Sunday, March 29, 2009

Science frictions and the ronin

And in the master's chambers,
They gathered for the feast
The stab it with their steely knives,
But they just can't kill the beast.
Last thing I remember, I was
Running for the door:
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before.

(The Eagles, "Hotel California")

Back in California (and still those voices calling from far away wake you up in the middle of the night just to hear them say...welcome to the Hotel California...) after a conference trip to the East Coast that was very much revealing, both of the fact that I am still moved by the beauty of the type of science that has been driving me on for so long, and at the same time of how little I can cope with the society of people that surrounds it.

I've had for a long time, years perhaps, a recurrent vision. Not a dream really, more of the kind of hypnagogic impressions that ambush people on the threshold between sleep and wakefulness and haunt them with their more than real quality. In this vision, which varies in length and intensity but not in content, I am standing in the middle of an open space at the top of a hill, surrounded by dense forest growth as far as the eye can see. No trace of human presence is detectable anywhere. There is snow on the ground, a heavy snowfall covering hills and conifer trees in pale blue frost. The sky is overcast and the light so dim that it can only be dusk or dawn. I am standing there holding a sword, one of those long and heavy swords medieval knights used to wield in battle, but I have no horse and no armor, just a sword whose metal feels cold and smells an unpleasant metal smell at the contact with the sweaty skin of hand. The snow also smells, the acre smell of blood, where the sword touched animal flesh. They come, often one at a time, sometime in pairs, or small groups. Mostly they circle around me out there, just barely out of sight, where the terrain of the hill bends and the forest swallows it. I hear them and smell them though I mostly don't see them. They are and are not wolves. They are an archaic creature that will one day evolve into a wolf. They are archetypal beasts, Ur-wolves, an ancient memory imprint living inside the collective brain of the human species, and they are hungry. And yet, they wait, because that is their winning strategy. One on one, the sword wins over the Ur-wolf's fury. Already when they attack in small groups of two or three at a time, the fight is much more challenging. I fight them back each time, inflict wounds on their flesh, leave dark red spot of acre blood smell on the snow, and I know that in their strategy of waiting, in their continuos series of small attacks aimed at wearing out the fighter, they have already won. All they have to do is wait until weariness will do the job for them. They do not need to come out in force for an all out battle, they only need to keep up the pressure, not relenting it, until that continuous pressure will be the killer and they only need to show up in the end to claim the remains, when it is safe to do so.

The moral of the story is rather clear even before making the full transition from sleep back into the world of the living and out of this complacent state of reverie.

So I began wondering, as I walked around the crowded sidewalks of south Berkeley amidst second hand books sellers, incense burning, and hippies playing guitars with otherworldly looks and semeiotics textbooks at their feet, on the strange and compelling analogies between the practices of science and those of the martial arts. I have been for a brief period of a few years in my teens a trainee in one of the major brands of Asian martial arts, judo, and occasionally of some less refined Western combat sports like boxing, and then for a much longer portion of my life I have been a trainee and practitioner of two of the main sciences: mathematics and theoretical physics.

So I will violate my usual habit of reserving this blog to discussions of issues, either book commentaries or reflections upon life, that are somewhat directly linked to science and its narratives (including some carefully chosen science fiction) and will venture this time into a completely different territory, by reviewing here a book that has apparently nothing to do with the theme of science, a book about martial arts. My justification for doing so is that I had never become as clearly aware of the striking similarities between the practices of science and those of the traditional (as well as the non-traditional) martial arts, until I stumbled, in one of the bookstores here, upon an intriguing and very unusual book about martial arts, Daniele Bolelli's "On the warrior's path". I'll come to describe why the book is so remarkable (or at least why I find it so), but first let me dwell a bit more into the comparison between science and the combat training codified into the form usually referred to as "martial arts". A first striking similarity lies in the fact that both activities are borne out of many years of intense training, both have schools and styles, and honorable masters of the art. One learns techniques, katas or forms. The seminar rooms are the dojo of science, conferences its combat competitions. Sure one usually does not see blood and teeth flying out of people's mouths as in the recently fashionable all out fight shows of the martial arts practitioners, but one can often see the scars of this other form of parring all the same. Most of all, martial arts, with both their physical and philosophical aspects, are all about handling situations of conflict, as well as about conquering fear and, as such, they can provide a very useful supporting structure to the life of scientists (apart from doing something to keep their bodies from falling apart with too much inactivity and too many hours spend behind a computer screen). A good part of the everyday practice of science is in fact also engaged in resolving situations of conflict: there are conflicts of a more noble nature, namely the continuous struggle to bring the puzzling unknown to a satisfactory solution that improves our understanding of the endless mysteries of the universe that surrounds us, as well as the not so noble conflicts generated by the functioning of the community of scientists with its all too human, or more appropriately ape-like structure of dominance and aggression. Fighting is part of everyday practice, not in the more direct physical sense perhaps, though I often dream of bringing some of the enormous and disruptive tensions created by the interpersonal frictions between practitioners of the enlightened and noble scientific enterprise down to the level where they truly belong, where they could be resolved with sweat and blood, punches and high kicks Hong Kong movie style. I believe people would be more honest to one another and to themselves if that were the case. Despite such thoughts, which I occasionally indulge in (at certain times more frequently than at others), I am generally a non-violent person, so I think that it would, if possible, be preferable to avoid situations of conflict, and certainly not seek them out. Thus, one aspect of Bolelli's book I particularly like is the discussion of how martial arts train people not only in the techniques of fighting, but also in learning how to avoid fighting. I began to ask myself, in relation to my recurrent vision of fending off the ancient carnivores with a sword, how many of those wolves were really necessary, and how many among them might in fact have been avoided altogether, their attacks fended off not by the blade, but by a more subtle strategy aimed at avoiding the confrontation in the first place. Part of the wisdom of martial arts is not entering into a confrontation unless one is reasonably sure of coming out of it in one piece, and especially not to take on many more opponents at any given time than one can simultaneously handle. This is of course the message of my fighting-off-the-wolves vision: I do more and more frequently find myself in the position of having to handle a fight against too many things at the same time and when the next one comes along, as if following the hunting strategy of the wolves, I find I have exhausted the resources needed to handle one more challenge.

Bolelli's book has other very interesting aspects. In his description of the different psychological types of the warrior, I see that the one and only one that fits me perfectly is "the ronin", the name originally reserved to the unattached samurai, the lonely warrior who do not serve a master nor a cause. There are a couple of beautiful sentences in his description of the ronin that strike a deep chord: "a nomadic warrior who doesn't stop in any place long enough to grow roots" and "the chaos of his spirit is the sun illuminating his life as well as the curse that can ruin him" and "the ronin is the meteor of the warrior tradition... a mushroom spore fallen on earth from outer space". I see myself, he sees himself. The other warrior figures described in the book (the samurai, the ninja, the shaolin monk, the hermit, and the tribal warrior) do not quite have the same immediate appeal and brightness of the ronin description.

It is clear in reading the book that the later chapters have been written at a different time from the bulk of the book consisting of the first eight chapters translated into English from an earlier Italian version and expanded. In the later part what I find most interesting, though I connected better to the earlier part of the book, are the chapter dedicated to Bruce Lee's anarchist view of martial arts and its relation to early Taoism and historical Buddhism at the origin of Zen. I also enjoyed the last and more personal chapter, where the author reveals his reasons for choosing the path of the warrior, his bipolar disorder (welcome to the club, pal) and the welcoming effects of the combat sports in dealing with the emotional rollercoaster of mood disorders. The references to Nietzsche give a fairly romanticized vision of the German philosopher, but they do get the point across well enough.