Thursday, January 22, 2004

Slouching Toward Whatever

I wonder sometimes where these peculiarly adaptable phrases originate. I mean, the whole "slouching toward..." meme of phrases has yielded rich verbal ore ever since Yeats jotted it down (in a different verb-tense) as a thumping good tag-line in "The Second Coming" (which also gave us the terribly useful "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold"). But where did he get it? Was it divine inspiration? Or did he steal it from a lesser-known source?

I was thinking of this today when I was rereading a passage in a novel I didn't really like the first time I read it, but I couldn't remember exactly why I disliked it, so I thought I'd give it another chance (besides which, I'm out of new books again — I'm also out of clean socks, and wondering if there isn't a correlation). In the second chapter of Vincent Varga's Vadriel Vail (goddess, how I love alliteration), the abbott of a Trappist monastery used the phrase "slouching toward celibacy" to describe the lustful private transgressions common to young monks.

I thought the phrase very memorable, as well as wonderfully descriptive. There's a sort of reluctance inherent in slouching, as well as a furtiveness, but it is nevertheless a forward momentum; it perfectly describes a young man's faltering attempts to reign in the pleasures demanded by the flesh. I could imagine him slouching down to hide an inopportune erection during chapel, or slouching down to protect his masturbatory activities from the eye of God, guilty and furtive but nevertheless trying to be good.

It also made me think of how young people do tend to slouch, and why they do it. I've been a posture-nazi ever since I was eleven, when I had my back corrected by a chiropractor after falling out of a tree. While he was readjusting the disalignment in my spine, he gave me all these exercises to avoid back problems in the future, such as making sure my heel made it onto a stair before I stepped up, keeping my head on an axis above my pelvis so that my back bones take the weight instead of my back muscles (and also keeps the spinal cord from becoming stretched, which can cause pinched nerves), and walking around holding a broom horizontally behind my shoulders to encourage better breathing and torso development. And since I had a teensy little prepubescent crush on my chiropractor, I followed his instructions to the letter, and was soon gliding about as erect as a knife.

I think I slouched mostly as a protective gesture, keeping my head down and my arms in front of me to ward off any blows or jabs from hostile forces. But there was also a laziness involved... in childhood, your muscles are so very resilient, and they hold firm easier than they contract... with my heavy melon head, it was easier in the short term to let it and my shoulders hang off my backbone, like a lily on a stalk, than to retrain those muscles to keep everything piled up where it belongs.

However, when I was taught proper posture, I discovered that it allowed me to move gracefully in a somewhat feminine manner, and feminine grace was my greatest desire in childhood; it also made the most of my awkward height, making me look bigger and giving people the impression (however false) that I wasn't afraid of them. This psychological trick of a haughty stance, I discovered, was a greater protection than physically guarding my face and solar-plexus by curling them together in a fetal ball.

I later discovered, interestingly enough, that though I slouched for protection, many youths slouch to look tough. It's the body-language of the shoulders that makes the difference: if your shoulders droop and you hold your arms in front of your chest, your stance is protective and withdrawn, like a rolled-up mealy-bug, and visibly weak; but if your shoulders are thrown back and your elbows somewhat akimbo, your slouching stance is both aggressive (face-forward, chin jutting, crouched to spring) and insouciant (relaxed and unconcerned, exposing the vulnerable throat to evince invulnerability) at the same time, the very epitome of cool. A friend of my late teen years (on whom I had a huge crush, incidentally) strenuously resisted my attempts to correct his slouch, certain that his wolfish posture was attractive to the opposite sex. Maybe it was — it certainly made the most of his well-shaped but slightly recessive jaw, which sort of folded up into his neck when I did occasionally get him to stand up straight.

And then tall people tend to slouch, anyway. Slouching brings your face down to the level of other people's faces so you can be closer to them, as humans relate to each-other mostly through their faces; a six-foot-six former minister of my Grandmother's church was such a person, and he jokingly blamed his question-mark posture on having spent his entire career bending down to hear normal-sized people speaking.

But a tall person is also tempted to slouch because it minimizes the difference between himself and others; one of my neighbors' daughters, an extremely pretty girl who stands six-foot-three in her stocking feet, has the most ghastly posture I've ever seen, although as an accomplished young athlete she does know how to stand up straight... she slouches on purpose in social situations to minimize her difference. In the tribal society of human communities, it is always tempting to conform; you hardly ever see short people slouching, they're too busy trying to bring their heads up to the norm.

I have discovered, though, that the slouching is more off-putting than the distance or hauteur of standing perfectly upright. Slouching in either an aggressive or a protective posture says that you are either an asshole or a coward, and people aren't usually impressed by those qualities. People are drawn to the tall, and will invest them with admirable qualities that they may or may not possess: strength, dignity, foresight, leadership. Nobody laughs at anybody for being tall — they may ask how the weather is up there (whereupon you say "it's raining" and then spit on them), or insist you should be good at basketball, or opine that it must be nice to be able to change lightbulbs without getting a ladder (it is nice), but they don't ridicule tallness... unless you try to mask it by curling up into a weak and defeated posture.

Body language is a key element of human interaction, and your body makes an inescapable statement with its natural size and shape, a statement that you can only make ridiculous by trying to make it say something else. By amplifying the attractive qualities of whatever your body is already saying, you can express yourself to people more effectively.

So if you're tall, stand up tall and act with nobility and strength... because if you cringe, you're seen as ungainly and sneaky, taking up more space than you should. If you're round, be jolly and nurturing, because a sour disposition on a plump body bespeaks gluttony and selfishness. If you're really hairy, be warm and hearty, lest you be seen as gross and animalian. If you're small, go ahead and exude vulnerability and childlike sweetness, because that's how people will want to see you; if you act belligerent and cocky, you're accused of Little Man Syndrome and people will see you as trying to compensate for shortcomings (pun intended). If you're very thin, you must be graceful and serene, because if you move clumsily or too quickly, you will be seen as creepy and spiderlike.

Now, of course, people will say it's dishonest to alter your personality to suit your superficial appearance; however, I am not speaking of personality changes, but rather behavioral changes. You can't walk in high heels with your knees far apart, you can't operate a drill-press wearing eighteenth-century lace cuffs, you can't dance the Can-Can in a suit of armor, and you can't twitch your head around if you're wearing the five-pound St Edward's Crown. And just as the clothing you wear dictates what movements you can comfortably make, so the body you inhabit must dictate how you should conduct yourself in society... not your personality, not your soul, but merely the way you act, the way you portray yourself to others: your body-language.

And who's to say that the body language that reflects your spiritual self is any truer than the body language that best suits your physical self? Isn't the path to self-knowledge contingent on aligning our inner and outer realities? I think it is. And I think you've got to accentuate the positive, because if you are portraying negativity to other people, those people will be disinclined to try to know you... and then what's the point of all your spiritual honesty if nobody knows who you are, what you think, why you exist?

So having covered everything from William Butler Yeats to the reason fat people should be jolly, I guess I will take off my Pedant Hat and go do some real work. Stand tall, my darlings, until we meet again!

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