1. And when Death itself approaches our bed on cat’s paws and, uttering “ahem”, starts to strip from us our priceless and, up to this point, dear life, there will be one emotion we will likely most regret losing in the process.
2. Of all the marvelous things and feelings that nature, in its infinite generosity, has showered upon us, our most piteous parting will, I think, probably be with love.
And to use the language of poetic analogy, as it departs from this world, our extracted soul will start to flail and groan, begging to go back, embarrassing itself, and saying that it hadn’t yet seen everything there is to see and that it would still like to see something else.
But that’s nonsense. It’s seen everything. And these are nothing but empty excuses, pointing rather to the highfalutedness of our feelings and aspirations than to anything else.
3. Of course, besides all of that there are all kinds of exceptional and worthy happenings and sensations that we will sigh after plaintively.
We will, no doubt, be sorry never to hear the music of marching bands and symphony orchestras, never to, say, go on a cruise aboard a ship or gather sweet-smelling lilies-of-the-valley in the forest. We will be most sad to leave our wonderful job, and sad not to lie on the seashore with the object of relaxing.
Yes, these are all wonderful things, and we will also be sorry to part with all of them, of course. And maybe we’ll even shed a tear. But it is love that will beget a special and most bitter bout of tears from us. And when we part with this emotion, the majesty of the entire world before us will probably be extinguished, and it will seem to us empty, cold and of little interest.
As one poet said:
Love gives color to life,
Love is the charm of nature,
There exists an inner conviction
That all that replaces love is worthless.
So you see, the French poet De Miusse pronounced everything worthless compared with this emotion. But, of course, he was somewhat mistaken. Went a bit too far out on that limb, he did.
4. Besides, we would do well to remember that these lines were uttered by a Frenchman. That is, someone by nature very sensitive and, excuse the thought, probably a womanizer, who, under the effect of extraordinary emotion could really let some such nonsense fly.
These Frenchmen over there in Paris (much as we’ve been told) they come out in the evening onto the boulevards, and except for all kinds of cuties that they call chickies, from the get-go they see positively nothing else. That’s how much they appreciate female grace and beauty!…
So we have reason to dampen the uncommon fire of these poetic lines a bit.
5. But have a look at a Russian poet. The Russian poet stays on par with the fiery Gallic brain. And more still. We find not just love, but even infatuation in these surprising verses:
O, infatuation! How much stricter than fate is your mettle,
Greater even than ancient commandments…
Sweeter still than the call of the bugle to battle.
Which allows us to conclude that this great poet of ours thought this emotion something extraordinarily lofty, as something or other of a magnitude not to be equaled even by the text of the criminal code, nor by the teachings of father or, you know, mother. In short, nothing, says he, had the same impact on him as this emotion did. The poet is even hinting at something or other here about being drafted into the army – says that he couldn’t care less for that. Looks like the poet’s probably got something he’s not saying.
Mentioned the bugle’s call to battle and all of a sudden got all mysterious on us. I bet he dodged the draft himself in his day. That’s probably why he’s getting all allegorical.
Prose, in this respect, is much easier to deal with. You can’t have nebulousness like that in prose. Everything’s clear. But, as you can see, even poetry can be explained.
6. No less impressive are another Russian poet’s verses.
Actually, this poet once had his house burn down, the house where he was born and spent his best childhood days. And it’s a curious thing what this poet obtained for himself as comfort after the fire.
He tells it like this. He describes it in a poem. This is what he writes:
It seemed that all of childhood’s joys
Had vanished in the burning house,
And death to me was welcome then,
And I bent down to the water,
But then, a woman in a boat
The moon’s reflection mirrored, gliding,
And if she should have the desire
And if the moon allows it too,
I’ll build myself a new abode
In that unknown heart of hers.
Et cetera, something to that effect.
7. That is, in other words, liberally translating lofty verse into egalitarian prose, we can partly understand how this guy, mad with grief, wanted to throw himself into the water, but at this critical moment he saw a pretty woman taking a boat ride. And so he all of a sudden fell in love with her at first sight, and this love eclipsed, so to speak, his horrible suffering and even distracted him from the toils of locating a new place to live. Especially since, judging by the poem, the poet seems to just want to move in with this lady. Or maybe he wants to build an addition onto her house if she, as he nebulously puts it, should have the desire, and if the moon and management allow it.
Well, in terms of the moon, the poet threw her in for a sort of a greater poetic impact. I mean, the moon, really, has little to do with all of this. As far as building management goes, it might very well turn him down, even if the lady in the boat has the desire, since these two lovebirds aren’t officially married, and, who knows, maybe there’s something impermissibly fishy going on here.
8. I mean, I don’t know, maybe this coarse mind of a soldier, worked over with heavy artillery in two wars, doesn’t apprehend the intricate and delicate poetic pattern of verse and feeling. But we do venture to think approximately in that vein, based on a certain knowledge of life and an understanding of the real needs of people whose lives don’t always follow the canons of florid poetry.
So basically, even here the poet speaks of love as the greatest of emotions, which, assuming a certain carefree streak, may substitute for even the most basic things, even including living arrangements. But we’ll let the poet sort out these kinds of opinions with his conscience.
But this, of course, is not the view of only three fiery poets.
For all the others have sung words of love even more ridiculous and shameless than these, while strumming carelessly, so to speak, the strings of even the most dilapidated lyres.
9. Something or other out of Apukhtin comes to me now:
My heart leapt up, in love again,
Shoop, shoobe-doop, doop-doop…
All that the soul holds holy and dear…
And this was no boy of eighteen writing. A serious man of about forty-eight wrote this; very extremely fat and unhappy in his personal life. Nevertheless, as you can see, he too thinks that all is dead and lifeless until love comes into one’s heart.
I’m remembering more crazy verses:
What is love? What is love? Love! Oh, what is your name?
Love is fire in the blood; it is blood in the flame…
Something, something; pretty damn… I don’t know…
It is paradise lost, yet regained again.
Death trumps life, yet love rules over mortal domain.
10. I’d say even French poetry falls a bit flat here – they don’t have that, you know, crazy energy, like we see in these lines. And this was a Russian poetess. She lived in the beginning of this century and was, by all accounts, pretty good-looking. With a developed poetic temperament, to be sure. That lady was probably shaking all over when she was composing this poem. Which is really more of a biographical detail than a sample of poetry… The poor husband had it rough enough, I bet… She must have been real fickle. Hardly did anything. Probably spent the whole day laying around in bed without even washing that mug of hers. And reading her little poems aloud all the time. And her idiot-husband sitting there; “Oh,” he exclaims, “this is amazing, honeybunny, it’s genius!” And she says, “Really?”…
The idiots! And then they both up and died. She got tuberculosis, I think, and he must have gotten infected with something too.
11. Here’s where all these skeptics, academics and pedants, whose hearts have iced over in their lonely wanderings through the polar regions of science, reading these lines of verse, will probably shrug and say that what we have here is the unwarranted view of certain excessively fiery hearts, promiscuous souls and a perverted worldview.
And they will be surprised that this emotion has been described in such views and such poems and such words, which they had not even known about, and could not even have thought that something like this had ever been said about it.
And maybe it really is surprising that this is so, and that we have this kind of poetry, but not long ago we happened upon this work of prose by a singer – Fyodor Ivanovich Shalyapin. So, in this book he admits with complete candor that everything he did in his life he did mainly for love and for a woman. These are the kinds of opinions of love that we hear from poetically minded people.
12. And as far as sober-minded and levelheaded people, as far as philosophers and all kinds of, you know, thinkers, whose minds have shed much light on life’s most mysterious and complicated aspects, as far as these people go, for the most part they didn’t say much about this emotion, but there were times, of course, when they looked its way, chuckled, and were even known to utter certain pithy quotes showcasing their life experience.
We can, if you so desire, give you one of the more melancholy quotes, which is by Schopenhauer, one of the gloomiest philosophers the world has known.
This gloomy philosopher, whose wife undoubtedly cheated on him at every turn, said this about love:
“Love is a blind will to live. It lures man with the illusion of individual happiness, making him the means to its ends.”
Of the more inane sayings of old, there’s:
“Love is a sort of harmony of celestial sounds.”
Of the more poetic:
“Never hit a woman, not even with a flower.”
Of the more sober ones, but tending towards idealism:
“Love springs from those advantages, which the loving one values all the more the less he himself commands them.”
Plato, a known philosopher, even proposed this theorem:
“The essence of love is the polar difference between possibly even greater contradictions.”
As an example of a truer aphorism, we offer the words of our glorious poet and philosopher, Pushkin:
She fell in love, in time and season;
A seed that falls into the ground
By springtime’s fire is thus unbound.
The myriad pangs of gentle passion
Had long assailed her virgin breast –
Her heart would welcome any guest.
14. But that is the philosophy and mechanics of love, in a manner of speaking.
As far as more rigorous research in this field, we really don’t know much about these things. And maybe there’s no need to know, even. Because consciousness spoils and clouds over almost everything it touches.
Dostoevsky really had it right: “Too much consciousness and even any kind of consciousness at all is an illness.” Another poet said: “Woe from wit.” And we do believe these words were far from having been said by chance. Whether it springs from idiosyncrasy – or most probably there is a certain exact formula; something from the uninvestigated realm of electricity – the truth is we know nothing and positively do not want to know anything about the origins of love.
And so, realizing that we know little about love, but at the same time, recognizing that this tender emotion encompasses something significant and even grand, it is with a feeling of special awe and with our heart aflutter that we take into our hands the weighty tomes of history.
We cannot wait to see the worthy role that this emotion played in the lives of nations. We desire to witness larger-than-life things or the, you know, magnificent deeds of certain persons that happened on account of love. And therefore, to indulge the soul, we make ourselves more comfortable in our armchair and, lighting an aromatic cigar, we begin to turn the yellowed pages of history with a sure hand.
And this is what we see.
15. First, all we ever get are all sorts of goddam petty love stories and small, stupid, everyday-life stuff – all kinds of marriages, proposals and weddings, arranged by businesslike and sober minds.
Here we see some kind of duke… Something or other… He is marrying the king’s daughter with hopes for the throne.
Here, another VIP, desiring to snag a number of cities to append to his lands, also proposes to some fit-prone princess…
The Russian Grand Dukes… Something, something… From the era of the Tartar yoke… “They endeavour to outwit one another (according to one historian) in order to marry the Hun’s daughters, with the aim of obtaining his favour…”
Here’s another one, some – so help me – Khylperykh I… King of the Francs… Marries the daughter of the King of Spain… literally, we read, “with the aim of scoring a win over his enemy, Prince Ziegbert.”
