The Friendship of Art

by Bliss Carman

On Being Coherent


    THERE is a coherence of bodily action, just as there is a coherence of speech. And the one is no less essential than the other, either for expressing our thoughts or accomplishing our wishes.

    We commonly speak of a man’s utterances being incoherent, meaning by that that they are unintelligible or inarticulate. In the radical sense of the word, of course, we mean that the man’s speech does not cohere, does not “hang together,” as we say. One part of it has no logical relation with another part.

    So in bodily action; many of us are afflicted with an incoherency of motion, and do not relate the different movements or acts of the body. One man has an excellent chest development [Page 81] and strong arms, with a miserable pair of legs. Another has good legs and feet, but a weakly upper body; a third, all arms and no back; a fourth, all back and no arms. And these defects our physical training (under the evil influence of college and professional athletics) does little to help. True, the best teacher of physical education are wholly against the sort of training fostered by competition, intercollegiate and international, but public sentiment is too strong for them. The men want the prizes and the victory more than they want wholesome, all-round development. So they continue to over-exercise their strong muscles and neglect their weak ones. As a consequence, they lack coherence of strength.

    But there is a worse defect, the result of competitive emulation, and that is incoherence of action. Even when a man is well developed, he is very often without prompt and intelligent coherence of action. He has no coördination; does not act as a single being, with his will and mind and muscles at once. If there [Page 82] is a step to be taken, he steps with his leg alone, the rest of his body having nothing to do with it. If anything is to be lifted from a shelf, he allows his hand and arm to do it, while his body is almost inert. You perceive at once that he is not an alert, complete individual, thoroughly vitalized from top to toe, but rather a bundle of arms and legs and fingers, all equally strong, but all working at haphazard, under separate impulses. There seems to be no central determination, no indwelling and directing purpose. The man has no coherence of muscular action.

    If this truth is not obvious in others, it becomes quite clear, I think, when we observe ourselves, and if we note the different ways of doing things. And it is easy, with a little care and training, to note the improvement in ourselves in this matter of physical coördination. It is a means of economy of force and increase of power not to be overlooked. To cultivate physical coherence implies, too, the culture of more than bodily powers. It [Page 83] implies the culture of the powers of spirit and mind as well. For we cannot improve our physique, in strength, in promptness, in skill, without necessarily improving our faculties of determination and judgement at the same time.

    You may be quite sure that a man of slovenly, shambling appearance has a slovenly, careless character; that a sturdy and trim figure houses a reliable being, and so forth. This, of course, we all commonly recognize. But we fail, I think, to act on the truth. We fail to make the further deduction, which is so obvious, that, since person and personality are so closely related, we can educate the one by means of the other. Yet, as a matter of fact, this is the very thing we can do in physical training. By training the person in better modes of motion and carriage and speech, we educate the personality behind it, and give that personality new endowments of graciousness and beauty and charm.

    This better education of the individual, indeed, should constitute the aim of physical [Page 84] training. The mere culture of muscularity or bodily power alone is not enough. And as long as athletics remain the sole end and aim of gymnastics, just so long will they remain in the inferior position they now hold. But gymnastics in education are as important as philosophy, or languages, or science, or the fine arts. And under wise provision, they must come to hold a more and more important position in all curricula of training of the young.

    The range of physical culture is not limited, but almost illimitable; and we are only on the threshold of our knowledge in regard to it. Physical culture engenders and develops not only physical coherence, but personal coherence, personal poise and power. It helps forward that perfection of the character for which we are all striving, and helps it as nothing else can. It is the foundation on which all our education must be built. Our bodies in which we live are the media through which we must communicate with others. [Page 85] All our thoughts and actions, sorrows, joys, and fears, desires and demands, can only be conveyed to our fellows through these bodies we inhabit. We can accomplish nothing without their assistance. It is just as true, too, that all information comes to us through them. To attempt to educate the mind and heart, without educating the body, is more foolish than it would be to give a man all the learning of the ages, and then doom him to solitary confinement for the term of his natural life.

    I fancy we have not often enough considered the beauty of a coherent personality. Yet think how powerful it may be! Even in the one realm of the physical personality, how full of power and charm coherent action is! You may see it in a juggler or a tight-rope walker, in exhibitions of great skill and sleight-of-hand, and it never fails to delight and entrance. We cannot all be jugglers; we cannot all be even skilful; but certainly we can all be less slovenly and unwieldy than [Page 86] we are — and add to the pleasure of life thereby. For life is a good deal like walking up the bed of a rocky stream, after all. You must step always with precision and intelligence, or you break your shins and wet your skin. A wise foot makes an easy journey.

    Then, too, is it not coherence of character that makes success? Is it not the power of holding ourselves together, and having an aim, and insisting on one thing at a time, that brings us what we want? The flabby, wobbling, uncertain character accomplishes none of its objects, however determined it may be. There are some people with as little coherence as a jelly-fish — aimless organisms afloat in the tide of circumstance — pulpy nonentities stranded by a single wave, torn asunder at a blow. We must do better than that.

    And as our progress in the world is so greatly dependent on this power of just coherence, this pulling of ourselves together, and holding our powers in command, who shall say that the very possibility of a continued [Page 87] life for the spirit may not depend on something of the same power? If I am content to live and stand and walk and occupy furniture like a mould of blanc-mange on a dish of china, does it seem that I shall be well prepared for immortality? I fancy that when old, familiar, friendly Death came by, he would find in me a mound of glutinous plasticity, nothing more. It must be another sort of coherence which is to stand the test of change and growth and joy. [Page 88]