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IT is well, in the holiday season of summer, to occupy ourselves with the aptitudes of our body, once more restored to nature, and, in particular, with the exercises that most increase its strength, its agility and its qualities as the body of a fine animal, healthy, formidable, ready to face all life's exigencies.
I remember, in this connection, that lately, when writing of the sword,1 I allowed myself to be carried away by my subject and was guilty of a certain injustice towards the only specific weapon with which nature has endowed us: I mean the fist. This injustice I am anxious to repair.
The sword and the fist form each other's complement and, if the expression be not too ungracious, can keep house together on excellent terms. But the sword is, or should be, only an exceptional weapon, a sort of ultima et sacra ratio. We should not have recourse to it save with solemn precautions and a ceremonial equivalent to that wherewith we surround those criminal trials which may end in a sentence of death. The fist, on the contrary, is preeminently the every-day, the human weapon, the only weapon organically adapted to the sensibility, the resistance, the offensive and defensive structure of our body.
The fact is that, if we well examine ourselves, we must rank ourselves, without vanity, among the most unprotected, the most naked, the most fragile, the most brittle and flaccid beings in creation. Compare us, for instance, with the insect, so formidably equipped for attack and so fantastically armour-cased! Contemplate, among others, the ant, upon which you may heap ten or twenty thousand times the weight of its body without apparently inconveniencing it. Consider the cockchafer, the least robust of the beetles, and weigh what it is able to carry before the rings of its abdomen crack or the casings of its forewings yield. As for the resistance of the stag-beetle, it is, so to speak, unlimited. By comparison, therefore, we and the majority of mammals are unsolidified beings, still in the gelatinous state and quite close to the primitive protoplasm. Our skeleton alone, which is as it were the rough sketch of our definitive form, offers a certain consistency. But how wretched is this skeleton, which one would think constructed by a child! Look at our spine, the basis of our whole system, whose ill-set vertebrae hold together only by a miracle, and our thoracic cage, which presents only a series of diagonals which we hardly dare touch with the finger-tips. Now it is against this slack and incoherent machine, which resembles an abortive effort of nature, against this pitiful organism, from which life tends to escape on every side, that we have contrived weapons capable of annihilating us even if we possessed the fabulous armour-case, the prodigious strength and the incredible vitality of the most indestructible insects. We have here, it must be agreed, a very curious and a very disconcerting aberration, an initial folly, peculiar to the human race, that goes on increasing daily. In order to return to the natural logic followed by all other living beings, if we are permitted to use extraordinary weapons against our enemies of a different order, we ought, among ourselves, among men, to employ only the means of attack and defence provided by our own bodies. Were mankind to conform strictly to the evident will of nature, the fist, which is to man what its horns are to the bull and its claws and teeth to the lion, the fist should suffice for all our needs of protection, justice and revenge. A wiser race would forbid any other mode of combat as an irremissible crime against the essential laws of the species. At the end of a few generations, we should thus succeed in spreading and putting into force a sort of panic-stricken respect of human life. And how prompt and how exactly in accordance with nature's wishes would be the selection brought about by the intensive practice of pugilism, in which all the hopes of military glory would be centred. Now selection is, after all, the only really important thing that claims our preoccupation; it is the first, the greatest and the most eternal of our duties towards the race.
Meanwhile, the study of boxing gives us excellent lessons in humility and throws a somewhat alarming light upon the forfeiture of some of our most valuable instincts. We soon perceive that, in all that concerns the use of our limbs -- agility, dexterity, muscular strength, resistance to pain -- we have sunk to the lowest rank of the mammals or the batrachians. From this point of view, in a well-conceived hierarchy, we should be entitled to a modest place between the frog and the sheep. The kick of the horse, the butt of the bull, the bite of the dog, are mechanically and anatomically perfect. It would be impossible to improve, by the most learned lessons, their instinctive manner of using their natural weapons. But we, the "Hominidae," the proudest of the primates, do not know how to strike a blow with our fist! We do not even know which exactly is the weapon of our kind! Look at two draymen, two peasants who come to blows: nothing could be more pitiable. After a copious and dilatory broadside of insults and threats, they seize each other by the throat and hair, make play with their feet, with their knees, at random, bite each other, scratch each other, get entangled in their motionless rage, dare not leave go and, if one of them succeed in releasing an arm, he strikes out blindly and most often into space a series of hurried, stunted and sputtering little blows; and the combat would never end if the treacherous knife, evoked by the shame of the incongruous sight, did not suddenly, almost spontaneously leap from the pocket of one of the two.
