A Book about Epic

As some readers of this blog may know, I am writing a book about epic. I’m going to have to look for a publisher, so I’m trying to put some words together that will entice an editor and reasonably characterize its content. So any suggestions would be gratefully received. Thanks to John MacE for his editing on this version.

Human culture can be surprisingly unpredictable in its search for new creative outlets and ideas. If need be it will reach back to its ancient roots in search of the next big thing: epic, for instance.

“Epic” is now a cult term among fantasy gamers and anime and comic book enthusiasts, and the epic themes, characters and plots are consciously and unconsciously reprised in science fiction, superhero movies, fantasy graphics, Gothic lifestyles, Renaissance Faires, battle reenactments, summer blockbusters, and music video. Evidently some kind of youth rebellion is going on against the now rather
antiquated slayers of the Grand Narratives. Perhaps ancient human needs are resurfacing, expressing themselves through popular culture because the high-culture venues of the academy and the highbrow press and art world are closed to them.

The story that epic tells is the story of human evolution as seen from the inside; it anticipates, sometimes by thousands of years, the findings of modern neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, and anthropology. Our ancestors were not naive about our nature.

Dozens of major epic poems, oral and written, have been surfacing across the planet among “non-Western” cultures such as the Malinese, the Mayans,the Polynesians, the Kurds, the Serbs, the
Armenians, and the Mongols, and in regions as diverse as ancient India, China, Japan, Persia, Argentina, Korea, and East Africa, proving that the grand narratives are not a “Western” but a human
invention. They are invention of peoples who have stepped beyond myth into the making of civilization, with all its tearing strains against our nature and all its dangerous promise. Uncannily, these epics repeat the same stories again and again–the beast-man and his fall, the wise woman, tragic in-law conflict, the journey to the land of the dead, the sacrificial founding of the city, the creation of the world through the creation of language, and many others.

The new generation that has rediscovered epic is well aware of the ambiguities of this gift they have appropriated from under the noses of its cultured censors. The book will explore this new-old phenomenon and begin to outline its meaning.


A New Start for Karate?

The following is a piece I wrote for the nascent American Amateur Karate Federation electronic newsletter. I’m hoping that interested readers will look out for the newsletter when it appears in the next few days.

On March 27th this year a meeting of historic importance for the martial arts took place at the University of Texas-Dallas, hosted by the Japan Karate Association and the AAKF Southwestern Region. I attended the seminar, and as a long-time student with more enthusiasm and years than talent and time I was curious to see how the Shotokan school would handle the great transition that the seminar marked.

A little over a year ago Hidetaka Nishiyama, the great sensei of the Shotokan school of karate, passed away after a lifetime of astonishing achievement in developing and spreading the ancient art of karate. He left behind a galaxy of martial arts talent and a great store of knowledge and expertise embodied in his students as well as in his published work.

I knew that traditionally martial arts schools have often broken up into rival fiefdoms after the era of a great integrating leader like sensei Nishiyama. I believe that what happened on the Richardson campus of the University of Texas and in meetings before and after the main occasion that weekend in March changed all that.

Significantly, the meeting was organized around an extraordinary teaching event. Robert Fusaro, Mahmoud Tabassi, Toru Shimoji, Albert Cheah, Dr. Tim Hanlon, Brad Webb and Alex Tong, the sensei of the Dallas club, presented, one after another, the distilled wisdom of perhaps two centuries of training, competition, and meditation. These were the true secrets of the art, presented in action and in training exercises, with remarkable clarity and new insight, by some of the finest athlete-artists in the world.

Other karateka reading this will be well aware of the changes that have been taking place in Shotokan: the adjustment of the stance to give more dynamical potential, the increasingly explicit study of internal body power and contraction, the analysis of the roles of different muscle groups, the work on breathing, timing, application. To the traditional spiritual, poetic, and alchemical vocabulary of China and Japan has been added the physics, dynamics, and sports-medical biology of the West, to the advantage of both. I foresee a further role for psychology, emerging from the combination of chi theory with Western neuropsychology. Many of these developing features of our art were splendidly on show at the seminar.

But what made the event unique was that each sensei built upon the work and ideas of the others. In a normal karate seminar each of these instructors would give profound knowledge and inspiration; but when the same basic yet subtle principles were illuminated in very different styles, metaphors, and physical action, suddenly karate seemed to spring from two into three dimensions, from the flat to the round. I learned approaches and methods that not only promised to improve my techniques, but also to avoid certain kinds of injury, and most important personally, to deepen my understanding of karate into the period of old age.

What was especially helpful was the creation of special sessions in which students both beginning and expert could ask questions individually of the instructors, and thus to get to know them and have them address the personal training needs of each questioner. This too was a change in the culture of karate, in the kindly spirit of sensei Nishiyama, but developed further in a way that extends extends the tradition in a new way.

What happened at the meeting, it seemed to some of us, was that the deep devotion of the leadership to teaching and to the art of karate itself had overwhelmed the traditional fiery independence and desire for precedence of the great masters. That spirit, though admirable and necessary in so competitive an art, has tended to prevent karate from speaking in a single voice. Perhaps the model of karate governance was changing from monarchy to a sort of democratic meritocracy, from rivalry in ranking to friendly and cooperative competition in excellence. Could we some day try once more for representation in the Olympics?

Whatever the further outcome of this meeting, the students were the beneficiaries, and we look forward to a new era of vitality in the fine old art of karate.