Most comments on my blog posts turn out to be spam, usually ads promoting sexual enhancement devices in intriguing Slavic languages. Every now and then I will get an enthusiastic compliment, but engaged discussions are rare. My rather popular ‘When Did I Become Such an Asshole?,’ written in September 2010, sparked some interesting replies from readers—all ‘true fans’ I hope—and the other day I received yet another comment on that post. Here is exactly what it said:
‘I wonder what was the trade off for fitness in your case. Because we all have 24 hours a day. Fit people prefer spending more of that time in a gym, which means they often compromise from something else -usually intelligence. Anyway, keep masturbating. And yes, you are an asshole.’
I am not proud to admit that my initial reaction was annoyance. Pissy thoughts sprang immediately to mind, in roughly this order: ‘First of all, opinionated commentator, I originally declared myself an asshole, so you are both repeating the obvious and apparently missing the self-reflexive humour of my post; secondly, I do not require masturbatory cheerleading, so fuck off! And thirdly, it is statistically probable that I am far more intelligent than you, given both the impressive scores from the IQ tests administered during my youth, and my later educational success, which led to a PhD as well as my consistently stellar career.’ Oh yeah. I should have warned you that it wouldn’t be pretty. Nor will admitting this mental outburst make me seem like any less of an asshole.
About five seconds later I took a deep breath and started to think more seriously about the five pithy sentences, while nursing guilt about my arrogant assumption of superiority. [Aside to the commentator in question: Can you see that there is now no need to tell me that I have an arrogant sense of superiority? I invite you to come up with another description, preferably one with icy flourish. Addendum to the aside: Nor can you call me on my seemingly amusing yet ultimately defensive strategy of self-abnegation, ’cause I just did that too. Snap.]. Ahem… I began to consider the unwritten messages informing the comment, especially the idea that spending time at a gym would diminish intelligence. The not-so-friendly reader affirms that exercise and thought are opposed. Could it be true? In contemporary western culture, deliberate physical activity is indeed often understood as slacking, as other-than-work; it is something those government-funded ‘Body Break’ commercials singingly insist will make us happier, more compliant citizens during our down time. Sudden question for readers who, like me, grew up in Ontario: Did you ever have to do the ‘health hustle’ in grade school? I hated it, refused to ‘participact,’ and was officially deemed rebellious. I’m sure you are all surprised to hear that. Despite such mostly failed efforts to interrupt the back-sloping tedium of institutionalized education with moments of exercise, the commentator featured in this post has given voice to a broad cultural belief: thinking and moving are opposed, rarely if ever occuring at the same time. It therefore follows that in keeping with the profit-driven spirit of capitalism, we must privilege the periods spent sitting still and working. Of course, we should also carve out small spaces for mindless hip rotations and jumping jacks, lest we lose all muscle mass and perhaps even the ability to walk (but only if we ‘have time’ and are not ‘too busy’). Plus this slice of activity might actually improve productivity or at least lessen the burden on the health care system.
Intelligence is typically pictured in terms of a still body, focused, turning in on itself, hunching forward. Consider The Thinker (1902), or even better, go and see that bronze sculpture in the gardens of the Musée Rodin in Paris, gazing up at it while eating smuggled-in gruyere on still-warm baguette. Filmic fantasies about another great thinker, Leonardo da Vinci, show him crouched over a candle-lit book or sitting before a canvas, sniffing in the fumes of ground lapus lazuli mixed with linseed oil. He is not portrayed jogging around the local piazza, or stripping down to his not-yet-invented underwear to take a dip in the river. If Leonardo went to highschool today he would be a nerd, complete with pasty skin, unstylish hairdo, glasses, and an untoned physique, joining the other losers on Friday nights to play the kind of video games that do not involve dancing. As a bonafied genius, Leonardo could never be a jock, snapping towels in the locker room or flexing his man-guns in the mirror, irregardless of those rumours about his ambiguous sexual orientation. [Oh, just say regardless you jackass!]
