A Critical Perspective: Dewey & Randolph Bourne

Alex is very generous with books and one that he has encouraged reading in the past is Eric McCormack’s A Neglected Influence: Frederick Matthias Alexander and John Dewey.   I just finally got around to reading it but can’t think of how to summarize it except to say that it does what is sets out to do: highlight all of the influences that Alexander and Dewey had on each other.

The part that struck me most was McCormack’s chapter on Alexander’s work, specifically the second section of it titled Doctrine: General Features and the Discovery.  McCormack was apparently a Benedictine philosopher advised under Frank Pierce Jones, and although he modestly describes his experience in the Technique as being at a minimum, he must have had a fair amount of exposure to it, judging by his analysis and description, because it is so clear and well laid out.  He organizes Alexander’s ideas by three concentric circles with primary control as it pertains to physiological psychology at the center circle.  In the second circle, he places propositions related to Alexander’s discovery, and in the third, a “considerable number of propositions which seem to an outsider to be extravagances…or to be the product of personal whim and prejudice.”  It helps me to hear Alexander’s ideas organized in this way because there are questionable ideas and assertions that can seem to distract from the value of the principles of inhibition and direction.

Alex also often takes a critical look at Alexander and one of the critics he respects is Dewey’s student Randolph Bourne, a talented writer and musician (pianist).  In the early summer, Alex was interested in Bourne’s exchange with Dewey in letters, the last of which apparently never reached Dewey.  Bourne originally wrote a review in the New Republic of the 2nd edition of Alexander’s Man’s Supreme Inheritance (in which Dewey wrote an introduction endorsing Alexander’s methods) attacking both Alexander and Dewey.  Dewey then wrote a response in the journal and Bourne’s letter is a response to that.

I appreciate that Alex is willing to look at Alexander honestly and acknowledge that Alexander’s work itself is not going to make an actor find a specific style or character.  It will only help to stop what might be interfering with finding a character if the actor has good taste and open creativity to what they are looking for.  The following is an excerpt from a draft of a letter of Bourne in 1918 meant for Dewey but not sent as he had left for Stanford and then Asia.  It is now held in the Columbia University Library Bourne Archives.

“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 desire to supplement 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 may be 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. Now 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 of dancing when they attract him would far outweigh the evil of a faulty co-ordination, 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 co-ordination is likely to be far more useful to the future of humanity than perfect co-ordination plus a bovine vision. Mr. A’s children would be all dressed up with no place to go. The question 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 general opinions, does he seem other than what we might expect of a colonial bourgeois of the most faulty co-ordinations. 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 judgments on artistic matter; 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 need much supplementing both by psychical and cultural techniques to make it an acceptable all-inclusive philosophy and technique.

Mr. Alexander has devoted considerable attention to acting and elocution, has trained actors, and writes himself. A friend of mine who was taking his treatment,heard him impersonate a Shakespeare play. He said that, however perfectly co-ordinated 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, but he was still in the grip of unconscious illusions which still deceived him as to the reality of his powers.”

Here is the whole letter: Randolph-Bourne.

There’s nothing else I have to add, but if we get lucky, maybe Alex will contribute some insights to what I’ve given here. 🙂