Broken Tusk – Breaking the Body to Write and the Art of Fighting

guest post, Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu – a husband’s point of view It has been my hope in this series to give something of my perspective, my experience as a...

guest post, Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu – a husband’s point of view

It has been my hope in this series to give something of my perspective, my experience as a husband, in watching Sylvie do what no western fighter male or female has done in Thailand. I wanted to convey if I can some of the framework for my understanding, as well as the understanding itself insofar as I have it, as I closely watch the person I love with all of me – every speck to my wife – undergo physical rigors, outright dangers, and more importantly trials of the soul and spirit, fighting in the motherland of Muay Thai, fighting Thais of every size, breaking herself over and over. This is some of what I hoped I could put down to pen and digital ink.

I haven’t been that successful so far, veering off to describe things that fascinate me, pieces of my own love of Muay Thai, but maybe with this post I get more on track. What does it mean to watch your wife be broken over and over? She has received 68 stitches so far, some people think marring a once blemishless face. She fights opponents quite often several kilos larger than her, and is battered about. What does a husband feel to sit close by as this happens? And the injuries, the tests of pain, honestly they really are so much worse and frequent in training compared to what happens in the ring. In the ring there may be blood, but in training there are tears. There are perpetual bruises of the flesh and ego. There are awakened wounds that seem like they will never heal. There is heat that few people see. What does it mean to “be” a fighter, and watch my wife be a fighter?

Ganesha’s Broken Tusk

At top is a photo of the Hindu (and Thai Buddhist) god Ganesha, holding his broken tusk. The elephant-headed deity is one of the most compelling to me in that he is almost always depicted as holding his broken tusk in his hand. When we walked to Lanna camp from our apartment in Chiang Mai you could not help but pass by a large, rose colored Ganesha looking on at you, holding his tusk. This tusk haunts me, tugs at me, and it also gives me peace. It is key to explaining what it is that I see when my wife breaks herself again and again against bags, pads and opponents.

There are two prominent stories of how his tusk was broken, I want to talk about the story of his position as the scribe of The Mahabharat epic, though both stories are beautiful and I believe shed light on what it truly means to be a fighter.

Sage Ved Vyas intended to write The Mahabharat, the longest epic. He needed a scribe who was capable to handle this task. He sought Lord Brahma for this. Brahma explicated the sage that Ganesh was the person he was looking for.

Sage Vyas then went to Lord Ganesha and informed that Lord Brahma sent him. Lord Ganesh told Vyas that he would agree to be his scribe on one condition. The condition that Vyas would have have to dictate non stop. Vyas in turn agreed and informed Ganesha that he would do so, if Ganesh would pen down his dictation only after understanding the meaning of every word that Vyas recited. Lord Ganesh agreed to this, and thus began the composition of The Mahabharata. Vyas’s condition gave the sage some time to compose his stanzas as Ganesh would pause to understand the lines before writing it down.

During the course of penning, the tip of quill, with which Ganesha was writing the Mahabharat, broke and he immediately broke half of his tusk dipped it in ink and continued his process of writing. This showed his duty boundedness, dedication to his task at hand, his commitment and concentration. An action exemplary of his sacrifice to gain knowledge. Ganesha got the name “Ek Dant”, God with one tusk.

Genesha - Broken Tusk

From Writer to Fighter

This is the story of Ganesha as scribe. The other story is one of combat, though I believe them to be complimentary. Why is fighting like writing?

To explain this I want to share some recent thoughts I offered to Sylvie’s mother Patti. Sylvie’s parents have been concerned about Sylvie lately. Sylvie puts up stories about how she is fighting very large opponents, photos of her bloodied or stitched up face. They just, as any parents would, don’t want Sylvie to be injured in a way that affects her life…that is, her life and future. I tried to explain how I see this, how I experience the daily grind towards physical endurance and the very frequent fights – an offering of herself over to the Art of Muay Thai.

Patti expressed concern to me that the “house of Sylvie’s spirit” would be broken. The Body as House. Such a beautiful image. What does it mean to have your spirit-house broken by the art you are pursuing? Now, what follows is very personal, but I talk about it because in many ways I can’t convey what it ALL means to me without including this intimate fact. Sylvie already some time ago wrote about her rape as a child: What is Violence: Fighting or Silence? This is a terrible thing, unspeakable almost, but women all over have experienced this pain, and speaking it is important. I want to say it here because the easy, the lazy assumption is that a woman who has been raped and takes up fighting or fighting arts is doing so because they have some un-processed anger, indeed rage. When they fight, when they hit things they are somehow “expressing” this anger. Perhaps this is the case in early stages, or at some level, but there is something else going on at a much higher level when you really devote yourself to fighting, I believe. What is really happening is house building – the construction of a house.

As I explained in my emails Sylvie’s “house of the spirit” doesn’t really exist any longer, not in any sense that we often assume someone to have one. Her house of the spirit, her body, was broken that day of multiple violations. Her spirit has no dependable house, no real protective shell. Since she was 11 she has been living in the ruins of her body-house, and as the human spirit is both beautiful and adaptable she has learned to live in those ruins. She can hide in them, in the broken pieces, use the shadows, the crevices, the places people don’t think to look. She learned since that young age to be in the ruins, of a kind.

What Sylvie is doing in Thailand – for all those who don’t get (or worse, approve of) what she is doing – is building a higher house, or one can just as easily say, a higher body to replace the broken house/body she has had for all these years. This is why she strains and breaks herself over and over and over, reaching up to the promise of calm in the onslaught of violence. And like Genesha she cannot stop until the epic is written. This is why the Art of Muay Thai is a salvation and even a duty, the calm she sees in the bodies and faces of so many Thais that have fought since a young age – the poise, the balance, the grace, the ease – it calls her.  This attempt is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

Ganesha’s Broken Tusk

Ganesha when faced with the mounting verses of an incredibly long, beautiful epic, and his holy duty as scribe – and when faced with the weakness of his quill which was quickly worn away – snaps off his tusk and improvises a pen. I’m going to get a little esoteric with you here, but bear with me. This breaking of his own tusk is an incredible and human moment. It is, I believe, the moment where we have to be broken by experience, altered, be made less beautiful, less perfect, less symmetrical, in order to write what is divine. And we have to write what is divine with our bodies, through the craggy piece, the shard of what experience does to us. What is absolutely noble and unbelievable about the fighting arts, that is the REAL fighting arts, is that instead of just being broken by life the fighter intentionally breaks off her or his body in order to write, to inscribe something higher and more beautiful on the ether. There was fighting in the world, but then there arose fighting arts. Fighting as an art is the most primitive and arguable the most powerful form of writing ever invented. It is more powerful even than dance because it writes with the body out of the cauldron of fear, the stimulus of pain, woven with will of an agonistic partner.

The reason why I say “the most powerful” is that it’s powers of creation are immense. Perhaps only out of this art can a house of the spirit that has been broken by violence, laid to such emotional ruins, be rebuilt as a higher house. It builds with the materials that destroy. What other graphic system does this? And each time a fighter breaks a piece of herself, and those that love her rise up together in fear, know that she is just fashioning another quill out of herself so that all the verses can be written.


Genesha the warrior - Muay Thai

A conversation thread for this post was started on the Muay Thai Roundtable.

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