On Becoming an Anachronism
By Nick Evangelista
I have spent the last forty-five years of my life becoming an anachronism. Webster’s New World Dictionary defines an anachronism as, “Anything that is or seems to be out of its proper time in history.” I am a fencing master. Fencing is the passion of my life. Fencing is my reality, my truth. I’d rather fence than eat. Fencing, in one form or another, has been the focal point of my existence for over two thirds of my life. But, for all that, swords are not part of our everyday accessories (unless we live in the Highlander world). Swords are part of humankind’s days of yore. That puts me strikingly out of sync with modernity.
Being an anachronism, then, comes with the territory in fencing. I teach an ancient art and science, grounded in needs that are no longer part of the human condition. Fencing is from another time, another place, another everything. Imagine a mist covered field in Louis the XIV’s France, two swordsmen coming on guard in a duel to the death, their seconds standing by in watchful anticipation; or maybe a shadowy eighteenth century London alleyway, swords flashing in the dim lantern light as one man desperately fends off two masked robbers. These are the things we conjure up when we think of sword fighting, not the glass, steel, and concrete sterility of the 21st century. Fencing’s purpose, once upon a time, was to allow men to kill one another efficiently with swords. To hit and not be hit, is the age-old premise of fencing. But people don’t need swords today to kill one another. We have guns, cars, drugs, designer germs, and bombs. We are so much more civilized than the denizens of past ages.
So, why have I devoted my life to such a seemingly useless activity? Why would anyone in their right mind pick something like fencing to base a life on? Why not choose to be a doctor, a mechanic, a greeter at Wal-Mart, or a politician?
For myself, I think I was born with the image of fencing in my brain. As far back as I can remember, there was the siren’s whisper of the sword beckoning me. I just knew that one day I would learn to fence. Where did that come from? Some people would say it was a calling. Others might defer to reincarnation. Some dower types dressed all in black might mutter, fate, fate, fate. Others, less kind, have suggested what I do is simply a bizarre compulsion, fixable through medication. I just say, ok. Fencing is part of me, inside of me. It’s what I do, who I am. My grandmother once asked me, “When are you going to learn it all so you don’t have to go back anymore?” She was very supportive.
But, beyond that--beyond being guided by Satan, or having a problem with substance abuse--what is it about fencing that attracts and never lets go of those who get bitten by the urge to participate in this relic of the past? A fencer might fence for sixty years, and never tire of it. Sometimes only death separates us from the art. My own master taught fencing until two weeks before he died, at the age of ninety-five and a half. I plan to be the first 100 year old practicing fencing master. I only have thirty-four years and eleven months to go.
So, again, back my initial the question: Why? Why fencing?
I would suggest, to begin with, superficially, perhaps, there is the romance of it all. Romance! We have it in us to see life through our heart. Fencing hits on an emotional level that drives us beyond thought. Some fencers are born romantics, searching for a link with a past full of heroes and brave deeds. In a way, fencing turns us into time travelers. Thoughts of musketeers and knights circulate through fencing brains like blood through arteries.
Too, there are traditions in fencing that tie us to an age-old brotherhood that spans the ages. This is a strong lure: to belong. It is where many fencing students begin their quest. Some might call it an escape from the present, but I think of it more as embracing an enriching ancient legacy. The day I first came across fencing equipment in the back of an old sporting goods store in Hollywood, California, in 1969, I felt I had found an incredible treasure. Actually, I had.
Then, there is the exciting physical reality of fencing, its insistent antagonistic challenge to our physical nature and our inner feelings. From day one, fencing immediately questions our bodily and psychological limitations. We know intellectually that these weapons we hold in our hand are harmless; but emotionally, we have much to overcome on the fencing piste. In the heat of combat, we may forget those behavioral parameters we seek to observe, and plunge headlong into fear and mindless reaction. This is a weakness that becomes predicable and exploitable. To gain control over knee-jerk impulses and to operate with measured efficiency and judgment, to be on purpose under fire, to make the sword—in the guise of a foil, epee, or sabre--a living extension of ourselves, is our goal. First, we learn to control us; then we learn to control our opponents. That is the order of our mastery. Within designated limits – there is implied violence, but no one is hurt, no one dies – we seek to uncover what is best in ourselves on many levels. Fencing is a vehicle to this end.
We understand the outcome of our reactions and responses against one idea: what if these weapons were sharp? There is a Latin saying that pertains to fencing: In ferro veritas, which, simply put, means, “In the sword is truth.” You find out much about yourself, and others, on the fencing strip. Aldo Nadi, one of the great fencers of the early 20th century, once observed, “The fencing strip is the mirror of our soul.” If ever there was a gauge to measure human possibilities, like a thermometer reads temperatures, fencing would be that device. There is much satisfaction in the crystal clear perceptions fencing brings to the fencer, of understanding, of doing, of accomplishing when the situation demands it. There are moments of excellence one never forgets. It is our ultimate goal to make ourselves the weapon. To be aware on the fencing strip is to be aware in the world.
Fencing has been nicknamed Physical Chess. In the simplest way, this translates into focused thought being acted upon assertively. Fencing is an obvious display of motor responses, and this is what impresses people; and yet, ironically, it is the mind game that endures and sustains the fencer over time. Even as age diminishes physicality, a trained fencing brain can continue to map out an effective approach to even the most adamant opposition. This keeps fencing accessible late into life to those who think. I am a better fencer now than I was at twenty-five. I have learned to out-think my opponents, rather than meet them on their own, generally physical, terms. The opportunity to remain continually relevant and competitive in a culture that is decidedly youth oriented is, I think, one of fencing’s greatest benefits.
I began fencing as an awkward kid, the same as thousands of other fencing students stretching back over lifetimes. I was nothing special. I showed no genius. I was not a born fencer. But I applied myself. I invested more of myself into fencing than the average student, so I reaped a greater return. If I had any genius in me, it was for patience and perseverance. You can learn a lot in forty-five years. Now, I teach others to fence. This was not a conscious plan. Like most of those experiences in my fencing life that have given me direction, the opportunity to train others was a gift. I do not question this. If we question gifts too long, sometimes they go away.
Fencing has given me a living. It has brought me recognition in the world. It has expanded my brain and colored my personality. It has also brought me companionship of the best kind. What else might fencing be for? That ends up being part of the personal journey every fencing student embarks on.
So, is it worth becoming an anachronism?
For me, it has been, and always will be.