On Beauty

In the after-math of the 2009 of the World Jujitsu Championship, the difficult question posed by Luca Atalla still rings strong; ‘should athletes from the same team face each other in competition’? The irony of course was that Sergio Morales and Marcelo Garcia from Alliance decided to close out their division, whilst Roger Gracie and Romulo Barrral from Gracie Barra disputed theirs; this is of course in contrast to the opinions which arose from their respective camps only a short time ago. Regardless of this, one should take the words of Flavio Almeida and Romero ‘Jacare’ Calvacanti with the utmost seriousness, and consider them as such.

The Gracie Barra point of view is that competitions are a team effort: in that sense, if team-mates reach the finals, the job of the team is done; in other words, the team has proved its point that it is superior. There is of course an echo of Carlos Gracie Sr. in all of this, especially in his take that it is pointless for jujitsu practitioners to fight in vale-tudo matches any longer; the point has long been established that without jujitsu, one will be greatly incapacitated in a fight.

The Alliance leader, ‘Jacare’ Calvacanti, points out that in the earlier years of jujitsu competitions, it was common for team-mates to battle each other in finals. Regardless of whoever won, both were still team-mates and more importantly friends; in other words, competitions only displayed who was better on that day: in the greater scheme of things, it meant very little. One can of course hear the spectre of Helio Gracie here: to him modern jujitsu competitions are meaningless; the whole point of jujitsu is to give the small man a chance in a fight against a larger aggressor. At the heart of the art is the ability to defend oneself; the sportive variation was a variation at best – an arena to hone one’s body, one’s reactions, one’s spirit. In that sense, winning or losing on the mats was irrelevant; the true test is in a situation where one had to fight for one’s – or a loved one’s – life. And in many instances, the confidence that jujitsu gives one is more than enough to avert the situation.

Perhaps the difference in opinion stems from the very philosophies on which they are based. If jujitsu is perceived to be a sport, then the concept of teams – and by extension strategies, secrets, and esprit de corps – comes to the fore. This is magnified when one takes into account the call for the professionalism of the sport; for that is always already accompanied by commodification. One can detect a symptom of this logic in the standardization of the belt system. Whilst there are many merits of a certification system – foremost amongst them is that no one can just claim to be a ‘BJJ Black Belt’ and dupe people of hard earned cash – it also run contrary to the spirit of jujitsu. This is especially true when one takes into account the attempt to standardize the time between belts.

What sets BJJ apart from many other arts is the absolute trust in the instructor to grade her/ his students: in many cases, there is no reason to hand out a belt except for the fact that the instructor feels that the student ‘is ready’. Hence, the grading system is an intuitive system; moreover, since the belt always already carries the name of the said instructor, this suggests that by awarding that belt, the instructor is also putting her/ his reputation on the line. It is no coincidence that the black belt has always been equated with earning a PhD: both are stages where the person achieves her/ his viva voce, voice of life. Hence when one is awarded a black belt, the instructor is also saying ‘now you are ready to express the art in your own way, in your own voice’. This is captured beautifully in Royce Gracie’s famous quip, “the belt only covers two inches of your ass; you have to cover the rest yourself.”

It is this unknowable aspect of jujitsu – after all one can never know what ‘ready’ means much less transmit, teach, it to another – that Rickson Gracie has encapsulated in the elegant name he has given to his approach, that of “invisible jujitsu.” This is an approach to an art that acknowledges that part of the art always lies outside the person; that it is an intuitive aspect that can only be glimpsed at momentarily, through years and years of rolling, feeling, touching. And it is for this reason that jujitsu is arte suave, the gentle art. In this sense, whilst many have focused on the efficiency of jujitsu, or even on the gentleness of the leverage, it is Rickson that reminds us that it is first and foremost an art; and art in the precise sense of a craft at its highest level, where it consumes the practitioner, and often in ways which are exterior to one’s cognitive ability. Hence at the highest level, not only is jujitsu invisible to the eye, but it remains invisible to one; it expresses itself through one.

It is this poetic approach to jujitsu that opens the register that the gentle art is also arte bela, the beautiful art; for what is art if it is not enigmatic.

With this in mind, the opening question of whether team-mates should dispute a medal at a championship becomes moot. This does not take away anything from the achievement of the athletes who won, lost, competed at the Mundials, or in fact any tournament; many sacrifices, much training, and great dedication, has been given in order to even step onto the mats in the first place. However one should not forget that this – and in particular winning or losing – has very little to do with jujitsu itself.

And even less to do with its status as a beautiful art.

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