On the subject of socially accepted violence

Fiction is a great way to get into someone else’s head. If one is concerned with finding usefulness in all things, then that is surely a useful feature of fiction. As someone who is capable of critiquing usefulness, but also perfectly content in the knowledge that useless things may exist, I primarily consider this an entertaining feature of fiction.

While thinking about socially accepted (even approved) violence, I was reminded of a 1689 scene in The Confusion:

Well-read and -traveled gentleman that he was Bonaventure Rossignol had learned that in the world there were countries—and even in this country, there were religious communities and social classes—where men did not always go about carrying long sharp stabbing- and slashing-weapons ready to be whipped out and driven into other men’s flesh at a moment’s notice. This was a thing that he knew and understood in theory but could not entirely comprehend. Take for example the present circumstance: two men, strange to each other, in the same house as Eliza, neither of them knowing where the other was or what his intentions might be. It was a wildly unstable state of affairs. Some would argue that to add edged weapons to this mix was to render it more volatile yet, and hence a bad idea; but to Rossignol it seemed altogether fitting, and an apt way to bring into the light a conflict that, in other countries or classes, would be suffered to fester in the dark. Rossignol had been—this could not be denied—sneaking around the house, trying not to be detected by d’Avaux. A winding and backtracking course had led him to a gloomy hallway, bypassed by the redecoration project, paneled in slabs of wood that had not yet been painted to make them look like marble, and cluttered with the d’Ozirs’ portraits and keepsakes—some mounted on the walls, most leaning against whatever would hold them up. For if it was a sign of high class and elevated tastes to adorn the walls of one’s dwelling with paintings, then how infinitely more sophisticated to lean great stacks of homeless art against walls, and stash them behind chairs! Reaching this gallery, anyway, he smelled eau de cologne, and placed his left hand on the scabbard of his rapier (a style of weapon that had gone out of fashion, but it was the one his father, Antoine Rossignol, the King’s cryptanalyst before him, had taught him how to use, and he would be damned if he would make a fool of himself trying to learn how to fence with a small-sword) and thumbed it out an inch or two just to be sure it would not turn out to be stuck when the time came. At the same time he lengthened his pace to a confident stride. For to skulk about would be to admit some kid of bad intentions and invite preemptive retribution. As he pounded along the gallery he took note of chairs, busts on pedestals, stacks of paintings, carpet-humps, and other impedimenta, so that he would not trip over them when and if some sort of melee were to break out. Ahead of him, on the left, another, similar gallery intersected this one; the man with the cologne was back in there. Rossignol slowed, turning to the left, and edged around the corner just until the other became visible. Because of this slow crab-wise movement, Rossignol’s right arm and shoulder led the remainder of his body around the corner, which wrought to his advantage in that he could whip out the rapier and lunge around the corner at any foe, while his body would be shielded from any right-handed counter-attack. But alas, the other fellow had foreseen all of this, and re-deployed himself by crossing to the opposite side of the side-corridor and turning his back upon Rossignol so that he could pretend to study a landscape mounted to the wall there; thus, the corner was entirely out of his way, and his right shoulder was situated closest to Rossignol. A slight turn of the head sufficed to bring Rossignol into his peripheral vision. He had crossed his right arm diagonally over the front of his body and then clasped his left hand over the elbow to hold it in that position; this would place his right hand very near, if not on, the grip of the cutlass that was dangling from his hip. The pose was forced and artificial, but well-thought-out; in a moment he could draw, turn, and deliver a backhanded slash through the middle of the gallery-intersection. It was, therefore, a standoff.

It was also, admittedly, ridiculous. Rossignol, for his part, had not killed anyone in years. Jean Bart (for this had to be Jean Bart) probably did it more frequently, but never in rich people’s houses. If it had somehow come to swordplay, they’d have been civil enough to take it outside. And yet they did not know each other. There was no harm in taking precautions, particularly if they were as inoffensive as standing in a certain position, and maintaining a certain distance. These measures did not even require conscious thought; Rossignol had been thinking about something he had read in one of d’Avaux’s letters, and Bart (he could safely assume) was thinking about fucking Eliza, and both men had relied upon habit to plan and execute all of these maneuvers.

The Baroque Cycle

The handwritten manuscript pages of The Baroque Cycle, displayed at Seattle's EMP Museum. (Michael Hanscom)

I like this scene for a few reasons. First (and least relevantly) because I am in the camp that just enjoys Neal Stephenson and considers his tangents to be features, not bugs. (I also get a kick out of Cap’n Crunch and Alan Turing’s bicycle in Cryptonomicon; they double as useful test scenes to establish whether or not someone should read the book or if they’d merely find it a pointless slogfest.)

Second, the physicality* comes to the fore in a way that feels right. If violence is endemic and accepted—a mindset largely alien to me—then it makes sense that other alien thought processes should also be in place. I’m not often conscious of how I’m standing in relation to other people…or rather, I am conscious (or subconsciously aware) of certain aspects of body language—things like distance (appropriate or too close?) and physical contact (acceptable for the relationship and situation, or not?)—but I do not typically have to evaluate the scenario with an eye to a violent confrontation. I can consciously think about those things, but by default that particular switch in my head is not flipped.

Third, Rossignol is not at all an action star. He’s a secondary or tertiary geek character. The fact that he has killed anyone, regardless of how long ago it was, is somewhat dissonant. (We’d be utterly shocked if twentieth-century geek Randy Waterhouse made a similar revelation over his cereal bowl.) There are certain classes of people—members of the military, law enforcement, martial artists—who I would expect to have a very clear awareness of their own bodies and the tactical implications of any scenario. But it’s something that I think of as specialized knowledge. In Stephenson’s seventeenth century, casual violence is not the sole provenance of dumb jocks or hardened criminals. It’s just this thing that guys do.

And that feels more alien than any philosopher’s stone.


* I am reminded of an interview with Matt Damon talking about how he prepared for the Bourne movies. Which also brings up a separate but related issue: the visual vocabulary imparted and standardized by movies and TV, which is very different from first person experience (as well as first- and close third-person narration).

In this case, a very specific sort of civil violence, entirely the provenance of males and, largely, the upper classes.

Admittedly, any reading is somewhat complicated by the fact that Rossignol was a real historical figure, to say nothing of the pervading snarkiness. I choose to largely ignore the former, primarily because that makes for a more immersive experience, and embrace the latter.

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