Let the Valiant Fighters Go

For reasons I don’t enjoy being yelled at enough to go into, the subject of violence has been much on the minds of my fellow Americans the last few months.  The current way of thinking seems to be that certain types of violence exist as a sort of protected category, and that the best way to deal with them is to focus our attentions on the proximate cause, in the form of firearms that hold 11 rounds in a clip rather than 10.  A cynic, were any to be found lurking around this very serious subject, might detect the hand of magical thinking stirring the rhetoric of both sides.

But then, as Barbara Holland pointed out in her wonderful 2005 book Gentlemen’s Blood:  A History of Dueling, “blood is magical”.  The history of organized murder, which reaches back to a time when law as we know it scarcely existed, suggests that the desire to spill the blood of one’s fellows may not, in fact, be something new under the sun, and that our current fretful attitude towards it may have more to do with its having been placed in the hands of amateurs than with the actual taking of lives.  In the genteel days of dueling, after all, the ability to fight well, or even to afford the tools of killing, was largely restricted to the upper classes, as opposed to our current sorry state of affairs, when any angry plebeian with a week’s salary to spend can acquire an instrument of death.

Holland’s book, written in a breezy, almost whimsical style that seems largely at peace with the fact that murder is as much a component of the human male’s genetic profile as pattern baldness, the urge to procreate, and prostate cancer, is chock-full of surprising revelations about the history of the duel.  The endless proliferation of cheap handguns may have made it easier for one man to kill another over minor offenses like being cut off in traffic or treading on an expensive sneaker, but only the lack of a formal structure and a set of (largely arbitrary) rules makes the process any different from the days when a gentleman might run another through with three feet of cold steel over the shape of his nose, or his tendency to talk out of turn.

So accustomed are we to the notion of the rule of law, and so much have we alienated ourselves from the belief that might makes right (though, of course, might still makes its presence felt everywhere we look), that we forget that for thousands of years, it was considered perfectly acceptable to settle matters not only of honor, but of justice, by a trial of arms.  Remedies for civil and criminal injuries were sought by suiting up, grabbing the nearest implement of destruction, and having at it, and if you were the one left alive, there would no longer be any question of who held the moral high ground.  Should you be incapable, due to age, infirmity, or the lack of a Y chromosome, of taking arms in your own defense, you had the prerogative of hiring some bloodthirsty lout to make your argument for you, and this additional level of abstraction was rarely, if ever, questioned.

Any who might argue that our modern era, with its easy death at the barrel of a gun, has outbloodied the civilized days of the duel would be wise to reconsider; the slicing of heads and splitting of sides conducted over the quaint concepts of “truth, honor, freedome, and curtesie” cost a shocking number of lives.  Holland notes that in France, over 10,000 men were butchered in duels over a twenty-year period from 1590 to 1610 — a potent enough number by itself, but even more so when one realizes that the population of that nation was a third of what it is today.  One particular nobleman, the Chevalier d’Andrieux, racked up a staggering death toll of 72 before he reached his thirtieth year; and yet the idea of doing anything to restrict this behavior was unthinkable.  Voltaire once challenged a nobleman to a duel, and was agog when he was instead clapped in the cooler; he considered it an affront not only to himself, but to dueling itself, that integral aspect of the very character of the nation.

Naturally, this sort of thing was only acceptable for the toffs.  The lower classes were little more than toiling apes; it might have been bad form to kill one for no reason, but it wasn’t something you’d really get into much trouble over.  Commoners, on the other hand, were no more allowed to duel than then were allowed to make laws; they could be thrown in prison merely for fighting, and of one of them even began to approach the valiant d’Andrieux’s heroic body count, he would have an appointment made for him at the headsman’s with all haste.  The only time it was acceptable for the peasantry to kill one another was in a war duly authorized by the authorities, and even then, if they were to accidentally dispatch an enemy nobleman, they would likely be severely punished rather than rewarded.  Mustn’t give the plebes any ideas about murdering their betters, after all; officers of the same army could safely off one another in a duel — indeed, in the Russian military, it was a serious crime to refuse to answer a challenge — but an enlisted man who thought to do the same would be up against the wall in no time.

Endless vade mecums were thrown together in order to lend a patina of gentlemanly order to the art of honor killing.  Rules so abstruse and and detailed that they might come out of a rulebook for the sort of war games that eventually displaced them were assayed to make the duel seem like it was a highly civilized affair, and, indeed, why wouldn’t it be?  It was the best of society who engaged in dueling, after all.  In our own very proper and democratic republic, Andrew Jackson, a notoriously hot-tempered duelist, developed a reputation for cheating on his way to sending as many as 18 men to their graves.  Aaron Burr, of course, owns the distinction of being the only man to kill another in a duel while he was vice-president of the United States, having fatally gutshot founding father Alexander Hamilton in a political dispute; but most sources agree that both parties strictly followed the code duello and that the entire affair was therefore above board and indeed a point of pride for the bourgeoning democracy.  (Hamilton supplied the guns; they were the same ones that had caused the death of his own son, murdered in a duel not three years before.)

Holland died in 2010 of lung cancer; Gentleman’s Blood was one of the last books she wrote.  She was a chain smoker (hence her demise), an inveterate drinker who hoisted “a half-gallon of Scotch a week” at her remote Virginia cabin, and a cantankerous defender of the old vices of meat-eating, frank language, and fucking in an age increasingly characterized by the language of polite evasion.  She didn’t think much of the idea of ritualized murder, but she at least approached it with an ironic good humor.  New Orleans, she explains, was addicted to dueling; at its antebellum peak, City Park would witness more than a half-dozen fatal confrontations a day, and one cemetery was founded specifically to house the victims of a single aggressive southern gentleman. When she explains how the Crescent City experienced a profound medical crisis when two of its most prominent doctors killed one another in a duel, she does so with the heavy sigh and resigned twisted smile of someone telling a very dark, but very funny, joke.

When the tide finally turned for dueling, it was not because any restrictions had been placed on that mighty democratizing instrument, the personal firearm.  Dueling stopped (well, mostly; it still crops up from time to time, especially in South America) because people changed, and because the idea of honor didn’t seem too drastically important anymore, and because we rid ourselves — at least in theory — of the idea that different rules should apply to the rich and the poor, and because it suddenly seemed terribly unjust, not to mention distinctly silly, to settle disputes by a punctilious show of arms.  A simple and brutal problem resolved itself through a complex and often nebulous set of social and philosophical changes.  There may be a lesson in that; but Barbara Holland is dead.

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