Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Occam’s Razor

William of Ockham must have been a swordsman. 700 years ago, he penned the following, which stands today as one of the most common sense standards of scientific method. It’s also one of the best possible pieces of advice a fencer can take to heart:

entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem

which translates to:
entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity

and in practice means:
The simplest solution is usually the most correct one.

In science, when a researcher is experimenting to prove a point, or laboring under an overriding belief system, it’s not uncommon for a researcher to overlook the most apparent solution to a situation. For example, when Lister, the 19th century doctor, suggested that doctors might actually be spreading disease between patients, and could stop this by simply washing their hands after each examination, the medical establishment was outraged, and Lister was drummed out. After all, patients got sick because of their lifestyles, or evil humors, or other possibilities that science could not then account for. But the idea that germs could be passed from hand to hand? Outrageous! Childishly simplistic!

And, as history has proven, correct.

One of the wonderful things about fencing are the amazing number of combinations and finesse of blade-work, and we work very hard to master those. But I’m always surprised to see how often good fencers will exercise poor choices when it comes to crossing swords, by applying overly complex or poorly practiced techniques.

In fact, the evolution of fencing is one of continually distilling and refining. The correct solution to any situation was the simplest. If you study the history of the art, you can see that the weapon and the way it was used was continually refined, and old methods and swords left behind to history.

I’m not a great fencer, but I have been lucky enough to train with some of the best in the world, and while they all had different styles, one thing that was abundantly clear, after learning the gross motions, the true art was in continually simplifying, distilling, every move. Sometimes the simplest was as easy as a thrust, sometimes the simplest was a beat-feint-coupe with a ballestra-fleche. But it was always the purest, most direct that won the day.

Some more theatrical teachers may poo poo this idea as a modern concept, something like “that’s just trying to score quickly,” but if you think about it, you can see the value in a real life and death situation: The more time you spend fencing with an opponent, the more you give him to use against you. In bullfighting, the fights don’t last longer than 10 minutes because if it continues longer than that, the bull will have figured out the toreador, and the man has little chance defeating the bull. How much faster can another swordsman do the same? In a real fight, you don’t want your opponent to know any more about your ability.

Once, in college, I had the opportunity to lose brilliantly against a high ranking Polish fencer who had years developing his basics, and nothing I could do could get me past his simple beat attack or parry riposte. No doubt he had more complicated attacks, but I wasn’t good enough ever to find out. It was a good lesson.

Several years ago, at a rapier event, I was free-fencing with a guy who seemed to be quite good, yet never protected his arms. I landed two hits to his wrist and was surprised that he didn’t even try to defend. The rapier I was using was a pretty heavy 4 foot Del Tin, and I felt a little bad, since even with a moderate hit, I could feel it impact with bone. Finally, I stopped and suggested that he might want to displace his arm to avoid the touch. He just shrugged: “My teacher says hitting the hand is dishonorable, and so we don’t deal with it.” Dishonorable? Fencing, as at least one renaissance master said, “is the art of deception.” It’s arguable how much is really honorable in meeting someone for a game of murder with big knives. It’s not arguable that a cut to the wrist of an armed assailant can save your life, and if honor is in question, win the duel whilst sparing the life of your opponent.

Nuts and bolts: Simplify! Drill the bits and pieces until they’re “airtight.” If you’re doing a beat attack, drill that until you know with 99% certainty that as soon as you’ve made contact with the opponent’s blade, he’s hit. If you’re doing a disengage or a coupe, practice it until it’s as reliable as humanly possible, or more.

Try this: Pick one simple attach and one simple defense, and use only those for a night, or a week, even if it means you get hit a lot. After a while, you will find you get hit a lot less.

Think about your fencing—you can be your own best coach—analyze it for anyplace you can simplify and purify. Never give the opponent a stronger dose of your skill than it takes to defeat him. Leave him wondering.

Compound attacks are comprised of these simple pieces all put together, anyway, and the better your “alphabet” of simple techniques, the better your “dialog of the blade will be.”