16. And the thing is, historians write about all these dealings, cloaked with love but lined with commerce, without any kind of – how to put it – exhilaration, but in a languid, bureaucratic tone, as if these things were completely unimportant and all-too-familiar. The historians don’t even add any personal comments, nothing like: “Tut-tut!” or “That’s a heck of duke for ya!” or “Now, that’s not nice!” or even “Look, another shameless bastard!”
Nope, we hear no exclamations of this sort from the impartial historians. Although, if you think about it, once you start exclaiming, there wouldn’t be enough exclamations to go around, because in the course of world history we seem to see a sea of similar affairs.
But we probably won’t be making a list of these commercial dealings. We would like to touch on more interesting matters. Although, to be honest, many, many amazing happenings and stories worthy of the modern reader’s attention are known in this department.
17. For instance, here is a very fun fact. Its, shall we say, characteristic plot is what appealed to us. It’s very typical, this fact is. It’s taken from old times in Russia. We’re talking the time of Ivan the Terrible.
This German duke, called Golschtinski, arrives in Russia.
We have no idea what he was doing in that Germany of his, but historians have discovered that he came to Russia with the purpose of furthering his political ends by means of marrying Ivan IV’s cousin’s daughter.
And so he arrives. All gussied up, probably. Wearing some sort of silk pantaloons. Bows. Ribbons. A rapier on the hip. Gotta be a real lanky guy, with a ruddy mug and a huge red moustache. Probably a drinker, a screamer, and a pawer.
So he comes to Russia, and since everything has already been arranged by letter, the wedding day is set.
18. Everybody’s running around, it’s this huge hassle. Mother of the bride’s everywhere at once. Chickens being slaughtered. The bride being led to the banya. The groom’s sitting with Dad. Putting the vodka away. Probably lying up a storm. You know, like, “let me tell ye – in Germany, where I come from, …” You know, like, “we’re Dukes!” and all that.
And suddenly something really sad happens. The bride, alas, dies unexpectedly. She returns from the banya, is taken with a terrible cold, the poor lass, and dies within the space of three days.
The groom, stricken with unutterable woe, of course, wants to go back to Germany. And here he is, all falling apart, saying his good-byes to the parents, when all of a sudden he hears:
“O, Mister Duke! Don’t go yet. As your luck would have it, we’ve got another young lady for you. True, she is a bit older than the first, and she’s not as nice to look at, but maybe she’ll do after all. You came all this way from Germany – it would be a shame to return empty-handed.
So the duke says:
“Of course she’ll do. Why didn’t you tell me before? No question about it. I mean – come on! Where is she? Lemme have a gander.”
All in all, the mourning aside, they were soon wed.
19. But, who the hell knows, maybe such facts and acts occurred only among kings and happened only to dukes and such?
Maybe nowhere but the palaces of kings did this cold pragmatism and marriage without any kind of love thrive, on account of, you know, things like diplomatic necessities, chronic shortages of funds or all kinds of unwholesome conditions of kingly life.
Maybe when it comes to mere mortals, it’s just the other way around – maybe the course of love ran naturally, bringing joy and happiness to the hearts of everyone.
It strikes us that certain categories of mere mortals were kind of not even interested in love. I mean it’s common knowledge that the landed and the affluent married off their loyal serfs in any way it struck them to do it.
Not long ago, we had occasion to read that Russian landowners married their serfs in this manner: they lined them up according to height and married them to whoever matched – tall men with tall women, short little ones with little short ones. And then this list of pairs was sent to the priest to be enacted. As you can see, love wasn’t really the prime consideration here.
And as far as different sorts of, excuse my French, government officials, profiteers, carpetbaggers and so forth, it doesn’t seem like the dear sirs understood much about love either. To them, getting married was akin to striking a deal. And the way they had it set up was that without a dowry no one would even let you in the door.
20. And even if we aim for a higher plane and take, for example, a smattering of counts, barons and men of commerce, it turns out that even with all the leisure in their lives, they still didn’t have much of an idea of the true color of love.
Here’s a wonderful little short story of a historical nature, which paints in vivid detail how it worked back then.
In the France of Louis XV (1720 we’re talking about), this one profiteer accumulated a huge fortune through all kinds of shady dealings. He achieved everything. And had it all. But on top of that, he got the overwhelming urge to associate himself with the oldest aristocratic dynasty in all of France. He had a bout of fantasizing, this guy, and knowing no bounds on account of his wealth, decided to have his daughter marry an impoverished marquis by the famous name of d’Ouau.
The daughter was actually just three years old at the time. The marquis was actually about thirty. And even though the dowry was outrageously huge, the impoverished marquis had no intention whatsoever of waiting for twelve years.
Shrugging in the most elegant Gallic fashion and sending sparks around the room with his gleaming lorgnette, he probably said to the profiteering dad in a hoarse voice:
“Monsieur, although nothing would please me more than to become your son-in-law, the bride you offer me is much too young. Let her grow up a bit, and then we’ll see. There’s a chance I will marry her.”
21. But the status-conscious dad desired to become the marquis’s relation immediately. This would allow him to touch the highest rungs of aristocracy, so to speak. And so he struck this agreement with the marquis. The latter is paid a huge monthly salary until the daughter is of legal age. After twelve years, the marquis has to marry her. And the engagement takes place now.
For nine full years, the marquis received the exact amount of his salary and denied himself none of life’s pleasures. And then, the little twelve-year-old bride fell ill with diphtheria and died.
We can just imagine how the profiteering daddy howled and cried. First of all, what a pity! – such a young girl, and then, just think of all that money gone down the drain! And, of course, it would be foolish to expect the esteemed marquis to return even a measly part of it. That marquis guy was probably telling the woestruck dad, while rubbing his hands together, “Well, you understand, I’m sure, how it is about the money. The girl croaked – I’m in luck.”
22. But that’s nothing. Even more curious things have been known to happen in the love department. It is, for example, very strange to read about all these men – all kinds of pretty boys, barons, brave knights, cavalry officers, men of commerce, landlords, and czars – getting married without laying their eyes on their brides. And this was a pretty common occurrence. And we, the modern reader, do find it somewhat baffling. The only thing they’d ask was what the family does, and the finances and such, and how the bride is doing property-wise, what post daddy holds or what lands he rules, and that’s it. Well, maybe some of the grooms who weren’t big on taking risks asked what, approximately, their second half looks like – you know, whether she’s got a hump or not, things like that – and that’s it.
Then they said ‘yes’ and were married in the dark, so to speak, eyes closed, sight unseen. The bride they would see at the very last moment.
No, today, we can’t even imagine how this would have gone off in these parts. We’d probably have a whole lotta wailing, neurotic yelling, second thoughts, commotion, black eyes and broken noses and the devil knows what else. But over there, they somehow managed without that.
23. But not without the occasional trouble or outrage.
For example, we know of two world-class scandals.
The first is famous to the point that even in theatres it is played out as a grotesque tragedy and royal conflict.
Philip II of Spain, a geezer of about sixty, had a mind to marry off his son and heir, the famous Don Carlos. For his wife he chose the French princess Isabelle, which was advantageous and necessary, as dictated by high politics. But he had never seen the princess. All he knew was that she’s real young and antsin’ to get married, but he had no idea what she looked like.
But when he saw her after the engagement, he fell in love and married her himself, to the great chagrin of his son, who was also partial to the charms of his beautiful bride. This, as we know, caused the conflict between father and son.
24. The second scandal took place in Persia. The Persian king Ambyses (son of the famous Cyrus) proposed to the daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh Amasis II (529 BC). Ambyses did this without having seen the bride. Travel and transportation in those times was a pretty hefty proposition, and the trip to Egypt would have taken months.
Rumor had it, though, that the Egyptian pharaoh’s daughter is alone among women in her beauty and attractiveness.
And so, the mighty Persian king, whose father had conquered practically the entire world, decided to propose to the daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh by mail.
The pharaoh, who harbored a rare affection for his only daughter, had no desire to send her off to undiscovered countries. At the same time, he feared to offend the Master of the Universe with his refusal. And so, he chose the most beautiful of his female slaves and sent her to Persia in place of his daughter. What’s more, her sent her as his daughter, supplying her with the appropriate information for that purpose.
History relates to us that Ambyses, having married the woman, truly loved her, but when the artifice was accidentally discovered, he mercilessly put her to death and, offended to his very heart, set out to make war on Egypt.
This was probably one of the grandest love dramas ever, which shows how love can spring, and also how it can end.
25. Oh, how vividly we can see in our mind’s eye the dramatic scene and the tragic moment when the lie was revealed in its entirety.
They’re sitting there in an embrace on a Persian ottoman.
On this really low-slung bench; and you can just imagine all these eastern sweetmeats and things to drink they have there – all kinds of Turkish delight and honey-cakes and so on. This really fat Persian dude with a huge fan in his hands is chasing the flies away from these sweets.
And Ambyses, the King of Persia, having taken a glass of, you know, sherry or brandy or whatever, looks upon his beautiful wife with an enthralled gaze, whispering all kinds of sweet little nothings in her ear, like, “My pretty little Egyptian mummy, you! How was your life in Egypt? Your daddy, the Pharaoh, must have spoiled you rotten. And how could he not, when you’re so sweet? My dear princess, I fell in love with you at the very first sight for your regal bearing, and so on.”
26. Now, it’s not clear whether at this point she put too much faith in her womanly charms, or God knows what was happening in her little woman’s heart, but she laughs a sparkling laugh and says that the funny thing is that the pharaoh’s daughter has got her own life in Egypt, while Ambyses, the King of Persia, he’s just gaga over her, the one next to him, who’s got nothing to do with the pharaoh’s daughter. He’s fallen in love with a simple girl of slave stock. This is what love can do with a man’s heart.
It is hard not to shudder when imagining what happened next.
He probably started screaming in an unnatural voice. Jumped up from the sofa in just his underpants. One of his slippers slipped off. Lips went white. Hands are shaking. Knees are buckling.
“What?!” he screamed in Persian. “What did you just say?! Ministers! Arrest the impostress!”
The ministers come running.
“Oh! Oh! What’s happened? Your majesty, please calm yourself! … See, you have lost a slipper, and it is most unbecoming of a king to be in just one slipper.”
But, of course, it isn’t so easy to calm oneself, because an enormous blow has been dealt to the ego.
27. And so, in the evening, after the poor Egyptian girl had her head roundly cut off, Ambyses is probably having an extended council with his ministers.
Nervous, waving his hands, he walks the room in fits and starts.
“I can’t believe what a bastard that Egyptian pharaoh is!” he exclaims indignantly.
The ministers sigh respectfully, shake their heads and shrug, exchanging glances full of malevolence.
“And what am supposed to do now, huh? After being slapped in the face like that? Go to war with this punk?”
“That’s an idea, your majesty.”
“But he’s awfully far, the sonofabitch, … I mean, Egypt… That’s in Africa, right? That’s almost a year’s journey … Probably need camels to get there…”
“That’s all right, your majesty … The armies will make it.”
