We were honored when historian and biographer T. J. Stiles—a National Book Award and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner—came to us with his essay “The Death of a Master.” In it, he describes his thirty-two-year relationship with his karate instructor: a kudan, or ninth-degree black belt, named Masataka Mori. From his first appearance in Stiles’s life in 1986, when he moved to New York City to study history and karate, and ending with Mori Sensei’s death in 2018, Stiles cuts to the center of how one achieves that elusive goal of total command.
SR: In your essay, you mention one of the great virtues you absorbed from Mori Sensei’s instruction is ganbatta, which translates as “constant endeavor.” What’s the relationship between ganbatta and mastery of anything?
Stiles: What I learned from Mori Sensei took me inside the clichés about practice, practice, practice. It’s not enough to repeat an action. If it were, the most prolific writers necessarily would be the most masterful. It’s not enough to repeat an action well. It’s not even enough to be fully absorbed. What makes practice meaningful is a spirit of deep discontent. I learned that one constant question must drive my effort: “How am I not doing this better?”
In The Sebastopol Sketches, when Tolstoy contemplates the relationship between military officers and enlisted men, he writes, “The man who feels unable to inspire respect by virtue of his own intrinsic merits is instinctively afraid of contact with his subordinates.” We hide from ourselves, too, I think. We fear that we are frauds, and we dread being found out. The path of ganbatta is ruthless humility, of seeing your failings honestly and battling them endlessly. As Mori Sensei said, “If you want to go up, you have to cry the whole way.” Ironically, that is part of the self-assurance that’s key to mastery. If you accept that you will never cross over into some end state of sublime ability, it’s possible to overcome the fragility at your own incapacity.
SR: Your essay begins with an act of violence: “the swelling bulged out of the back of my hand in a symmetrical hemisphere, like a golf ball under the skin.” You’ve suffered a hematoma and your Sensei treats it by punching it. There’s only one other time you use the word “bulge”: “I was raised in fundamentalism,” you write. “That overpacked word bulges with meaning and experiences and intense, even totalitarian beliefs.” Was this an intentional repetition?
Stiles: This is an example of how I could be doing this better. It didn’t occur to me that I had made an implicit connection, and yet there it is. In both cases, the “bulge” results from trauma—one physical, the other psychic. Swelling is not only the result of broken blood vessels, but is the body’s attempt to heal an injury, as it floods the area with blood. I intellectually flooded a mental trauma.
As a totalitarian belief system, the fundamentalist Christianity I was taught as a child insisted on its own supreme importance; even resisting it was all-consuming. I now think the trick is to overcome not only the idea-system but its pervasiveness. I see a point in Mori Sensei’s treatment of my bruised hand: OK, you got injured; deal with it and keep going. I don’t want to overstress the analogy, because smash-it-down is not a healthy treatment for anything. But I didn’t find the real value of my martial-arts practice until it ceased to be a reaction to something else.
SR: What’s fascinating about the essay is that your very supremely successful career as a historian—you’ve won two Pulitzer Prizes—is never mentioned. So, I have to ask: How has the study of karate informed your life as a writer and scholar?
Stiles: Karate-do comes into my work in many ways. There is the importance of discipline, of forcing yourself to do the work. I often say that karate practice is most important on the days when you feel lousy; that’s how you get to the days when you begin to feel skillful. The same is true with writing. Writer’s block is for amateurs; professionals hammer away when it doesn’t come easy. Then there is the ruthless humility I mentioned in answer to your first question. Every sentence I write could be better—every paragraph, every page, every chapter, every book. Why isn’t it? Whom can I learn from? In both fields, I have to remember that someone is always going to surpass me; it is pointless to assert some kind of status, when I should be focused on improving.
And there’s another dimension. I write biographies. I work in a subset of history that is concerned with the human condition—what I call the meeting ground of scholarship and literature. I have to bring some self-awareness to my observations of other people. To practice a martial art is to grapple constantly with your personal vulnerability to violence, your sense of personal power, your aggression, your fear. As a teacher, I don’t just see movements; I see the internal struggles of every student—tension, preoccupation, overcompensation, frustration, and exultation in the sheer physicality of it all. On a superficial level, we live in a less violent age than those I write about, and karate has fostered a visceral understanding that benefits my work. But more important is the wisdom that I’ve gathered from my practice. I think wisdom is what turns mere sentences and information into literature.