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View: Laying down the law

Being semi-prone in public has been seen as both a sign of weakness and power.

, ET Bureau|
Sep 21, 2019, 09.08 AM IST
Britain’s Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg relaxing on the front benches during the Standing Order 24 emergency debate on a no-deal Brexit in the House of Commons in London on September 3.
In the never-ending entertainment that is the UK’s Brexit process one moment stood out for its visual impact. During one prolonged debate, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the arch-Brexiteer and Leader of the House of Commons, was shown resting most of the 1.88 metres of his body along the green bench on the government’s side of the House.

Opposing politicians shouted at him to sit up and accused him of showing disrespect to Parliament – which Rees-Mogg appeared to confirm by refusing to move, just adjusting his glasses slightly. It seemed a potent image of upper-class indifference and indolence, and immediately went viral on social media.

Rees-Mogg had his defenders. In The Spectator, the conservative writer Charles Moore argued that “drawings of the House of Commons in the days before cameras show that MPs did this a great deal.” Slightly undercutting this appeal to history, he also suggested Rees-Mogg was simply trying to hear the speakers which are concealed in the backs of the benches.

Whatever Rees-Mogg’s reasons, the image reinforced our complicated responses to reclining. Being semiprone in public has been seen as both a sign of weakness and power. It is a vulnerable position, compared to someone standing and ready to attack, yet also shows the power of being indifferent to attack. Reclining has been seen as depraved and effeminate, but also as oddly alluring. Reclining is associated with sickness, and reclining chairs were designed for invalids, but people who are quite healthy, but lazy, liked and appropriated them.

Reclining was famously associated with Roman dining, though as Matthew B.Roller notes in his comprehensive study Dining Posture in Ancient Rome “the practice of reclining was transmitted from the Near East through the Greek world into central Italy by the late archaic period. In all these cultures, reclining marked a greater degree of social privilege and autonomy than was associated with the other possible dining postures, namely sitting and standing.”

Roller quotes descriptions of Roman meals where the most privileged reclined, the less privileged sat (unless invited to recline as a mark of favour) and slaves stood and served. Reclining was linked to leisure and the practice of the convivium, the feast where participants conversed and enjoyed themselves. Women, as less privileged, were not supposed to recline with men, unless they were prostitutes which confirmed the rather licentious appeal of lying down, though in time this restriction was loosened.

After the collapse of the Western Roman empire reclining while dining became characterised as one of the depraved practices that lead to the imperial decline. This association was evident when Edward Terry, who was appointed the English chaplain to the East India Company in 1616, encountered reclining again in the Mughal court. Terry criticised the way the wealthy travelled, reclining in palanquins carried by humans: “They make the shoulders and joints of those that feel their heavy weight, to bow and buckle under their burdens. This as it should seem was an ancient, but a base effeminacy sometimes used in Rome.”

The empire
The problem was that palanquins were such a standard means of travel that, much to Terry’s discomfort, the British were taking to using them as well. In India reclining didn’t have the depraved associations of Rome. Gods are often depicted reclining, most famously Vishnu on Shesha-naga dreaming the universe into existence. This pose is even distinguished into different categories of reclining, like Ardhasayanam, Yogasayanam, Virasayanam and Bhogasayanam, depending on how the deity’s limbs are placed and what they are holding.

Palanquins also made sense in a country where horses were mostly meant for military use. (Other forms of animal powered travel, like elephants or bullock carts also involved reclining in some way). An elaborate system of palanquin bearers existed, with certain communities, particularly from Odisha, operating across India in organised networks that set up relay teams of bearers. As the British moved out from their original bases in Surat, Madras and Calcutta, using palanquins became inevitable.

One sign of this can be seen in Hobson-Jobson, the anthology of British-Indian terms, compiled by Henry Yule and Arthur Burnell. The entry on palanquins is unusually long and includes a personal note that “the elder of the present writers has undergone hardly less than 8000 or 9000 miles of travelling in going considerable distances (excluding minor journeys) after this fashion.” Apart from palanquins there are also entries on variants like the muncheels of Malabar, the doolies of north India and the bochas, a kind of palanquin only found in Calcutta.

