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F. Matthias Alexander, Randolph Bourne and John Dewey: Review by Ed Bouchard.

AT Focus: 
Alexander Technique
Article, essay
Article, citation and copright
Article Text: 
“More than any other of our fellows, he pointed the path of fusion which American leadership must take. His political discussions were actually lit by a spiritual human soul, the individual soul, the values of being.” – Waldo Frank (1921)

Frank is referring to his friend and colleague Randolph Bourne (1886-1918). Poised mid-way between the 19th Century transcendental Whitman, Emerson, Thoreau and the mid-20th Century “beat” avant-garde Keroac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, the Greenwich Village “radicals” Bourne, Frank, Van Wyck Brooks and Lewis Mumford challenged turn-of the century American values by their Atlantic, New Republic, Dial and Seven Arts articles.

Frank was an enthusiastic supporter of F. M. Alexander. His first wife, Margaret Naumberg, introduced Alexander to John Dewey. His second wife, Alma Magoon Frank, trained to teach with Alexander, taught Alexander’s method to her daughter, Deborah Caplan, and to Judy Libowitz.

Bourne’s “fusion”, to which Frank refers, is of the personal and the political, instinct and science, emotion and reason, artistic expression and social responsibility. Frank introduces Bourne to the 1918 Edition of Man’s Supreme Inheritance (MSI).

Bourne reviewed MSI in the May 4, 1918 issue of The New Republic. Dewey’s “Reply to a Reviewer” appeared on May 11, 1918 and Bourne’s rejoinder, “Other Messiahs,” followed on May 25, 1918. But, as Staring points out, “that was not the end of it.” Letters were exchanged. Staring’s provocative pamphlet tells how his “detective” work, coupled with Alex Murray’s and historian Casey Blake’s research, found the lost Bourne letter.

Although the Bourne-Dewey debate may seem a bit obscure, finding Bourne’s lost letter is important. Bourne’s critique and Dewey’s response has bearing on (1) what is needed to integrate Alexander education into the fabric of science, philosophy and education, (2) NASTAT’s approach to “outsiders” and “other affiliated” teachers and (3) our debate over Alexander’s social attitudes.

Bourne was regarded by Frank and his Seven Arts colleagues as their generation’s most original, profound and insightful thinker. Bourne’s own physical struggles made him a candidate for Alexander’s psychophysical re-education. A “messy birth” and spinal tuberculosis when he was four left the five foot tall Bourne with a misshapen face and spine. But we are all deformed. Bourne’s universal appeal is his ability to articulate his unique sense of it. He lived for good debate, believing that truth emerges from a vigorous Socratic dialectic. Criticism, for Bourne, is a means-whereby of friendship, a sign of respect. Historians credit Bourne with the first important critique of Dewey’s philosophy. Bourne was also very critical of Dewey’s support for WWI.

Staring’s Research

A daunting feature confronting Alexander research is the depth and scope of the work. It is art, craft and science (many sciences, in fact: psychology, physiology, biomechanics, education, ethology, anthropology). While scientists from different disciplines have supported Alexander, few without direct experience of the work have shown any interest. Dutch anthropologist Staring is an exception. Staring’s research helps sort out the sociological-anthropological underpinnings of Alexander’s reasoning.

As the title indicates, his pamphlet is a detective story. The story begins when Staring finds an obscure 1918 English edition of MSI in a used book store. Reprinted in this edition’s introductory material is a letter from Dewey responding to Bourne’s review. Staring wonders: To whom was this letter written? To Bourne? Why is this information not revealed? If Dewey wrote to Bourne, did Bourne reply?

Bourne did reply to Dewey’s letter. His reply was buried a the bottom of Box 9 in the Columbia archives, uncovered by Staring’s persistent research. It is printed in full below. Whether Dewey received it or not is unknown. Neither Dewey nor Alexander responded.

