Lying in the dentist’s chair yesterday was a good stoic check-point for me. I grew up with a terrible fear of dentists, and needles in particular. Previous appointments were only possible with healthy doses of atavin to keep me calm…well, maybe not so healthy doses. One previous session, years ago, saw me so mellowed on atavin that when the dentist started drilling on an unfrozen tooth, I contemplated the intense pain for a few moments before deciding to tell the dentist something was wrong. It hurt, but it didn’t seem all that important…

But for the most recent appointments, after a fifteen year gap, I figured I was now stoic enough to overcome my discomforts without atavin. And…I was. I fell asleep in the chair during the wait between the numbing compound being applied, and the dentist finishing up a quick office task. Almost fell asleep again during the drilling and fillings, except that I kept being made aware of my bodies autonomous reactions to the work. My blood pressure would rise, my temperature would shoot up, I could feel myself starting to get tense…but I just took a deep breath and released it, and felt myself relax. Overall, I would say it was a pleasant experience. A good test of the stoic doctrine of finding a way to be happy even in the face of the worst pain. Not by avoiding the experience, but by immersing yourself in it. I had no pain to deal with, but I met my anxiety and understood it.

When the dentist was putting the needle in, I had to compliment her on her martial arts technique. Once the needle was out, anyway…What she had done was slip the needle carefully up to my mouth without ever allowing it to pass into the line of my vision. I didn’t even see her hand until the needle was already in place. It’s a martial arts principle I learned a long time ago in Japanese arts, and have since heard from every other art worth the practice time. The Japanese phrase I learned was “Shikaku” or the “Dead Angle.” In Aikido, it was a place we moved to. In Shotokan, it was a place we struck from. In boxing, it was created by the tempo of jab, jab, hook…

With weapon work, the dead angle becomes a far more elaborate game. I can finesse my guard to hide my blade from your peripheral vision, robbing you of some part of your ability to sense motion. I can play the angles of our joined blades to fool you into thinking I’m safely on the other side of your sword. I can distract you with gross body motion to cover one line, while my sword slips into the more classic dead angle, and slips up into your armpit.

The angle can exist in the space of timing, of tempo. One of the manuals tells us to strike into the still place, the time when the opponent changes direction or intention, and momentarily is forced to pause to overcome inertia. Marozzo tells us to use caution when throwing more than one cut, since the hand can tend to become a still place that the sword rotates around, and is thus vulnerable and needs to be protected with footwork or off-hand defense via buckler or cloak.

The ideal fighter eliminates all her own dead angles through position and motion, never trusting perception. Good movement has to anticipate a dead angle being created, and compensate with blade action. Marozzo is the last master of this. Everyone after him seems to surrender to the simpler system of eliminating movements, and keeping to more perfect guards and lines. The thought is that by eliminating the larger motions, the dead angles are reduced to a more manageable number, allowing defensive actions to become the new offense. Fencing becomes a more manageable, the n-body problem is reduced by one.

Fencing progresses and becomes more efficient, easier to learn. Or more accurately, less challenging to learn. The brain and body are no longer required to make great leaps in ability to improve. I would argue that the end result is the same, though. All styles, when practiced correctly, tend to reach a point of equal return to the practitioner. It’s my belief, though, that the more complex process is the one that best improves the practitioner.