On the other hand, watch two pugilists: no useless words, no gropings, no anger; the calmness of two certainties that know what lies before them. The athletic attitude of the guard, one of the finest of which the male body is capable, logically exhibits all the muscles of the organism to the best advantage. From head to foot, not a particle of strength can now go astray. Every one of them has its pole in one or other of the two massive fists charged to the full with energy. And the noble simplicity of the attack! Three blows, no more, the fruits of secular experience, mathematically exhaust the thousand useless possibilities hazarded by the uninitiated. Three synthetic, irresistible, unimprovable blows. As soon as one of them frankly touches the adversary, the fight is ended, to the complete satisfaction of the conqueror, who triumphs so incontestably that he has no wish to abuse his victory, and with no dangerous hurt to the conquered, who is simply reduced to impotence and unconsciousness during the time needed for all ill-will to evaporate. Soon after, the beaten man will rise to his feet with no lasting damage, because the resistance of his bones and his organs is strictly and naturally proportioned to the power of the human weapon that has struck him and brought him to the ground.
It may seem paradoxical, but the fact is easily established that the science of boxing, in those countries where it is generally practised and cultivated, becomes a pledge of peace and gentleness. Our aggressive nervousness, our watchful susceptibility, that sort of perpetual state of alarm in which our jealous vanity moves, all these arise, at bottom, from the sense of our weakness and of our physical inferiority, which toil as best they may to overawe, with a proud and irritable mask, the men, often churlish, unjust and malevolent, that surround us The more that we feel ourselves disarmed in the face of attack, the more are we tortured by the longing to prove to others and to persuade ourselves that no one attacks with impunity. Courage becomes the more touchy, the more intractable in proportion as our anxiously-terrified instinct, cowering within the body that is to receive the blows, asks itself how the bout will end. What will this poor prudent instinct do if the crisis goes badly? It is upon our instinct that we rely in the hour of danger. Upon our instinct devolve the anxiety of the attack, the care of the defence. But we have so often in daily life dismissed it from the control of affairs and from the supreme council that, when its name is called, it comes forth from its retreat like one grown old in captivity and suddenly dazzled by the light of day.
What resolution will it take? Where is it to strike: at the eyes, the stomach, the nose, the temples, the throat? And what weapon is it to choose: the feet, the teeth, the hand, the elbow, or the nails? It no longer knows; it wanders about its poor dwelling, which is about to be defaced; and, while, dotingly, it pulls them by the sleeve, courage, pride, vanity, spirit, self-esteem, all the great and splendid, but irresponsible lords envenom the stubborn quarrel, which at last, after numberless and grotesque evasions, ends in an unskillful exchange of clamorous, blind, ataxic thumps, hybrid and plaintive, piteous and puerile and indefinitely impotent.
He, on the contrary, who knows the source of justice which he holds in his two closed fists has no need for self-persuasion. Once and for all, he knows. Longanimity emanates like a peaceful flower from his ideal, but certain victory. The grossest insult cannot impair his indulgent smile. Peaceably he awaits the first act of violence and is able to say to all and any that offend him, "Thus far shall you go." A single magic movement stops the insolence. Why make this movement? He ceases even to think of it, so certain is its efficacy. And it is with a sense of shame, as of one striking a defenceless child, that, in the last extremity, he at length resolves to raise against the most powerful brute the sovereign hand that regrets beforehand its too-easy victory.
1 Cf. the essay entitled In Praise of the Sword in The Double Garden. -- PUBLISHERS' NOTE.
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