Bourne’s Lost Letter To Dewey

“A certain amount of misunderstanding may have come from the fact that I formed my judgement of Mr. Alexander’s work from the American edition [of MSI]. Certainly if I had read this latter first, I could not [have] taken it as anything but a concise, clear presentation of the ‘philosophy of his technique’ as you put it. [T]he book as a statement of dogma is excellently done. The American Edition, however, is much padded up with additional matter, letters and replies to critics, a chapter of new/dubious comment on the war, a chapter on education with still more dubious reference to music and dancing. The book is repetitious and inchoate. With your introduction and the applications to sociology and education, I was naturally interested. . . in the broader application. . . This, both you and he, seemed to provide, and my error in confusing conscious control with your instrumentalism was a natural one. Certainly there was more in the American edition than a mere ‘philosophy of the technique’. You imply perhaps that my mind is carrying over a bias against your philosophy into my judgement of Mr. Alexander’s, so that if I can be made to feel that his philosophy is a wholly separate thing, I will be more inclined to an open mind about him. But my ‘bias’ is not so much as a feeling of an incompleteness, and this feeling I get from the practical implications of your instrumentalism, just as I get it from Mr. Alexander’s philosophy.

In my review, I had no intention of disparaging his work. In fact, I thought I admitted that his results were all that he and his friends claimed for it, in the sense that he could produce the muscular coordinations with the resulting amazing improvements in health and vigor. I even believe that he knows the one right way of handling the body, that, as you put it, he knows what he is talking about, in the sense that a competent engineer knows his specialty. Everything that I have heard about his work from people who know him and have taken treatment convinces me that his confidence is wholly justified. I am not a scoffer and a skeptic. But that this belief in his technique requires me to accept every word of his philosophical buttressing, or the believe that his technique is so comprehensive in its effects as to annihilate other techniques such as psychoanalysis, I do not see.

You do not claim about your philosophy that it is final, inclusive and exclusive truth, and yet, when you speak of Mr. Alexander you seem to come pretty near asserting that the future of humanity depends on this one technique and this one set of beliefs alone. I admit that one has to be inside the matter, and have felt the sensations of the effects in one’s own body before one can see it as sheer fact. But I had imagined that I was giving proof of an open mind by accepting the technique on the evidence of the book, and of people who had studied with Mr. Alexander, taken his work and seen his work in experimental schools. In other people I found no tendency to insist that the philosophy was completely a philosophy of the technique and had to be swallowed together with it.

As to whether the technique is experimental: Now Mr. Alexander’s book is not put in experimental language. It is entirely a priori. It is dogma. [He is] writing on a matter which opens up the whole question of the relation of mind and body, which raises innumerable problems. He is innocent of scientific reference, except Ralph Waldo Trine and Dr. Clubbe of Sydney. Even in his first edition, he does not confine himself to physiology or psycho-physics but touches lightly on extremely complex fields of anthropological evolution, announcing in tones of fact what must be still hypothesis. He has, in fact, a theory of psycho-physical evolution which surely out-ranges any mere philosophy of his technique. As to his method being experimental, he does not give, in any form which I could understand, any clue as to how he worked it up. I am told he began by curing serious muscular discoordinations in his own body. By practice and searching gradually [he] discovered the correct coordination for the entire body.

I do not see how the term experimentation can be rightly used for this process. It seems more like that of a gifted child learning to play the piano. After you have accepted the whole theory of conscious control and agree that conscious guiding orders may be sent from the brain to the muscles, there still comes the question what orders shall be sent. Mr. Alexander could not possibly have perfected his technique in the way a [???] scientist learns his specialty by manipulating material and forces outside himself. Mr. Alexander, when he controlled his muscular system, must have known he was right, and his knowledge, not his hypothesis – which stops just at the point of the sending of the actual orders – nor any experiment could have told him. Another person, getting his muscles under conscious control, might simply get another faulty coordination, and be ignorant of it. What objective standard or test would there be? The fact that Mr. Alexander knew that he was right, and the other would not, seems to me to justify the use of the term intuition or gift.

Now, of course, the person who is put into the right position by Mr. Alexander gets the sensation of rightness, but Mr. Alexander could not have gotten that original rightness by trial and error. If truly he had, he would have, as a truly experimental mind, shown the process by which he arrived at his conclusion.

