Amaris Ketcham, an Honorary Kentucky Colonel and novice fencer, is usually involved in some combination of open space, white space, CMYK and RGB, flash nonfiction, long trails, f-stops, line breaks, and several Adobe Programs running simultaneously. Her creative work has recently been published in or is forthcoming from Creative Nonfiction, the Kenyon Review, Rattle, and the Utne Reader.
The Last of Our Unreasonable Customs
Yesterday I was in a swordfight with my boyfriend’s ex. I knew the outcome was doomed, or at least predetermined. She is a former World Cup fencer, and I’m so new to holding a sword I often forgot to keep my tip pointed at the opponent. As I stepped onto the strip, my hand trembled grasping the pommel. My feet were glued to the floor. My fate was sealed: come sundown I would be skewered through and through, tie-dyed with bruises, hobbling toward pizza and a cold beer.
While they share origins in trial by combat, Olympic-style sword fighting and the classic duel drifted apart a little over a century ago. The former, being a sport, now takes place in a gym, is marked by good humor and safety precautions, and has a little buzzer to show who got a point. The latter begins with a simple insult, betrayal, or act of violence, and establishes who wins and who loses by how bloody the foes end up. While mine was a sporting match and not a duel, it upheld the air that I’d been summoned to the playground after school to get my ass kicked. After all, on this evening, the two overlapped: both were acts performed by rivals, and both were marked by self-control and civility, which we now call “good sportsmanship.”
The desire to believe in self-control is one of the reasons dueling persisted well into the twentieth century. In France, in 1883, when all citizens were free, when everyone could vote and even divorce if they wanted, when the people felt in high spirits and sang out about liberté, égalité, fraternité while they broke baguettes and shared wine, the author Guy de Maupassant pronounced dueling “the last of our unreasonable customs.” The custom endured nearly a century more, when, in 1967, the last duel was fought after an insult at the French parliament.
There is one thing about sportsmanship in dueling that your average unreasonable custom does not allow. According to the stories I’ve read about famous duels, you can be friends after your swordfight. The insult that stained your honor, your ego, and your public face is washed away by the first sight of blood. When lady-killer Giacomo Casanova squeezed the trigger on his Polish adversary, wounding the man’s gut, they publically became fast friends. In Joseph Conrad’s retelling of the true story of two French Hussars who dueled every time they met over the course of twenty years, one man became the other’s secret benefactor. Carl Schmitt, the German political theorist who believed humans are always negotiating the line between friend and enemy, might have explained it thusly: in accepting one another’s menace, acknowledging each other as equals, and suspending their disbelief in the swordfight and its symbolic rituals and violent potential, duelists are momentarily transformed.
Or, as Ambrose Bierce puts it in his Devil’s Dictionary, begun in 1881: “Duel, n. A formal ceremony preliminary to the reconciliation of two enemies. Great skill is necessary to its satisfactory observance; if awkwardly performed the most unexpected and deplorable consequences sometimes ensue. A long time ago a man lost his life in a duel.”
Courtship can be equally unreasonable; the distinction between comedy and tragedy blurs in the lengths we are willing to go for another person. During this particular courtship, I had started fencing because my partner, Andy, had been fencing for fifteen years and when he talked about the sport, a single, beautiful ray of light shone down on him, fawns pranced in the woods, doves cooed, and champagne grapes ripened on the vine. At any hint of interest, Andy would leap up and start demonstrating how to hold a sword, stand en garde, and lunge.
If I wanted to fathom this fascination of his, if I wanted to best understand him, I would have to pick up a sword at least once, and one moonlit sage-scented night, I did. We went to the University of New Mexico’s fencing club, and there, if I’d expected the heavens to part or a revelation in the mode of King Arthur’s coming, I instead learned how to dress to protect the most surface area, how to stand with a sword in my hand, and how to receive bruises.
Sometimes, too, Andy went to the city club, but I had yet to join him. There lay the rub: his ex-girlfriend ran the local city club. She was inextricable from both his life and any attempt I would make to join his hobby. She? One of those tiny, outspoken women [. . .]