Issue 5 - Summer 2007 - The Healthy Issue
A personal history of posture
BY JOSH KUN
The pale complexion of the Jew, his crooked posture, his never-ending expressions of anxiety, his constant worry about every appearance of offense that crosses his path; his behavior at home that is seldom accompanied by laughter; all this and much more should lead us to assume that a majority of Jews has no small tendency toward melancholy.
I know. I know. And then comes the shame.
Unfortunately, as emotional states and psychological conditions go, shame is among the more transparently physical. Shame instructs the body how to act, and just like that, I bend my neck and I look down (can there be shame without a looking down?), and I lose the four inches of height that indirectly led to the shame reaction in the first place. For the poorly postured, the less erect, shame is more cycle than spiral: the shame of not standing tall is what leads back to the slouch. A life of slouching produces the shock of height when one finally stands tall, and that shock (you are taller than you look) produces the shame (I never stand up straight), which then leads back to the slouch.
When most people talk about slouching and bad posture, height is simply believed to be lost. But the missing four inches are not lost at all. They are still contained within the slouching body. In mine, the missing inches of stature live in the republic of skin, tissue, and bone that is my curved upper back. Let me be clear: I am not a Quasimodo hunchback with a permanently visible hunch. I am a quasi-Quasimodo with a hunch that is always ready to be revealed. I can look like him if I want to: a Quasimodo by choice. Which is why a life of bad posture is a life of concealment and masquerade, a micromanaging of bodily presentation and exhausting self-consciousness. When I bend over to pick something up off the floor, for example, if I’m not careful, the hunch will emerge from what might otherwise seem a straight back — a big, arched mound produced by a drop in elevation. If I watch myself in the mirror, my body can look like a geological event. In the natural world, a mountain rising from a barren plain can take centuries of tectonic plate shifting. On my back, it takes seconds. When I’m tired and the mountain rises and falls with greater frequency, I am a natural phenomenon (there’s a John McPhee book in there somewhere: Annals of the Former Thoracic Curve, or Rising from the Plains of Josh Kun’s Back).
I have never been one to stand up straight, even before I was tall. As a kid, I was always criticized for my posture. My mother would pull on a hair from the top of my head, as if it were a string directly connected to my spine. In home movies of birthday parties and holidays, the camera always catches me slightly hunched (usually in corduroy Ocean Pacific shorts and white Big 5 tube socks pulled up to the knee), indulging in one of my two favorite bad habits: biting my nails and twirling my bowl-cut dirty-blond hair into tangled, often painful knots. Both habits are made easier by slouching; both encourage the body to fold into itself, to bring the head down from its heights and bury itself into the chest and shoulders, to erase the body, to reject it. I’ve always comforted myself by believing that both habits are signs of extreme interior mental activity, habits of nervousness and anxiety and worry (all codes for intelligence, right?), habits that, like my constantly shaking right leg, are proof that I’m always thinking about things. Who needs this body when the mind is where the action is? Mutilate the shell to nourish the soul. Kill the body to feed the mind. Something like that.
Things only became worse as I grew into what I am today — a reader and writer. I would read anywhere, in the poorest of light, and as I do today, I lean in when I read, not so much to see better, but to get closer to the text. It’s an uncontrollable position for me, an unconscious reaction to the written word, as if I’m creating a cocoon with my body, another folding in. Writing occasions a similar posture, and I hunch over the desk, pen in hand or hands on keys. I force myself to stretch out my back, to pull that magic hair string tied to my spine, but after a few minutes and without realizing it, I have sunk a few inches, back down closer to the words I’m trying to write.
I read somewhere that Philip Roth writes standing up, which is hard for me to imagine. Sitting and slouching are synonymous with writing and reading for me, a life of words and ideas synonymous with a particular posture — this posture — the curved back, the bowed head, the one I’m in right now.
Ben Hecht spent the opening pages of his 1931 novel A Jew in Love pleading the case for his protagonist Jo Boshere. He was ugly, Jewish ugly, but he wasn’t the Jew of anti-Semitism. He didn’t look that Jewish or Jewish like that, didn’t have the Jewish “sausage face,” wasn’t overly burdened with “racial decadence,” wasn’t one of the “bulbous, diabetic half-monsters” that Jew-hatred conjures up like a desert mirage:
The presumption of a hump was part of a larger presumption of Jewish illness, the poor health of the Jewish body. In his 1789 treatise An Essay on the Philosophical, Moral, and Political Regeneration of the Jews, the French cleric Henri Gregoire associated Jewish men with effeminacy, chronic masturbation, nymphomania, and melancholia. He cribbed the melancholy idea from Robert Burton (who cribbed it in turn from Johannes Buxtorfius), whose 1621 The Anatomy of Melancholy highlighted the Jewish “pace, gesture, looks ... all the rest of their conditions and infirmities” with an incurable life of melancholy, “a hereditary disease.” The hump, it seems, doesn’t carry just lost inches and shame; it carries unending sadness.