Despite their ubiquity, a sense of unease always went with Westerners using palanquins. Hobson-Jobson quotes the Italian traveller Pietro della Valle on the edicts that the Portuguese kept passing to stop their men using palanquins “as in good sooth too effeminate a proceeding.” But he noted caustically that “as the Portuguese pay very little attention to their laws, as soon as the rains begin to fall they commence getting permission to use the palankin, either by favour or by bribery…”

Reinvesting the palanquin
In Jonathan Eacott’s Selling Empire, his study of how the idea of India was sold to the West through trade in its products, he describes how the palanquin was reinvented to make it more acceptable to Westerners. The basic model of palanquins was known as fly palanquins, resembling “a well contrived couch with pillows and an arched canopy over it” that were held up on a pole in front and behind.

But in the 1780s, the design of palanquins changed, most likely under the influence of British carriage builders. Eacott notes how in 1778 then nawab of Arcot, one of the first Indian nobles recognised by the British (and whose status was almost uniquely passed on to independent India, and is still maintained today) commissioned a special palanquin from British carriage builders that might have been the model for the new style.

Known as ‘mehanah palanquins” these models replaced “open sides with wooden panelling and added doors fitted with windows and venetian blinds…. Similarly, as in carriage construction, builders added paint and varnish finished.” One British magistrate joked that these enclosed models were “a machine not much unlike a coffin” but they allowed the British to travel reclined in a more modestly concealed way.

Planter’s chair
By the time Hobson-Jobson was published in 1886 the use of palanquins was already vanishing, but another Indian product had started promoting reclining. This was the planter’s chair which didn’t just allow reclining, thanks to its set-back design with sloping back, but encouraged it even further with its extra-long arms, which often folded out.

When fully extended users could put up their legs in the rather abandoned fashion which lead to ribald names for the chair, like the Bombay Fornicator. Chairs like this were common in warmer climates, whether based on the Indian model or developed locally. They were known as Campeche chairs in South America, and campeachy chairs in the American South.

But in parallel to these chairs, which had an X-shaped structure, another design developed in Europe was closer to the sofas of today. Known as the chaise-longue, or long chair, it was particularly associated with invalids. At a time when debilitating diseases like tuberculosis or polio were common, the chaise-longue allowed those afflicted to combine the rest they needed with maintaining more public interactions than would have been possible if they were confined to their beds.

Medical usage determined the development of reclining chairs in other ways. Some models were meant to be used by women while giving birth, with stirrups in which to place their legs. Another model that is still with us was used by dentists, which may be why some people still feel a sense of unease when they ease themselves back in a recliner. And the couch that psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud started using was another example of reclining being given a quasi-medical connotation.

La-Z Boy and Barcalounger
All these practical uses though were soon overtaken by the leisure use, particularly in the USA. Edward Tenner, who writes on how humans adapt technology, writes that “Americans did not invent the first reclining furniture, but no nation has taken it further, probably because 19th century Americans were famous or notorious for refusing to follow European ideas of dignified upright posture.” It was American inventors who developed the adjusting chairs like the La-Z Boy and Barcalounger, combining reclining capacity with upholstered ease.

What chairs like this did was finally remove the effeminate connotations of reclining by making it a part of happily indulgent broculture, perhaps best demonstrated by the TV serial Friends where Joey and Chandler are deeply devoted to their reclining chairs (but Chandler significantly leaves his behind when he transfers to the greater responsibility of married life).

The design of these seats also influences the one place where reclining retains potent power, and even economic value. Airline seats were made reclining to ease the pressure of being necessarily seated for long periods, but this has bought them sharply in conflict with the economics of flying. The more space allowed for chairs to shift back into reclining position, the less space there is for chairs all around. Airlines must balance passenger comfort with the need to cram in as many people as possible in their planes.

The result is familiar to all frequent fliers, and has possibly increased the ambiguous appeal of reclining. Economy class passengers are faced constant battles for space as they handle the etiquette of reclining which has to intrude on the space of those behind. Meanwhile business and first class is sold largely on the basis of being able to recline without restrictions. It isn’t hard to see how Rees-Mogg, a wealthy man who has probably never flown economy in his life, ended up channelling such passions as he stayed semi-prone in Parliament.
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