Deconstructing Chivalry

Commuters run when necessary. Spot them at dawn and dusk darting gazelle-like into traffic breaks on a green light, or revving to pass slow walkers, hiding rush-induced rage at the sorry clip of the people in front of them. At Union Square we all get off the train to find a tangle at the subway stairs. Tens of people huddle to walk up at the same time. One older white man gestures to me wide like he is holding a platter and says, “go ahead.” 

Cities have cultures. And, of the cities I have seen, New York in the morning is open minded and short tempered. Priority goes to white working men and pregnant white women. Coffees are allowed on trains, snacks sometimes. There is room for all different kinds of people to get on the train, no matter what they’re wearing or how they smell, or what they bring on with them. People in the train are tolerated, though not always fully welcome. 

No matter how many people are on the train car, folks should never touch others with their body or their bag. It is necessary to remain vigilant of this as cars fill and empty between stops. The New York Post wrote an article about a guy who took a bat on someone because they didn’t take their backpack off in a crowded train. The New York Post is extreme. But, besides being a bad source for news, I wasn’t surprised to see the story. Bag etiquette transgressors upset a lot of New Yorkers. There are times when the proximity and anonymity is, not only annoying, but traumatizing.

I bring up the violence because it is evident and pervasive in everyday life. I bring up language because it succinctly, for better or for worse, defines a given situation. I have an instinct that language could have the potential to reform daily notions. Chivalry should be translated. 

Localized permissions permeate the atmosphere of a crowded subway. Back underground at Union Square, we huddle at the steps after the train has left the station. People funnel up persistently and the man tells me “go.” I wait two beats to see how long the offer stands. To let him think about the generosity of his claim. What does he mean to say this to me, to take this power and lift me up the stairway with his “go”? If I was old would he have offered? If I had a different skin color or gender presentation? If I was a man, would he have said “go” then? Instead he took that power and lifted me up, congratulating himself for making one white woman’s day a little easier. But in this act he had alienated all the people next to me and behind him. I have no more right than they do to go before him, as he clogged the stairway with his charity. 

I didn’t know how to respond, the opportunist that I am. I waited so that he could think about his offer, perhaps even to allow him to get a little angry at me (along with everyone else. Which is why it may not have been the smartest decision.) And then I went. The entire situation didn’t carry much weight in itself. But it is the very fact that the act is petty that intrigues me. No one has much to lose in the situation, but it still holds deep cultural significance. 

I thought about chivalry on the second train that barrelled through the Upper East Side. What does it mean for me to have priority? What does it mean for him to give me priority?

While I respect and admire the decency that living with a high moral code requires, the problem with chivalry is rooted linguistically. “Chevalier” means knight in French, or literally, horseman. A chevalier is also a lord, not a foot soldier. He lives in high socio-economic stature. So, at its base, chivalry has combative and classist roots. 

The word, chivalry implies aspects of duty, honor, and service. A knight is never himself. He is, without falter, an extension of his master. In tarot cards, knights have a vibrant, youthful energy. The knights are the messengers, never still in their motivations, but highly active players in the deck. They are truly romantics in character, living in the service of their idealized world. They are riders, which may represent both a mastery and relationship to their animal instinct that carries them. Or perhaps their horse is broken and, in Freudian terms, the power dynamic is the subversion of the id by the superego.  

I honor the extension of self, but not the erasure of it. 

To expect him to obey without thought, would deprive the knight of their problem solving, morality, and elasticity that makes them human. As a slightly obsessive compulsive person myself, I am constantly afraid of the chaos my right, monkey brain would unleash if left to its own devices (as if there is such a binary.) If the knight was to let go of his place in the order, would he be his own man? He may have more innate good than his previous station assumed, whose judgements are fixed, who provide orders. My therapist says that everyone has desires, and the floundering of those desires is visible in a person’s demeanor like something’s been left on the stove too long. 

The knight knows what it means to separate people. He stands at the border, or travels abroad, interacting with difference through the eyes of his king. This militaristic code has a model of boundary-making and expansion. Whatever good the individual is protecting is on the inside of their kingdom and the evil doing becomes “of” the other and the knights live like barriers from, or surveillance over the “foreign.” When citizens are to model themselves after soldiers, borders appear that the individual must protect, and the citizen must choose who their borders surround. They become like surveillance cameras, constantly judging and monitoring the geometry of each situation.

While the knight represses parts of himself, he travels as an echo of his kingdom, hence he knight will inevitably be unprepared for their conquest, and by extension, by mere existence, be hurtful to the land and the people on his travels. I think of the way people go to resorts in different countries and have no concept of the true culture of the place. Because somehow, still, even as a traveller, they need a buffer from diversity. In Aguirre, the Wrath of God directed by Werner Herzog, the Spanish conquistadors trundle through Brazil, alongside the Amazon River. The men are laden with heavy armour, the women wear long medieval dresses on the mountains, and they bare canons down jungle ravines. The absurdity of the scenes are poignant and tragic. While floating on a raft on the Amazon, waiting to come upon a golden city, El Dorado, the company takes out a paper and declares themselves masters of the land they see. Throughout the entire film the conquistadors barely even see the native peoples. Arrows shoot at them from the brush. Their experiences simply can’t translate if the world is centered around a single belief system that they continue to carry with them. 

In so many ways the knight evokes a human desire that may outweigh the symbolic kings or queens. Knights live out a life that I think is ideal for humans. Games are small battles, requiring strategy, problem solving, and sharp decision making to the participants. These skills are some of our strengths as humans. Our brains can create elaborate and beautiful patterns that are constantly looking to trick and outmanoeuvre, naturally, and joyfully. We want to feel useful, we want to feel like we are doing good for the people we love. There is nothing wrong with that. It is human nature to desire movement, to travel, we desire to learn and continue to learn. We desire challenge. All of these aspects make up the core of a knight. 

But the common narrative of war is generally that it doesn’t make sense. All accounts of battle detail the need to survive rather than any type of strategy or discovery. More often, heroic acts are not of killing, but of kindness. The non-sequitur of war interrupts identity and narrative, both of which shatter and are replaced by history, written by the state, taught and administered by the state. 

And so chivalry continues, programmed into culture as an ideal. Romantically, chivalry should be dead. I am fine with holding doors, with paying for people’s meals, for helping people who need, who ask, for help. But the word comes out of a toxic intention within which is embedded a power dynamic. In On Photography, Susan Sontag describes the way in which plunder was/is a soldier’s pay. Being a soldier gave certain rights that may not have been morally acceptable on homeground. Hence, chivalry implies payback. So this man lets me walk up the stairs. But maybe in a way he has some sort of claim to me. 

Translate chivalry to compassion, which is akin to being of service. Being compassionate is a flexible and vibrant thing. Being of service has rules. Being of service has requirements and standards. Compassion can be as great or as small as it needs to be, yet requires bravery and malleability and attention that would match a knight’s. I say let duty go. Differences can be looked at, in the eye, our selves are not extensions of belief systems or leaders or rulers, but our ancestors. Compassion is not always easy. We are trained not to be kind to one another. We are trained not to be kind to ourselves, so these acts don’t appear to come naturally. We carry our ancestors. We have a responsibility to them, to see them, to forgive them, heal them, to heal ourselves in courageous compassion from within and out into the world.