FEW SOCIAL PRACTICES now seem more antiquated than the formal duel by swords or pistols. The so-called “judicial duel” became widely practiced in Europe in the early Middle Ages, influenced by Homeric and other Classical accounts of single combat, and survived more or less intact for centuries. Over the same span, duels appeared endlessly in stories, paintings, poems, and novels. Duels seem “particularly hospitable to literature,” John Leigh proposes in his lucid and thorough new study, because they are “self-contained dramas”; “the most deliberate, self-conscious of acts,” the “ritualized combat” of a duel stipulates a consistent pattern of word and deed.

Touché: The Duel in Literature follows a recursive structure, suggesting that even as every duel is slightly different, each one is also in some respects almost exactly the same. Here’s what happens, over and over again: One character feels himself to be insulted by another character — for any reason, often an entirely petty one. He challenges the other character to a duel, throwing down a physical or verbal gauntlet. The other character accepts. They name a time and place, and choose weapons (either swords or pistols). Each “principal” appoints an assisting and witnessing “second.” They meet, and either one principal kills the other, or they both survive.

That’s about all there is to it. Within the static world of the duel, however, slight modifications leap out as major innovations: in his 1775 play The Rivals, for example, Richard Brinsley Sheridan “attends to the practicalities of a duel by pistol with unprecedented attention”; he is, for instance, “one of the first writers to pay heed to the eager complicity of the seconds.” (Leigh also applauds Sheridan for depicting “one of the most marvelously inane, utterly gratuitous provocations to a duel to be enjoyed in all literature”: an Irish baronet named Sir Lucius O’Trigger approaches a rival on the street, “beg[s] leave to differ in opinion,” and then claims to have been insulted when the man tells Lucius that he had said nothing.) Of “Après le duel,” an 1866 French painting by Eugène Isabey that depicts a vanquished duelist collapsed on a staircase with his victor standing above him, Leigh remarks that “a duel fought on steps is necessarily unorthodox,” leaving room “for imagination and improvisation” and rewarding “spontaneous daring and creative ingenuity.”

Part of the pleasure of Touché lies in witnessing, like a loyally attending second, the author’s own creative ingenuity in finding such an improbable amount to say about a topic that might appear to offer limited scope. In Leigh’s intimidatingly well-informed hands, the duel reveals itself as a literary leitmotif and set piece that is at once protean, able to shift its implications to serve the purposes of different eras, literary modes, and political-cultural conditions, but also in some respects strangely repetitive and timeless. Leigh anatomizes the distinctions between periods (the Enlightenment, 19th-century, and Modernist duels); nationalities (French, English, German, and American duels, with passing attention to other national traditions, such as the Italian and Russian); and modes (the “Comical,” the “Poignant,” the “Romantic,” and the “Grotesque”). In the “Comical” dueling of Le bourgeois gentilhomme, for instance, Molière satirizes “the risk-averse stance” of a bourgeois character who wants to learn how to duel as a form of social climbing, as well as the “obfuscatory hocus-pocus” and the “conspiratorial jealousies” of his aristocratic fencing instructors. In the “Grotesque” duel of Luigi Pirandello’s 1918 Il giuoco delle parti, the participants are “bound by rules in which people do not believe yet feel somehow obliged to follow,” and honor gives way to a sense of degradation.

Like many of the best works of criticism, Touché has an obsessive quality, and one is occasionally tempted to skip the plot summary of yet another duel. But Leigh’s book is more than a comprehensive survey of a literary device; he has larger questions to ask. One key question could be summed up as the problem of the meaning of the duel: whether it represents civilization, feudal tradition, and ancien régime order, or folly, passion, and chaos. Though the duel begins as the epitome of the chivalric social contract, more and more writers as the centuries wear on begin to think of dueling as “irrational, incomprehensible, and inexplicable,” exhibiting an “abidingly gratuitous nature” that can “only be an index to some profound absurdity.”

