Like set pieces of life, duels and their drama have starred in Western literature for centuries, a history presented by John Leigh in the newly-published Touché: The Duel in Literature. “Writers are drawn to duels,” Leigh explains, “in the interests of discovering something fundamental about human beings and the way they variously organize and delude themselves, the way they face one another, their fears, and, ultimately, death.” Fiction’s many famous bouts have helped the duel to sustain a cultural heft resonant of both honor and absurdity, able at a mention to evoke intense and complex emotions of a nature known to every era, as Leigh shows below.
In the weeks before last month’s General Election in Britain, politicians had begun to look bored by their own campaigns. The Premier League had already been won, the royal baby was refusing to appear, and the weather was dull. Suddenly, however, a challenge to a duel was made public, and a nation stirred. Yanek Zlinski, who was identified by the media as a Polish “Prince” (the application of the scare quotes has yet to provoke any further challenges), had invited Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), to cross swords in Hyde Park.
The proposed duel, of course, never took place. But Zlinski had made his point. He wished to suggest that UKIP’s stance on immigration, which comes largely from the poorer nations of Eastern Europe, constituted an affront rather than an argument and did not deserve to be dignified by opposition in dialogue. Furthermore, by challenging the Englishman to a duel, he intimated that Poland remained a no less honourable member of old Europe, enjoying with Britain a common allegiance to a cosmopolitan aristocratic culture.
The stunt would indeed appear to hark back to noble traditions of political antagonism, when campaigns (honouring the etymology of that word) would take politicians out onto the field in order to sort out their differences. Of course, the opposing sides in the House of Commons are still separated by the length of two swords. Yet this direct appeal to one of the party leaders may actually be a symptom of the Americanisation of British politics, for television debates, recently introduced into the UK after considerable debate about their form, appear to have encouraged the electorate to envisage leaders as more presidential personalities.
This episode, initiated on YouTube, may say something about media perceptions of politics; it testifies also to the strange appeal of the duel, a defunct aristocratic practice which nevertheless continues, well beyond its natural life, to occupy a prosperous place in our imaginations. There is something beautifully simple and self-evident about a duel, eclipsing the often obscure mixture of resentments and misunderstandings which will have provoked it. A duel gratifies by producing a result and providing resolution. At last, amid the broken promises and compromises of coalition politics, some honourable action could momentarily be glimpsed. Even just imagining a duel may provide us with a momentary respite from the routines enforced by life in a modern sanitocracy (rule by Health & Safety), a holiday away from our contemporary exposure to divorce proceedings, litigation, and financial folly.
Endearingly transparent as the duel may be, its appeal seems also to be secured by a paradoxical, counterintuitive quality. Duellists kill politely; they flout the law but defer to carefully prescribed rules; these figures are recklessly individualistic but, in many cases, ultimately passive. We speak, in works of history and fiction alike, of gentlemen who died “in a duel,” as though it were the duel itself, not an opponent, which was responsible for the loss of life. Nor are the principals, to use the correct nomenclature, really opponents or enemies, in any conventional sense. Moreover, the protocols of the duel, which require seconds to be present and weapons to be equal, insist on a delay before the duel can take place at a pre-arranged time and place. An agonised debate between present and past may well ensue. The anger that has occasioned the duel sometimes cools by the time it has to be fought. But the duellist does not have the option of retreating. He will have to meet his obligation, even if he carries no resentment. In a wonderful short story by Guy de Maupassant, a Viscount has challenged another gentleman to a duel, in the most banal of circumstances, as they sit in a café. The ice cream which is being consumed at that moment serves symbolically to denote the transience of the episode. By the time the nobleman returns home to see to the arrangements, he can see his folly and feel his fears. He kills himself instead of going through with the duel.
Maupassant’s short stories, in which the lives of ordinary, often provincial folk are dissected, might not seem to be an obvious place to look for duels, yet the Viscount’s fatal flirtation with the point d’honneur is not the only instance in his oeuvre. Working on Touché: The Duel in Literature has afforded me the opportunity not only to enjoy the heroic swagger of D’Artagnan and the Cid, but to see some familiar writers from a different angle. Like Maupassant, Charles Dickens is famous for his earthy characters, yet successive duels occupy prominent places in a number of his works. In the previous century, authors of the Enlightenment felt anxious, even obliged, to deplore a practice grounded in medieval mores, yet duels intrigued these thinkers, perhaps attaining the status of guilty pleasures, as we might call them now. Equally surprising is the long reach or range of duellists, who can fetch up in small-town America (Mark Twain) or in a Swiss sanatorium (Thomas Mann). There is time for a duel on Verne’s voyage around the world in 80 days.
Such is the volume of duels throughout literary history, their presence in more recent works is sometimes accompanied by a knowing wink or a self-conscious glance in the direction of the reader. Duels in these instances may answer the needs of the plot, generate great suspense for the reader at little cost, or provide the writer with the challenge to put his own spin onto a familiar formula. But there would appear to be more to it than that. Duelling in these literary texts engages the widest range of contradictory emotions. In 2015, as the centenary of one Great War battle follows another, it is interesting to think of the different ways humans have devised for killing one another. Whether we think it the most gracious or ridiculous ritual, the duel continues to lend the reader an approachably literary form for facing up to and playing with the eternal mystery of death. All the more so now that swords have given way to rollerblades in Hyde Park.