“I showed her love,” says Ambyses, working himself up again. “I received her like an Egyptian princess, fell madly in love with her, and it turns out she was something else … How can this be, I ask you? What am I, a dog, that I cannot have his daughter? Where does he get off sending me crap on the sly, huh? … Huh!?!”
28. The foreign minister, working hard not to burst laughing out loud, says:
“The real problem, your majesty, is the international PR, … the scandal….”
“That’s exactly right! …. That’s what I mean – the scandal. What to do, what to do?!”
“The real problem, your majesty, is that this will go down in the annals of history, that’s the worst part of it … I mean, Persia, … King Ambyses, … Got slipped a slave girl…”
“Enough, you sonofabitch! Enough already! Call up the armies! Set out at once! Egypt must be conquered and erased off the face of the frigging Earth!”
To make a long story short, Ambyses led the armies himself and in short order conquered Egypt. But, by that time, the sad and senile pharaoh Amasis had died. His nephew Psammetichus, seeing he was in for no good, took his own life. As far as the daughter, who started the whole mess – unfortunately, history gives us no clues about her fate.
One history professor I know, who teaches at university, told me that Ambyses sent the Egyptian girl to one of his minister’s harems. But we can’t vouch for the truth of that. Although it is possible, of course. Anyway, the love they had vanished like smoke. Which shows plenty well what a pound of the stuff is worth.
29. So what do we have here? Seems like things ain’t so great for love, are they? Where is the notorious love glorified by poets and singers? Where is this emotion, sung of in wondrous poems?
Could it be that these know-nothing poets, rhyme slappers, and lovers of all kinds of grace and beauty have allowed such a shocking exaggeration to take place? Because we don’t really see any of these impressive sufferings while reading our history.
I mean, sure, we do see a thing here and there between the pages. But there’s too little, really. We want an unforgettable jewel of a story shining from every page. But all we get is some pathetic little love story once every hundred years.
We barely scraped up a few of these romantic narratives here. And to do that we had to diligently read history in its entirety, starting with all kinds of, pardon me, Chaldaeans and Ethiopians, and the creation of the world, and all the way up to our times.
And all we’ve got is what you’re gonna see next. Here, for instance, is a pretty powerful love, as a result of which this one daughter ran her dad over with a chariot.
Here’s how it happened.
30. Servius Tulius, the Roman caesar, had a daughter. And the daughter had a husband, this pretty disreputable guy. But the daughter loved him exceptionally nevertheless.
And so this sneak contrived a scheme to depose this daughter’s noble father – Servius Tulius, that is. Now, to be honest, Servius Tulius was kinda old, and he engaged in all kinds of losing wars with – wouldn’t you know it – some kind of Etruscans. Still, it wasn’t right to depose him. And there certainly was no need to kill him. That was just downright messed up.
Yet this dynamic son-in-law consulted the old man’s daughter and decided to kill her daddy after all. And she agreed, out of love for this bloodsucker.
And so the wheeling-and-dealing son-in-law hires a murderer and has the noble old man mercilessly stabbed to death in the middle of the forum.
He falls without even uttering a sound. And the people say: “Who will be the emperor now, we ask?”
And instead of weeping inconsolably and flinging herself upon the body of her dead dad, this daughter of a murdered father springs into a chariot, and wishing to greet her husband, the new emperor, with a joyous cry she runs the body of her freshly killed father the hell over.
A powerful sight, although utterly disgusting to some extent. And a substantial love this caesar’s daughter exhibits. I mean, you gotta really love someone to run the old man over at a moment like this.
There she is, standing up in the chariot. Whooping. Hair waving about. A grimace contorts her face.
“Hail!” she screams to the new emperor, and rides toward him over whatever’s in the way.
People in the crowd are yelling:
“Hey, looks like this shameless wench had the gall to ride over her own father.”
But this was love, no matter what you say. Mixed in with a little bit of a desire to rule herself. I mean – it’s really hard to say.
31. But here’s a love that was even stronger, which happened to this one pretty famous historical lady in her sunset years.
Catherine II, the Russian Empress, as she was growing old, (being, oh, fifty-eight years of age or so,) lost her wits over this one young, valiant pretty boy – Plato Zuboff. He was twenty-one, and he really was quite good-looking. Although his brother Valerian was even more handsome. The Russian Museum in St. Petersburg has both of their portraits, and it’s true: the brother was amazingly handsome.
But the old hag saw the brother later on, which is why in the meantime, not knowing what’s up, she immediately fell in love with Plato. When she saw Valerian, she caught her breath and said: “Hmmm. Coulda had me that young man. But since I’ve already fallen in love with Plato, I’ll just stick to what I’ve got.”
But Plato, seeing the huge effect Valerian had on the hag, sent that little brother of his off to war, where the pretty boy had his leg ripped off by a cannonball.
And so the hag was all about Plato, showering him with all kinds of wonderful privileges.
It’d be fun to imagine how their little affair sprang up. The pretty boy was probably awful coy at first, and would just freeze up when the elderly dame would get pushy. I mean, anyone would freeze up. I mean, you got your Holy Empress, so to speak, The Monarch of All of Russia and so on, and here, all of a sudden – what the hell?! – these crude advances!
32. So let us imagine this affair.
“Embrace me, you fool!” the empress would entreat.
“Gee, I mean, I can’t, Your Majesty,” the minion would mutter. “Out of, you know, timidity and awe for your imperial title.”
“Oh, just forget about that. Come, call me Catherine Vasilievna (or whatever her full name was.)
And so, with a strained laugh, the kid would respectfully touch the empress’ shoulders, already touched by signs of age. But in time he grew accustomed to it and received much more in return for his love than was just.
At twenty-four the pretty boy was already commander-in-chief, the governor-general of the Novorossiysk region, and the head of the entire artillery. This not-exactly-young woman fell deeper and deeper in love with him with each passing year, and was running out of favors to lavish upon him.
She allowed him to see all secret dispatches and intelligence from abroad. All the ministers and generals had to go through him to get to Catherine.
The young man would receive ministers and courtiers while reclining on a couch, wrapped in a silk Bukhara robe. Wizened generals would tremble reverentially as they stood at full attention in front of the pretty boy.
Head over heels in love, the old empress entrusted him with all the state secrets. Her love literally blinded her.
33. At the same time, this boy’s understanding of life and politics was quite vague. We know, for example, of his plan for a new Russia.
This mind-boggling work proudly lists the following cities as capitals of the first order: St. Petersburg, Berlin, Astrakhan, Moscow and Constantinople. Among the second-tier cities we, for some reason, have Krakow, Taganrog and Danzig. This plan has the following words:
“The woman who rules such a vast empire must become like the sun, whose benevolent glance warms everything within reach of its rays.” All in all, this plan alone tells us to what extent the old dame didn’t care about affairs of state, and how world politics was absolutely nothing compared with her last love.
But this is rather the portrait of someone aging in all her sad beauty than of the happy properties of love.
Yet here is a story for you of a big love that happened in someone’s full bloom.
34. This is also a fairly famous tale, which has been enacted on many a stage. So we won’t dwell on it for too long. It’s, shall we say, about how a Roman consul, Marc Antony, fell in love with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. Well, actually, let’s refresh this story in our minds, especially since the touching story is extremely unusual. An ambitious man, who had reached a position of – believe it or not – great power, falls in love with a woman and forsakes absolutely everything. He forsook even the conquering armies he was leading. And became permanently stuck in Egypt.
As gifts, he gave Cleopatra Roman lands – albeit lands he conquered – Armenia, Syria, Cilicia, and Phoenicia. And bestowed upon her the title of Queen of Kings. Having gotten wind of the military leader’s scandalous behavior, the Roman Senate hastily deprived Antony of the title of First Consul. But being lovestruck, Antony refused even to return to his homeland. And then, Rome declared war on Cleopatra. And everyone was in for a great fight.
Antony, together with Cleopatra, set out against the Roman army. As the Roman armies were nearing Alexandria, the Roman consul Octavian wrote Cleopatra a letter about how she may still save her life and throne if she sacrifices Antony.
35. Seeing that things weren’t going that great for her, Mrs. Queen decided to indeed sacrifice her fiery lover. And while Antony was battling Octavian, Cleopatra sent her lover a message via servants, saying that she had taken her life. She knew that Antony, besotted by her, would not be able to live with this sorrow. And wouldn’t you know it – upon learning of Cleopatra’s death, Antony ran himself through with a sword. Yet the wound wasn’t fatal. And learning that Cleopatra was alive, Antony ordered himself to be brought to her on a stretcher. And died in her arms, forgiving her for lying.
This amazing story really is about a pretty great love, which overshadowed absolutely everything else.
By the way, later on, Cleopatra also committed suicide.
The thing is that Octavian was going to send her to Rome as a trophy. She did try to also win this leader over with her flirting, but nothing came of it, and then, unwilling to live through the shame, she poisoned herself. And thirty of her servants poisoned themselves along with her.
And for some reason, we feel sorry for this beauty, to whom Octavian said: “You can quit your trickery, queen. I’m not gonna fall for that.” In the meantime, she was already forty, and she realized that the jig was up.
36. But here’s another great love that made one man forget even his revolutionary duty.
We’re talking about the famous Mme. Tallien.
During the French Revolution, Tallien, the Secretary General of the Revolutionary Council, was sent by Robespierre to Bordeaux in order to arrest the aristocrats who fled there.
And in a jail he met Teresa de Fontenay, a young woman who had been arrested. He fell in love with her and let her out of jail.
When Robespierre found out that Tallien let her out, he ordered that she be arrested again.
And then, joining forces with Danton’s supporters, Tallien waged a battle against Robespierre so fierce, that in a short time he managed to topple him. There’s no doubt that his love for Theresa Fontenay was one of the motives for this battle. Tallien later married her, but soon she left him to marry some grand duke.
But this isn’t all history tells us.
Apart from this, there were these small and at first sight unnotable events, but still, these events literally like the sun shone through the impenetrable forest. This indeed was great love.
37. For example, the Decembrists’s wives, these glorious society women, left it all and voluntarily, although no one had exiled them, went to Siberia with their husbands.
The ill Radischev was to be exiled. His wife had died not long before that. And his wife’s sister went along with him to live in a Siberian settlement.
The son of a wealthy landowner, the illustrious horse-guardsman Ivashov fell in love with Camilla, the governess who worked in his household. His parents, of course, refused to allow him to marry her. But a year later, when, as a Decembrist, Ivashov was sentenced to twenty years of exile in Siberia, the young governess voluntarily followed him.
The poet Robert Browning loved his wife dearly. When she died, the inconsolably grieving Browning put the most valuable thing he had into the coffin; it was a notebook with his newly written sonnets.
Although later on, when the poet fell in love again, he retrieved that notebook, but that’s not that important.
