Posture and Greatness

Why do the words of some seem filled with a quiet, unhurried power, a presence that impresses, whereas most of the words uttered by people lack presence?

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Prof Bernadette Charlier
Prof. Bernadette Charlier giving her farewell lecture at Fribourg University

Posture – a tricky concept

In her farewell lecture yesterday evening at Fribourg University, Prof. Bernadette Charlier evoked the notion of posture. The word is both tricky and interesting. It has several meanings causing me to stumble when trying to translate the word from French in her articles. The word refers both to a significant position of the body, but also to an adopted approach or attitude which may be genuine or deliberately fake. Her acceptation of the meaning as applied to teaching and learning refers to the attitude adopted by the teacher in relation to the student, learning and the learning environment. Here I am more concerned with a combination of bodily position and approach or attitude in relationship to authenticity when it comes to discourse and how it is received.

Giving body to words

Rare are the people who are fully behind the words they utter. At the risk of sounding mystical – I can find no better way of expressing it – they are physically present, their ‘body is behind the words’ – you could say, their words have body – the full weight of their existence loans impact to their words. The French expression ‘ donner corps à’ – to give body to – is particularly evocative here. This has nothing to do with speaking forcefully. The words might just as well be whispered. When someone speaks in this way, we are deeply moved. Their words cannot be ignored. You could say their posture is strikingly authentic and their words carry weight. 

The empty words of sleepwalkers 

This contrasts starkly with those many people whose words ring empty because they are existentially absent from what they say. Speaking metaphorically , you might call them sleepwalkers. There are those who tiptoe through life not wishing to or frankly unable to cause the slightest ripple in the world around them. Then there are those who blunder unfeelingly along as if a fist brought down hard on the table could compensate for a deficit of ‘being’. Neither are entirely present and their words, or rather the impact of their words, betrays them.

Not grasping, but caressing

A result of not being entirely present is a diffuse sense of frustration if not disappointment. One remedy might be to grasp at the elusive feeling of identity, but as the rabbi Ouaknin wrote (1), talking of understanding, paradoxically it cannot be grasped. It can only be caressed. While I understand what he means when it comes to understanding and suspect the same phenomenon applies to identity, I am unsure how the metaphor translates. Maybe an example will help.

A glimpse of greatness

What was most moving about Bernadette’s ‘posture’, not so much during her lecture most of which was a summary of a discourse in its content and form so familiar to her, despite the exceptional emotional circumstances, but rather in the brief evocation of future avenues for university development in terms of pedagogy and, even more so, in the unscripted answers to questions at the end. As I said to her afterwards, there was such an aura to her answers that exuded a solid presence – call it wisdom, if you like, or long accumulated experience – that touched me deeply and left me feeling grateful to have been able to work with her. It was like a glimpse of greatness that had tears welling in my eyes.

(1) Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Lire aux éclats. Eloge de la caresse, Quai Voltaire, Paris, 1992

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