On awkwardness and accountants

The word ‘awkward’ fascinates me not least because it implies that there is a recognizably crucial connection between goodness and beauty. Derived from ‘awk,’ which means ‘directed the other way or in the wrong direction, back-handed, from the left hand’ (OED), the word applies to persons who lack ‘dexterity or skill in performing their part’ (OED). The awkward person goes the wrong way or does the wrong thing at the wrong time. He is not good at something, and–in aesthetic terms–is said to be uncouth, gauche, clumsy, or boorish.

Here are some examples of the ways in which we speak of awkwardness: An awkward movement can be deemed buffoonish. An awkward time is adolescence. An awkward exchange is one in which the two are not ‘in sync.’ An awkward lover may cause us to recoil.

One can be awkward in speech, in conduct, or in demeanor. What makes someone awkward, at least in the realm of action? Well, either (a) he hasn’t done something before (unfamiliarity), (b) he has done something before but in the wrong way (lack of training), or (c) he has done something for quite a long time but nearly always in the wrong way (the wrong kind of practice). It seems as if the awkward person is one who encounters the world freshly, as if for the first time, as if with new eyes–and then proceeds to get things wrong. He is like the philosopher, who wishes to perceive the world anew, but–in his case–without excellence or beauty.

But it does not follow that the one who is not awkward in his movements is thereby graceful. One–recall this earlier post–may be competent or proficient but neither awkward nor graceful. The non-awkward, non-graceful person occupies a middle category. Who is this person (so to speak) but the accountant?

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