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  1. I've stumbled on a giant idea, in fact an idea so large it touches on nearly every aspect of life, and every aspect of what make Muay Thai like no other fighting form in the world. It's also an idea that is so large writing about it proves daunting, an in fact unimaginable, as so much of it is full of the tangential (consequences), and explanation. Just taking it on feels like selecting a single hair at the end of a tiger's tail, and giving it a quiet pluck. But here's to just diving in... The Paradox of Courage - How the Poet Saves the World There is a fundamental, seemingly logically paradoxical contradiction to bravery or courage. Without fear, there is no courage. The courageous person is not someone who feels no fear. In fact fear itself can be argued to be essential to courage. Much as someone who has lost the ability to feel pain, and so might move physically and emotionally in seeming defiance of pain, a person who has no fear might appear courageous, but what we cherish about courage is very different. It's the very ability to feel it, and then overcome it in someway. The value lies in contradictions being able to persist together. This contradiction will form the essence of the heroic, in a certain line of Philosophical thinking. Walter Benjamin, a German social critic and philosopher was living through the tidal rise of World War I. He was a young man and two of his friends had committed suicide over the impending catastrophe that was about to rip European culture to shreds and end any semblance of the Old World. He was struggling with the role of the poet, what could a poet matter in the face of this terrible World conflict that was going to tear at the fabric of reality? What did the deaths of his friends even mean? He took on the examination of a poem by the German poet Holderlin, which itself was an examination of poetic courage. In fact that poem existed in several versions, one of which was titled "Courage", the other "Stupidity" (or "Timidity"). It's hard for us to imagine poets and courage placed together in the same thought construct, except in maybe the most metaphorical way. Can a poet be "brave" choosing words as men are being brave (like, really brave) in trenches while everyone around them is being cut down? But bear with him, and me, because this is about studying the nature of an art, and its importance to us. We love and value an art because it reveals things to us, important things, and it sets our course. The soldier in the trench is brave, in part, because we have stories, indeed some very artful, poetic stories that last for epochs, of bravery. Walter Benjamin took hold of what was a fundamental logical puzzle of Holderlin's version of the poem. Why did Holderlin go from "Courage" to "Stupidity" or "Timidity" (what is the meaning of this change?). What Benjamin locked onto, and of course there is debate over his interpretation because people like to debate, what he locked onto was that fundamental binary of what courage is. That one is courageous in spite of, but in a sense dependent on FEAR. And, correlate to all of that, the more fear you felt, the more courageous you could be. Note: for instance, a fighter who just walks forward, numb, feeling nothing, not even perceiving danger, as if that part of her or his brain is turned off, is not admirable. Is uninteresting. Such an imagined fighter is only interesting to the degree that we project our own fears, what we would feel if we stood there, if we create the contrast. The poet, he argued, in his most heroic (and this is a very male world, Germanic heroism) is the one what looks straight into the divine, straight into the beauty of the world, with no filter on, and is completely dumbstruck. He is immediately aware that no word he utters is of any value, cannot communicate that terrible, awful, tremendously beautiful thing that he sees, his only response is pure gibberish, imbecility, nonsense. That is the extreme condition out of which the poet's courage take seed. That is the reason Holderlin changed the title of his poem in the last version from "Courage" to "Stupidity". It's supidification. Once stupidified, the poet then courageously seeks to speak. At first he is merely babbling. He is like a baby, but he wades in, and seeks to hold onto the thing that terrifies him. He does not try to dismiss it, or nullify it. He wants to keep it, and bring it forward. He struggles with that terror, and seeks to articulate it. He wants to bridge the world of terrible beauty (the unspeakable, divine) and the articulate. Above is an essay fragment describing the way that Benjamin proposes that the poet saves the world through his submission to fear itself as a fundamental relation, embodying all the fears we have of the bounded world. Now, this might sound like a bunch of mumbo jumbo to you. Abstract words describing Germanic Philosophy far removed from the concrete things that matter. But let me suggest to you that what it is talking about is perhaps the most concrete thing in the world. Fear. When I say it is concrete, I do not mean its a "thing". It's concrete in that it is a fundamental relation. Every organism that has ever existed is built on a single grammatical plan. Attraction vs Aversion. Philosophy likes to talk about all kinds of binaries, it plays games with concepts left and right, but when you dig right down to the root of binaries you are entering the absolute fundamentals of not