Fattening the Curve

“… wherever, for the sake of the necessary motion of the parts, with proper strength and agility, the insertions of the muscles are too hard and sudden, their swellings too bold, or the hollows between them too deep, for their out-lines to be beautiful; nature most judiciously softens these hardnesses, and plumps up these vacancies with a proper supply of fat.”

(William Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, 1753)


Remember when you didn’t know what “flattening the curve” meant?

Like you, I am now all too aware that the phrase refers to slowing the speed at which a virus spreads, and that, in our current moment, the phrase is usually invoked in reference to social distancing as a practice that it is hoped will diminish the rate at which COVID-19 is devastating the world.

But cast your mind back, back through the mists of time to February.

Back then, I, for one, would have taken the phrase “flatten the curve” for a Hogarthian term of art in reference to the necessary measures needed to correct a “too bulging” line.

plate 49

William Hogarth, Analysis of Beauty, Plate 1, Figure 49

Or perhaps, along the same lines, I might have taken it for a mantra used in a barre class to be repeated under your breath as you contract your abs.


The other day, after her bath, the younger was standing in the hallway in just her underwear admiring herself in the mirror.

“I have a 4-pack!” she announced proudly. “Let’s see what you’ve got,” she added.

I rolled my eyes and pulled up my shirt.

She examined my torso, frowning.

“Are you tensing?” she asked.

“Umm, I think so?” I said, uncertainly.

Finally, she declared, “I don’t see much.”

“A 1-pack?” I suggested.

“Let’s say a 2-pack,” she said generously and then added, consolingly, “don’t worry, I know you’re still really strong.”

This was more than a week ago, before I’d really settled into to my daily supining regimen, which has since become a full-blown lifestyle.

Now, this lifestyle, to be sure, comes more naturally to me than to others. You could say I have a gift for it. Remember how in Working Girl (which I just re-watched, and recommend you do the same) Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) tells Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) that she has a head for business and a bod for sin? [1]

Well, I, rather less impressively, have a head for blogging and a bod for slothing. [2]

In days gone by, if I didn’t have to go to campus, I could easily spend 75% of my day supine on my sofa, which is where I do the bulk of both reading and writing (yes, I’m there right now). But these days I’m really cultivating that muscle: the supining muscle, which you develop by relaxing into the posture.

You know how in yoga when you’re standing in Tadasana, your instructor will intone, “Feeeeeeel the soles of your feet siiiiiiinking into the earth”? Well, cultivating your supining muscle is like that that except you have to feeeeeeel your bum siiiiiiiinking into the sofa.

Maybe this doesn’t appeal to you. But too bad, because this isn’t for you, it’s for the public good. So suck it up and lie down.

I might be wrong, but “fatten the curve” has a lot of potential as a new public health slogan. Like:

Fatten The Curve To Flatten the Curve.

And then there could be a little illustration. See, I’ve made a rudimentary prototype:


The stick person on the right is, yes, a bit bigger than the one on the left. But that is on purpose, you see, because the person on the right is fattening the curve.

The benefits of committing to this form of inaction are, I submit, both ethical and aesthetical.

Let me be clear; I am not advocating for complete atrophy. Strong muscles are important; I am myself, as my daughter observes, very strong. Moreover, there is surely no supine sweeter than the supining of muscles fatigued by extreme exertion. So do whatever you enjoy—I recommend dancing like there’s nobody except the people you live with watching, because there isn’t—unless you’re live Instagramming your performance to the world—to keep your muscles supple and your blood flowing.

But the hard-bodied physical ideal that reigns supreme—here in Los Angeles at least—feels impoverished. It’s an ideal that, as Milton says in Paradise Lost (admittedly in a slightly different context) “perverts best things” by reducing their value “to their meanest use.” Hogarth reminds us that it is “for the sake of … necessary motion” that muscles are “hard” (my emphasis). But we are not beholden to necessity. Nature, given a chance, “most judiciously softens these hardnesses”—and supining your self is one way to encourage her softening effects.

People pay plastic surgeons to fill up their vacancies with a proper supply of fat (I know; I’ve marveled at the results on Montana Ave., back when I used to walk on Montana Ave.). But you can achieve superior results for free and in the comfort of your own home by reclining on your sofa.

We all need a proper supply of fat to plump up these vacancies—to fatten the curves of our bodies but also to flesh out our daily trajectories—trajectories that, these days, feel increasingly skeletal, reduced to the bare outlines of existence.

In my case, the existence contained within those outlines is comparatively luxurious: I’m still getting paid; I can easily work from home; I have a yard, for which I have never felt more grateful. And, although (my prolific blogging and Instagramming of late notwithstanding) I am “working,” it seems wrong to use the same verb to describe what I’m doing and what essential workers and others adjusting on the fly to alternative modalities are enduring.