In 1796, in the midst of battle, Napoleon wrote to Josephine: “When I am far from you, the world is a desert where I am abandoned and alone. You are the only thought in my entire life.”
Lassale wrote to Helen Denniges: ”I have huge powers and I will multiply them a thousandfold in order to have you. There is no one in the world who is able to tear me away from you. I suffer more than Prometheus on the cliff.”
38. In love with his wife, Chernyshevsky wrote to Nekrasov: “Not for problems on a global scale do people drown or shoot themselves or turn into alcoholics – I experienced this and I know that the poetry of the heart carries as much weight as the poetry of ideas”.
The city of Weinsberg was besieged by the enemy. The victors let women leave the city before pillaging it. They also allowed each woman to take with her the one thing she considered most precious. And a few women carried their valiant husbands out of the city.
Of course, this last one sounds like a legend. Once every while, history is fond of inventing something touchy-feely; for the sake of moral balance, so to speak.
39. Here’s an interesting touchy-feely story.
Some knight was setting out on a campaign and entrusted his wife to his friend. The friend fell in love with the wife. The wife fell in love with him. But the oath of chastity is, of course, inviolable. And so, to preserve and test this chastity, they sleep in one bed, with a double-edged sword between them.
I mean, maybe they did put the sword between them, and maybe they really did sleep in the same bed – we’re not contesting the actual historical fact. But as far as everything else, we beg to doubt it.
And so, on this petty sentimental note, we end our historical short stories.
This is what history tells us about love.
Basically, it tells us very little about this emotion. You know, like, yeah, seems that there is this emotion. Seems that history did run into it at some point. Seems that there even were certain kinds of historical events and things that happened on account of it. And certain kinds of business done and crimes committed.
But it’s not as if it was something terribly huge, not really like what the poets sang about in their tenor voices – history barely knows anything like that. On the contrary, this emotion has pretty much been saddled by commercial souls. And it poses no threat to the quiet march of history.
40. No, this emotion hasn’t stood in the way of people traveling down the road which they are honestly and patiently treading.
And history can monotonously intone to us about what was and about how many “golde coins” a certain groom received for such and such a feeling.
Now, it’s true that we were talking about centuries past here. And maybe something’s changed?
Unfortunately, we have not been abroad, and on that account cannot fully satisfy your completely legitimate curiosity.
But we are of the opinion that it is unlikely that any kind of big changes have happened there.
There’s probably (so we think) some marquise with his big-sounding name, who is fiancé to a tiny three-year-old girl. And the daddy makes monthly salary payments.
And some aging dame, having lost sight of everything else, probably keeps some dancer Zuboff at her side, showering him with her largesse. Everything (we assume) is going the way it did before.
And as for how it is in our parts, we’ve had considerable changes happen.
41. And certain lamentable things having to do with love have actually started to disappear here bit by bit. For example, the financial calculations have practically stopped. And the monetary arrangements have gotten easier and much fewer in number. And really, all in all, all of it has somehow cleared up, and become less troublesome, and not as burdensome.
So, let us look at what kinds of negative things we might have in the love department. And, in a manner of speaking, let’s sweep up what we can with the steel broom of satire.
And so, on to the love stories from our lives.
Prostrated on the parquet floor of the work studio, Boris Gendelman busily observes his students. With an invitation to follow his lead, he stretches out his arms in front of him, like a swimmer who has just pushed off the pool wall. His legs are half-bent at the knees, the arms at a slightly upward angle. He lowers his feet to the floor, does a ‘thumbs-up’ gesture, turns it 180 degrees and plants the thumbs down on the orange-brown parquet. Without any warning and with explosive energy, he catapults his midsection into the air, so that the body – parallel to the floor – is supported entirely and exclusively by the large toes and thumbs.
In real life, this exercise is virtually impossible to do. It requires tremendous strength in the wrists and abdomen, not to mention the lower back, the upper back and legs. The two extreme points of one’s body must hold up the entire structure, including its center of gravity. And Gendelman is no wisp of a man – although a modest 5’5”, he weighs close to 200 pounds, and it’s safe to say that the bulk of that weight consists of the very muscles that allow him to perform the exercise with such reverberating effortlessness.
After doing this lift (called ‘the flat board’, or Gendelman’s jesting favorite – ‘a bridge over troubled waters’) nine more times, he stands up, smiling benignly at our pathetic attempts to repeat the feat even once. None of us lack regular exercise or an athletic figure. Still, even in modified form – with arms slightly bent and palms flat on the floor – we can eke out about three-quarters of one. As we, too, stand up; panting, red from strain, and suddenly aware of previously dormant skeletal muscles, he looks at us and pronounces the magic words: “The degree of your freedom.” He smiles fleetingly, but suddenly looks serious. “It’s the degree of your freedom that determines how easy it is for you to do something. If you’re prepared, you are free to do anything.”
John Gilbey, an heir to a textile fortune who devoted his life to the systematic study of martial arts, wrote in Secret Fighting Arts of The World: “The mark of a true master lies not in his ability to perform a spectacular feat; it may be that with practice others could do the same. A true master is one who can repeat anything anyone shows him.” Years ago, a yogi Gendelman met showed him ‘the bridge’ and asked him if he had ever seen it done. Gendelman said no. Then he lay on the ground and did it.
And yet there is hope for us in the epigraph of Gilbey’s book: “The overconfidence of amateurs” it says, “is the envy of professionals.”
* * *
I first met Gendelman on a bitterly cold winter evening in Seagate, the windswept forehead of the goby-shaped Coney Island. I was invited to a gathering of Russian-speaking émigrés, billed collectively as ‘interesting people’. There was a soft-spoken, appropriately-blond Lithuanian who hosted an arts program on New York’s Russian-language radio, a concert pianist in her late thirties, and a sixtyish professional photographer who claimed to have been on familiar terms with the great Russian poet-singer Vladimir Vysotsky as well as a close friend of Joseph Brodsky; “Volodya came up [to Leningrad] from Moscow all the time”… and “We loved Iosif dearly.” The white hair on his head was still thick; the polar bear’s beard imperceptibly pointed to a previous life as freckle-red. He was a garrulous, yentaish man, marbling his earnest yammering with cussing so rich and sincere that I couldn’t help but smile along, knowing that there was just no other way to put what he wanted to say.
The host was roughly fifty, with unsettling eyes and a sardonic manner. He was, it turned out, a healer in the Russian folk tradition, dabbling in relaxation techniques and palm reading to stay alive. His ‘soothing voice’, intoning queer passages about walking through Hansel-und-Gretel-type landscapes onto CDs imprinted with his image (improbably paired with background music that owed a large debt to Yanni) had a Mephistophelean feel that was equally unnerving and coma-inducing. The evening’s attraction was a presentation by a plump man who had the large, happy moustache and robust cheeks of a Hamburg baker. Such a heartbreakingly pathetic person, immersed in a fog of unhappiness and imbuing every surrounding thing with pity, I had never seen. With many a stammer and furtive glance he told us, as we gathered in the cavernous second-floor living room by the dim glow of candles, of his experience living with Lakota Indians in South Dakota.
This was preceded by an account of the first forty years of his life, spent in singular frustration with the government, society, prevailing attitudes, his body and his life. Here was a creature so beaten down by the restrictions of the Soviet system, so repressed and downtrodden, denied personal choice and moral freedom for so long in his native land, and – once he was finally allowed to immigrate – made so much more shy and closed-off by the language barrier, that ‘the feeling of unimaginable freedom and belonging’ that he found during his three months among the Indians was almost as much of a relief to us as it must have been to him.
Midway through the narrative, a starving artist (of sorts) dropped in from the cellar studio he occupied. He didn’t really look the part, as the tank top he wore was a tight fit, but he did refuse food.
Before Vladimir began the tale of his adventures in Indian Territory, the host asked us to say a few words about ourselves since many of those present had never met one another. Just as we were starting, a short, bearded man entered the room. He had closely cropped receding hair, an aquiline nose and dark eyes, and looked vaguely Middle Eastern, perhaps Jewish. He wore loose pants, a wrinkled shirt, very open at the top and slightly bulging at the belly, and a smirking grin. On his bare feet were beaten-up, open-backed sandals. He quietly said hello, bowing and nodding at everyone. The host introduced him as ‘Boris, who had just walked over from his house, a few blocks away.’ The concert pianist asked if that was all he wore and he said yes. No coat? No coat. It was 10 degrees Fahrenheit outside; with a wind chill factor of God knows what.
Everyone described briefly what he or she did for a living, and when his turn came, he said, with some hesitation, “I live professionally.” There was a silence and some glances shot around. The concert pianist, curious and brave, asked what he meant by that, to which Gendelman replied “I simply try to live my life professionally… in a professional manner.” Requests for clarification followed, but if he did say anything more specific, I didn’t remember, because back then I didn’t really care to listen. Surely, in this motley collection of human esoterica, this specimen was the weirdest.
* * *
The next time I saw Gendelman, it was a mild summer day in 2001, a year and a half later. He had been recommended to me, again, as ‘an interesting person’, but this time there was no backdrop of fully clothed people – besides, it was July. I was told that he teaches tai chi. Reluctant to go, I still did. There are always reasons to improve oneself, I thought, and somehow there were none against going to Seagate that afternoon.
Gendelman invited me to sit and talk awhile. We settled into some tattered armchairs on the dilapidated porch of a Victorian house that just may have been around in the Queen’s time; its cornices overwrought and festooned, Rococo-style, with the muck of roosting pigeons. Waiting for green tea to brew, we traded tidbits of historical knowledge, current affairs and personal philosophies. After forty minutes or so, he invited me into a very large living room, which also serves as a work studio. Paintings – all his, I guessed – lined the walls. Most were esoteric in one way or another, some erotic. There was no sophistication immediately visible in the brushstrokes, no echo of a famous artist’s or school’s style; they appeared to be largely amateur, although well-executed, works. Curved swords in decorated sheaths hung on the left and far sides of the room. Straight swords lay on small wooden blocks near a fireplace. A gathering of wooden practice swords and long bamboo poles crowded into a nook formed by the joint of a wall and wood paneling. This looked like the studio of a swordsman who painted in his spare time.
My only prior experience with martial arts dated back to the age of six, when, after being on the receiving end of some road-rage-fueled pugilism, my father took karate lessons for about nine months – lessons I did not attend. What I did know about the popular teaching of martial arts did not inspire me, and I never had any interest in the purely physical ones, such as, say, karate.
Lacking experience, I was naturally wary in the beginning. This would serve me well later on, since I only trusted what I experienced personally, physically, subjectively, and not what might have been represented as something ‘objective’. Thus, I never had the feeling that a certain way of looking at the world was being thrust upon me. Still, in the beginning, there were many things I was blind to.
