Time to Build
How I learned to stop being a gnostic and love the body.
“One must imagine Sisyphus, after centuries of rolling a giant stone, absolutely ripped.” So says essayist, lifting buddy, and friend, Joseph M. Keegin. “Bodily exercise profits a little.” That’s St. Paul, reminding us he knew how to talk to the men of Athens. And, “use it or lose it,” is my Dad, at least for me.
Amidst the piles of half-read books, unfinished essays, and stupid tweets, lifting weights keeps me sane, keeps me quite literally grounded, reminding the space between my ears that it is indeed part of a body. It can do the same for you. COVID gym closures last spring were a blow, but I rolled with it by keeping the moss off a big stone I found in the yard. Now I understand poor Sisyphus. It’s hard, in the age of lockdowns and Netflix, but one must imagine oneself absolutely ripped, too. You have promise for this life, and for the next; live up to it. Fortune’s wheel has turned, if slowly, and I got better equipment (a sandbag for a while), and now at last have found a gym I like.
I’m one of those people with a hat-stretching head, vaguely suggestive of television actors or a cartoon character. What’s all in there I’ve never been sure—stuffing, I expect. My options were always either to get big or look like an enormous toddler. Like many other boys, I tried the Chesterton route in middle school, but dignified girth is something one must age into: first youthful feats of strength, then years of fine food and even finer drink. If you are going to “let yourself go,” there need be an ascendant self from which to decline. Besides, there are girls.
So, there I was, a high school student in the piano room before breakfast with my marathon-running father’s unused dumbbells, the father whom I’d outweighed for three years already, whose atrophied triceps and anterior deltoids had given up immediately that time he joined me in doing a dip on bars at the park. I didn’t play competitive sports, just the annual season of recreational soccer. I spent most of my after-school activities time as an actor, in school plays and community theatre. “High School Musical” had made it acceptable for jocks to be thespians, but I was thinking about the reverse and—grown on Homer and Henty and illustrated guides to world special forces—wondered if the athletic field might not be nobler than the stage. Fortunately a growth spurt helped along those lackadaisical and ill-equipped early years.
College was better. There was better equipment, more knowledgeable friends, but too much beer. After graduating, in my early professional years I kept it up, but mostly out of vanity, so I could manage the rigors of the D.C. cocktail hour regime. It’s a lot of wine and cheese, so almost like the Mediterranean diet, only relentless. There were years of lifting to eat, not eating to lift, years of foolishly thinking curls were for girls when, as Camille Paglia can tell you, it is men with an Apollonian and perfectionist sense for aesthetics, not women: bi(cep)s are for guys.
The D.C. conservative scene is a veritable cornucopia of pear-shaped men. Here are the supposed intellectual elite of the American right—men who know their C.S. Lewis and are, ostensibly, fighting the abolition of men and manliness—without chests to speak of. The chest was Lewis’s metonym for thumos, Plato’s “spiritedness.” Spiritedness guards the intellect as it seeks to transform appetite into philosophic eros, the hunger that draws the great-souled upward to the truth. Thumos, chest, mediates between the head and stomach. A lot of things fell into place with the heavy lift of graduate school. I’m grateful for what my teachers taught me in the classroom, but maybe just as valuable a part of my M.A. was what I learned beforehand in the gym, the discipline of mind and body, the pursuit of excellence, the virtue of self-mastery.
The other great pleasure in the flesh’s submission to the rule of steel—itself a rebellion against Weber’s iron cage—is what people call “broscience.” Or, as we would have said before the post-war technological elite that sent men to the Moon became the decadent priests of scientism, just plain old science. An educated guess, experiment, theory, more experiments, always questioning, always seeking, hungry for knowledge, hungry for gains—it’s the gym-bro way. It conquered the planet, it conquered gravity, it can conquer your fat, lazy [posterior].
The self-shaping shamanism of broscience ranges all along the line from animal to barbarian to civilized man. On the banal, fully mainstream, acculturated end of that spectrum are things like “bulletproof” coffee and creatine supplementation, modes of self-medicating mentioned on Joe Rogan’s podcast long ago. In the middle are practices such as raw-egg slonking a la Rocky Balboa, eggs in dozens, the pursuit of maximum dietary cholesterol and saturated fat for maximum hormone production. (Testosterone is in decline. Your boys can’t swim. And your grandpa’s grip is still stronger than yours, and he’ll be dead soon.) Fully uncivilized, actually illegal, totally feral, are things like microdosing meth—only whispered secret assistants to the better-known assortment of steroids associated with competitive bodybuilding and elite sports. I choose the centaur Chiron’s middle way, half man, half beast, merely an egg slonker.
All this experimental energy comes from the fact that though you can perhaps be a Cartesian dualist in the gym (I doubt), separating spiritual and material realities, you cannot be a gnostic. There is no room for Manichaeism in the gymnasium; matter and spirit must be brought together, one is not good and the other evil. Lifting, like combat sports, is civilized man’s temporary escape from technological society, and his training to be of use to civilization. Straining under a weight is, after warfare, which I know only from stories, the closest a man gets to the sheer embodiedness of a woman’s everyday existence. She has periods, pregnancy, and childbirth to make her animal self inescapable. I, merely a man, worry about soiling myself in a heavy squat.
The great active man of American life and letters was Theodore Roosevelt. Biography and hagiography meet in the remembrance that as a child he was as frail as he would later be robust. His lifelong, successful quest for vitality sprang from an exhortation by his father: “You have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body.” Theodore resolved to make his body. My own father’s “use it or lose it” is not as elegant, but it led me here.