencing. The essays, are for the most part ungrouped by theme or topic, and tend to take on a tone that could only be described as a bitter rant. 5

 

People will see what they want to see, especially if they are ill-equipped to judge what they are reading.  I might add,  I did, in fact, group the essays by theme.

 

Finally:

 

I am an admittedly novice fencer, having taken up the sport only a year or so ago. I came across this book on Amazon and was amazed at the wildly divergent reviews of Mr. Evangelista's tome.  The purist in me agreed with some of his views on classical fencing - his unapologetic bias towards the French grip versus the pistol grip, his dismissiveness {sic} regarding the use of speed and strength in favor of proper technique, and the recommendation that beginners learn foil before other styles of fencing. (I tend to be a purist on many sporting matters: baseball and football to be played on real grass, no designated hitter in baseball, playing basketball as a team, rather than individual sport, and using wound-core - instead of solid-core - golf balls.) Mr. Evangelista does tend to be bombastic - although he tells you that he is, up front. Simply put, he openly acknowledges his biases in favor of "classical fencing".6

 

Agreeing with me in “spirit,” the novice then goes on to wage a personal attack on me rather than addressing any real fencing issues. This type of stuff is typical of fencers schooled in the ignorance of modern fencing. Their refrains are based not on fencing but on feelings.

 

Another feature of the Internet attacker is his generally faceless quality. Many times, these individuals will hide behind a computer name or no name at all. At other times they may use their real names, but will tactfully leave their e-mail address off their reviews, so that they can’t be contacted.  One ends up asking once again the main thrust of this editorial: “What expertise do these individuals possess that allows them to judge anyone? ”

 

Such judgments are offered unsolicited, and accepted and preserved by non-judgmental sources. Authoritative statements are never questioned, and the skills and experience (or lack thereof) of those who utter them never enter into the equation. Obviously, these folks don’t recognize their own lack of experience is an impediment to making valued verdicts. The Constitution of the United States gives them the right to speak, and so they do. Their lack of fencing etiquette, respect for authority and experience, allows them to express themselves in any way they wish. There was a time, of course, when no one would have listened to them.

 

A Study of Ignorance

So, why are criticism and hostility so easily forthcoming from individuals who should obviously be recognized by themselves as the least fit to offer expert comments? In a 2003 psychological study, titled “Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence,”8 researchers David Dunning, Kerri Johnson, Joyce Ehringer, and Justin Kruger, found that many individuals regularly over-estimated their own abilities in matters of judgment simply because they lack basic the self-awareness to recognize their own personal deficiencies. The problem, then, becomes a self-perpetuating one of ignorance feeding on itself. The study concludes that if people are devoid of the skills they need to produce correct answers, they are also cursed with an inability to realize when their answers, or anyone else’s, are right or wrong. They therefore “cannot recognize their responses as mistaken, or other people’s responses as superior to their own.” If we apply these findings to the subject under discussion, we can see that incompetent fencers do not recognize that they are incompetent to make any kind of fencing judgments, and only do so because they don’t know any better.

 

Conflict

There may be other motivating factors involved in this matter. One theory prominent in psychology, called cognitive dissonance,9 suggests that confronting a specific reality that conflicts with one’s own experience may be extremely threatening to many people.  It creates an emotional response that demands action. An individual will often resolve the emotional distress they are feeling simply by rejecting the messenger out of hand, rather than dealing with the issue of whether the messenger is correct or not. This resolves the problem without any possible threat to the individual. It also explains how hostility manages finds its way into fencing exchanges that should be based on logic and reason.

 

Conclusion

It is too bad when fencers are unable to recognize that they are students and masters are masters. The fencer may not realize that no matter how many medals they might have won that they are still not fit to impart fencing knowledge.  It is also true today that fewer champions than ever before are becoming masters of the art. Why is this? The most obvious conclusion is that they are not competent to teach. The teaching of fencing and competing in tournaments are two different animals. Simply because you can make a light flash on a scoring box does not qualify you to expound on the intricacies of fencing. Until the fencing community at large recognizes this, we will continue to see the spirit of fencing diminished by the ignorant. This is not a good thing, even if they don’t know any better.

 

 

End Notes

1 John Locke (1632-1704). Sometimes referred to as “the Father of the American Revolution” because of his views on human rights.

2  ad hominum: attack the man, not his ideas.

3 Amazon.com, The Art and Science of Fencing, by Nick Evangelista.

4 I checked.

5 Amazon.com, The Inner Game of Fencing, by Nick Evangelista.

6 Amazon.com, The Art and Science of Fencing, by Nick Evangelista.

7 I never tell anyone I am being bombastic in The Art and Science of Fencing. The word “bombastic” means, “Characterized by important sounding but meaningless language”. Why would I say that?

8 Dunning, D., et al, (2003). Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence, Current Directions in Psychological Science,  12,(3), pp 83-87.

9  The theory of cognitive dissonance suggests that people seek to relieve the discomfort associated with the awareness of inconsistency between two or more of one’s cognitions (beliefs or bits of knowledge). Gray, P. (1999). Psychology (3rd Edition), Worth Publishers.