While Young Frankenstein’s Igor doesn’t see the hump protruding from his back (even when Dr. Frankenstein gives it a good knocking), plenty of Jews have. Zionism, in its quest to take Jews out of the ghetto and into the national paradise of Palestine, and to prove that Jewish physical weakness is not immutably biological but arbitrarily cultural, has long made a point of emphasizing the fit, muscle Jew — a Jewish gym rat who can handle an Uzi and who doesn’t have cholera or tuberculosis — over the allergic Jewish pansy, giving birth to the idea of the laborer-soldier as the ultimate citizen of the Jewish state. The Russian Zionist Max Mandelstamm called it “the physical amelioration of Jewry” and aimed to improve “the decrepit, miserable, weak bodily constitution of the Jews of the ghetto.” There were two kinds of logic at work here: you can’t build a nation if you can’t lift a shovel, work in the hot sun, or have a respiratory disease; if we can get the Jews to Palestine, the anti-Semites will see just how strong we can be and just how wrong they were.
As the historian Mitchell B. Hart has shown, a similar logic was at work in early twentieth-century New York. Jewish sociologists like Maurice Fishberg (he of Health Problems of the Jewish Poor) swapped the U.S. for Palestine and preached assimilation as a cure for the sickness of Eastern European Jewish life — Old World Jewishness makes you sick, New World assimilation gives you strength and, yes, makes you taller.
While Fishberg and Mandelstamm focused on the physical degradation of the ghetto and the shtetl, earlier Jewish body pundits thought they had isolated the true problem: Jews who read too much. Leading a scholarly, bookish life became pathologized, synonymous with a life of illness. This is the territory of literary critic Susan Kassouf: these Jews were always sitting, always studying, always hunched over books, and as the common sense went, were made sick by it: frail bodies, frail health, and, specifically, poster boys for constipation and hemorrhoids. Hemorrhoids doesn’t just become any old “Jewish disease” (there are so many!); it becomes the disease of Jewish men who stay inside, Jewish men who are domesticated, Jewish men who read and think, Jewish men who might really be women. If hemorrhoids were, as many professed, male menstruation, then yeshiva bochers were girls in scholarly drag, bookish boys who found a way to have their own cycle. It’s no small coincidence, then, that to play Igor, the non-Boshere, perfectly pop-eyed and hook-nosed Marty Feldman wore what the prop department called “a pregnant pad” on his upper back to make his hump. In an interview during the making of Young Frankenstein, Feldman joked that he was wearing the hump on his back instead of in the front — the hunchback as the pregnant woman who never gives birth.
To celebrate my hump — my hump, my hump, my hump, my hump, my hump! — is to celebrate the Jewish scholar, the Jewish sissy, an alternate version of masculinity. Posture, after all, refers both to the body itself and to an attitude: how you hold yourself, how you present yourself to the world. It is as much about how you look as how you allow yourself to be seen. Posture comes from the Latin positura, or position, which comes from positus, a conjugation of the verb ponere, to place. When we talk of posture, then, we are not talking just about thoracic curves or hunched backs; we are talking about how we place ourselves, how we position ourselves, how we want to be understood and perceived.
I hadn’t consciously thought about my bad posture as a willful self-positioning until a friend of mine, who is neither white nor Jewish nor male, after seeing me deliver a talk for a graduate school conference, rebuked me for not living up to the potential of my body: “You are a six-foot-tall white dude. Stand up; act like it.” The way I stand is, of course, a direct reflection of how I see myself and how I want to be seen. Not standing up straight, not acting like it, not fully being the 6'3" tall white dude that I am is a way of deferring the potential of this body, of shrinking away from what it is too easily read to mean. By hunching, the body is diminished, the erection of masculinity decreased; more of a bookworm, less of a soldier. So I bite my nails, I twirl my hair, I read, and I write, a proud sissy coming to terms with a posture that fails to be ideal, a posture that fails the ideal.
There is one final theory for my bad posture. When I was young, one of my nicknames was “shua,” which comes from my cousin’s inability to fully pronounce “Joshua” when she was a child. In reading an essay on the artist Trisha Donnelly by Swiss curator Beatrix Ruf, I recently learned that schwa is Hebrew for nothingness and in linguistics, schwa can refer to an unstressed vowel sound, an alphabetic void. Ruf makes the connection to stuttering, a tongue tripping repeatedly on a single sound, leaving nothing in its wake but shwa. In terms of sheer mechanics, I am a better writer and reader than I am a speaker. Few may notice it, but I have trouble saying words with stiff, hard consonants, especially D and T words. I get stuck on them and cannot utter them, as if my tongue has hit an impassable steel wall. When I hit that wall, the effect is instantly suffocating and overpowering and for the long second when I cannot talk, I feel as if I will never recover.
So instead of stuttering, instead of allowing that second to become seconds, I take an awkward breath to find a new way to approach the word from a new angle of speech, or I make an awkward bodily gesture (a twist of the head, a rock back on the heels) as if to dislodge the word from the wall, or I insert a new word or phrase — decision might become choice — hoping that nobody notices. As opposed to writing, where there is freedom, where I am able to say whatever I want to say, speech is limiting and frustrating and always tinged with fear. There are so many words I want to speak that won’t come out.
The humped back does not contain just lost inches. There are lost words there, too, a curved schwa (or shua), a nothingness I carry below my shoulders. By hunching to write, that nothingness is given a second chance.
What hump? &