25 August 2008

Weapons and Armies: The Duel

By Evangeline Holland

In my quest to experience as much of what typical upper-class Edwardians experienced, I enrolled in a fencing class this past spring. The duel is a popular concept in fiction--it was symbolic of honor, masculinity and justice. From the 16th century and even into the 20th, the duel and its sportier sibling, fencing, were held in high esteem. Though dueling was outlawed in many countries by the mid-nineteenth century, in places like Germany, the American South and in France, the Code Duello was the handbook for the settlement of offenses. No turning the other cheek here; an eye for an eye was the style.

The cult of dueling was most prevalent amongst the officers and university students of Germany. One wasn't considered a man unless one had dueled and more importantly, suffered a wound (facial scars the most coveted). So revered was the duel, many German aristocrats opted to pay a doctor or surgeon to slice open his cheek or forehead, or create a wound on another part of the body, to impress both ladies and their contemporaries.

However, no where was the duel more popular than in belle époque France. Nearly everyone dueled: politicians, artists, authors, journalists, etc, and apparently, over 200 were fought annually. In 1870, Édouard Manet challenged the art critic Louis Edmond Duranty after Duranty had written only the briefest of commentary on two works of art that Manet had entered for exhibition.

The frustrated Manet collared Duranty at the Café Guerbois and slapped him. Duranty's demands for an apology were refused and so the men fought a duel with swords in the forest of Saint-Germain three days later on the 23rd. Émile Zola acted as Manet's second and Paul Alexis acted for Duranty. After Duranty received a wound above the right breast the seconds stepped in and declared that honor had been satisfied. The men remained friends despite the encounter.
In 1897, the frail, reclusive Marcel Proust challenged the effete gossip journalist Jean Lorrain to a duel when the latter, under the name "Raitiff de la Bretonne" insinuated that Proust and the young son of Alphonse Daudet were having an affair. For his seconds, Proust chose the painter Jean Beraud, and Gustave de Borda, whose dexterity and finesse in so many duels had earned him the nickname "Sword-Thrust Borda," while Lorrain chose painter Octave Uzanne and the novelist Paul Adam. When a meeting between seconds could not come to an agreement, the duel was arranged to be fought with pistols on Saturday, February 6, in the forest of Meudon, just ouside of Paris. Proust's primary worry was not the bullets, but having to rise, dress and go out in the morning. Thankfully, his seconds were able to arrange an afternoon confrontation. In the end, the pistols were discharged in the general vicinity of one another (though Proust apparently aimed at Lorrain, for the bullet hit the ground next Lorrain's right foot), and honor was satisfied.

The most explosive challenge ever was in 1911: Arria Ly versus Louis Casalé. Ly was an ardent feminist in a time where the movement hadn't taken to Continental Europe as it had Britain and America. She gained extensive controversy in the French national press with the publication of her article "Vive 'Mademoiselle!'" in THE FEMINIST JOURNALIST. In it, she stated:

...that a new class of single, professional women practice permanent sexual abstinence and adopt the title "Mademoiselle" as an exalted expression of the "purity, independence, and pride" attached to the state of virginity. Ly insisted that only by breaking the psycho-sexual chains that bound them to men could women hope to achieve sociopolitical and legal autonomy. Emphasizing the relevance of celibate singleness for the French women's movement, Ly affirmed that "more and more, we will recruit the elite of our adepts and militants from these noble freethinkers, these inspiring rebels" who were not legally "under their husbands' authority" or otherwise restricted by familial obligations.
The response was scathing, Casalé, a writer for the weekly radical-socialist newspaper the Toulouse Reporter, attributing Ly's proposal to her degenerate personality and to an:

...old maid's hatred for the man who never desired her, an anticipated disgust of men due to an overly-exclusive love of women (Lesbos stood in for Cythera many times), a morbid aversion felt by the de-sexed neurotic, cerebral over-excitation due to the abuse of anesthetics, or more simply, the affected attitude of the politicienne.
Ly's challenge was further ridiculed and Casale felt secure enough in his opinion, which was supported by the majority of people who wrote in to the newspaper, to ignore it and continue his abuse of Ly and other "voluntary virgins" who were depicted--naturally--as shriveled, wrinkled old women.

The duel is now generally seen as a romantic gesture, a relic from the Victorian era to be snickered at. But the practice was taken very seriously by all involved and even into the 20th and 21st centuries, the duel is considered a proper--in fact, the only manner for a gentleman-step towards solving insult.