Being your own authority

At some point during one of his talks during the second year of the Amherst Feldenkrais® Teacher Training, Moshe Feldenkrais was extolling the philanthropy of industrialist Andrew Carnegie. For instance, by 1930, Carnegie’s charity had funded the construction of half of the free public libraries in the United States.

Some of my classmates had the temerity to challenge Moshe, pointing out that Carnegie was known as a robber baron and was associated with the Homestead strike, one of the bloodiest and longest labor confrontations in US history. MF responded to this by goading the challengers on, calling them out as socialists and, once he got sufficiently riled up, critiquing them for not being able to argue both sides of an issue, declaring it showed how limited they were in their thinking.

That summer I was one of Moshe’s three cooks. To be honest from the get-go, I’m pretty sure I was the least favorite of the three of us who prepared dinners for him that summer. Not only was my food on the natural and healthy side — using only very little salt and keeping the meals I made on the lean side —  but I was also a recovering vegetarian, meaning I was just not that good at cooking meat. MF was a hearty omnivore who enjoyed rich dishes. When I served a leek and potato soup (aka a vichyssoise), Moshe tasted it, nodded approvingly, and told me it reminded him of a dish he’d had in Paris in the 1930s, all the while proceeding to empty a generous amount of salt into the still steaming bowl.

Whatever he thought of the meals I prepared for him and for his numerous guests, dinner was followed by what fellow Jews would call a pleasant conversation and others might refer to as an altercation. However one might refer to our conversations, we’d talk for hours, usually long after everyone else had left the table. It was usually midnight or later by the time I left. 

When I made a comment about politics one evening during the days of the Carnegie debates, Moshe wasted no time branding me a socialist. I protested, saying that although Marxism might be an interesting and insightful historical perspective, it wasn’t any way to deal with the injustices it recognized and explained. When he responded by asking what I was if not a socialist, I couldn’t resist stirring things up by saying, “I’m an anarchist.”

“Oh, I see,” he replied. “You just want to throw Molotov cocktails and destroy society.”

I countered, saying that anarchy isn’t the same thing as chaos and disorder. Going back to the original Greek roots of the word (without a ruler), I explained that I was talking about anarchy as promoting leaderless institutions. We ended up having a somewhat academic conversation about self-governing societies and what it means to oppose hierarchy and authoritarianism. I pointed out that an anarchist’s perspective was congruent with one of the guiding notions of his method, that of being your own authority.

That’s when Moshe exclaimed, “I think I’m an anarchist, too!”

I demurred, “Hmmm, maybe. “

He responded, “You don’t think I’m an anarchist?” 

Thinking about his paradoxical manner of teaching — encouraging us to be our own authorities while doing so in what was often a rather authoritarian way — I responded, “Well . . . if you’re an anarchist, you’re a special kind of anarchist.”

“What kind is that?” Moshe asked.

“The kind of anarchist who wants to be the head anarchist.”

(Rest assured, that was one of the only conversations we had where I got the last word.)

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