Later, (much later) I would all of a sudden notice the tiny statue of Buddha sitting in lotus pose in Gendelman’s studio, under an easel holding a long-finished painting, with an incense-holder in front and a shivalinga behind it. (I would also learn what a shivalinga – a representation of the Hindu god Shiva, or ‘the sign of Shiva’ – looks like). By that time, I realized that I had a chance to do something much, much greater than self-defense or health-defense. What attracted me to Gendelman’s system, which he calls Life Defense or Tantra Tai Chi, was the unity of mind (analysis as well as concentration of will) and body that I always wished for with an awe habitually reserved for unattainable ideals, and which I, in my infinite ignorance, associated almost exclusively with the ancient Hellenic tradition.
I can now say from personal experience that this mind-body concert obviously produces phenomenal results. ‘Obviously’, because it enlists a large number of faculties normally left untapped. When put to use, they allow for extraordinary progress.
Gendelman’s Life Defense is self-defense in the broadest possible sense of that word. Its approach to physical defense is that of any serious school of martial arts: one practices so as never to use the skills in a real conflict. In other words, while the properly performed tai chi form is like a fluid, unstoppable dance, practicing the martial aspects of tai chi should not be seen as a fighting dance (in the way a rain dance is performed in order to obtain rain). Quite the opposite.
It is a paradox that does not lend itself readily to logic. Gendelman puts it another way: “The best way to win a fight is to avoid one.” Life Defense, he says, helps you avoid conflicts, whether physical, moral or emotional, and live a life of better quality, a more fortuitous life, in which events and time correspond more harmoniously to each other than they might otherwise.
Gendelman has drawn his philosophy from many sources. In Moscow, as a young man, he first practiced karate, then gradually arrived at bhakti-yoga, or the yoga of worship, following ‘the path of Krishna’. Then he met a master whose impact on him was so profound that Gendelman still refuses to discuss it in detail. Among his influences he also counts the Indian sage Osho, who wrote not a single word and whose students, as Plato did with Socrates, wrote down his monologues.
Friendship and cooperation between communist nations inadvertently shaped his education in the martial arts. He studied the hsing-i and tai chi forms with a visiting professor from Hebei University, who had learned the Chen form of tai chi from Chen Xiao-Wang, inscribed in the official lineage of the Chen style. (The teacher’s name is translated into English as ‘Truly a Tiger’.) Married at one point to a woman with ties to Moscow’s expatriate Japanese community, Gendelman was able to study Japanese martial arts from first-hand sources. This advanced the early training in karate he had received from his first teacher. Another sensei, a very slight man from Vietnam, “had arms and legs like rails” remembers Gendelman. “He almost destroyed my legs with his blocks – they were all black and blue – but it taught me to attack at such an angle as to not get hurt myself.” He was also instructed in an underground North Korean system, hsangyeh, which means ‘life’ or ‘the life entire’. The lessons were kept a secret. Gendelman says that had his teacher’s handlers back in Pyongyang found out that he was propagating a dangerous atavism of feudal society among trusting Soviet comrades (in the very capital of that ‘lodestar of all of progressive humanity’ to boot) he would have been given short shrift – a bullet in the head.
The Channel of Life
Eventually, Gendelman unified his knowledge and approach to ancient disciplines – predominantly internal (stressing transmission of energy rather than of physical force) Taoist arts, such as tai chi, qi gong, hsing-i, wing chun, feng shui, yoga, and others under the banner of Life Defense. The approach, like other internal martial arts, offers a way of changing your body from the inside. “While bodybuilding or standard karate emphasizes outer appearance, muscle strength or speed, the inner arts cultivate your inner core, your channel of life. Once you feel it, it will give you much greater speed and explosive power than anything you could do with just your muscles. The goal always is to protect this inner channel – the balance, both physical and mental – from illness, mishaps, attacks and accidents. We practice a kind of dynamic feng shui, learning to alter the location and orientation of our channel so as to be in the most convenient and sensible state and place at any given time.”
While positioning is very important in Life Defense, the system relies on flexibility of form. It demands rootedness and solidity of stance, yet emphasizes softness of touch and lightness in movement. Gendelman says: “You should strive to have the feet of a chicken, (which grasp the ground with claws and never back up) the waist of a dragon (which weaves and slithers) and the back of a bear (that moves forward as one solid mass).”
Theory is something he comes back to at every session. Actually, it is something he never leaves, putting many seemingly simple and unassuming exercises into the context of the larger philosophy. The inner balance, or centerline, may be envisioned as a channel that runs length-wise through our bodies, from head to toe, roughly along the spine and into the arms and legs. This channel is suspended between the Yin (Earth, negative) and Yang (Sky, positive) – the two polar forces of nature – and is in constant flux. Gendelman often waxes poetic when driving home the point: “By cultivating the vital force flowing through it, you make the lightning spark between the plus and minus of the forces that much brighter. The brighter the spark, the more energy, substance and purpose inform your lives.” Actually, Gendelman waxes poetic quite often.
As we walked out one evening and stood under the stars – the roof of his house, with its decorative scrolls and satellite dishes, sending out a dense jumble of geometrical signals into the sky – Gendelman looked up and pointed to the largest and brightest star in the dense, shimmering darkness. In a storyteller’s voice, Gendelman addressed the small group of students, “When you practice martial arts, you automatically place yourself under the patronage of Mars, the god of warfare. Anything we do during practice is done under the aegis of Mars.” “Do you see how large the star is in the sky? Mars is as close to our planet as ever. This only happens once in many years. Use this time wisely.”
Whatever he is talking about, time is never far from Gendelman’s mind. Time and space. These pillars of quantum physics are given a new spin in his instructions for doing something as simple as using your arm for a punch. It turns out that you shouldn’t use your arm or shoulder or fist, and not even your body. Every motion, especially one that is invested with meaning, such as blocking an opponent’s attack or making one of your own, should be performed using the channel inside of us instead of our muscles. If the channel is clear and open and does not obstruct the flow of energy (chi), the motion will have the desired effect, whether it is a block that makes the attacking party wish they were not so bold, or an innocent-looking shove that sends someone flying.
In a spiraling learning curve, an understanding of the dimensions of space leads to a feeling for the passage of time, which, in turn, results in an understanding of angles. Angles are both spatial and temporal; born of movement in space, they constantly change in time. Gendelman uses the principles of feng shui, the science of proper and auspicious placement of dwellings in space as well as people and objects within those dwellings, as an illustration of right and wrong angles. If, during ‘soft-hands’, a close-range, forearms-to-forearms exercise, a student exposes his channel, leaving it open, however slightly or indirectly, to an attack, Gendelman makes the vulnerability apparent and says: “In this instance, you have bad feng shui. Now, how could it be improved?” The student starts to step and weave, attempting to assume the most protected position, but often the slightest adjustment is all that is needed to achieve the optimal, most efficient and logical angle. That feeling – beyond description – for what is optimal, takes years of practice to develop fully.
Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author, once wrote in a New Yorker article:
“The dazzling speed of martial-arts masters, the movement too fast for the untrained eye to follow, may be executed, in the performer’s mind, with an almost balletic deliberation and grace, what trainers and coaches like to call ‘relaxed concentration’.… The expertise… is only to be acquired by years of dedicated practice and training. At first, an intense conscious effort and attention are necessary to learn every nuance of technique and timing. But at some point the basic skills and their neural representation become so ingrained in the nervous system as to be almost second nature, no longer in need of conscious effort or decision. One level of brain activity may be working automatically, while another, the conscious level, is fashioning a perception of time, a perception which is elastic, and can be compressed or expanded.” [The italics are mine – GP.]
“Seek the core,” Gendelman says, using an example of a fist and the channel to illustrate the implications of what he says. “If your eyes follow a good boxer’s fist, you won’t even notice it giving you a black eye. But if you look at his center, his channel of life, [which, like, say, the center of a merry-go-round, moves much slower than the horses whooshing along the outer edges] you can see the punch as it happens, moving your core – yourself – from its path, and putting your own attacking arm into the path of his core long before he finishes his motion.” Then Gendelman digs deeper into his satchel of metaphors and comes up with an even more striking one.
“Think of a ruler, a monarch. He is the executive power: grants privileges to one guy, says “off with his head” about another. He orders people and peoples around – he is will incarnate. He does what he wishes, he rewards and executes. Then, there’s his advisor, an eminence gris. He’s always behind the throne, in the shadows – he’s a shadow himself. He whispers lightly in the king’s ear, saying: “Well, your majesty, of course you could do that, and it’s a wonderful and wise idea you’ve had, but perhaps, …well…. Maybe this part of it … maybe it could be done in, say, that way. Perhaps something for you to consider. Of course, you should do what you think is best, but maybe,… well, it’s up to you, your majesty. It is entirely your decision. You are the king.”
“And what happens is that the shadow, while inapparent and inconspicuous, proves to be more effective and more powerful than the will-wielder.” “This is what you have to be like – your attacker’s shadow. The person who is attacking you is manifesting his will. He executes the idea of attacking you, while you are just following, as light and weightless as a shadow. You’re not disagreeing with him, not blocking him, not forcing him to do anything. You shadow his will, and in the end, instead of becoming vulnerable, you open up a vulnerability in him, and thus prevail.”
Neither does Gendelman shy away from outsize and literally otherworldly analogies to illustrate a point. “Think of planetary alignment. Your channel, your instrument of action (arm, leg, elbow, hip, whatever) and your opponent’s channel must be in a straight line, like the planets, when aligned. Only then will you be effortlessly effective in your actions.” Once that image has sunk in, all he has to say is ‘the planets’ and the student knows what to emphasize during an exercise. ‘A ship’s prow’ is another loaded image. “Attacking an opponent head-on is like pushing against the prow of a ship – the sharpest point where all the energy is concentrated – not smart. Instead, step aside, and attack the ship’s gunwale.” This brings The Titanic to mind. Had it rammed the unavoidable iceberg directly, it might have lost its bow, but would have remained largely intact and afloat. Instead, it swerved, leaving the iceberg to tear through its vulnerable side. In short, ‘Remember The Titanic’.
“Look at it this way,” says Gendelman, offering a cinematic metaphor, “the person attacking you moves in his own world, living in his own film, so to speak. By moving your core out of the way, you are consciously stepping out of the plot line. He’s still living in his film [moving in his movie] but you’re already outside of it, out of harm’s way.” This analogy is no accident. Aside from being a connoisseur of Soviet – and more recently, American – film, and having an education in theatre and painting, Gendelman is naturally artistic, with a comedian’s fluid mimicry, tonal command, and feel for timing. It’s no surprise then that for him Life Defense is not merely a reactive approach, but an inherently creative one.