 Indeed, the history of the literary duel is, to a considerable degree, a history of critiques of the duel — albeit often ambivalent and half-admiring ones. Attempts were made to outlaw the duel in France as early as the 12th century; already by the 17th century, “the duel is consistently claimed, and perhaps perceived, to be moribund, if not already defunct.” Enlightenment thinkers tended to decry duels as “barbarous” and unreasonable, a remnant of a feudal society that had no place in modernity. But Leigh demonstrates that literature, even when it comes to bury the duel, often ends up praising it by representing it as imbued with a creative élan; especially by the bourgeois 19th century, the duel often seems to embody “liberty and opportunities for self-expression.” In the “Poignant” duels of Richardson’s Clarissa and Rousseau’s Julie; ou, La nouvelle Héloïse, “sentiment collaborates with reason” in an attempt to delegitimize and “defeat the duel,” but even these putatively anti-duel narratives still take full advantage of its aesthetic affordances. Although the final letter of Richardson’s Clarissa Harlowe, written on her deathbed, pleads with her cousin William Morden to spare the life of her rapist Robert Lovelace, Morden nonetheless hunts Lovelace down and dispatches him in a duel in Trent. “The final act that is the fatal duel can be put down to a cruelly unforgiving male logic,” Leigh writes, of which the author, like his heroine, clearly disapproves.

 [But by] … placing the duel at the very end of a seemingly interminable novel, Richardson, in spite of the nicely worded grievances about the folly and futility of dueling, surely honors the duel. He honors it as an act responsible for bringing about the finality of a resolution, the solaces of closure, indeed of affording, for reader and challenger alike, satisfaction.

 By the 19th century, the duel comes to be seen as less immoral than simply absurd. Leigh detects some of the earliest hints of this new attitude in Heinrich von Kleist’s 1811 story “Der Kweikampf,” in which the author “dares to depict a duel that is divorced from justice and profoundly meaningless.” A duel is fought, one man receives a terminal injury, the other survives, but Kleist’s reticent narrator offers no moralizing commentary or guidance for our interpretation; the story takes place within an atmosphere of “eerie passivity.” By breaking away from the pro-or-con dueling polemics of the Enlightenment, Kleist shows a path for a new kind of depiction of the duel as a fundamentally empty ritual form. In Mark Twain’s 1894 Pudd’nhead Wilson, the duel between Judge Driscoll and Luigi Capello is farcical and grotesque, leading to injuries on the part of the spectators rather than the duelists themselves; “by the time Maupassant and Conrad are penning their stories, the duel has become inexplicable to the duellists themselves.”

 As the duel empties out of its traditional meaning, it also gains certain new implications, and becomes associated with nostalgia and with form for form’s sake. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the battle between aristocratic and bourgeois values loses its urgency, the duel begins to present itself more and more as simply an aesthetic phenomenon. Duelists may now be viewed by authors as “kindred artists, who are recognizable, even from behind the writer’s desk, as creative counterparts.” It is now “through a novelistic shimmer that the ethos of the duel, and the vanished world of which it is an emblem, can best be appreciated, if not fully understood.”

Touché concludes wonderfully with an extended reading of two Modernist texts, Thomas Mann’s 1924 The Magic Mountain and Joseph Roth’s 1932 The Radetzky March, both of which “show the combined absurdity and poignancy of duelling on the eve of the world war.” After the Great War’s frightening abyss of state violence, the duel suddenly appears in a new light: as a reassuringly contained, formalized conduit for aggression. The duel now 

represents the past; World War I announces the present. The duel embodies some semblance of dignity, even in a state of sickness, while the Great War summons horrors into the deepest recesses of a supposedly progressive world. If the duel is preposterous, the war is diabolical. The duel offers a privileged, exalted way to die, in retrospect.

Maupassant described the duel, in 1883, as “the last of our unreasonable customs.” Today it is nothing but an anachronism, but one whose metaphorical power endures. Safely beyond the age of dueling, Leigh helps us see it as marked by “a sort of joyous death-defying creativity,” which literature should honor.

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Ivan Kreilkamp is an associate professor in the Department of English at Indiana University.