April 25, 2012

‘When the Temporary Touches the Eternal’

“Budo only lives when you treat it as something that can die.”
That’s a pretty good line, if I do say so myself. I wrote it some years ago and happened on it recently looking over old writings. However, when I wrote it I'm not certain I fully understood it. Reading it again now, I’m struck by the fact it points toward a direction; indicates higher purpose. This is what art is supposed to do. Wait, let me rephrase that – this is what great art is supposed to do. And as such, Budo is not meant to be practiced for itself.

"Whenever he hears a man say that life is not worth living,
he takes out [his] gun and offers to shoot him.
"Always with the most satisfactory results," he laughs."
GK Chesterton, the sage of common sense, was a well-known art critic, among his many other expertises – the man could spontaneously give speeches on just about any topic – and wrote this about art, “You never work so well for art’s sake as when you are working for something else.” He’s right. Great art, he would say, is paradoxical: “The thing that survives is that which has a certain combination of normality with distinction. It has simplicity with a slight touch of strangeness … It is a tale just sufficiently unusual to be worth telling, and yet immediately intelligible when told.”

In other words, it is to say this is a thing I have seen a thousand times, and yet I never saw it before, for “All art is born when the temporary touches the eternal.”

Chesterton disparaged the movement in art known as “Realism” as a decidedly detached endeavor from the eternal. Dale Ahlquist, a Chesterton biographer, puts it best: “Realism claims to be: Life, warts and all. But what Realism really is, is: Warts, as Life. The Realists claim to be holding up the mirror to nature, but then they start believing only the mirror, even after they have broken it.”

Chesterton himself was a “Romantic,” where, “Philosophy is always present in a work of art.” He wrote this wonderful summation:
“All romances consist of three characters … For the sake of argument they may be called St. George and the Dragon and the Princess. In every romance there must be the twin elements of loving and fighting. In every romance there must be the three characters: there must be the Princess, who is a thing to be loved; there must be the Dragon, who is a thing to be fought; and there must be St. George, who is a thing that both loves and fights. There have been many symptoms of cynicism and decay in our modern civilization. But … none [have been] quite so silly or so dangerous as this: that the philosophers of today have started to divide loving from fighting and to put them into opposite camps. [But] the two things imply each other; they implied each other in the old romance and in the old religion, which were the two permanent things of humanity. You cannot love a thing without wanting to fight for it. You cannot fight without something to fight for. To love a thing without wishing to fight for it is not love at all; it is lust. It may be an airy, philosophical, and disinterested lust … but it is lust, because it is wholly self indulgent … On the other hand, fighting for a thing without loving it is not even fighting; it can only be called a kind of horse-play that is occasionally fatal. Wherever human nature is human … there exists this natural kinship between war and wooing, and that natural kinship is called romance … and every man who has ever been young at all has felt, if only for a moment, this ultimate and poetic paradox. He knows that loving the world is the same thing as fighting the world.”
Now, try rereading it replacing “philosophers” with “martial artists.” When we supplant the goal, the point, the truth of martial arts with the mere pursuit of martial arts and the robotic accumulation of its cold, methodical procedures, we cease to be “Romantics” and become “Realists” - rather than training techniques to protect and defend life, we start training a life to protect and defend techniques.

"St. George and the Dragon"
Sir Edward Burne-Jones, 1868 
Disconnecting training from its original intent anticipates Chesterton’s conclusion, “Artists who refuse to be anything but artists will go down in history as the embodiment of all the vulgarities and banalities of their time.” Just like the great works of art are repository and haven for humankind's eternal truths, so too is Budo an embodiment, a repository, a haven for our life-protecting-preserving-sustaining moral values such as courage, honor, and sacrifice; methods to protect ourselves and others (including our enemies, if possible) and to a greater extent protect the very love we have for those others and even perhaps for humanity itself.

And so, our good friend GK, has a final thought on great art and unwittingly draws a timeless distinction about the efficacy of the Romantic heart of Budo:
“This is perhaps the test of a very great work of classic creation, that it can be attacked on inconsistent grounds, and that it attacks its enemies on inconsistent grounds. Here is a broad and simple test. If you hear a thing being accused of being too tall and too short, too red and too green, too bad in one way and too bad also in the opposite way, then you may be sure that it is very good.”

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