We’ve all been there—you’re in an argument with someone, and there’s a lull where neither of you are talking. You feel like someone has to say something or you’ll just sit there staring at each other as the tension mounts to an insufferable degree. Before you know it, you’re babbling—just jabbering away to fill the silence. And that’s when you say the wrong thing, providing the opening the other person needs, and before you know it, you’re backpedaling just to find room to breathe.
Fencing is an argument in steel, and every moment before sword meets sword or point finds flesh is a kind of uncontainable silence. How we handle this silence is, in part, what defines our skill. You can choose to babble (e.g., tapping your opponent’s sword with the tip of your own, a tactic which quite often gives the opponent constraint of your blade) or you could act the part of the experienced debater and hold your tongue (still your sword) while formulating your next move.
The problem is that stilling your brain in those silences can be nightmarishly difficult. The reason why has to do with the progression we all must face, from reactive to proactive to an adaptive blend of reaction and decision that makes a fencer truly competent. When you’re purely reactive, as most are when first learning, you have to give yourself permission to wing it, trying out everything to see what works and sticking your sword out to keep from getting hit. Drilling and lessons aside, without allowing yourself to do the wrong thing, you’d probably never do anything. This is one of the reasons why a some free play early on is so vital.
The trouble comes as a result of how fencers take the step from a more reactive to a more proactive approach to fencing. For one thing, this step is seldom prescribed by teachers. That is, many instructors aren’t actually aware of the process, so they don’t discuss it with their students. (Don’t blame us—we’re fencers first and often only reluctant pedagogues.) As a result, our intermediate fencers often tend to act proactively only in some engagements while continuing to reactively engage their opponents much of the time, yet often finding themselves unable to act reactively when their defense calls for it. What’s more, we see these self-defeating reactive engagements more often at this stage, because the intermediate fencer, emboldened by some modicum of success, now feels freer to engage.
This stage of intermediacy is when it’s absolutely vital to learn how to still the mind. Begin with deliberate single-intention attacks, but make every movement you make prior to engagement be a one step closer to executing that attack. Waste no movements, either by stepping idly or changing line like a nervous tick. At every step, assess whether to pursue course, change tack, or abort. Allow your defense to be reactive, as well as the secondary actions following a failed first intention (and first-intention attack usually do) but make every engagement proactive. Once you’ve accomplished this, and you’ve successfully stilled your combative mind in the frantic silence of non-engagement, you’re ready to start applying deliberate second-intention tactics, which is a vital part of becoming a competent fencer.
[Note: I wrote this in December of 2014, shortly before beginning a more structured pursuit of my own fencing. In retrospect, this philosophical ramble demonstrates an eagerness I’d started feeling toward breaking down my own understanding of early 17th century Italian rapier, which I’ve pursued avidly since. I learned a lot of seriously important things soon after writing this, and while I read this now with fond amusement (man was I ever in for it!), I find nothing offensive in the sentiment behind these words.]