In order to create a new level of being it is not enough to defend one’s life against attacks. It is necessary to change one’s level of sensitivity, the ability of the body and the mind to perceive. Cultivating this level results in attacks that either never arrive – the plot lines of your movie don’t intersect with those of certain others – or are too insignificant to harm you. Yet there is another way of looking at the movie analogy: the mass movie that the world lives in and the personal film each person lives out. Society at large inhabits a mega-picture, which tries to be all things to all people, caters to the lowest common denominator, employs every single formulaic gesture and tugs at the frayed strings of all the standard emotions. The personal film (at least as it should be) – indie by definition, esoteric, original and shockingly intimate – is filled with ravishing color as well as countless shades of gray, with spontaneous emotions and layers of nuance, with an endless capacity for surprise, and with a greater, all-encompassing love that is the founding and indelible characteristic of all truly great art.
The goal in Life Defense, as in life, is to become multidimensional in body, as a thinker, as a human being. To walk in and out of movies and films, to see their plot lines in advance, to choose the ones you prefer. This takes artistry, and, in one writer’s words, the mark of the artist is to take in more than one can know. In order to take something in one must sense or perceive it, and that can only be done via an organ of perception. The process of developing these organs, or reviving the ones we are equipped with yet hardly use, is a constant refrain during practice.
The development and growth of the organs is metamorphosis. Gendelman calls it alchemy. Alchemy, by definition, combines commonly available ingredients and, through an energy-intensive process, makes them into something of rare and extraordinary value. In The X-Men, the classic comic book series, a handful of humans begin to manifest mutations that give them superpowers. The premise of the series is that the genetic potential to evolve to a higher level of being exists in all humans. With Life Defense, the alchemy lies in using will and work to cause a benign mutation in oneself that results in faculties and health that are beyond normal. Essentially – superpowers.
A Conscious Action
“100 grams must topple 300 kilograms,” Gendelman says regularly, in a take on the traditional tai chi principle of ‘subduing the vigorous by the soft,’ meaning the use of gentle energy to quell brute force. Such a feat can only be performed with the ‘soft, feminine force that does not come from hard external training’. In other words, size, weight and even muscle strength bow to will (conscious action) and chi.
A conscious action – the essence of the Taoist approach – is a product of concentrated willpower, and a catalyst for the latent energy present in our bodies, transforming it into the kinetic kind. The internal energy work acts as a multiplier, so ten push-ups done during or immediately after a session have the perceptible and visible effect on one’s strength and muscle tone of literally a hundred done otherwise.
This effect requires constant effort, and even though Gendelman bills Life Defense as a shortcut or an alternative to the paths other systems take to reach the goal, he is the first to reiterate that to achieve a certain level of sensation and understanding one needs to diligently apply will and body. “A master of, say, karate may, after 20 years of practice, start to feel a sensation of burning or smoke in his belly. Ours is a system for the lazy man [and woman, of course]. We start at the end – by engendering the burning feeling, by concentrating on the sensation of the channel – and cultivate the channel itself through an effort of will.”
Essentially, this is an evolution fast-forwarded, and anyone who is evolving is at war with the world. By the same token, the world is at war with him or her. One consciously tries to destroy weakness, illness, and undesirable traits and limitations within oneself, while – and via – working through externally imposed limitations. This is understanding and progress through stress, and we experience it when preparing for exams or interviews, as the state of nervousness before and during them eventually bounds us to the next level of readiness (e.g. knowledge, confidence, self-image, status, etc.)
Practiced and interpreted more broadly, this is a constant state of engagement, of concentration, active meditation, of residing – in a poet’s words – ‘in the monastery of one’s own spirit’ while living a full life as part of society. It is a process of creation – of a new attitude, a new body – that, like any such process, involves the stripping away of layers of consciousness, prejudices and complacency until one reaches the core that is the touchstone of every person. And it is the given characteristics of this rock (or gem) that determine the extent, scale and depth of practice for each person.
Of course, any acquired force or power has to be maintained, whether it’s knowledge, insight, physical prowess, family or money. Gendelman illustrates this and the creative nature of Life Defense in no less creative terms.
Up until about three years ago, he did not charge for group lessons. Now, he is convinced that ‘contributions’ as he calls them, although very modest for the group sessions, are necessary. “You cannot engender a new life [for yourself] without spilling blood, giving some of yourself” he explains. In other words, by paying your hard-earned money, you are helping yourself create a new you. You are still the one who has to work to metamorphose, but, if anything, the expense makes you more serious, more disciplined, and – even if on some otherworldly level – more committed.
Gendelman tells us of the Thugs, an ancient Indian order of professional bandits, who worshipped Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction. Originally, roving gangs of Thugs committed murder following exact religious rites honoring her. In Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne wrote: “…It was thereabouts that Feringhea, the Thuggee chief, king of the stranglers, held his sway. …These ruffians, united by a secret bond, strangled victims of every age in honour of the goddess Death, without ever shedding blood…” Gendelman explains: “They killed people with a roomal, a silk strip about an inch wide and 3 feet long, using techniques that were impossible to counter. Blood engenders blood, so by strangling their victims and not spilling any they avoided the creation of another life and another death”. When I interject that murder by strangling, however neat, may bring about still another death by way of revenge, Gendelman laughs and says that that is entirely possible. Still, his point has been made, and certainly in no common terms.
Fire, Metal, Water, Earth, Wood
The approach, if pursued in earnest, becomes a multiplier in life, a liberator of creative, sexual and mental energy, and there are practical exercises that unleash it. Occasionally, towards the end of a session, everyone forms a close circle, with one person in the middle. He or she stands relaxed, but on guard, while those on the edges spontaneously mock-attack from different sides, one at a time. The attacks have to be parried by erecting an instant wall of energy. There is no physical contact, but the spurts of energy are distinctly palpable. There are sprays of simultaneous laughter – probably not so much on account of some perceived kind of private understanding or the bond of membership in a select group, but because of a mutually felt sense of elation, of momentary happiness, of a natural high.
A typical session is two to two-and-a-half hours long, and starts and ends with small bowls of green tea, which is conducive to energy work and, of course, generally good for the body. Tea is then taken into the studio, a wood-paneled adjunct of the living room, two steps down from the ground floor, where it is purposefully sipped between exercises. Sometimes the conversation before or after the lesson (often both) stretches for an hour or more. Gendelman is effortlessly hospitable, genially presiding, pasha-like, in an enveloping, low-sided black leather armchair, hard by a hard-working fireplace. Sweets and chocolates are always on the table, along with pistachios, dried berries and preserves. (For most of his life he has been a vegetarian.)
He listens attentively to others, but there is a hint of retreat in his handshake, a sense of absence palpable in his demeanor. Sometimes, while answering a question, he may wind down a sentence abruptly and smile enigmatically. Some may see it as secretiveness, but I think it is rather his unwillingness as a teacher to lead students astray by allowing the form – the words – of his thoughts to prevail over the substance of the ideas. Some teachers are concerned about giving out too much ‘secret’ information, but Gendelman’s concern is often that a student at a certain stage won’t be able to perceive or internalize what he is teaching.
In any case, he seems to be well-suited to lead a serious student to a serious level, possessing the classic qualities of a good teacher: patience, the ability to repeat ideas and concepts dozens of times over the course of months until they sink in, the readiness to reward with a compliment when someone does something particularly well. A favorite, and uncannily effective, teaching tool he uses is the phrase: “To any number you can add another.” When trying to relax and feel the energy traveling through the channel, it helps to hear that, as relaxed as you are now, you can always be that much more relaxed a moment later; 1, then 2 or 733, then 734, and so on.
Still, in the end, the student must directly experience the substance of the teacher’s words. As Gendelman often says, “faith plays no part in Life Defense”; you don’t hear the words and make yourself believe. You hear the words over and over, in different contexts, while directing your body to change through an effort of will. And then, one day, you feel and you understand.
The facility of association with the great comes intuitively to some, with experience to others. If one truly feels great music, literature and art, it is easy to consider Mozart, Beethoven, Rembrandt, Matisse, Shakespeare or Pushkin one’s contemporaries. Not just to say that their art is timeless and ever relevant, but to embrace them as friends and partners, living alongside of you, within you. The same holds true for the world of ideas. So, when one day the conversation turned to the influence of religious philosophy on the masses and someone brought up Jesus Christ, Gendelman said: “Now there was a great master.” It isn’t hard to understand why Gendelman identifies with Jesus-the-historical-figure: he was at the top of his profession (not carpentry, of course), he lived professionally (in the sense of complete devotion to and immersion in a cause) and he was full of parables (a trait Gendelman shares.)
For Jews wishing to pursue the teachings of other religions, there exists a well-trod path beaten by the prodigal sons of the People of the Book to the Books of other peoples. The traditionally closed-off nature of Jewish mysticism has driven many a Jewish intellectual seeking spiritual enlightenment without a prescribed form of serving God to pursue mystical traditions outside of Judaism. Some have been very influential. Ram Dass, (formerly Richard Alpert) probably the most famous Jewish practitioner of Hinduism and Sufism, who also famously explored human consciousness through intensive experimentation with LSD, is said to be responsible for leading more Jews away from Judaism than any other man save Marx.
Gendelman does not style himself as a spiritual leader in any one mold, or, for that matter, as a spiritual leader. He seems to share the Buddhist view of Buddhism as something that simply exists, a gift to the world, there for anyone to study, practice and benefit from, without reference to creed, ethnicity, or affiliation. His Jewish roots define him to the extent that genetics and upbringing define a person and shape a personality, but they neither constrict him ideologically nor restrict his view of other approaches to spirituality and faith. And although the pride Gendelman plainly feels in his heritage is contagious, his spirituality is organic and unrestrictive, combining his self-identification as a Jew with a philosophy, small daily rituals, and devotions that are decidedly Buddhist. His frame of reference is catholic. In one sentence, he might speak earnestly of the respect and feeling of historical fraternity with Jews that is found in certain parts of India (“ ‘the Jews are our Western branch,’ they say”,) and in the next, he will describe bhakti-yoga as having “a sweetness that is not unlike the sweetness of Christianity, for those who have attained it”.
Still, his affinity for Jews and Jewishness, based on ethnicity and philosophy, is quite palpable. One day, while chatting at the end of a particularly good session, Gendelman said that for some time now he had been considering presenting Life Defense as his gift to the State of Israel. As serious as he is about his system and its implications, he was the first to take a humorous view of the idea, jokingly suggesting the moniker Jew Do (pronounced just like ‘judo’) for its export version.
Actually, Life Defense could have any number of names. It may also be understood in different ways, apprehended superficially or profoundly, felt on various levels; there is no party line as to how it is understood as long as the channel of life is felt, protected and used properly. Life Defense is also its most basic components: life and defense. After a session, the energy coursing through the body literally makes one want to eat, to fight, to make love. As with some other kinds of high, the longer you don’t eat, the longer the natural high lasts. The other two inclinations are a matter of personal choice. After-practice sparring happens regularly, although by no means always. There are no reliable statistics on post-session coupling, but something Gendelman has mentioned more than once is that the kind of work we do makes its practitioners ‘very powerful sexually’.
