Friday, April 13, 2012

Left Behindhand

In his 1937 handbook “The Backward Child,” the British child psychologist Sir Cyril Burt depicted left-handers as fumblers and bunglers who “squint” and “stammer” and “flounder about like seals out of water.” A decade later, Abram Blau . . .  condemned left-handedness as “an expression of infantile negativism” leading to rebellious stubbornness, secretive superstition, parsimony, obsessive cleanliness and other unpleasant traits . . . .
                 "Lefties Aren't Special After All," (Rik Smits, New York Times, April 13, 2012) 

Is nothing any longer sacred? Poor Miguel, who has lived long enough now to have suffered the childhood indignities of his left-handedness in a benighted age that judged it either a congenital flaw or the irrefragable symptom of a damaged psyche (psychiatrists could have it both ways back then), only to see its renaissance as a signal of genius, creative intellect, towering character - in a word, the seat of complete virtue. Oh happy day, until this wretched Smits put sinister pen to smudgy paper.

"Few truly insignificant traits," he begins his iconoclastic screed, "receive as much attention as left-handedness." Not only are we not a special breed apart, but "the popular image of persecuted left-handers across history is a gross exaggeration." What is more, "evidence of positive qualities associated with left-handedness [i]s anecdotal at best," although to balance his accounts Smits concedes that "the scores of studies associating left-handedness with all manner of afflictions [a]re generally too unreliable. . . ." (Too unreliable for whose purposes? Could they, in short, turn out to be true, if unreliably so?)

Smits first giveth before he taketh away: the 20th century was "perhaps the worst century for left-handers . . . left-handedness was generally . . . an annoyance to teachers and parents." Still, its reconstitution as the mark of genius (which I, for one, have always taken it to be) is, he claims, equally based in myth and faulty theories of child development (the latter phrase being a redundancy.) So the fact that presidents, artists and architects of genius, elite athletes, tyrants, demagogues, philosophers, saints, popes, barristers, baronets and barflies have been disproportionately of a sinister bent counts for bubkes?

I still remember the unwelcome attentions of a seventh-grade teacher, a gangly spinster of sour mien and waspish temper who one day to my puzzlement took my left-handedness in hand. I had never realized it was a difficulty, except for the fact that my writing arm always blocked out the light from the schoolroom windows, which were placed to favor the dextrous of my race. Over the space of a few months, she attempted to have me hold my paper level (instead of canted at a right angle away from my writing hand), and to write with my hand held straight beneath what I wrote (instead of curled over in front of what I wrote, dragging it along through the freshly-inked lines I'd just written). It never worked, I never got the hang of it, and to her credit she knew when to abandon my improvement.

As for squinting and stammering, fumbling and bumbling, I never had more than any human's share of those mechanical anomalies and failures of intention. I have sometimes regarded my life as an extended flounder along a remote existential shore, the ungainly heavings of a seal out of water to be sure. But I never attributed it to my left-handedness so much as to my flawed humanity and a constitutional unwillingness to navigate in any other fashion.

I will answer the additional charges in their turn:
  • infantile negativism - like hell I am. My negativism is entirely the product of reflection, experience, experiment, averages, philosophical resignation, an abiding faith in humanity and reading the newspaper. Call it mature negativism, or muted expectation. Or savoir faire.
  • rebellious stubbornness - see "infantile negativism." And why does stubbornness always have to be "rebellious"? If a mule won't go over a cliff when it's beaten, is that due to rebelliousness or an intelligent self-interest? All it requires is that one learn to properly assess the pain in one's ass as measured against the pain of general compliance.
  • secretive superstition - superstition is one thing, "secretive" superstition seems to me a bit of "piling on" by Herr Blau - it's somehow more damning to accuse someone of "secretive" masturbation, say, than just masturbation simpliciter. No, I admit to no superstitions, other than not to jinx a good thing by mentioning it ("Why, come to think of it, I haven't had a flat tire, in, oh, lemme see now . . . ") I am devoid of religion, patriotism, rank sentiment, faith in technology, trust in political arrangements, and so on. In that sense, I have a low superstition quotient.
  • parsimony - well, maybe a little. I haven't had a new suit of clothes or a new hat in about 450 years, and the old chateau could probably use a lick of paint now the Thirty Years War has been called a draw.

  • obsessive cleanliness - neither a hand washer nor a hand wringer. A man of modest habits lying mostly within the mean. My pickup truck is another matter entirely.
  • other unpleasant traits - guilty as charged.

1 comment:

  1. A capable left hander makes an effective doubles partner for a right handed racquetball player.