by David Mann.
Auguste Rodin. Marsyas (Torso of The Falling Man). Permission: Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) Image Library: www.lacma.org
for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
– Rainer Maria Rilke
It was a flea-market find, a chance encounter, that led me to the photograph. I was struck by the man represented in it, even if I couldn’t make much sense of him at first.
The figure in the photograph was a sculpture of a man’s head and torso. He had thick curls, a strong, prominent jaw, and small depressions for eyes. His skin was made of marble and impossibly smooth. His face, turned to the side, exposed his muscular neck and held a permanent gaze that landed somewhere beyond the frame. On the reverse side of the photograph, written in faded blue ink: “The Upright Man”. I carried it home and put it on my desk.
In the days that followed I tried, unsuccessfully, to find out who The Upright Man was, or at least, who sculpted him. I began by searching “Upright Man” on the internet. A documentary on Thomas Sankara, an academic paper on Henry David Thoreau, and a handful of religious texts emerged. A reverse image search revealed nothing but more sculptures, none of them The Upright Man. People in online forums dedicated to establishing the provenance of artworks and antiques, suggested that the sculpture was done in the tradition of Myron, although they couldn’t be sure of the period. Most agreed the man was somebody who the sculptor greatly admired.
The Upright Man’s arms were held in an improbable position – one arm extended in the direction of his gaze, fist clenched, and the other arm pulled back across his chest as if grasping some unyielding thing. Most probably, the complete figure had been holding something like a bow and arrow. To me, the real power of the figure was in his posture and this could not be attributed to any single part of his physique. It was the sum-total of a number of magnificent things: a pair of broad, evenly spaced shoulders, chiselled to a symmetry of the perfect man’s upper body; muscular chest, a lean, flat midsection, and wide, level hips that anchored his body to the earth.
I gave up the search soon enough, realising I didn’t care so much who the sculpture was modelled after, but only that I enjoyed looking at it. The sculpture’s posture was immaculate, so unlike my own. I could tell by the way he held himself that he was an honest man, in body and therefore mind, and unconcerned with matters of pride. He wasn’t posing. Rather, he was placing his body on display for those, like myself, who cared enough to appreciate the unique artistry of the human figure. Strong, upright, and honest; a body that’s capable of shrugging off whatever heavy load life places upon its shoulders. A body that was free of burden.
The image of The Upright Man became a permanent feature on my desk. Two cups filled with pens, pencils, and other small items held it down. In this way, I made sure that none of his immaculate form was being lost. Having the photograph flat also meant that I could see The Upright Man while I worked.
I preferred to stand whilst working. I was employed as a layout artist for a small company dealing in booklets and pamphlets distributed freely at local clinics. It was my job to gather the contents of these publications – the words, images, infographics, and other rogue, malleable things – and to ensure they were packaged and presented in a proper and orderly fashion. I did this work from home, and this is how I preferred it.
I had not always worked like this. It was shortly after I found The Upright Man that I abandoned my rickety pleather desk chair, and instead elevated my desktop computer by way of a few bulky graphic design books, and spent most days on my own two feet. This was the first of many small, but vital, changes in my life. The image of The Upright Man had shifted something in me. In this anonymous rendering of perfect posture, I saw a version of a body, and a life, I might one day have if I only applied myself.
My own posture was less than perfect and, on most days, the source of a low, persistent ache that originated in the lower part of my torso and right hip. Often, the pain would travel up my spine and take root in the uppermost vertebrae of my neck. No accident made me this way. It was something I grew into during my teenage years: an unnatural curvature of the spine that pushed my hip out and caused me to adopt a near-permanent shrug. Specialists were consulted, exercises were recommended, but there was not much that could be done. I could, the doctors said, still live a relatively normal life.
I did as I was told and stayed away from contact sports, avoided doing any heavy lifting. Mostly, I accepted the condition as an inevitability, something I would always have to live with. Until a few months ago, when I came across the image of The Upright Man.
When I brought The Upright Man into my home, my life began to change. The longer I stared at the sculpture, the more I began to glimpse myself in its form. The picture became a vision of my own perfect posture, a roadmap to a better life. In his image, I saw goodness, righteousness, and a moral example.
Standing all day was not the only physical change I made. I started eating better, exercising. I swam at the local pool. The buoyancy, I’d read, could do wonders for the back, and the exercise was sure to work some strength into my long-hunched shoulders and shapeless arms. I took to this new sport with an obsessive rigour. I would swim daily, committing myself to long, gruelling spells in the water until my body burned and my arms turned limp. I could feel myself growing stronger. On some days, I felt taller, too. The world, previously at a shameful and immediate level, now existed beneath me. From these new heights, I felt as if parts of the world that had been inaccessible were now inviting me to take full advantage of them.
It wasn’t just the improvement of my body that I was working on. The ideal of The Upright Man was to find resonance in all parts of my life. Upright. In my free time, I began to analyse the word itself, jotting down its various meanings and associations. Vertical. Erect. Truthful. Sincere. These were all words that stirred in me a desire for personal betterment.
I began to live better. I gave up smoking and stayed away from alcohol and sugary drinks. On weekends, I volunteered at the local animal shelter. I did not brag or speak of these virtues to anyone. They were matters of personal pride kept between me and The Upright Man. My financial life, in arrears for the past few years, began to take shape. I drew up budgets for all the expenses and invested my money. I kept my hair trimmed and ditched my usual baggy T-shirt and jeans combination for button-down shirts and dress pants. Since I was growing taller, I also had to have a number of these items tailored. I bought new shoes that made a distinct clacking sound when I walked.
