and a New York State of Mind

Tony Annesi

Martial arts has long been analyzed through the use of the yin-yang paradigm of Chinese Taoism. Martial arts, it can readily be seen, has two parts, the martial and the artistic, as well as many other dichotomies: hard and soft, defensive and offensive, physical and mental, etc. Recently, I have begun to re-recognize, borrowing from Camille Pagliaís Sexual Personae, its Dionysian and Apollonian parts. These are similar, but not identical, to the ìmartialî and the artistic.

The Dionysian is the raw, emotional, visceral force and animalism which is manifested in martial arts from the extreme if intentionally ineffective artistry of professional wrestling to extreme brutality of the all-out sparring contest. Dionysian martial arts do not have to be ìmartialî but are definitely passionate.

The Apollonian is the ideal and artistic in martial arts from the formalism of a traditional dojo to the integral detail of a complicated and beautiful, if sometimes effete, aikido exercise.

The martial arts at their gritty roots are Dionysian. There can be no greater passion than self-preservation and no more emotional reaction than a person fighting for his life. But this Dionysian root has grown into a Apollonian tree. It is for this reason that I favor the Apollonian ó its nourishment is sweeter and much easier to digest than the tuberous origins of the vegetation. But without the fingers of the trunk clawing deeply into the grime, the fruit would never have been nourished. And without the goal of the fruit, the roots have no purpose or direction.

Without the Dionysian passion of down and dirty combat there would be no Apollonian art to analyze, to exercise, or to aid in self-development. Without the Dionysian, the Apollonian becomes misdirected, untestable, perhaps even unfulfilling of its own promise of self-development ó in a word: fruitless.

I was one of many ju-jutsu and aiki-ju-jutsu stylists to be asked to demonstrate in a Friendship Demonstration on Long Island. Most of the attendees were straight (that is, hard-style) ju-jutsu practitioners since aiki-ju-jutsu-jin are few and far between. and many who sport that name do hard ju-jutsu with a hakama (formal Japanese divided skirt) on. The afternoon was filled with slam-dunk techniques that simultaneously showed the self-defense ability of their advocates. I went on near the end of the day.

I did not show the long circular aikido-like waza we sometimes practice for the development of fluidity but a more minimalistic version of aiki. Most of the spectators, fellow martial artists all, did not receive my aiki demo well even though what I was showing was an ease of movement typifying the reason most ju-jutsu-people study ju-jutsu rather than karate. In their Dionysian (Paglia prefers the word ìChthonianî implies a darker, more antediluvian and thus more innate) passion as native New Yorkers, some from Long Island but most from the city, they simply didnít believe that aiki would work ìon the street. They martial artists, many form not so sedate area, had to know that what they learned today, they could apply tomorrow. and the quickest most effective way to apply waza was fast and hard, i.e. passionately, Dionysically. Two visitors form upstate, however, loved the demonstration and came to see me afterward. They expressed their fascination and appreciation. They knew that what I was showing would take a long time to perfect but could, indeed, be effective. as well as aesthetic. In their relatively safe suburban dojo they could dare to be Apollonian.

Sabrina was a student of mine for a few months. She too came from New York. One day she caught me after class and asked if we were going to learn stuff you could use on the street. I explained that traditional aiki teaches form and principle so that you can adapt it for many different self-defense situations. "What type of self-defense did you have in mind?" Sabrina then related a specific incident that had happened to her in the city. It seems she was taking a turn and politely waiting for a slow moving vehicle to cross in front of her. Two young women blared their horn behind Sabrina and yelled epithets and threats from their open window. Sabrina said, "I wanted to get out of my car and pound them, but there were two of them and I didn't know any self-defense."

I gave her a perhaps too-long lecture of trying to maintain a passive state-of-mind and choosing oneís battles more wisely. But I didnít come form the city so I didnít understand. Whether or not her intended use for the aiki-ju-jutsu she was learning was appropriate, she wanted instant or near instant self-defense ability form her martial art. It was not that aiki could not give her that ability, it was that it could not give it to here quickly. And, in order to give her that ability, it had to do so without passion. It was the passion that she was not interested in giving up.
I use New York here as a symbol of the large, crowded, and active metropolis. New York shows in its vertical spires, Los Angeles shows in its horizontal neighborhoods. Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore--any large city can have a ìNew York attitude about it.

The Dionysian-Apollonian theory explains so much.

Years ago, I noticed that martial artists from New York and New Jersey tended to be both traditional and contorted in that tradition. They did not exactly break away from tradition a la Bruce Lee but they did not exactly attempt to follow it either. There are talented African-American martial artists who, having learned a Japanese samurai tradition, wear hakama when they practice. But the marking on the hakama were African designs. My first response was chuckling, then queasiness, then an attempt at a deeper understanding. These New York martial artists felt intuitively and accurately, I think, that what they practiced was based on but was not true to the Asian forms. the African designs on Japanese style garb expressed this. For pure Japanese stylists who love of the art becomes a love for a Japanese artistic sensibility, African hakama are ridiculous. For African-American martial artist whose pride in their African heritage overlays their recognition of the Asian art they have studied, perhaps their unique uniform is somehow strangely appropriate.

I expect that these New York martial artists could not have been passionate about Japanís Buddhist reserve. I expect they would prefer the passion of an African village celebration. that they would favor the Dionysian choice of African warrior brotherhood over rigid samurai discipline.

Little did they realize that each culture could be seen to reflect elements of the other. Buddhists and Samurai do not accurately emblematize Japan any more than huts and loincloths accurately emblematize Africa. But Dionysians donít study these things, they sense them. The African hakama is a manifestation of what ìNew Yorkî (i.e. big city) martial artists sensed and sensed accurately that passion is quite personal. And it is passion that self-defense is really about.

So what about artistry? What about the Apollonian aspect that I personally favor? It is that aspect that makes the arts that all martial artists are passionate about. It is that aspect that creates the tools of passion. And it is that aspect that teaches those who wish to learn how to apply self-defense, after years of passion, dispassionately.

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