So I feel aware that a paean to the fat of life might seem glib or jarring at the present time; if there was ever a moment when needs must, this is surely it.

And yet.

(One of my supervisors at Cambridge once wrote dryly in the margins of one of my essays, “Thank God for “And yet”!”; he noticed that I tended to rely upon the locution when I had written myself into a corner and needed to get out of a tight spot.)

Where was I? Oh yes, and yet, it’s a grim irony of the way our world is organized that even as some people are literally working themselves to death, others, like me, have copious amounts of unstructured time on their hands. And this is why I find myself here, writing this entirely gratuitous essay. This is the fat that is helping me to plump up these meager, vacant days. I hope, if nothing else, it softens the hard edges of your day too.



[1] I was struck while watching Working Girl—which features a lot of both Griffith and Ford semi-clothed—that there is a beguiling softness to both of their bodies, a softness that—even though in many ways we see a much broader range of bodies onscreen now—is rare these days.

[2] I can’t believe “slothing” is a real word! But it is! I just found it in the OED!


Day 192: on feeling stuck

I sat in my office last Tuesday looking out the window and feeling stuck. I was reading an article about the field known as medical or health humanities. The article portrayed the humanities as an expiring body in need of saving but also as an inoculation against “the influence of medicine.” The humanities, the article argued, needed medicine to save it from itself; in its new, invigorated form, it could then be made useful as a prophylactic to vaccinate subjects with judicious doses of “empathy” and “critical thinking” that would serve to “inoculate students against the influence of medicine.” [1]

The author’s vision is of an instrumentalized humanities writ large. But the question of what “outcomes” can be derived from humanistic learning is one I’d encountered earlier in the week in less grandiose terms—specifically, in a proposal that faculty develop “curriculum maps” showing the learning objectives and outcomes produced by particular courses.

Examples of such maps show a grid in which a class is analyzed according to whether particular “learning outcomes,” (like “critical thinking”) are “introduced,” “developed,” or “mastered.” You can learn more about these tools here.

I understand how such maps might be useful in giving a bird’s eye view of what a course is about. For example, one of the courses I regularly teach, “Literature in English 1700-1850,” could be mapped as “introducing” “outcomes” ranging from skills like “close reading” to particular bodies of knowledge pertaining to literary history, genre, modes and techniques. (I confess I rather like the idea of having one “outcome” for that class simply being: zeugma: mastered, bitch).

I would be less sure of how to map the class I’m teaching next quarter on attachment and detachment. Maybe, yes, it could be said to “introduce” attachment theory, and perhaps to “develop” students’ acquaintance with the novel form. But what would “mastery” look like?

In the presentation I saw about curriculum maps, the examples shown were all maps created for fake classes. The one that was clearly meant as a proxy for a literature course was one about “epistolary romance”; it received “D”s across the board for “Developing” particular outcomes (knowledge in field, writing effectively, etc.), and I thought, “yeah, developed sounds about right.” Because what would it mean to have mastered “epistolary romance”? What kind of evidence would you need to prove your mastery? An annotated copy of Clarissa? Written proof that you had successfully seduced your correspondent? Tear-stained pages? Has Valmont, in Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses mastered epistolary romance? Hasn’t it, arguably, mastered him?

I found myself asking myself these questions as I imagined what it would mean to assess my class next quarter on attachment via the rubric of “mastery.” This will be a class in which I expect the students not only to read works that theorize and dramatize attachment but also to experience and reflect upon their own experiences of aesthetic attachment.

Isn’t attachment something like the opposite of mastery? To be attached, after all, is to find oneself bound to an object, sometimes against one’s preference. As Elizabeth Bennet exclaims in Pride and Prejudice, upon her friend Charlotte predicting that she will find Mr. Darcy to be very agreeable, “Heaven forbid! That would be the greatest misfortune of all! To find a man agreeable whom one is determined to hate!”