On the surface, it is apparent that Gendelman uses kung fu and wushu forms as yantras (iconic diagrams) or keys to help one unlock certain mysteries. It is also clear that in creating his approach, he has heeded the words of another artist and teacher, Bruce Lee: “Research your own experiences for the truth. Absorb what is useful…Add what is specifically your own…The creating individual…is more important than any style or system.” And ultimately, the practice of Life Defense, seen as an investment of time, effort and self into any discipline meant to raise the level of mind and body, is a profoundly, albeit benignly, egotistical endeavor. You do not practice it out of deference for the teacher or in praise of the system. You do it to improve yourself, to evolve to the point at which you can say – to update Woody Allen’s classic one-liner – “I am the best I ever had”.
Gendelman is not simply an instructor of martial arts or a yoga practitioner, and indeed it is hard to mistake him for one. A true teacher acts as a conduit through which a certain energy flows – a charged fuel; the product of years of concerted effort – that a student can use to power his or her path. That flow of energy is the force that binds together the elements of the system and elevates them into the potential for individual insight. “This system cannot be taught. The student is set ablaze, like a torch [from the teacher’s fire].”
In a remote corner of his studio hangs a plaque announcing Boris Gendelman’s ordination as a minister of the Universal Life Church. I’m not sure what the church and the title are, but as far as denominations go, I see him as more of a sherpa than a shepherd – he opens vistas, and hints at the path to the horizon, but he doesn’t hold students’ hands nor does he explicitly delineate that path.
comes Gendelman’s admonishing bark at the intruding housepet, interrupting my mental digression from the exercises we are doing in the studio. Rex is a gracefully muscle-bound, terra-cotta-and-clay-colored boxer-bulldog who spent his puppyhood under the tutelage of a middle-aged tomcat, since departed for parts unknown. “He had a cat for a sensei,” Gendelman says, explaining Rex’s distinct distaste for other dogs, and why – though a fully-equipped bachelor and a fine six-year-old example of all the best and none of the worst of both breeds – he has yet to make a conquest among the local bitches. Rex is, essentially, a cat in a dog’s body, even trying to weave between your legs, which – at 22 inches at the shoulder and eighty pounds, with a tail that stings like a lash – turns into yet another exercise in maintaining balance.
In his 20s, Gendelman traveled the Soviet Union on a motorcycle, “with Tisha, my Tibetan terrier, standing up in the sidecar, the wind blowing through every bone in his body.” He must have looked a little like the bulldog leaning into the wind and weather from the hoods of Mack trucks; the attitude mellowed, perhaps, by the romantically swept back mane that is a hallmark of the breed. Gendelman remembers a particular trip they took together to Batumi, part of Georgia and the capital of tiny Adzhariya. These days, Adzhariya Province, immersed in a long-simmering conflict with Georgia, from which it wants to secede, is not the safest destination. Yet, even twenty years ago, a motorcycle trip from Moscow to Batumi was inherently unsafe, with pothole-strewn highways lacking dividers and sometimes even dividing lines. In many ways, it was a leap of faith, an Evel Knievel jump extending over a thousand miles.
Gendelman is no daredevil, however; these days, at least. The best-handled conflict to him is still an avoided one. Still, according to one of his mottoes, “A good person always has it good”, and if barreling down primitive highways, Mad-Max-like, on a three-wheeled piece of Soviet mechanical monumentality poses no potential or conceivable conflict or problem to someone, they must have it good indeed. Which, by all accounts, he did.
The ride would take three days. Once there, while Tisha indulged in his favored pastime of bedeviling the anorexic local pigs, Gendelman took part in impromptu martial arts duels and competitions, and relaxed on the Black Sea beaches the city is famous for, in the process forming friendships he maintains to this day. “Sport creates the strongest bonds,” he says. Many of his then opponents and hosts are still continuing their practice, while some have made prominent careers in business and the military.
Back in modern-day Moscow, Alexandr Shengeliya, a large, genial man in his early fifties, runs an all-style martial arts school. He is a sculptor, and his office-studio, which is on the school’s premises, is populated by dozens of his works, including a giant bronze, chain-mail-clad angel bearing a spear and a mien strangely resigned to making war. Shengeliya was Gendelman’s first teacher. “This scrawny 16-year-old kid, Borya Gendelman, came to me smoking like a chimney, with a serious allergy to alcohol.” (This is a delicate way of saying that even at that precocious age, young Borya already knew the effects of chronic overindulgence in the gift of Bacchus. As for cigarettes, Gendelman says his first puff was at age 7.) “I started him on karate forms and strengthening exercises,” says Shengeliya, and through just plain persistence and dogged effort, he reached a pretty high level within a short time.”
While he pays respectful dues to the space where he took the first steps on his path, as well as to the man who had helped him along, Gendelman has outgrown them both, and Shengeliya’s tone with him is now more solicitous than patriarchal. One day, stopping by on his way to India, Gendelman mentions – likely in jest – that he would like to some day build a temple to the Sun-god, and Shengeliya immediately offers – only half in jest – the school’s real estate as a temporary space.
It has been said that religion is the most pervasive element in the cultural landscape of India; religion meant as spirituality. Perhaps this is why to Gendelman the country is a sort of homeland of his heart. He takes regular trips to his native Moscow and from there to Italy, Germany and beyond. His clients include Russian businessmen, a banking mogul in Milan and an executive at a top Italian design house, but wherever he is traveling, he invariably ends up in India. While Gendelman is especially well received by his close friends in Moscow and Germany, he has confessed to feeling most free and at home in India. “The sky there is incredibly open,” he says with a nostalgic conviction. Fortunately, unlike its sky, India’s food can be reproduced in other parts of the world, which is important to Gendelman-the-gourmet.
Great food – like anything worth having, and having in the greatest degree – must be denied to oneself in order to be enjoyed to the utmost. Its presence in one’s life must be controlled in order to be enjoyed. Essentially, only by controlling how much of a good thing you get can you experience a great thing.
Despite what would seem like all this self-denial, Gendelman is emphatic about striving for pleasure and harmony, and doing so within the framework of society, of the modern world and the conveniences it offers. To some extent, he subscribes to each of the major tenets of Taoist philosophy (as summarized by Chuang Tzu, who along with the better-known Lao Tzu was the defining figure of Chinese Taoism): “To regard the fundamental as the essence, to regard things as coarse, to regard accumulation as deficiency, and to dwell quietly alone with the spiritual and the intelligent….” Still, Gendelman strives for a worldly approach.
Food, as the consummate sybaritic voluptuary Stiva Oblonsky (Anna Karenina’s brother) informed us, is one of the great pleasures given to us in life. Eating should therefore be a sacred act, a mystery to be approached with awe and wonder. It is an affirmation of our bond with the earth (the original source of any food) and with the person sharing the meal, something to be enjoyed and relished through and through. From this point of view, the traditions of not wasting food, especially bread, the motherly reminders to chew slowly, and the custom of saying a blessing over food – many of them half-forgotten or cast aside – acquire a new meaning and sense. And diet fads make less and less sense.
The old ‘You are what you eat’ perfectly illustrates a key aspect of Life Defense: what you associate yourself with is what you identify yourself as. “You have to treat yourself as a god,” says Gendelman. “Think about it: would you feed a god crap? Would you feed a god junk food?” “To begin with, your identification must be with total health. Look at the people on the street. Most of them are sick in one way or another, and that’s considered normal. They have aches, bad backs, chronic heartburn. Many are hunched over, obese, have asthma and diabetes.” “If you identify yourself with the right goal, you will have a greater degree of freedom in life.”
“A human life is a form,” he continues. “Some people’s forms are restricted and one-dimensional; some people’s are more multi-faceted, more flexible, more free. By working to change your body and, in the process, your mind, you are expanding your form, pushing its boundaries outward from the inside.” “You have to become n-dimensional.” The object, initially, is not to achieve the Taoist ‘simplicity of formless substance’ but rather to grow and perfect one’s form constantly. The goal also is to become more free and less dependent on food for comfort, cigarettes for stimulation, alcohol for relaxation; to control one’s dependence on the opinions of others, on the weather, on circumstances.
This must be done by challenging the body, raising its thresholds of tolerance and actively expanding its capabilities. To illustrate, Gendelman spins a yarn of a friend’s long-ago mountain expedition to the Caucuses. A half-mile or so in the sky, the party stopped on a ledge to rest and eat. As they gathered around the simmering pot, an old man, a local, emerged, seemingly out of nowhere. Invited to share in their meal, he sat down, eating little and severely observing from under his improbably bushy eyebrows and the traditional karakul hat that seemed to sit on top of them. He paid particular attention to Gendelman’s friend, who chewed his food very slowly, using a circular motion of the jaws, looking like he was moving marbles around in his mouth. Finally, the man asked him in a disdainful tone what exactly he was doing with his face. With a somewhat superior air, the young man, who had been studying the inner arts for some time, replied that he was using a special method of breaking the food down energetically while it was in his mouth so that his stomach would have an easier time with it. “That’s hardly wise,” sniffed the old man. “You have to train your stomach to digest nails now, while you’re young, so that later on, when you might not have any teeth, it will still be able to do its job.”
And so, the degree of one’s freedom is really a synonym for capacity or ability, whether innate or acquired. In humor, in spontaneous conversation, in music, in art, the degree of your freedom is what allows you to live and create at a certain level. Some people are born with great freedom, called talent. Others have to work to achieve some degree of it. Yet, since a precious few come into this world with the degree of freedom they desire in the areas that matter to them, there is always room for improvement. That’s where the multiplier of Life Defense comes in.
Freedom is often lost (as in the case of male impotence) and then has to be won back. During one session, Gendelman repeats a word he learned recently: mojo. He pronounces it as if slicing the air with nunchuks: mo-jo. Up-down. Mo-jo. He chuckles; the word amuses him greatly. Perhaps it’s the incongruity of the two short syllables – one soft and nurturing, the second harsh and abrupt; jo, the Yang to mo’s Ying – and the all-important implication contained within them. “Regain the mo-jo”, he says, as if testing the words out for a slogan, “regain the freedom.”
Gendelman, for all his unremarkable looks, has quite a way with women. “You have to treat a woman as a goddess and a sister at the same time,” he says, “worshipping her female essence, while understanding that she is fully human.” I’ve watched him on many occasions, and as he speaks with women, he seems to surround them in a cloud of gentleness, an intense and concentrated attention that is palpable in each look and word.
