Sunday, September 04, 2011

The First 43 Years of the Life of F. Matthias Alexander

Luke Ford writes: Professor Rodney Mace of the Sir Robert Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at the University of London wrote in 1997 this foreword to the second volume of Jeroen Staring’s book, The First 43 Years of the Life of F. Matthias Alexander:

Jereon Staring has done a great service to the Alexander Technique over the years by his writings. Almost alone he has applied the proper disciplines of historical enquiry to Alexander’s work revealing with an almost surgical precision the provenance and context of the Technique’s founding texts.

This, the second volume of The First 43 Years of the Life of F. Matthias Alexander, builds of this previous work and should be read with care by all those who practice the Alexander Technique and profess its and Alexander’s ideas. It will also appeal to those others who have an interest in that collision of scientific, biological and religious ideas brought about by Darwinism at the end of the nineteen century.

I first came across Jeroen Staring’s writing when I began my own research on Alexander some seven years ago. It was like discovering a beacon in the dark wood of hagiography that seemed to make up almost all the writing on Alexander to date. As an academic historian with a particular knowledge of how the British Empire wished to re-construct the human body I had always found the writings of Alexander’s disciples and followers deeply irritating for their lack of interest in the broader issues that his work raised both at the time of their original writing and now. Jeroen has consistently done much to illuminate this previously murky area.

The failure by the Alexander establishment (for that what it is) to think seriously about the provenience of Alexander’s ideas and how they connect and draw on the work and ideas of his contemporaries has, almost since the beginning,k done the Technique a major disservice. This coupled with an insistence that some of Alexander’s ideas are immutable has inevitably led the Technique to be marginalised in mainstream health care and education.

For example to claim, as many writers and teachers of the Technique have done (and continue to do), that Alexander was some kind of original genius whose solo ‘discovery’ could change the world exposes the paradox that lies at the heart of the Technique itself. Like many before him Alexander founded his belief system on a revelatory experience that was both unwitnessed, unrepeatable and in the end untestable by others. By implying immutability such a belief system closes down the possibility of fundamental change, development and reassessment and spreads like dry rot throughout the discourse discouraging discussion and criticism. The belief system itself becomes patented and those who threaten its integrity are cast in the role of apostates. Alexander claimed his ideas were about change yet resisted to the end any challenge by others to the supremacy of his ideas — a bad habit that has been inherited by many of his followers.

Historians and commentators like myself are familiar with closures of this kind for they are a defining characteristic of the many ‘New Age’ and ‘Alternative’ ways of thinking that have come and gone for generations. In turn these closures are bolstered by an ahistorical approach to the works and life of the movement’s founding figures and the disputes that surround the succession. Over the years the Technique has exhibited all these traits in considerable measure and there looks to be little hope at present that things will change.

It goes without saying that Alexander was a man of his time and what he had to say was a product of that time. What distinguishes Alexander from many of his contemporaries however was his unwillingness to make clear how he arrived at his ideas. In fact I will go further than that and say that I can’t think of an occasion when he positively attributes any one of his ideas to the substantial influence of another person. It is quite extraordinary for example that Alexander (and his disciples) are quick to tell you who his famous students were (as though that mattered) yet silent on the influence that some of these students may have had on Alexander himself. Were John Dewey’s or Aldous Huxley’s lessons with him held in silence? Did neither of these men have nothing to say about his ideas? Surely the answer must be yes they did. But Alexander once again fails to tell us about them.

In both volumes of the present work Jeroen has convincingly demonstrated that Alexander’s ideas as expressed in his writings are heavily derivative and in the case of Man’s Supreme Inheritance probably ghosted, at least in part. The failure of Alexander to admit co-authorship and the influence of others speaks of a man who, throughout his life, was infatuated with himself. It is no coincidence that Alexander put the self at the centre of his work for it is clear that he worshipped himself and required all those around him to do pay tribute without question. Such is the familiar life of many a charismatic that they are unable to see others except as enemies or disciples so fearful are they of threats to the integrity of their own body. Like many men of the period Alexander projected this fear of their own bodily and mental degeneration onto society as a whole blaming other men (his sexual competitors), women and children for the failures that were in fact to be found within themselves. Alexander’s deep attachment to eugenics, which Jeroen so carefully catalogues in this work, is clear testament to this anxiety.

Many readers, especially those with an investment in the Technique, may well be made uncomfortable by the main thrust of the arguments in this volume. But they should bear in mind Alexander’s own adage on means and ends — read the evidence carefully for it is here that Jeroen makes his case so brilliantly.