On dexterity

by Neil

I blame Gary Gygax. Dungeons & Dragons is where we learned that strength is for the hulking barbarian who wields a two-handed axe, and dexterity is for the acrobatic rogue, the supple contortionist. Of course, that division doesn’t even work in the scenarios the game was designed for. If you think longbows scale with DEX, try bringing a bunch of twinks to Agincourt, see how that works out for you.

If you learn any physical discipline, like dance, you quickly learn that what matters is your active range of motion. Anyone can put their arm behind their back, but not everyone can lift something heavy while it’s there. Ballet dancers can only be so graceful because their pelvic floors are girded with steel. It’s not about the ability to bend like so much gelatin, it’s about bending and staying strong while doing it.

This is what comes to mind for me, metaphorically, when Cris talks about the translator — and notice that Calvino can’t help drawing the metaphor with physical dexterity. But, as Cris notes, to fulfill this role, you can’t be equally unserious about everything; you can’t just coast by on style, nihilistically.

This conception of dance interests me, also, because it points to something paradoxical. Culturally, we think of the dancer as someone who is comfortable with themselves, at home in their bodies and in the world. But any community of dancers is not so easy to slide into. You might be able to fake your way through a wine tasting or a book club, but dance is an unforgeable skill. And while we conceive of dance as a liberating form of natural expression, anyone really good has almost certainly spent a lot of time diligently practicing. This gives rise to some odd psychological types — some dancers seek to become the sort of person who experiences life lightly, and they pursue that ideal with powerful death-drive control.

But this dynamic is not all bad. One time an acquaintance, a rationalist-adjacent fellow I didn’t particularly care for, showed up to a weekly dance I was regularly attending at the time. He told me he had to step outside because he was experiencing strong, irrational negative emotions that he needed to analyze further, and I thought — there’s nothing to analyze, motherfucker, you feel bad because you suck! It wasn’t the most charitable thought, but, you know, gardens need walls. Even if there’s something sadistic and flagellatory about a narrow will to mastery, at least one comes by that sadism honestly.

It is better, I think, than the opposite error, of letting one’s desire to be universally fluent — a natural desire — curdle into a narcissism that sands off or disavows all parts of the world where one cannot already see oneself. Such a narcissist has an unhappy lot. He constrains himself only to the forgeable domains, often ones based on games of language, and so he is never put to the test. Since he can never definitively fail, he will never be cast out, but he will also never pass” and become initiated. He remains anxiously in limbo, waiting in fear and hope for some immanent sense of identity to emerge from the undifferentiated mass, not realizing that he has already precluded the possibility of any critical event.