Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Why is it so hard to write about this stuff?

There was an interesting comment on my last post. If you haven't read it yet, check it out below.

Immediately after I read the comment, I wrote a response. It got longer and longer, and as I read it over, I felt like I wasn't really being clear. The more I wrote, the more confused my message became.

I saved the message, telling myself I'd work on it later and post the finished version. Well, the more I thought about it, the more rabbit holes I started to find myself down. The more I wrote, the more cans of worms I had to open.

Which in turn, made me think: why is it so hard to write about - or at least reach any conclusions about - martial arts?

I'm going to try and devote the next few posts to hashing out a few things. I'm not expecting to uncover any actual "answers" but at the very least, I might be able to illuminate my thought processes a bit.

Update Oct. 6: I wrote a big comment which probably should have been a post of its own.


Blogger American Father said...

It has to do with the western view of "ART" vs the Japanese view of "ART". Mix that in with the upper middel class need to be percived as "RIGHT" about a subject and we get these kinds of views. This is a Japanese art- in origen. So, it is only natural to want to defend it as we saw it when we first encountered it. The problem is the "ART" portion of it. Art, by definition, is different each time it is manifest. Science, well, science is always the same- repeatability is one of the cornerstones of any scientific experiment. Art must be interpreted. Machii has that freedom every bit as much as you or I have the freedom to practice in the manner that we choose. Besides, it is not as if Machii is some kid in a back yard somwhere, he is quite seriouse in his approach. We should respect that even if we do not follow the exact same path. Truth is, we have more in common with him than we do others who have never studied a martial art. But, yes, this is hard to write about.

8:35 AM  
Blogger Patrick said...

I find it much easier to post your opinions without the need to prove and convince anyone else that you're right.

As American Father said "it is only natural to want to defend [our points of view]"

Of course, I've agreed with pretty much everything you posted so far on your blog, so don't have anything to argue about :P

9:17 AM  
Blogger Jeff said...

I never thought that I would ally myself with the "koryu snobs" out there, but perhaps I am drifting that way, the more I think about traditional martial arts. Having said that ...
I don't really think that iaido or other traditional martial arts are "arts" in the sense you are describing. Specifically, they are not open to interpretation; it's not really up to me to decide what the techniques mean. I believe it is our responsibility to try to understand our teacher's teachings as faithfully as possible.
Yes, we may have to fill in gaps where necessary. Perhaps we forgot to ask our teacher, "What is the purpose of this movement?" before he died.
And we may have to adapt some movements to suit our own body types or physical abilities where necessary. But, as much as we can, we should try to adjust our bodies to suit the movements, not the other way around.
Certainly, each practitioner unwittingly introduces changes to an art when he takes up the practice of it. But again, I think it is our duty to try and minimize those changes.
I sometimes think of martial arts traditions as resembling the "photocopy" model. You have an original, and copy that, then copy the copy - gradually, with each subsequent generation, imperfections, spots, blurs, and distortions are introduced.
To put it another way, the original essence of a martial art is like a ladle of water which is poured from the master's ladle into the student's. If both parties are not very careful, they may spill some of the contents. Doing this over and over, the original essence disappears.
Of course, both of these models disregard the fact that subsequent generations can change, reinterpret, or even add to the original teachings.
When, and to what extent do we have the right to change what we've been taught? I'm still wrestling with those ideas. But I definitely disagree with American Father's previous statement that, because these arts are very old, they are basically "public domain". They are not just somebody's commercially-valuable intellectual property, to be copyrighted or protected because somebody makes a living by teaching them (although sometimes that it exactly the case). I think it is precisely because they are very old cultural traditions that they should be preserved.
Iaido is not like an art movement or a literary movement where you learn from your forebears, then make changes and strike off in your own direction. In those cases, people have left behind their own, lasting works of art, that stand on their own merits, semi-independent of their creators, and can be judged as a product of their time. We can see the evolution of art movements by the surviving works by previous painters. But an art like iaido (or to give another example, the tea ceremony) exists only within the living people who practice them. The only clues we have to what martial artists did centuries ago is what we are doing now. This is why we should preserve what has been handed down to us.
Perhaps now, with the invention of video recording (and the proliferation of people who will record just about everything and put it online for eternity) we can record "existing" iai, and then leave it up to people's own free choice - continue a martial art in a traditional way, or take bits and pieces as you like, modify them as you see fit, and create your own style. At least the evolution will be documented.
(See? Another big, messy can of worms. But kind of an interesting bunch of worms, anyway.)

7:26 PM  
Blogger American Father said...

Your argument is self defeating and in it you have explained some key components in the artisitic process in direct terms, with regard to artistic movements in general. Machii is every bit as valid a swordsman and martial artist as your favorite instructor or other mainstream figure. His art is not yours, it is his. He hit a point in his life and path that made sense to do what he did to found his own system. That kind of thing is a normal occurence in the natural order of things.

7:30 AM  
Blogger Pamela said...

To say that comment was interesting is pretty polite Jeff. I’ll admit it got under my skin a bit when I read it, and so wrote out my own long comment only to turn the page and find the discussion moved on without me.
Sigh. I guess I was I bit late, it’s an old habit for me (for the record, the latest I’ve ever been for something is about 20 years, give or take).
I think the term “martial arts” is, perhaps, a bit misleading. Martial “ways” makes more sense to me and is a better translation from the Japanese. It’s not really art in the usual use of the word, but then, as Kim would say, “What is art anyway?”.

11:19 PM  

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