Throw a frog into a boiling pot, the old parable says, and it will leap right out, but put it into lukewarm water, slowly heating it to a boil, and it will be cooked, none the wiser. Thus, a delicate, enveloping pressure from all sides at once works where an aggressive and transparently one-sided approach would not. The more important secret is that he seems to genuinely understand – to ‘get’ – women, as well as love them. And women, sometimes unwittingly, love him back. And so, my initial impression of him as a swordsman is confirmed in more ways than one.
One of his functions is that of benign sage, a Papa of sorts. A smiling, slightly bubbly woman in her mid-to-late twenties, with angelic blond curls and something intangibly birdlike about her, peeked in one day as we were talking at the end of an all-male, sparring-heavy practice session. She needed to speak to Gendelman. As they sat in armchairs by the fireplace, a group of us tactfully occupied the couch near the door, so as not to intrude. Still, we heard snippets of the conversation: frustrated desire, uncertainty about her chances with a man she liked, a phone call that shook her up… Gendelman spoke to her for about fifteen minutes, administering gentle, avuncular advice in a soothing tone, and then she was out the door, like a sprite, with a breezy good-bye to all. We resumed our conversation, which immediately turned to women. “Take this young woman, for instance,” Gendelman said. “She just flew in, like some kind of bird, filled the place with her ringing, ephemeral energy, brightened it up, and then flitted away just as suddenly as she arrived. Never mind that she has problems, things on her mind. She showered us with that female spark all the same. Isn’t that beautiful? That’s the mystery and the wonder that I value in women.”
“That’s right, we have a cult of women here,” he says unabashedly. Perhaps this is the reason why elements of wing chun – very much a female fighting form, invented by a nun and named after her most accomplished student – make up one of the central components of the physical side of Life Defense.
Once a week, a practice with a pronounced martial character is held at Fight House, a large loft on West 27th Street that rents floor space, primarily to groups practicing the eastern martial arts. The rhythmic yelping of karate students and the thwacks of escrimadores’ sticks pierce the sweat-laced air. Students of Aikido and the Russian Systema school of self-defense lead each other in a languid dance of shadow attacks and slow-motion falling. A ball of a man teaches an assorted cadre of tough-looking fellows techniques for neutralizing an attacker with a knife. Black-clad ninjitsu students spar in stern silence in a sinister-looking corner. There is a strong martial vibe in the air, which is exactly what Gendelman was after when choosing this space.
The energy of others, especially of people who are attuned to the activity in which you engage, is important in energy work. This was obvious and even palpable last spring in Central Park, on International Tai-Chi Day. Schools of tai chi, ba-gua and similar disciplines from the New York area gathered in the field on the east side of the park, just off Ninety-Fifth street, where the grass has been worn away to fine dust by regular pickup soccer games. A small group of us arrived after the opening ceremony, and “The School of Life Defense” was written into the official program at number 43 of 40, time permitting. A few clubs didn’t show up, and finally Gendelman took the stage. By this time, many spectators were ready to leave, and it seemed like the serious demonstrations of styles were over, especially after two members of a Queens-based tai chi school, dressed in flowing yellow and blue silk robes and snow-white sneakers, asked the audience to break their circle and form a crescent, announcing: “We’re gonna shoot chi! Come together if you wanna get chi!” Then they straightened out their right hands; fingers together, pointed at the crowd, and began to move them swiftly across the expanse of people, spraying energy, as it were. This was more amusing than effective, but the audience played along by pretending to feel invigorated.
Gendelman was next. He came out into the middle of the re-formed, but now jagged, circle, in rumpled khakis and the trademark short-sleeved shirt, open at the chest and flowing from the belly. Standing in the middle of the space, he put his palms together and bowed meekly in all four directions. He would be performing the tai chi form learned long ago from his Chinese teacher and passed on to his students. As he stood, heels-together-toes-apart, in the starting position, you could almost see him absorbing the energy from the air. Then, as he swayed gently through the starting motions of the form; the crowd hushed as a tension began to materialize. It radiated through the air like the deep, low clang of a huge gong, the basal ring of a hundred-ton bell, the pervasive vibration of a base-guitar string – a string about the thickness of a steel cable from the Brooklyn Bridge.
One wave flowed into the next, forming a single undulating motion, with the boiling vibration of the energy he was harnessing visible only in the slight quivering of the fingers, and queerly tangible as a constant tension that hung in the air. Like the weight of humidity or the vast onslaught of sound waves, it pervaded the brain, while the yantric motion hypnotized the eye.
In the end, Gendelman gave a performance that was his in form (technique and style) and the audience’s in substance – the energy, the juice – that was necessary to make it electrifying. Afterwards, there was a lightheadedness. Everyone clapped.
In addition to working at regularly scheduled sessions, one must embrace the ever-present opportunity to learn, and to learn through work, Gendelman often stresses. “When you ride the subway, don’t hold on to the handrails, and don’t lean on the doors,” a bit of advice the MTA would only half-subscribe to. “Try to keep your axis in balance. Don’t stiffen up, relax, and just feel it swing with the pitch and roll of the car, like a three-dimensional pendulum. If you do this regularly, you’ll see a qualitative difference in your balance, a lightness in your step and an improved feeling of your channel and the energy flowing through it. You will also achieve inadvertent artistry in your lives.” “If you do this on the bus – even better.”
At the far end of the work studio, a small tin plate covers an indentation in the floor. It is sunken and round, its circumference rising sharply to meet the surrounding parquet. The edges are uneven, even sharp. This 4-inch manhole cover is part of the work space, with everyone’s feet making countless passes over it during any given session, yet almost no one ever steps on it. (I did once, cutting my sole on the tin-can-jagged edge. I’ve since made sure that I would never do it again.) Gendelman could have the edges smoothed, of course, but he keeps the plate as it is on purpose. “It’s something you should just keep in mind,” he says. “As you are working, you have to concentrate on your energy, on your opponent, but you should also be able to keep in mind that there is this sharp plate there. It makes you work harder. It adds a dimension to what you are doing.” (There are two signs that one is working correctly: one, not getting tired, and two, achieving beauty in form. In other words, that which is beautiful – visually harmonious – is correct – substantively harmonious. Truth may not be Beauty in this world, but Beauty should be Truth.)
Gendelman also tells of a close friend from his Moscow days, a painter now living in Germany, who has been practicing hsing-i for more than twenty years. “He has a wonderful teacher – a solid-steel chain with a sliding weight. It teaches him – forces him – to be flexible and light, and it doesn’t forgive rigidity. When you swing that chain around you swiftly, like nunchuks, it is the gentlest teacher there is, but God forbid you stiffen up – there will be no mercy. It will kill you and that will be the end of that.”
Indeed, it takes constant application of will and concentration to be penetrating but gentle, giving yet firm. “There are forces in life that will come no matter what,” says Gendelman soberingly. “The deaths of loved ones, wars, accidents, mishaps. They’re something you cannot stop. It’s a wave rolling forward like a juggernaut, and it doesn’t care about anyone. If you’re at a blunt angle to it, it will destroy you. But if you are flexible and change your angle of approach to it, you will stay alive.”
The Matrix is a film he refers to often. Putting things starkly and sounding more than a bit Hobbesian, Gendelman says: “Look, the bare truth of it is that people are fodder. Fodder for those who are stronger, wilier, wickeder. Unless you can turn towards the world [angles, again] in such a way so as to make its ways harmonious with your needs and desires, you, your time and your energy will be harnessed by others for their goals.”
He goes on, “If you can’t change a situation, change your attitude towards it” – perhaps not a revolutionary bit of advice, but one the value of which is in the illustrations we see all around us. There is a matted photograph on the floor of the studio, leaning against the wall, picturing a homeless man leaning against the wall of a building and reclining on his satchels, looking as regally at ease as if he were the King of Ghana. A gift from Gendelman’s student, a professional photographer, it is a convenient illustration of comfort completely divorced from ergonomics. The latter is a physical concept, while comfort is in the mind, a matter of attitude. Attitude is what transforms a potentially bad (inconvenient, treacherous, dangerous) situation into fuel for work, into something of value in one’s life.
Most people, for instance, consider a full moon a vaguely inauspicious omen and many even avoid doing anything important or different from their usual routine on moonlit nights. But during a recent session, held on the same creaking porch, Gendelman purposefully concentrated our tai chi work entirely on the almost perfect orb that seemed to hang just out of reach against a darkening satin sky. It climbed above, as if pulled gently by a string. Ineffably more luminous by the minute, while the purple-black around it grew dense, this was a classic woman-moon – beautiful, striking, indifferent, in her own world. As we progressed through the exercises, I drank in her milk with my eyes, breathed in her light with my arms, the coolness traveling perceptibly into the organs and throughout the body. A gently coursing, tingling euphoria stayed with me well into the next day. A superstitious restriction was turned into a blessing.
An Apple a Day
When you look at the world with different eyes, you realize that it is possible to work with anything… and everything. Once, a piece of crystal the size of a crab apple – the low-hanging centerpiece of a chandelier – fell to the floor of Gendelman’s living room. Instead of bemoaning the heavy-footedness of the upstairs neighbors or the shortcomings of chandelier makers, or going on about how lucky it was that the crystal didn’t hit anyone on the head, Gendelman looked at this as a fortuity, in a Newtonian sense. The fall of the crystal inspired him to use it as a prism, a telescope and kaleidoscope all in one – turning left and right in his armchair, he pointed the faceted crystal drop at every object in the living room – and to make pronouncements on the beauty of things seen in a new light, and on the wonder of angles and refraction. For me, the beauty of this experience was its inadvertent nature. An accident turned into another illustration of the value of identification – identifying with the beauty of the moment and with the chance it gives you to do something new. Apparently, sometimes life may be lived to the fullest without having to get out of the armchair.
On the one hand, this was an instance out of Faust; when one wanted to say: “Moment, stay! You are so lovely!” Yet, in Gendelman’s reaction to the fallen crystal was evident an intense love of life and participation in it that are equally informed by the insight of Joseph Brodsky’s paraphrase: “Stay, moment. You really aren’t as lovely as you are unique.” In other words, it is the ability to see the divine – the preciously irrepeatable, the fortuitously unsought, the spontaneously beautiful – in anything, and to profit from that talent, that is the thing to seek.
* * *
Early April in New York City this year has felt more like early March. In the elevator going up to Fight House, a Systema instructor, chin in the high collar of his ski jacket, is obviously cold. Gendelman stands squarely in the middle of the small space, stalagmatically solid, head back, with a sternum that seems cast from bronze. No coat, no scarf, no hat. Mr. Systema looks at him, shivers, and says, “It feels like winter out there. Aren’t you cold?” Gendelman’s face bursts into a wide, uncontrollable smile, revealing teeth indifferent to cosmetic dentistry: “Everything depends on the degree of your freedom. It’s summer in here,” he says, bringing an open hand to his chest in a gesture at once eloquent and sincere. “What’s out there doesn’t matter.”
The elevator door opens. In two-and-a-half hours, it will be summer.