Let me be perfectly clear -I have never been charismatic. In fact, it’s only relatively recently that I thought much about it. I suppose I felt it was akin to beauty -you were either born with it or watched from the sidelines. And since I’ve never been much on crowds, I was even more content to observe it from further afield.
I’ve since begun to wonder if that meant I was missing out on something, however. In high school, the charismatists always seemed to get more dates than me -okay, I never had the nerve to ask anybody out, but the the charis were not even shy about going for it in the cafeteria.
Anyway, in the dying embers of Grade 12, and realizing that my last chances were fading away, I decided to do something about it. I had always fancied Janice, for some reason. She wasn’t exactly beautiful in the usually appreciated way: her limp brown hair hung like a partially opened shower curtain to her shoulders, and one lens of her always askew glasses often seemed steamed up, or something. But she had at least read Shakespeare and had a way of slipping snippets of Macbeth soliloquies into her conversations that intrigued me.
There was an empty seat beside her one day in the cafeteria at lunch -several seats on either side, actually- and I interpreted this as a sign to sit down beside her… well a couple of seats away, so she wouldn’t think I was hitting on her.
I’m not sure she noticed me, though, because she continued to stare at the partly eaten sandwich on her plate even when I made sure I scraped my chair noisily and pretended to lose control of my tray. Actually, I was already so nervous that loss of control was not difficult to fake.
She didn’t move, but I heard her sigh even in the noisy cafeteria.
I wasn’t sure what to do next, but it occurred to me that saying something was probably in order. The only thing I could think of, however, was something that my friend Geoff often used to break the ice. Geoff could charm the raisins off a cake, and he made everything he said sound cool; girls would melt under his eyes and giggle nervously. I had nothing to lose.
“Hey babe, nice sandwich you’ve got there…” I started, and suddenly realized I needed to clear my throat before I continued.
I needn’t have worried however, because she raised her eyes slowly from her plate and sent them on a lazy reconnaissance mission around my face.
“You’re kidding, right?”
Well it was a start, I guess. “Uhmm…” For the life of me, I couldn’t think of anything to reply, except to buy some time by clearing my throat again.
She rolled her eyes theatrically, finished the remnants of her sandwich with one bite, and proceeded to put the detritus around her on her tray. Then, sandwich disposed of, she pinned me to my seat with a glare like a spotlight on a stage, the curtain of hair swinging mockingly as it began to close on her face. “The raven himself is hoarse, eh? For god’s sake, G!” And she got up from her seat and picked up her tray.
And all I could think of to show her I knew she had just quoted the beginning of a soliloquy of Lady Macbeth, was to whisper the next few lines to her as she passed my chair, ‘Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,’ but alas, either she didn’t hear me, or it failed to impress and she disappeared among the clattering tables.
I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I’d been as charismatic as Geoff. Maybe I would also have been able to dance, and stuff. But most of us adapt to our handicaps, don’t we? I managed to acquire old age without a messy crowd of acolytes hanging on my every word. Only my friends listen to me, and even they hang up unexpectedly at times. I’ve learned to accept that mine is only one voice in a very large crowd -none of whom have been noticeably affected by anything I say.
Recently, I happened upon an essay on Charisma by John Potts, a professor of media at Macquarie University in Australia. ‘Charisma is easier to recognise than to define,’ he writes. https://aeon.co/ideas/charisma-is-a-mysterious-and-dangerous-gift
‘Charisma’s origins are found in the letters of Paul the Apostle, written from around 50 AD. This is the first written use of the word ‘charisma’, derived from the Greek ‘charis’ (grace). For Paul, charisma meant ‘the gift of God’s grace’ or ‘spiritual gift’… For Paul, charisma was a mystical notion: the gifts were thought to alight on each individual without the need for church authority or institution. And there was no charisma of leadership.’
‘The idea of charisma then lay largely dormant for centuries. Only in the writings of the 20th-century German sociologist Max Weber was it reborn… Weber saw the charismatic form of authority as the revolutionary, even unstable, antidote to the ‘iron cage’ of rationalisation… He held that there was something heroic about the charismatic leader, who galvanised followers with great feats or with the ‘charisma of rhetoric’ found in inspiring speeches. Weber defined charisma as ‘a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities’.
As I read through the essay, it became obvious that even Geoff would never qualify and that anyway, maybe Janice had been looking for greater fiscal qualities. All the more so in that ‘the first political leaders to be described as charismatic were Mussolini and Hitler.’
However, ‘Today, charisma is used to describe a range of individuals: politicians, celebrities, business leaders. We understand charisma as a special, innate quality that sets certain individuals apart and draws others to them.’
And yet, Potts goes on to observe that ‘Charismatic leaders can inspire followers with soaring rhetoric – which can also prove divisive and damaging to a party’s (or a nation’s) fortunes.’ So, ‘Political parties are generally content with popular, unthreatening, folksy leaders who appeal to ordinary people.’
Interesting -I like to think that I have always been unthreatening and kind of folksy. Maybe Janice figured I wanted her sandwich, though…