only human experience, but all of experience. Fear, aversion, trepidation forms the very weft our what we are. You cannot get below this fundamental pole in the binary. There is nothing more fundamental. So when Benjamin is waxing poetic about the poet and his relationship to fear, this is not just the imagination of Greeks lounging near white statues eating grapes. He is talking about the Ur-logic of all of life. And he is talking about the death of his friends, as the horrible figure of World War is about to rip through all life and culture. In the figure of the poet he is outlining the beauty of the fighter. He gives us the key to understanding why we love fighters so much - for those of us who do - and what separates out fighters from each other. What is it about fighting that invokes so much that is important? Autarchy of the Relation - What Sets Fighters Apart The Greek suffix -archy we know in words like plutarchy, patriarchy, matriarchy. It means something like "rule by". But in Greek it goes much deeper than that. Something that is ruled is really genetically founded by, in something. It goes like a mighty oak with roots that sink deep within a soil where we cannot see. Benjamin proposed phrase to describe the irreducible nature of the Poet's Heroism (and for us, the Fighter's Heroism). The Autarchy of the Relation. The thick girded oak is self-founded, self-ruled (auto+rule) out of the relationship itself. It is not founded on fear, nor on courage, but out of the relationship between the two of them. We talk a lot about overcoming fear, and sometimes imagine that fear is something that we fundamentally need to be done with. You finish it off, and them move onto the next thing (ideally), and when you struggle with fear you are somehow failing in some way. But Benjamin, in his figure of the poetic, is saying no: you bring the relationship with you. The heroic consists of the relationship itself. There is no maturing past fear. There is no growing out of fear. If you have lost touch with fear you have lost touch of the relationship. It would be like a poet who writes and is no longer terrified of Beauty. Anyone who has sparred understands this immediately. These abstract words and concepts suddenly boil down to real things. The fundamental core act of sparring is really an emotional one. Sylvie writes about this in a forum post here, if you want to take a tangent: What I want to call attention to is how even the absolute beginner in training, when she or he stands in front of someone who can possibly hurt them, or shame them, is standing right on the precipice of greatest heroic, chasm-facing dimensions of all the world. This is the same precipice that every organism that has ever beat has lived. This is the Autarchy of the Relation. Fear, and how to speak when you are dumbstruck. As fighters many learn fixed patterns of how to "speak" in sparring, and then in fighting. These are formulaic vehicles designed to take you forward when you feel fear. When you feel aversion. And trusting in these, using them to cross the divide, is much appreciated. But...using vehicles to crossover is missing what is really happening in fighting when it comes to its highest art. At its highest art, what is principal is the Relation itself. It is the presence of fear, and the willingness to submit to it, fully. The Ceasura - Poetry's Gift to Understanding Fighting Much of what we do, in fact maybe almost all of what we do, is to try and get fear (and its sister, pain) to stop. We move away from things that threaten to hurt, either physically or psychologically. Or, if we are really brave, we rush through the dangerous zone to the other side. We have all kinds of irrational "fears" (fears that we imagine if we looked at them soberly, would vanish) and if we can just get through the immediate "Stop!" we are told everything will be ok. We jump in the cold water, swim across the brook, and are refreshed on the other side. This is something that is different than the Autarchy of the Relation. At its highest art you do not rush through the fear-zone, only to find the happy ending on the other side. The happy ending is just one more version of the avoidance of fear. What you are afraid of will simply disappear. At the highest form of fighting, it does not disappear. It is preserved. It is held in a sacred binary. Note: This perhaps speaks to the western preoccupation with the knockout, and the deep dissatisfaction it has with Thai style Muay Thai which often shuns the knockout. The knockout for the west is the relief, the cessation of the fear. It's all over, nothing to fear anymore! The monster is dead. It's nothing more than the parallel of having run away so well you never have to see it again. Muay Thai in Thailand has developed a much keener sense of the preservation of the Relation, holding fear and courage together. You are not, principally, trying to END the fight, as in, end the fear, the aversion. You are standing in it, graced. Readers of David Goggins will be familiar with this. Goggins an an ultra athlete who uses his extreme training to confront and overcome his own weaknesses and fear. Not to move too far from the topic here is the Rogan interview if you don't know him: One of the most compelling things that Goggins preaches is how much he chaffs at people who work out, work hard, expose themselves to the extreme in order to be done with it. He felt he ran into this when training to be a Navy Seal. He felt many of the men were "tough guys" who walked around with the badge of their official mark, having gotten to the other side. Goggin's motto was "always back to square one". For him he was always returning to exactly how he felt when he lifted his first weight, ran his first mile. This is the very same horror that Benjamin through Holderlin was talking about. Just because you run ultras doesn't mean that when you wake up at 5 am to run you don't feel horror. In fact, for Goggins, you put those shoes on in order to feel horror. That's the Autarchy of the Relation, remaining in touch with the core binary of fear and courage. Now, let me take a further detour into the poetic to explain one of the most beautiful things about fighting, and give key into how to watch and appreciate fights. The caesura. The caesura is a gap, a break in a metrically line of poetry. It's used in various ways across human history, but it always has the impact of placing an empty spot, a null value, within a larger economy of expression. Here are famous uses of caesura from the history of literature (from wikipedia): The opening line of the Iliad: μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ || Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος ("Sing, o goddess || the rage of Achilles, the son of Peleus.") Opening line of Virgil's Aeneid: Arma virumque cano || Troiae qui primus ab oris (Of arms and the man, I sing. || Who first from the shores of Troy...) The opening line of Beowulf reads: Hwæt! We Gardena || in gear-dagum, þeodcyninga, || þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas || ellen fremedon. (Behold! The Spear-Danes in days gone by,) (and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness,) (We have heard of these princes' heroic campaigns.) There is great nuance to how caesura are used, but for us its enough to just appreciate how it is always a gap, always a silence, a breath. Holderlin argued that this gap, this break - not only in lines, but in dramatic structures - had the potential to signify the fundamental relationship between fear and courage itself. Benjamin's Autarchy of The Relation is signified by the caesura. It's the moment when in the film-strip of representations (frames which each "show" some event), there comes a frame which shows representation itself, which is just a weird, fancy way of saying "I'm speechless", or "representation isn't sufficient". Pictures won't do. This is the dumbness of the poet before the beauty and tragedy of the world. It's a single piece of emptiness in the presentation. Now this is where it gets really fascinating. And how we come down off of those ivory towers of the poetic and narrotology, and into the nitty-gritty of the things that motherfucking matter to all of us in this world. The caesura, the gap, is the gap that exists between fighters. It's the space that sits there and is unresolved. It's the bubble that is invisible that generates the entire theatre of conflict. It's what generates the heroic and the poetic, and its what makes fighting, when it is at its highest, one of the great art forms of the world. We are dealing with the very fabric and Ur-source of all relations, of every single thing you and I do in the world. Every word we say, every gesture we make. When I say that that space between fighters is the caesura, I'm not being metaphorical, at least to the degree that they perform the same thing. They invoke and instantiate the Autarchy of the Relation. The reason for this is that each fighter feels fear in relationship to this gap, this space. We think of a fighter maybe fearing another fighter, but fundamentally they are fearing the space itself. As organisms our virtuality, the way that we experience space, project ourselves into the material world, represent and orient ourselves is through both fear and spatial compassry. We are negotiating the caesura in front of us in all things. And in the art (and sport) of fighting this is not only literalized (the performance involves a real space) it is performed by agents, by actors, onto which we can graft ourselves. We are projected into the space and relation through the spectacle. This is the interesting, vital thing. At its highest the fighter does not seek to extinguish the fear. This would negate the relation. She/He seeks to preserve it, and act it out in terms of courage itself, to create a continuity between fear, being dumbstruck, and action (finding words). And all the things we love about fighters, each and every style of fighting and be defined by the quality of that fighter's relationship to the gap, that space sitting between fighters. How much do they stand it in, how often? Can they persist in it? Do they avoid it? Do they rush through it? And, at a deeper, more poetic sense, how do they relate to the gap in terms of their own rhythm? What metrical expression do they use to work through that gap, gauge it, negotiate it? For me, when I watch fights now, I don't even watch strikes anymore. I mean, yes, I see them, but my eye is locked onto the gap between fighters. What is the relationship between each fighter and the gap? It's the glue, the Autarchy of The Relation, which puts all the elements together. If you read poetry, it's like discovering that there was a ruling meter all along, beneath the words. Watching the Gap - Why Muay Thai Is Special Watch this fight between two young Thai fighters providing an example of what I'm referring to, the sense of fight space. watch the fight here - or if that link