But the question whether Mr. Alexander’s method is truly experimental or not, is not nearly as important as whether conscious control is a sufficient reliance for the future of humanity. What I said about the need of a philosophy of conscious control applies equally well to Mr. Alexander’s technique as to instrumentalism. All you suggest in reply is that the creative desires could not remain unaffected by a process which gave the body conscious control. Well, I should say, in the first place that it is not enough that the life of creative aims [are] affected. Conscious desire for the realization of these values in life must completely dominate the system of conscious control if the personality as well as the organism is not given its best expressive health. How little conception Mr. Alexander has of these higher values is shown by his attitude towards music, drawing and dancing in the experimental school. He finds them dangerous if indulged in before the child has gotten its body under conscious control. In other words, he would congeal the whole process of education, even play, until the child had a perfect physical instrument to work with. This may be desirable, but it is clear that life is not like that. The child’s imagination and need for activity run straight on and must be provided for. Mr. Alexander does not see that the value of the stimulus to the child’s imagination, which comes from taking up music or drawing or dancing when they attract him would far outweigh the evil of a faulty coordination, which could be corrected with comparative ease later. It is the guiding imagination which is all important, but there is not the least place in his system for that. A combination of creative imagination plus faulty coordination is likely to be far more useful to the future of humanity than perfect coordination plus a bovine vision. Mr. A’s children would be all dressed up with no place to go. The question of whether the artist will be a better artist if he is in possession of conscious control is a very complex one. It may be that artistic expression is a projection of the artist’s own complexes, so that if he was completely untangled, artistic power would disappear.

How little the attainment of conscious control may affect those higher qualities of taste, imagination, reasonableness, sensibility, is shown, I think in Mr. Alexander’s own case. Not only in his attitude toward music, but in what I am told are his general opinions. Does he seem other than what we might expect of a colonial bourgeois of the most faulty coordinations?. His friends say that his mind is anything but open on social and political questions, not to speak of the theories in his own field: that he lacks artistic sensibility, but freely utters judgements on artistic matters; that his philosophical ambitions give him almost the air of a crank; in other words, that personally he is just an ordinary matter-of-fact human being, with about the full set of prejudices of artistic complexes and irrational subconscious motivations. If it is true that this most perfectly conscious controlled of human beings cannot be distinguished in personal and spiritual attitudes from types which are unconsciously controlled, however superior his physical functioning may be, it must be that conscious control needs much supplementing both by physical and cultural techniques to make it an acceptable all-inclusive philosophy and technique. . . . A friend of mine . . . heard him impersonate a Shakespeare play. He said that, however perfectly coordinated Mr. A.’s organism might be, the acting was very bad. This was due, of course, to Mr. A.’s faulty imagination, and no amount of conscious control could remedy that. He could give orders to his body, but he did not know what orders to give to produce the synthetic artistic effect that he wanted. Neither did he know that he did not know. In spite of his perfectly controlled body, he not only could not conceive the parts, he was still in the grip of unconscious illusions which deceived him as to the reality of his powers.

This seems to me an admirable illustration of my point, that without conscious desire, conscious control may be habitually [thrown] to ends and purposes that are highly unprofitable, if not destructive to the higher values of life. That is why, it seems to me, Mr. A.’s philosophy-technique strictly needs psychoanalysis or some philosophy-technique of conscious desire and imagination to work with it. One case, for instance, which I heard of baffled Mr. A.’s treatment because the person was in the grip of a mental conflict which made conscious control impossible. With the best will in the world, the patient was prevented from sending the correct orders to the muscles. Only after psychoanalysis had resolved the mental conflict could Mr. A.’s treatment take effect. Can Mr. A. cure cases of hysteria which produce bodily symptoms? Even supposing that he secures a bodily balance and coordination which makes the particular symptoms disappear, what is to prevent it from appearing somewhere else in another form, as long as the repressed mental conflict which produced it exists? And I don’t see how, with his hostility to psychoanalysis, Mr. A. is going to settle these questions or answer these objections. If psychic complexes are merely the result of faulty organic coordinations, how would he account for the fact that savages, to whom Mr. A. ascribes a superior but unconscious coordination which has been wrecked in the progress to civilized life, have evolved a luxuriance of psychic material in myth and ritual which the Jungeans are identifying with the personal complexes recognizable in the individual? As I understand Mr. A., this unconscious coordination is adequate for primitive life. Why then is it somehow accompanied by a greater nervous instability, and a more exuberant fantasy than is characteristic of civilized man, with all his development of the higher centers and the divorce from the lower automatisms?

I write you this long essay not because I know the answer to any of these questions. Mr. A.’s book opens so many problems of the relation of body and mind. . . I want to show you that my bias is only a feeling of insufficiency, and that the same difficulties that can be found with instrumentalism can be found with conscious control.”

May 28,1918

© Ed Bouchard. Reproduced with permission.

This edition © Mouritz 2005-2014. All rights reserved.