Man’s Supreme Inheritance: by F. Matthias Alexander; edited by Jean Fischer.
Of the available literature on the Technique, the four books by Alexander stand alone. Everything written since has been essentially derivative. Without Alexander’s actual words, we would have little to fall back on but other people’s memories, making his Technique more difficult than it already is to evaluate.
This new volume of Man’s Supreme Inheritance is presented as the definitive version of what was Alexander’s first, seminal publication. Edited by Jean Fischer, it is exemplarily produced, containing most of what made up all previous editions, from 1910 onwards; and, with explanatory notes on its printing history and a contemporary foreword by Walter Carrington, could be considered complete.
Unfortunately, this is not the case. Although Jean Fischer must be thanked for making readily available, in a quality format, a book that is an essential, undeniable part of every teacher’s heritage, he has, as editor, mistakenly seen fit to remove from the text what he terms "part of a sentence which contains a misleading and inappropriate analogy".
The missing passage comes from a chapter entitled Evolutionary Standards and their Influence, which was added to Man’s Supreme Inheritance in 1918, and consisted largely of a diatribe against the nation and people of Germany. To discount any suggestion he later changed his mind about what he had said, Alexander wrote a validating postscript in 1946.
Although it would be understandable for a man of his day to have found little admirable in the behaviour of ‘civilised’ Germany from either period, whether he was justified in similarly deriding savages – as Alexander called ‘uncivilised’ people – for their allegedly far greater lack of adaptability and control, going so far as to suggest that "when confronted with the unusual these people quaked like cowards, and fled panic stricken from the unaccustomed", is debatable.
Alexander’s chosen example of such a reaction was "the case of the Negroes in the southern states of America when the men of the Ku-Klux-Klan pursued them on horseback dressed in white". However offensive or ill chosen these words may appear, it is hard to imagine why Jean Fischer left them out of what is otherwise an original document. After all, there is much in Man’s Supreme Inheritance that could be similarly excised, if it was simply a matter of retrospective censorship.
To tinker with Alexander’s text, other than in a search for brevity, sets a dubious precedent. As teachers, we must learn to accept what he said, whether we think it good or bad, and not try and imagine we know how he would have expressed himself had he been alive today. There is, undeniably, much that is unpleasant, as well as much that is misguided, in Man’s Supreme Inheritance. In recent years, largely because of the difficulty of getting hold of a copy, it has probably been the least widely read of Alexander’s books. Many teachers will never have studied it; some, knowing what to expect, may feel a distaste for doing so now. Brushing Man’s Supreme Inheritance under the carpet is an individual option; but as a society, teachers have to stand, in general terms, for everything Alexander said, however unpalatable or untenable it may seem; unless they decide – again, as a society – to disassociate themselves from certain aspects of his beliefs.
Alexander had a unique insight into the human condition, which he elaborated, somewhat unnecessarily, into a generalised view of mankind ascending an evolutionary gradient. At the lower end sat the primitive races, hardly differentiated from animals, functioning instinctively; with civilised nations, at various stages of progress, further along the way – those of the West, for the most part, in the vanguard; and somewhere in the far distance, an idealised society governed, as he saw it, by ‘conscious control’.
The trouble was, Alexander didn’t devise his Technique to help bring such a society about so much as discover it in curing an irritating voice problem. It was only when he found other people’s disabilities could be resolved in the same way as his own that he formulated his concept of ‘use’, eventually claiming his method of improving this was as much evolutionary as remedial. Through conscious guidance and control, he believed mankind could continue to enjoy the benefits of civilisation without suffering from the ‘debauched kinaesthesia’ which he saw bedevilling its progress. He proudly forecast "a race of men and women who will outstrip their ancestors in every known sphere…"
It is salutary to remember that what Alexander hoped we would achieve, from an increased emphasis on the ‘means-whereby’, was essentially the same physical standard of use ‘savages’ already enjoyed through their dependence on instinct. He may have believed we had a potentially greater degree of mental control over our behaviour than them; but in point of fact, we are unlikely to become, through his Technique, any more conscious – in ‘psycho-physical terms – than those Alexander so freely disparaged.
They apprehended their world differently, hardly disassociating themselves from it. Lacking the propensity for abstract thinking that renders so much of our own behaviour automatic – allowing us to live, for the most part, inside our heads – it is inconceivable they were not more attuned, for more of the time, to themselves and their environment, than their civilised counterparts; or that they were not more aware of the operation of a ‘primary control’, which – assuming it exists – only our insatiable predilection for detachment and abstraction could ever have so completely inured us to.
For Alexander, this capacity for rational thinking, by setting us apart from the animal, and to a great extent, the primitive, world, may have been the unwitting cause of a polarisation of mind and body that made modern man only fractionally attentive; but it had given us what he believed was freedom of choice; and he felt it was our task to make the most of this, rather than eulogising its non-emergence, or lesser development, in others. He certainly saw little virtue in abandoning the reflective, analytic capabilities that had taken humanity so far, however much they may also have lain at the root of its problems.
While admiring Alexander’s insight and vision, his desire to bring within the remit of reason much that would otherwise have remained instinctive was only laudable from the point of view of a troubled society. Imagining his Technique was universally applicable, he ignored the fact that those whose sensory appreciation was reliable, amongst whom would have been the indigines of his homeland, hardly needed a helping hand.
Civilisation, meanwhile, develops apace, largely due to our continuing to do the exact opposite of what Alexander recommended. Leaving our bodies to function unconsciously while we get on with the mental side of things is the sine qua non of progress. Modern society depends on it. For those who suffer as the result of this split, the Technique is a logical way back to health; but since psycho-physical disunity is the price we pay for cultural progress, it was probably over-ambitious of Alexander to think we could lessen our dependence on one without detriment to the other. Man’s Supreme Inheritance offers us the unlikely scenario of recovering consciousness of our use while retaining all the advantages of a civilisation that, by prospering, had deadened us to it in the first place.
Alexander’s solution, that we widen our field of attention to enable us to take in both means and ends, is clearly incompatible with the demands of modern society. His Technique may enable us change the way we react, largely by acquiring better habits, and in doing so, help us get back in touch with ourselves; but in an everyday context, unless we are peculiarly adept, we are unlikely to get much done, particularly cerebrally, while paying simultaneous attention to the way we are doing it. In all likelihood, such a skill, if globally pursued, would have very different consequences to those Alexander imagined when he foresaw future generations entering "new spheres as yet undreamt of by the great majority of the civilised peoples of our time".