Saturday, May 12, 2007

Richard Hopton's History of Duelling reviewed by Jon Latimer in the TLS

I am eager to read this book, Richard Hopton, Pistols at Dawn: A History of Duelling (Portrait 2007, and it doesn't seem to be on Amazon US), particularly on account of the lovely review essay by Jon Latimer in the May 11, 2007 Times Literary Supplement. It is not online, but will eventually show up in the subscriber only archive.

Duelling interests me for a several reasons.

One is that my childhood sport was fencing - I read the Three Musketeers as a boy and discovered that the college town where I spent my cavity-prone years, Claremont, just outside Los Angeles, had in residence a world class fencer and fencing coach, Francis Zold, a Hungarian who had been on the Hungarian Olympic team before the Second World War. He had gone on to become a professor of intellectual property and copyright at the University of Budapest. He and his family fled Hungary in 1956, and settled in Claremont. Discovering that a specialist in Hungarian copyright law and whose English was so-s0 - although, like so many Hungarians, he was in fact a gifted linguist and was fluent in at least five languages - was not in great academic demand, he went back to coaching fencing at various southern California colleges, including Pomona College.

He also took on high school students in a local community club. He was one of the greatest teachers I have had in any field - others include the UCLA professors Rogers Albritton, Philippa Foot, Herbert Morris, and David Rapoport - and on account of spending all my time fencing, I didn't learn many other sports. At one point, he wanted me to come spend time in the afternoons with the Pomona College team; I was a freshman in high school, and this entailed asking permission of the fearsome head football coach and PE teacher, a huge bear of a man who would tell you to drop and do 50 pushups without thinking twice. I very shyly explained what my fencing coach had in mind - the football coach broke in and said, you are a student of Francis Zold? I said, yes, not sure what that meant. He said, Master Zold is one of the great coaches in this country, and whatever he wants, you do. Now get out and make sure you make him proud. Not being especially good, I didn't, although I tried hard.

Later on, when I finally got around to college at UCLA - I was 24 or 25 years old, I had spent several years working blue collar jobs in LA and a couple of years as a Mormon missionary in Peru - I joined the UCLA fencing squad. It didn't last long after I joined and was cut in a budgetary overhaul - however, I met some genuinely wonderful people there, in particular the LA television writer, Tim Maile, who is a successful writer of teen shows, including dreaming up the Lizzie McGuire Show. Also I received a UCLA letter and handsome leather letterman's jacket, which never failed to impress girls until they found out the sport involved.

All that by way of saying that fencers are often interested in subjects like duelling. I have a second, quite different reason for interest in the subject, however.

In Just and Unjust Wars, Michael Walzer raises the question of wars - fighting, killing - that are not unjust. He offers examples of aristocratic young men who fight each other as a grand game, by choice, perhaps as a rite of passage, and says that a death in such circumstances of choice and autonomy is not unjust. It is a very careful locution, because it qualifies the judgment in two ways. One is that although the death may not be contrary to justice, it might be contrary to other moral virtues and rules - such as not killing or being killed in what is merely a game - a Catholic theologian, for example, would surely reject the notion of "autonomy" here. That is to separate justice from other virtues. The second qualification, however, is that Walzer does not say that such a death is just - merely that it is not contrary to justice, which is a quite different thing.

Duelling, whether with swords or pistols, personalizes the game. It also puts honor, or some notion of it, ahead of justice and other virtues. It is, as the review notes, a practice that in Western societies has long been forbidden by authorities, especially in the military, apparently largely on grounds that it weakened the fighting ranks. At any rate, duelling is one of those social practices that tests the limits of how far we are willing to admit of autonomy.

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