What Oscar Wilde Can Teach You About Capoeira

12 03 2008

“A little sincerity is a dangerous thing,
and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

I know, what does HE know about capoeira, right?  Well, read and see!Known for sayings such as the above and “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it,” Oscar Wilde is one of my favourite authors.  It occurred to me the other day that despite his Oxford schooling, 19th century dandyism, and the fact that he was gay—he might actually have made a pretty good malandro [Edit: a pretty good typical/traditional malandro].  After mining through a huge list of famous quips and witticisms, I’ve shortlisted 8 gems that hold valuable lessons for us about capoeira.  Who’d have thought?  Now read on and yield to the temptation…

 

“Always forgive your enemies—nothing annoys them so much.”

Have you ever seen someone get taken down in the roda, and then immediately go into ultra-agression mode, doing everything with the sole intent of getting the other person back?  It didn’t get much results—or look very good—did it?  If you get taken down in the roda, or find yourself playing someone with whom you have a score to settle, relax.  There’s no hurry.  Laugh it off, keep having fun, and don’t show that you’re bothered (better yet, genuinely don’t be bothered at all!).  You’ll either perplex your opponent (an advantage), or keep the game fun and above-board; then, when they’re least expecting it, you can strike!

“It is a curious fact that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves seriously.”

This lesson is similar to the one above, but has wider context.  If you read Nestor Capoeira’s Roots of the Dance-Fight-Game, there’s a story in there about a capoeira instructor he met once, who used the word “work” in some form or another every other sentence while talking about capoeira.  That instructor proceeded to get his corda served to him on a plate in the roda, getting angrier and angrier all along for being made a fool of and for the imagined (or not-so-imagined!) insult to his pride and dignity.  Do you think people were taking him seriously then?  If you ever feel yourself getting too intense or upset about capoeira, just remember all its other names: vadiação, brincadeira, malandragem.  “Loitering”, “frolic”, and “roguery”—nothing very serious about those!

“There is no sin except stupidity.”

In his book Learning Capoeira, Greg Downey tells how the worst thing someone could be, to a capoeirista, is stupid, or naive (which is what I meant by the quote at the top of this post).  This one reminds us to always be on the alert, pay attention to what’s going on around you, don’t get cocky in the roda, know what’s going on in the roda even when you’re not in it or especially if you want to buy in, and to never let down your guard or make a rash decision.  Even if we no longer have to fear hidden razors to the throat, your pride won’t care if you end up on your butt thanks to an unexpected yet avoidable attack!

“Truth, in matters of religion, is simply the opinion that has survived.”

Whether or not you agree with this regarding religion, you can’t argue if you replace the word with “capoeira”!  How many different versions have you heard of how many different histories, origins, techniques, personalities, stories, rumors, or philosophies, just to name a few?  I carelessly got caught out the other day while chatting with Compromisso of Capoeira Espaco: “…I can’t imagine what true angola must be like.”  Well, as he pointed out, what’s “true angola”?  What’s true capoeira?  When it comes to capoeira, there is no one, universal Truth, so take everything you hear or read with a grain of salt, and never forget or be afraid to think for yourself.

“People who love only once in their lives are. . . shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either the lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination.”

Though slightly controversial, I agree with this sentiment regarding capoeira “group loyalty”.  As I explained in my post “Think Global, Play Local: Broadening Your Capoeira Horizons“, this does not mean I advocate group jumping!  I believe in this only as far as not restricting yourself to your own group to the extent that you don’t even interact or check out other groups, for the exposure.  “Lethargy of custom”, of course, would refer to going along with what you’re told because “that’s the way it is”, at the expense of your own growth in capoeira, and “lack of imagination” could be a cause, but more importantly also a result of such “fidelity”, in the long run.  (An example is, as I’ve been told by multiple people, when capoeiristas in one group play together so often and without new blood that they begin to memorize each other’s favourite moves and combinations!)

“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

Kind of a nice transition from the last quote, this one is a given!  If you find yourself doing the same moves over and over again in the roda, or end up with conversational lulls of doing ginga back and forth with your opponent, that might be a sign it’s time to get your capoeira sequence drawing board (or thinking cap, or magic eight ball—hey, to each their own!) out.  Capoeira is all about being creative and imaginative, moving unpredictably, doing the unexpected; the only thing you should be doing consistently is training! 

“A man who pays his bills on time is soon forgotten.”

Now this one I wouldn’t have picked a year or two ago, but things change. 🙂  If you play nice (and boring), following all of what you think are the rules, then—for the most part—people are going to play nice (and boring) with you.  When you play someone like that, what happens?  You play them, someone buys them out, and you move on to the next person.  What if the other person suddenly gave you a martelo to the face (just marked, of course, not actually), or attempted to take you down?  You’d suddenly be a lot more into the game, wouldn’t you, and they would definitely have caught your attention, wouldn’t they?  “Nice” and “proper” (whatever that is) is okay, but it’s also forgettable, and unremarkable.  If you push the envelope a little bit (and within reason), you get onto the radar, people won’t be afraid to do the same to you, and together that’s how you help each other grow.