doesn't work, try this one (mobile) I'm presenting two fights that just fell into my feed, almost by accident, together. It's not that they are individually primary examples, but they do work to illustrate fundamental differences between the Thailand of Muay Thai and the Muay Thai (and kickboxing, and MMA, etc) of the rest of the world. If you would take 10 minutes and just watch the fight above, but in so doing, mostly just watch the gap between the fighters. Yes, the variety of strikes, the changes in tempo are beautiful, but watch the entire fight looking at the gap, the caesura. This is the fear-gap buried at the heart of all fighting arts and sport. Now watch this fight below, from ONE Championship, a version of Muay Thai that is maybe closer to kickboxing in its encouraged fighting styles (fast clinch breaks, etc) as it seeks to popularize Muay Thai to an international audience. It features a popular western fighter in Liam Harrison, and an older Thai in Rodlek. Almost all the talk about this fight was about the strikes. But watch the extremely simplified gap-relationship, when compared to even the children fighting above. The very vocabulary of relations to the gap in this second fight consists of Harrisons' safe leg-kicks (his specialty), and his kind of hold-your-breath-and-go memorized combinations through the zone (a very common western style of fighting). Rodlek on the other hand also takes a very simplified approach to the gap, he's just gradually shrinking that gap, in a kind of slow motion vice-grip, making Harrison more and more uncomfortable. It's nothing complex, Rodlek though is in positive relation with the gap. More comfortable in it, and working through the gap, almost using it as a weapon. Debates occurred as to how much "damage" Harrison did with his leg kicks, or how tough Rodlek is. But what I want you to see is far beyond this fight. Look at the differences in vocabulary between these two fights. Look at the intense variety of spatial relationships, and attempts to control, work through, live through the gap in the Thai fight, and the very simplistic march down of the One fight. These are not the same sport, not the same art. As a commercial product you can certainly see the imperative of the 2nd fighting style. It can appeal across cultures, enter into different markets. It encourages viral like fight edits that can frictionlessly slip through social media platforms. It is segmentable. Reproducible. It also grafts more easily onto the immense popularity (and visual structure of) MMA. (Think about the gap, the caesura in MMA.) But, what I'm calling attention to is that the deeper, more profound vocabulary of fear and its sister courage as found in traditional Muay Thai in Thailand, and reaching for an explanation as to why Muay Thai might be the greatest artform in the world. What is incredibly special about Thailand's Muay Thai is how it has created a value, an aesthetic of performance that maintains the Autarchy of The Relation. It has created a poetry of staying in the spaces of fear, and relating to them. And in that aesthetic and those skills it accedes to the highest endeavor of humanity, reaching up to and beyond the poetics of German Philosophy, and Ancient Greek culture itself (considered a root of all the things we think and believe as westerners). And, it presents it all, without dilution, for the common man to see, to witness. Yes, it does require some education of eyes to see, you have to learn to look at the gap between fighters, and not their strikes - I am reminded of the admonition: The music, not the words. Now look at this Golden Age fight, all time legends of the Golden Age. You can pick 100s of fights from this era, but just watch this fight looking at the gap. Karuhat takes a big lead counting Kaensak who is one of the all time greats, 2x fighter of the year. Kaensak happened to be using the low kick as an early primary weapon. Much of this fight is Karuhat defending his lead. Just look at how buttery he is in the gap. On the edge of it, in it. It's like a force field, a bubble, as Kaensak fights his way through it trying to come from behind. Kaensak was a ferocious kicker and puncher. There is some concern that the poetics of Thailand's Muay Thai are being lost, a real concern. But one can see much of what Karuhat does in the fight between the young fighters above. You can feel the same relationship to the gap, the caesura, so we have not lost the thread. What I want to call attention to is not what is better fighting than some other form of fighting, but rather to the buried meaning in fighting itself, and the secret way that is expressing something so close to our soul, all our hearts, and the urge that we must hold onto this. Fighting, at the highest, vocabulary-rich manifestation is putting into reality the things that poetry and the plastic arts, what many consider upper reaches of cultural achievement, and fashioning them out of the raw sinews, nerves and spirit of human beings. Fighters are artists of themselves, and in that way are the mid-point between the dumbstruck and the brave, what we all aspire to be. The fighter takes up in her or his real hands the substance of the thing that the painter lifts when she or he lifts the brush, the composure does when striking piano keys, in a way that transcends or at least bridges class, and radicalizes art itself, touching the chords of what makes us what we hope to be.
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