When Writers Attack!

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warIn three weeks pinch-blogging at The Anchoress Blog, my most exciting moment came when one of my posts caught the attention, and roused the choler, of a National Review columnist. In taking him and Salon editor Joan Walsh to task, each for privileging his own reaction to Osama bin Laden's death, I condemned them both as "reaction Nazis." I had meant for the term to evoke Seinfeld's Soup Nazi—that is, someone who's dogmatic where common sense calls for flexibility, but not callous enough to invade the neutral Low Countries in order to skirt the impassable Ardennes.

Unmoved by the comic precedent, the NRO pundit denounced me for breaking Godwin's Law. I had no choice but to admit he was right. If Jerry Seinfeld jumped off the Triborough Bridge, would I follow on his heels? I blogged again, formally de-Nazifying him, and the matter was forgotten.

Or rather, it was forgotten by him. Hopefully. It has since occurred to me that I was playing a very dangerous game. The last person to call a National Review columnist a Nazi, or anything like one, was Gore Vidal. The writer in question—actually, National Review founder William F. Buckley—promptly returned fire, threatening to smash Vidal in the face and promising, "You'll stay plastered."

For better or worse, no smashing occurred that night (though Norman Mailer would head-butt Vidal a mere three years later). But recalling the exchange made me wonder: What if writers were inclined to chastise one another physically? How would that affect today's literary and journalistic landscape?

The idea of writers with deadly weapons is less farfetched than it sounds. In 1837, Aleksandr Sergeyevich Pushkin, Russia's first serious poet (and to many critics, still its finest), traded pistol shots with George d'Anthes. D'Anthes' shot struck Pushkin in the abdomen, hurling him to the ground. Rising to his knees, Pushkin fired back, but his shot seems to have done no more than graze d'Anthes' chest; he died two days later. In 1841, Mikhail Yur'evich Lermontov, Russia's first serious prose writer—who, incidentally, once wrote a poem in which he imagined a man imagining a girl imagining his death by gunfire—caught a fatal bullet in a duel with Nikolai Solomonovich Martynov.

But both d'Anthes and Martynov were professional army officers, and both of the quarrels were decidedly non-literary. (Pushkin believed, egged on by a still-unidentified informant, that d'Anthes was sleeping with his wife; Lermontov had hurt Martynov's feelings by making fun of an outfit he'd worn to a ball.) One wordsmith against another would seem to be a fairer match, not to mention more valuable for research purposes. In general, do people fight the way they write?

Charles Maurras did. In 1912, the founder of l'Action Française, a French right-wing political movement and its eponymous newspaper, published an article attacking Paul de Cassagnac, editor of rival paper l'Authorité. Cassagnac challenged Maurras to a duel; Maurras accepted. The men crossed blades at Neuilly on February 26. According to the New York Times, "The fight was extremely exciting for the onlookers, while it lasted. It seemed at one moment as if Maurras had received a thrust in the neck, but fortunately only his beard was touched and this did not prevent him from continuing his offensive tactics, which he did with unabated ardor."

A clip of the fight is available on YouTube. Though a generally sinister character—a tireless hater and baiter of Jews, Protestants, Freemasons, the English and Americans—Maurras comes off looking like Scrappy-Doo. Eight inches shorter and ten years older than the stately Cassagnac, his bald spot filling the camera, he thrusts and parries away manically until wounded in the arm. For the duel's 70-second duration, Maurras is impossible not to like. More than that, his jackhammer prose style, somewhat like Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi's, if Taibbi were a reactionary royalist with a roaring hangover and a stubbed toe, gains a new and flattering context.