“I may have said the same thing before…but my explanation, I am sure, will always be different.”

Ah, how many times have we asked for an explanation from a teacher, only to good-naturedly accept a completely contradictory version the next week?  Similar to there not being any one Truth in capoeira, there is also never just one way to do things, or one way to describe or explain things.  You can have one instructor insist on you practicing au sem mão one way, then five minutes later have that exact method derogated by another (true story)!  The key to this one is to always be mentally flexible, open-minded, and receptive of new ideas.  Being perceptive wouldn’t hurt either, in case someone is repeatedly telling you something you clearly need to know, but just in a different way each time!

Well, I hope you enjoyed this introduction to or reacquaintance with Oscar Wilde!  And hopefully you learned a couple of things, too. 😉

p.s. This was inspired while commenting on a post by the newest capoeira blogger on the block, Angoleiro! It’s all angola, all the time, and all awesome! You guys should definitely head over and check it out.

p.p.s. For those of you who have commented over the past two days or so, thank you so much for your thoughtful and extensive responses, and I’m sorry I haven’t replied yet!  I’ve been completely time-strapped by non-capoeira, non-blog things this week (I actually had to bail a couple times on my in-person friends, as well), but I promise I will get to them eventually, no matter what!  Keep checking back!

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Capoeira and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

22 01 2008

(semi-inspired by Pirulito/D-cal’s paper, Zen and Capoeira)

The roda, a place of logic, precision, art, and beauty.One of my favourite novels is called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig.  The novel explains how art and science, or “Romantic aesthetics” and “Classical reason” are not so much two opposing ways of looking at things as they are twin perspectives that were separated at birth by the likes of Plato and Aristotle, to the detriment of all Western society today.  The split occurs because Romantic appeal is tied to emotions and subjectivity (something appeals or seems beautiful to you “merely” if you like it), while Classical reason is associated with objectivity, the need for a complete lack of emotions. 

In fact, argues Pirsig, you need both to do anything worthwhile, and to do it well.  You need to at once see the cold logic underlying an original Van Gogh and the flaming beauty in the mathematical precision of a motorcycle engine.  At the crux of it all is a concept he calls Quality, which is the point at which Romantic appeal and Classical reason merge.  It all sounds a bit weird and out there when I describe it now, but you must read the book to have a chance at understanding it all (and read it anyway, because it’s amazing!). 

With that said (sorry for the long introduction), it occured to me that capoeira is a perfect example of this unification of science and art.  The novel’s title is explained by the fact that the philosophy of Zen codifies exactly the concept of what Quality is, so you can imagine my excitement at recalling the following quotation, from Nestor Capoeira’s Street-Smart Song:

In the East there is Zen;

Europe developed Psychoanalysis;

In Brazil we have the Capoeira Game.

(Alright, so by “recall”, I really meant “was reminded of by Pirulito’s paper”. :P)

With capoeira, it’s easy to see where the Romantic appeal aspect comes in.  The dialogue, the movement, the acrobatics, the expression, the flow—ask anyone to describe capoeira for you, and it probably won’t be long before the word “beautiful” or a synonym comes up.

I would argue, however, that the logic and science in capoeira is just as easy to perceive as the beauty is.  In fact, one of the first things about capoeira that I fell in love with was the seeming perfect logic of many of the take-down or take-down/counter-take-down sequences we learned.  Seeing them demonstrated, to me they each possessed all the elegance of a succinct, devastatingly proven math equation.  For instance, a successful tesouro was a logical progression from an attempted vingativa, which itself was the jigsaw-puzzle-perfect response to an attempted quexada—based on body positioning, players’ intentions, opportunity, and the laws of physics. 

According to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the reason many people today feel detached from technology and science is because all the Romantic appeal has been taken out of it—emotions are not involved, everything must remain objective and separate from the individual, and test tubes, metal parts, and theories, etc. are not very attractive aesthetically speaking.  What we must learn to do, says Pirsig, is put our emotions and individual values back into Classical reason.  When tuning a motorcycle, for simplified example, he can feel the point at which the screw takes on the exact needed amount of tightness.  When he thinks of the motorcycle as not an object outside of himself, but something that he is engaged with and cares about, he has a much better chance of working on it successfully, and the moment he feels satisfied and at peace is the moment his motorcycle is fixed. 

In other words, one must work with defined principles on which the game is based, but in a way that makes it your game, that makes it personal, and if you do it right—there is nothing but the moment, and everything goes with the efficiency of a well-tuned machine that also happens to make one feel they’re looking at a beautiful work of art.

Sound familiar?

Picture source:
http://www.swps.org/wrf/artist_05/Capoeira.jpg

P.S. Just a note to acknowledge Blog for Choice Day, that today is the 35th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade in the United States.  I haven’t thought enough about this topic yet to feel comfortable writing an actual post on it, but thought I should at least just recognize.