Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Four Oppositions

In Hs 3227a, the anonymous author talks about his “five words,” although he really expresses several others as important as well. I’ve been looking at these things for years, trying to find the core, root principles of the Kunst des Fechtens—the universal ones that apply to all forms in the art, not just to the longsword.

Not all ideas are universal: For example, with the longsword we are taught to attack on a diagonal from the Zufechten, but this doesn’t apply to halfswording. Others, however, are universal: The idea of the strong and weak of a weapon is important even in grappling (although the strong and weak usually refer to places on your opponent’s arm).

Looking at what all of the masters wrote (those to whom I have access, anyway), and boiling them down to the root level, I found something I consider interesting, namely, that these ideas can all be grouped into pairs of opposing ideas. Based upon that idea, here are what I call “The Four Oppositions:” Before vs. After; Strong vs. Weak; Hard vs. Soft; and, what may be less intuitive, Fühlen vs. Indes.

The primary idea in all of these oppositions is to know what condition prevails in a fight. We aren’t to prefer one over the other, but rather to accept it and know what to do from that condition. As we are told, react to “strength with weakness and weakness with strength”—neither is given as “better,” we just have to know what to do in either condition without trying to force the one we want.

Some may think that the Vor is always to be preferred over the Nach, but that is a misconception. Many people believe Liechtenauer instructs us to always act in the Vor, but von Danzig calls Long Point the best of all positions from which to fight (talking about waiting in it for the enemy to act), and, of course, the plays of the third halfsword guard are all waiting techniques in the same way. Sometimes it is very dangerous to attack a skilled, prepared opponent in the Vor from the Zufechten. No, the real idea is to take the Vor and then keep it, but there are plenty of times when it is far preferable to allow your opponent to start in the Vor and then take it from him when he acts. Again, the important thing is to know what to do in either situation.

Likewise with the strong or weak of a weapon. We shouldn’t care where the bind occurs as much as we should be concerned with knowing how to act in either situation. Granted, there are times we must select one or the other, such as in the Zornhau Ort when we have to make the initial bind with our strong on our opponent’s weak, but if he prevents that from happening we have to know how to act. The same with whether the bind is hard or soft, you simply have to know how to act in either case.

The danger in preferring one of the oppositions over the other is that you will often try to “force” a technique in the wrong situation if you prefer one over the other. By not really caring one way or the other you have less mental inertia to overcome and can act with less hesitation. That doesn’t prevent you from trying to do a technique that requires one over the other (e.g., the displacement I mentioned above), simply that you not be wedded to it; after all, it is a universal maxim that few plans survive contact with the enemy, and the consequences of that truth can best be managed with mental flexibility.

Fühlen and Indes are a special case, one that I didn’t really see for a long time. They may seem too different to be specifically opposed, but in a way they really are contradictory. We are told to act Indes, immediately, or instantly, but we are also told to feel the bind, a thing that takes a moment to do. There is no mystical secret, as some believe, that allows us to disconnect our brains and instantly feel a bind then instantly act in that same moment—we simply aren’t wired that way. This recognition led me to examine many of the techniques and their alternative actions which in turn led to something I call “Active Fühlen.”

Let’s take, as an example, the Zwerchhau counter to the Zornhau. We are told that if the enemy binds with the cut, we must feel the bind, and if he is hard in the bind we can either use a Duplieren or a Cross Knock, while if he is soft in the bind we should use a neck Schnitt. That’s fine, but he’s not likely to sit there and wait even the nanosecond it takes for us to use Fühlen, he’s going to go on to the next thing on his agenda. But instead of passively feeling the bind, we can test it actively by using the technique we would use if the bind were found to be soft—the Schnitt in this case, and doing so Indes, without pause or hesitation. If he’s actually soft in the bind, no problem—we have acted Indes and he dies from a terrible shaving cut. If he’s hard in the bind, however, the technique won’t work, but he will usually push back into the bind as we move against it—in effect, pinning him for just a moment, and in that moment we change gears—mental flexibility through not preferring either one—and do, say, the Cross Knock.

Likewise, if someone is soft in the bind and you use a technique that moves his blade (as most do), he may suddenly and instinctively go hard in the bind to prevent your technique from working. Again, that’s fine—you don’t care what the bind is, you merely care about acting correctly in it. You actively test the bind in a way that tends to cause your opponent not to move on, giving you time in which to act.

Thus, Fühlen and Indes are opposed, but that opposition simply tells us how to use them together.

I am not trying to develop any new ideas through this analysis—any readers of my work will know I completely reject any attempt to “improve” Liechtenauer’s art. Instead, I’m simply trying to find a different way of looking at what we’ve been told in order to better understand it and to find better ways transmit it to my students. So the next time you do a technique, in any form, be it longsword, dagger, pollaxe or grappling, analyze it according to the Four Oppositions.


stag said...

I think I may have to re read this a few time to see what you are getting at. It "sounds" like what we are doing. Your statement about reducing "mental intertia" is a good paraphrase of my rule..."take the strike as it comes, meet it, deflect or stop it no matter where it is, then counterstrike on the way out"

We get people to not so much start the fight but to feel where the fight is going, and react appropriately to it. It seems like this is what you are saying, but I will have to study it a bit more.

There are lots of ways to counter strength with long as you direct the energy to where you can either use it or discharge it. You can deflect his blow overhead, you can step back and scoop it up high, you can step inside his strike and wrestle him. All these are meeting strong with your own weak. Meeting strong with strong is playing his game.

Anyway, as insightful as always Hugh, thanks for blogging about these things.


Hugh Knight said...

Hi Bill,

Thanks for the compliments. The real point, and one you don't mention in your reply, is to not *prefer* one over the other. You talk about reacting to things, but don't mention this crucial point. If you prefer one way or the other, you're likely to press to hard when you shouldn't.

As for countering strength with weakness, you make it sound too vague, I think. We are usually given *specific* techniques to use in either case, and it's important to know what they are and to use them Indes at the correct feeling.

As for your rule, I would respectfully suggest that this approach--if I understand you correctly--ignores single-time techniques. I may be misreading what you're saying here, however, so if I am, excuse me.

STAG said...

Maybe I don't understand "weakness". My feeling is that if a fellow is swinging a baseball bat (or whatever) to my head, stopping it with strength will break something. The bat, the sword, the arm...whatever.

Or I can deflect it with weakness. Give with the blow, bounce it upwards or down into the ground. Step away from it to render it ineffective, or step into it to allow it to whistle around behind you. This is what I consider "countering with weakness". I don't know that this has ever been codified. Certainly I have not codified it with my gang, we just try to see if we can deflect stuff away where it won't be effective.
(Which technique I would react to would have to be a snap decision taken at the time...maybe even the wrong decision, though of course ANY decision would be better than NO decision. No doubt there would be an optimum solution. I rarely seem to find such an optimum solution in time. Always later though!
No doubt more practice would help.

Hugh Knight said...

Stag, I'm not sure I understand what your question is. If someone is swinging at your head, you don't want to oppose his strength with strength because all that will show is who is stronger, and what if it's him? Instead, react to his strength with weakness by deflecting his attack with the strong of your weapon on the weak of his. Thus does art allow us to overcome ability.

I hope that answers your question.