I had turned my office chair that afternoon so that I faced the window, because otherwise the sun’s glare made my laptop screen too difficult to see. Facing the window, my gaze shifted between screen and window. The view from my second-floor office window is of course familiar to me, but I saw it differently that afternoon. My south facing window looks out onto a pedestrian bridge that joins my building to the physics and astronomy building across the road. A set of glass double doors connects the bridge on the physics and astronomy side; on our side, the bridge appears to terminate below the window of the office two down from mine. The bridge is not accessible from either end. Trust me, I’ve tried, over the years. I call it the “bridge to nowhere” in my head but that’s not exactly right. It’s a bridge between the humanities building and the physics and astronomy building; it’s just not a bridge that you can access from either end. Is a bridge that cannot be accessed still a bridge, I wondered, idly?

bridge to nowhere

A view of the bridge

For some reason, that afternoon, the sight of this inaccessible bridge, so near and yet so far, started to piss me off. I felt gaslighted. An entity shouldn’t look like a bridge and act like a bridge if it isn’t, in fact, a bridge. I tried, fruitlessly, once again, to see if I could access it from a nearby balcony. I asked around in the department office. Did anyone know why it wasn’t accessible? Someone mentioned a rumor that it had been closed off after someone had jumped off it a long time ago. Myself, I’d considered how it might be accessed in the past for the opposite reason: as a means of evading death. (Such things tend to cross your mind once you’ve experienced an active shooter campus lockdown.)

The reason, I think, that the bridge irked me that day, and irks me still, is because its inaccessibility creates a kind of ontological confusion. A locked door is still a door. A dirty window is still a window. But a bridge that doesn’t afford passage has reneged, it seems to me, on one of the essential conditions of bridgeness.

What if there were a way to redefine the space, somehow, so that it was not a non-functional bridge but a functional something else …. or a space in which its non-functionality could be a feature rather than a bug? What if the space were reconfigured so that its most important axis was not horizontal but vertical? What if it were filled with earth and plants, no longer a bridge but a hanging garden, tendrils falling down in a curtain through which pedestrians below would pass, ensnared by succulents, caught up in trailing honeysuckle?

I’ve become taken with this idea recently: not the idea of literally making the bridge to nowhere into a hanging garden, but the idea more generally of how and when passages become enclosures or enclosures passages. The forms of the vignette and the arabesque interest me because they share a quality of movement without progress. Like hanging gardens, vignettes and arabesques encroach into surrounding spaces but not in service of any particular end. A vignette, so named because it is “A running or trailing ornament or design in imitation of the branches, leaves, or tendrils of the vine,” is any embellishment, illustration, or picture uninclosed in a border, or having the edges shading off into the surrounding paper …” (OED).

Hogarth's shop card

Hogarth’s shop card!

Arabesque is a close cousin, a decorative pattern characterized by flowing, interlacing lines “typically of branches, leaves, and flowers” (OED).

anonymous Italian

anonymous, Italian, 18th century

In lieu of a straight line from A to B, an arabesque or vignette is all forking paths and detours with no discernible end. Such a form, William Hogarth suggests, is most engaging to the eye, if it “hath every turn in it that lines are capable of moving into, and at the same time no way applied, nor of any manner of use” (The Analysis of Beauty, 1753, my emphasis).

When I fantasize about making the bridge to nowhere into a hanging garden, I think that Hogarth is onto something: that is, I imagine the appeal of the hanging garden would reside in the play of its lines, not in its instrumentality.

And yet.

If you’re me, to imagine those hanging tendrils is also to imagine eagerly scaling them, as if they were Rapunzel’s locks; or swinging vine to vine, like Tarzan. As much as I chafe at the word instrumentality it’s also hard for me to let go of the desire to vault myself from A to B … of the desire to get. across. the bloody. bridge. To admit this feels like a failure of imagination on my part, a kind of constitutional basicness, a primitive need for sequence, plot, telos.


So maybe the curriculums maps are right after all. Maybe the desire for passage, the desire to get somewhere is too strong for us—or at least for me—to imagine mapping learning experiences other than in terms of where they can take us; that is, in terms of their application. But does that mean “mastery” is really the only valid metric? Aren’t encounters with aesthetic objects useful precisely because they acquaint us with mastery’s limits, with how, in the desire to know an object fully, to discern all its contours, what we run up against are not its edges but the limits of our own reach?

If I were devising a curriculum map, I’d expand the range of possible learning outcomes a given course could be expected to produce. I’d be happy to keep the first three stages: Introduced; Developed; Mastered. But then, a twist! After “Mastered” would come the following: Discomfited; Perplexed; Thwarted; Undone; Stuck and Boggled and Knowing Not Which Way To Turn. [2]

In the meantime, I’m still feeling stuck. And I’m still plotting how to get onto that bridge.



[1] (Craig M. Klugman, “How Health Humanities Will Save the Life of the Humanities,” Journal of Medical Humanities 38(4): 419-430, 425, 420)

[2] Cf. John Locke’s remarks on understanding in his Miscellaneous Papers, 1677: “our understanding sticks and boggles and knows not which way to turn.” (From Lord Peter King, The Life of John Locke: With Extracts from his Correspondence, Journals, and Common-place Books, 322).