[Originally published May 6, 2008.]

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Those who write of self-defense inevitably fail to celebrate the mysterious and the multiple. These scribes imagine safety to be a litany of banal proscriptions: do not go out alone in the evening, avoid eye contact with strangers, carry always in your mind an image of Shakespeare riding a lamed horse. Such writers commit a deplorable error, for to place one’s hope for safety in changeless things is the fallacy of realism and the unspoken goal of pepper-spray manufacturers. Instead, one correctly perceives safety in the fabrication of new and undreamt paths, paths engendered by the laborious placement of one’s feet somewhere in the world, in any world, of the many divergent and proliferating worlds in which one may be harassed or assaulted. From one’s stance may spring any and all actions. To slouch or lean, then; to stand less than heroically—these things usurp the power of the omnipotent stance. Wearing high heels does not help, either. Flats are more stable and better for one’s ankles.

Let us enumerate, then, the multiplicity of places where the human form is vulnerable: The eyes. The soft tissue of the throat. The nose and the glabrous upper lip. The fingers, astoundingly fragile and exposed. The groin. The absurd knee, notoriously false. The toes. Note also the curious paradox of these targets’ coexistence with the myriad uncounted bodily weapons: The elbow. The fingernails. The front of the first two knuckles of the right hand. The heel of the foot. The arcing curve of the back of the skull. The base of the palm. The teeth, if one is not overly squeamish. The possible combinations of these weapons against the human frailties are numberless.

Now we shall role-play one or two.

Imagine that in the year 1934 you are returning from your friend Carolus Ernst’s house, where you have been engaged in a fierce and discordant dispute concerning a corrupt translation of Herodotus from a Persian manuscript. Suddenly, near some undocumented alleyway, a tall, sharp-featured stranger with gray eyes approaches and seizes you by the left wrist. Time stops, revealing its irrefutable triviality. Expanding outward from this attack are illimitable, inexhaustible responses.

Here is a practical three-part strategy that I recommend: You will strike this attacker in the throat with the hardest weapon available to you. Perhaps it is an elbow. Perhaps it is an 1847 edition of The Encyclopedia of Celestial Navigation. Perhaps it is a small, strange bird of infinite plumage, or a monstrous iron implement once used to prod the sacred tortoise in the savage jungles of Uln. Perhaps it is all these things. It depends, ultimately, on your inclination and talents, and also on the size of the purse one carries. Decidedly, you must also raise an alarm. As you strike, you voice words of opprobrium; you issue a polemic against the imprisonment of wrists; you invent a language spoken only by those who struggle for the free movement of their left arm. One might say, for example, “No,” or “Let go of me,” or, conceivably, “Look at the moon, rising above the pyramids.”

After striking, you will rotate your seized hand radially about the axis of your attacker’s forearm, effecting the negation of his grip by virtue of the thumb’s fallibility. The attacker, stunned by your articulation, and rendered breathless by the crushing of his larynx, steps back from you as if seeing 500 red-tinged angels descending an ebony staircase. Now run.

Very good. I reverently applaud your efforts.

Conceivably, one does not wish to strike the assailant. This may be due to an excess of compassion, or to impenetrable melancholy, or to obscure religious commitments. In the mirrors of possibility, many reactions are reflected. Other corridors of action extend, any one of which you may travel. You may choose, instead of fighting, to pray, to declare yourself invisible, to recite the 13 lamentations of Ramón Beckjord, to feign idiocy, to utter mystical predictions concerning nameless men in three anonymous cities. All responses are valid. It is a good idea to practice them at home when you can; this builds confidence.

I had planned to end our session today with a parable about a tiger and a nightingale, but I see we are out of time.