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Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Art of Humility

Just read a great story in the NY Times Sunday mag. It's in a profile of writer David Mitchel, who I've never heard of. If they're interviewing him in the Times I guess I should, but alas, if it comes out in hardcover I make all sorts of assumptions about it, all of which leads to me labeling the book "not for me."

But I digress.

It seems Mr. Mitchell was in New Zealand doing a big event in front of hundreds. Afterward, a woman comes up to him. She's a professor--a medievalist--and she tells him about something called humility topos.

Humility, it seems, was a great virtue in medieval times. As such humility topos were given to a bunch of abbots who were always crying that they served in humility, like Jesus. In truth, however, they were the most arrogant bastards of their day.

In literature, the term has come to mean characters who put on a humble front or pretend to be less intelligent than they are, often to outfox an opponent into underestimating them.

"Beware the humility topos," the prof told Mitchell.

Which is to say that Mitchell's "stage persona" is beyond self-effacing. So far beyond that it seemed to this woman that it had to be a front for the real thing.

Interesting comment, because I, too, tend to deprecate myself in public. Better me than you, right?

In fact, don't we all have public personas that we switch on and off at will? I don't mean we shape shift, but are you really "yourself" in, say, a job interview? In life, your knees don't shake on a daily basis, but some of us shake all over when we have to speak to a crowd.

None of which is to say that the public face is false, as the humility topos implies.

Sometimes it's what we need to get us through a public event. Sometimes it's a part of us that's always there, but may be buried until you need it. I'm a big scowler, as the lines on my forehead prove. It's basically the face I sink into when I'm concentrating, but it sure looks like I'm mad as hell. So when I'm talking to people I try to keep a smile on my face. Am I being a big phony? I don't think so. The smiles are with me--I just don't resort to them naturally (OK, except when I'm watching John Stewart).

But I'll try to keep the prof's warning in mind and not make it sound like I'm a total nincompoop at my next book signing.

Hmm...was that an example of humility topos or not?

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Blogger Becca J said...

When I taught people would talk about developing your "teaching persona." I thought that was a helpful way of dealing what is basically stage fright; you don't feel as rejected when a student looks bored if you are your persona, not you. Then a guy I shared an office with said only anal people have a teaching persona. Which is probably true.

Also I read a book by David Mitchel--Cloud Atlas. It was good--a bit Blade Runner-y--and I think there's a romance in it too though I don't remember it being particularly satisfying...also it was slightly dreamy, which I associate with Pisces.

June 27, 2010 at 3:37 PM  
Blogger Annie Solomon said...

Hmm...well maybe I have to try him out. I love Blade Runner. The article did describe his work as "genre bending". It does sound very piscean.

As for "teaching persona" that guy is full of crap. I am the least anal person out there and I definitely have a "persona" when I'm in front of the public.

June 27, 2010 at 5:51 PM  

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