The Duellists
  Lists    January 27, 2017     Eric Larkin


Dueling is stupid. Arm-wrestling or belching contests – yeah, okay, of course. That’s how it was done before the tragic advent of “pistols at dawn” and “blades at noon” and “blunt objects just after brunch cuz I’ve got a thing at 11:30”. But to straight up risk death and/or maiming for what are usually completely asinine reasons is the height of blinding pride. 

The Duel robbed us of Alexander Hamilton, and a bunch of other dudes you’ve never heard of.

And there have been a good number of duels associated with great writers – folks who should have known better. On this the anniversary of the dueling death of that Russian icon of literature Alexander Pushkin, we’ll flip thru some highlights of the great legacy of bozo-headed duellists, starting with the man himself…


Pushkin was a duelling machine. He wrote a lot, of course, but he might have been famous as a duellist (yes, being an idiot sometimes makes people famous, duh) even without the writing.

A womanizing Frenchman named George D’Anthès had made overtures to Pushkin’s wife. Off they go for a little horrorshow “pistols in a snowfield”. Pushkin made a cool, falling down shot that drew blood – Bazinga! yells he – but he was falling down because he’d caught George’s shot right in the tum-tum. Literary genius: dead in two days. Random French dude: lives for another 60ish years. Idiots, both. 


Mikhail Lermontov, primarily known as a poet, was shot by his friend, his buddy, his very own pal from back at the Academy – Nikolai Martynov, dickface, Esquire. Why a dickface? Because though Lermontov would not fire his pistol at him, Martynov went ahead and shot him dead anyway. Like a dickface. Now, to be clear, no coward was Mikhail. He’d dueled before and was well-thought-of as a soldier. His attitude towards this duel was appropriately dismissive, however. He said, “This is DUMB, you guys. My hero Pushkin was killed just a couple years ago – see the paragraph above – and what good came of that? Gah – I’m gonna fire my pistol into the air instead of into you, ok Nik? This is bullshit.” [Totally made up that quote.]  And what was the offense? What gross action merited death at the hands of a longtime acquaintance-if-not-friend? What horrible thing could justify the quieting of this one-man literary choir? A bit of teasing.

(But okay, they might have been really stinging, good jokes, because Lermontov was a poetic genius, right? And those who haven’t the wit to answer back in kind, will often resort to blunt force violence. Keep your eye out for that, during the next few years.)


Nowadays, if your art/music/book/film suffers at the hands of a critic, there is not a lot you can do. But in the time of Edouard Manet, and especially if you knew the critic and saw him hanging around, maybe at the same cafés because he’s actually your pal, you could just challenge him to a sword duel. Like a complete whiffle-brain. Because obviously if someone doesn’t like your art, you should kill them. So, Manet slaps his pal Louis Duranty – most likely across the face – for comments made about his paintings and challenges him to a sword duel. They go out to the woods, smash into each other, swords flailing, and Duranty gets cut – because that’s what happens when you smash into someone flailing a sword. The seconds call it off, “honor” satisfied. Special thanks to Emile Zola, who was actually Manet’s second, for controlling the situation. (So, in this case, the writer actually saved the day.)


Jean Lorrain, a French writer who was openly gay, “insinuated” that Marcel Proust was having an affair with a young man. Proust’s sexuality was not then widely known, so Proust challenged him to a duel, because there’s nothing better than dying for the lie that you are not who you are. To be fair, the consequences for being outed can be dire – then and now, unfortunately – so perhaps he felt he had no choice. Seeing as Proust had yet to write In Search of Lost Time, it’s a good thing neither of these guys could shoot worth a damn. Apparently, Proust’s shot hit the only thing in the area large enough for him not to miss: planet Earth. Lorraine missed, too; it’s not clear whether or not he even hit the planet.


As many, many other playwright’s throughout history have surely wanted to do, Ben Jonson stuck his sword into an actor’s side, that of Gabriel Spenser, who is only famous for having then died. It was a duel, the reasons for which are not known, and Ben got into serious trouble for it. His ability to read and write is what saved his life. Take note: a poorer man, one who had never had the opportunity to learn how to read, would have been executed, end of story. Because Ben could read, he could be considered a cleric (or “clerk” – minor epiphany, a store clerk is a cleric of business), and his sentence was relatively lenient: loss of all possessions, and the branding of his thumb, which I’m sure really hurt but is still better than being hung.


Alexander Pushkinś Duel with George D’Anthès by A.A. Naumov – photo Royal Opera House Covent Garden


Sometimes dueling has nothing to do with insults or innuendo, yet still has everything to do with making a point. Turns out, folks like to prove themselves. Let’s face it, most of the aforementioned dumbasses could barely hold a weapon, much less use one. But if you’re really good, and you start winning duels, more and more skilled folks might start waiting for you outside bars. People who, say, want to open their own fencing school and are in need of marketing content, or folks who accepted dares whilst intoxicated, or folks who have tiny penises. You might have started out like that yourself, challenging a supposedly skilled fighter here and there, just cuz you’re obsessed with your martial art and have a tiny penis. But you become an aspiration, and it snowballs. Witness Miyamoto Musashi, samurai author of The Book of Five Rings. Having fought in over 60 duels, starting at around age 13, not all to the death but against actual swordsmen, Musashi has got to be the king of all duels. Never defeated, he retired peacefully, and wrote it all down. 

Still, this is a far more rational kind of duel. Rather than attempting to prove that such-and-such a statement is false by shooting your opponent in the face, you are trying to prove that you are a better fighter by beating your opponent… in a fight. I mean, at least the duel is actually over a question which can actually be answered by a duel. 


Musashi is an exception to the rule, of course. In nearly every other case, a simple belching contest could have saved lives. What great works might Pushkin have had rattling around inside that huge Russian soul? We will never know.


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