So far, my long-winded, I’m-a-shit-hot-art-historian monologue has affirmed that the commentator is plying the standard stereotypes. I can finally move on to disproving them with countless examples. I give you, in no particular order: the historical association of thoughtful meditation with walking in Buddhist philosophy; the many highly intelligent people who work out at my gym, as well as my former trainer, who also has a PhD—I do not mean to conflate smarts with diplomas for plenty of stupid people manage to get graduate degrees, and you know who you are!; the strategy and mental quickness often displayed by players of team sports; the fact that the nineteenth-century creation of sidewalks produced new ways of moving through, and thus of imagining and interacting within cities, etc. Moving and thinking are complementary and I invite you to add your own instances, perhaps even in the form of a comment on this post? I promise not to analyze or dissect what you write. Well, I just lied. … Back to disproving: the nerd image is as dubious as that of the dumb jock, for it does not follow that fat or skinny-fat people who sit around most of the day have high IQs. Just watch Jerry Springer or Maury to figure that one out. Although I find these programs strangely compelling—how do the producers elicit such spontaneously scripted behaviour?—I rarely settle down to enjoy them, mostly because I am wasting time at the gym.
It is nevertheless clear that movement and physical activity are associated with fun, entertainment, ‘free time,’ and bodily narcissism in dominant North American culture. This belief varies according to culture, ethnicity, and class, among other factors. Historically speaking, working class bodies have been related to productive labour at the expense of movement meant to be ‘self-enhancing’ and some of this bodily understanding remains current. Though not addressed in the comment, I think the link between freedom or defiance and a lack of bodily control is widespread, but also class based. When the nerd chooses mind over matter, he or she carelessly indulges in various forms of pleasure, including the consumption of junk food, ignoring the body even while living in it. This bodily neglect can be worn as a badge of pride and independence. In the end, then, the comment that inspired this post—I suppose a belated thanks is due—is based on a number of standard attitudes. I hope I am not going too far when I conclude that an anti-corporeal conflation of deliberate exercise with foolish and self-absorbed resource squandering provides the moral undertone of the commentator’s remark. And that gets my fucking goat.
Warning: I am channeling Jerry Springer and feel a wrap-up rant coming on. Here goes. What did we learn today? Let’s pause to consider that we think with and through our bodies. We are our bodies, and attending to them does not require neglecting our minds. So the next time you tell yourself: ‘I will start swimming or walking or running or boxing or doing yoga or salsa dancing one day, when I have more time, after I finish with x and y,’ just consider this point, which is bereft of exaggeration: you are a pawn of capitalist ideology, measuring your life in 24 hour chunks of usefulness, robbing yourself of a diverse range of activities that are spiritually, intellectually, and physically life sustaining. Exercise does not operate outside of power dynamics and it will not open the door to the promised land, but it might change your life and open new pathways in your brain case. It might also be more rewarding than diddling yourself while lying on the couch and eating chips, watching Maury tell Rae that he is NOT the father, but that I cannot in good conscience guarantee.
You might think better while running on the treadmill, fat ass!
I’ve been very slowly working my way through your backlogs after hearing your interview with Jian Ghomeshi. I won’t spend a lot of type here telling you how much I admire what you’ve done or enjoy your writing, suffice it to say I wish I had more women like you around me.
My favourite example of a marriage of movement and thinking is rock climbing. While a great deal of what you’re doing while climbing requires strength and mastery of the body, a huge portion is also technique and focus. I find that my time climbing is so mentally demanding that afterwards I feel like I’ve taken a brief vacation from everything else consuming my attention. I don’t believe I’d have ever finished my PhD without that sort of mental outlet. Obviously there are dumb climbing thugs out there who think the answer to every crux is to pull harder, but their ranks are pretty age- and testosterone-dependent.
Athleticism and intelligence are not mutually exclusive.