Frequently, I found myself engaging in debates with ignorant people on the internet in an attempt at expanding their world views. I no longer hid behind carefully worded email exchanges with clients and colleagues when I was being underappreciated and underpaid; choosing instead to raise issues directly, and in a way that commanded respect. I applied this penchant for self-improvement to my apartment, making the most of the limited space by doing away with all the chairs and replacing them with leafy houseplants that grew taller by the day as well. I raised the paintings and pictures on the walls by a full 30cms each, to encourage myself to look up, always, and hold a certain standard of beauty in my newfound field of vision.
I carried myself differently in public, too. Having before inclined towards the ground, I began to hold my head high, allowing my chin to lead me and my shoulders to broaden and follow. All of this was working. People seemed to respect me more. Women noticed me and men moved out of my way. Occasionally, when I would see someone walking with a hunch or with a stooped gait, I’d stop and inform them of the benefits of a life lived upright. I was no longer that low crooked version of myself and was determined that no one else should be either. I was refusing a life lived too close to the ground, stooped over and miserable. I was righting my spine, straightening my neck, and levelling my hip. I was becoming an upright man.
The days disappeared into routine. Wake up, eat, exercise, swim, work, exercise, sleep. There was little room for anything else and I allowed for no deviation. When some of my work dried up, rather than dwelling on the fact, I used the free time to swim and do home exercises, strengthening my spine, always.
At some point during my journey towards an upright life, I experienced a pain in my hip and lower back. This was not the dull ache I was used to. It was a hot, stabbing pain that tore through my entire right side. The sensation started to crawl up my spine, and on some mornings, I found it almost impossible to climb out of bed. It was as if the petrified remains of a large tree had replaced my spine, scraping muscles and ligaments, whenever I moved. But this was not surprising. I had anticipated pain.
There was now the matter of my bed. It had too much give. It allowed for a degree of flexibility that was doing me no favours. There were specialised beds for the kind of lumbar support I needed, but I knew I couldn’t afford one and, frankly, I no longer believed in that kind of thing anyway. Beds were unreliable. I needed an unyielding surface, something that would give the imperfect arc of my spine, no respite. So, with the allowance of a thin blanket to keep me from the chill of the tiles, I started sleeping on the floor. This sent tendrils of white-hot pain through my limbs when I rose each morning, but I suffered through.
My mobility was becoming limited. I had difficulty turning my head, and my legs moved slowly as if plunged in pools of wet cement. Still, like The Upright Man, I maintained my posture and my new way of life. I continued to swim during the week and volunteer on weekends. Each day I stood at my desk and only ever broke from this rigid, vertical position, when I needed the toilet or when I retired to the floor each night. The pain did not dissipate.
A few days ago, on a weekend morning, I woke up and found I couldn’t move at all. I sensed my arms and legs beside me, but when I willed them into action nothing happened. I attempted simpler movements – the wiggling of a toe, or the clenching of a fist. Nothing. A heavy pressure had settled on my chest. Had my body failed me completely? I thrashed against my own stillness and found that, while this elicited no movement, it did stir some sensation in the small of my back. It was not much – a warm, muffled itch – but it was good news. I had not lost all sensation.
I tried to stir a similar response in other parts of my body. After a while, I felt my neck loosen, allowing me to turn my head. I heard the soft crunch of cartilage rubbing up against itself. This was progress. Slowly, deliberately, I turned my head from side to side, wincing through the pain. After a few minutes, I managed to press my left cheek to the floor. The pain was terrible, but I held the pose, nonetheless. I was sweating, now, and the tile was cool on my face.
From this compromised position on the floor of my apartment, I had a direct line of sight to the neglected space beneath my unused bed. I saw clumps of dust-mingled hair, old socks, tissues, crusty bits of junk-food, and a cigarette butt. The scene infuriated me. These were the remnants of my former life – the awful, lowly habits of a person too feeble to withstand the basic weight of the world. I felt hot tears forming in my eyes and blinked them away. I was no longer that person, I reminded myself. I had become a better man. I had changed my life.
I turned my gaze back towards the ceiling and called to mind the image of The Upright Man. How many days had I spent studying that magnificent form? The image was as familiar to me as my own face, my own body. I closed my eyes to better focus on the details; recalled the slight curve of the pectoral muscles; the rolling shoulders; the unbreakable column that ran through the torso. All the while, I thrashed internally, trying to harness what little power I could from my core and spread it to the rest of my body. If only I could awaken this stubborn ill-formed spine, I would be able to move again, stand tall again.
The warmth returned to my lower back and spread hot needles though my spine. Some life returned to my right leg, a mere sensation. I focused in on that leg and put my effort into pulling the sensation out from the mass of muscle and bone that weighed the limb down. I could draw out enough life from the leg to yank it off the ground before it came crashing down again, landing with a heavy, dull thud as my heel met the tiles. My spine began to bristle. I realised that if I could swing my leg over my body and create enough action to stir the spine, I could jerk it into action. I needed to stand, to be upright.
I paused to gather my strength. The nerves in my lower back were throbbing, almost weeping. The surrounding muscles felt heavy and cramped, as if a large stone had lodged itself inside of me, weighing down on my spinal column. I pressed my cheek to the floor once more and drew a deep breath. Then I swung my leg over my torso, and twisted.
David Mann is a writer, editor and arts journalist from Johannesburg, South Africa. His short stories have appeared in journals and publications including New Contrast, The Kalahari Review, ITCH, AFREADA, Imbiza Journal for African Writing and Sunday Times Books.