The Power That Remains

The passing of fitness icon Jack Lalanne, who died last Sunday at the age of 96, called up a modest flurry of tributes and retrospectives in the media, and a great many of these made a point I don’t think their authors had in mind. If I’d tried to dream up an imaginary example of the way our culture’s obsessions distort our sense of history, I doubt I could have managed anything half so telling.

Not, you understand, that Lalanne’s life and achievements didn’t deserve the attention the media gave them, or indeed a good deal more than they’re likely to get. If the value of an exercise system is best measured by the long-term health and strength of its chief promoter, which seems fair enough, Lalanne is hard to beat, given that he was still doing strength feats in his nineties that would put most of today’s muscular twentysomethings to shame. Nor were these achievements the result of the gimmickry that so often catapults people to their fifteen minutes of fame; Lalanne’s feats as well as his career as a fitness teacher were achieved the old-fashioned way, through the unfaddish combination of sound practical advice, hard work, and a cheerful and consistent willingness to walk his own talk.

No, the thing that made the media tributes so striking is the extraordinary way that they edited Lalanne right out of his actual historical context. Stories in print and electronic media alike called Lalanne a pioneer, the man who first taught Americans to exercise. It’s no discredit to the man to point out that he was nothing of the kind. Lalanne was, rather, one of the very last great figures in what was once a huge and influential movement in American culture, and has now been systematically erased from our collective memory.

The phrase that was standard before that erasure took place was “physical culture.” From the 1870s until the Second World War, across the English-speaking world and in many other countries as well, those words conjured up much the same imagery that the current Lalanne retrospectives put back into circulation, however briefly, in the imagination of our time: a genial blend of robust exercise, healthy eating, spectacular feats of strength, and more or less colorful showmanship. Against a background of Victorian ladies doffing their corsets to swing Indian clubs, young men stripped to the waist hefting kettlebells full of lead shot, and circus strongmen challenging all comers to match them lift for lift, scores of figures now forgotten made their names into household bywords: Eugen Sandow, whose impressive exploits and even more impressive physique first made weightlifting fashionable in the Western world; Genevieve Stebbins, who taught exercise to three generations of American girls around the turn of the last century; Joseph Greenstein aka “The Mighty Atom,” the diminutive Polish-American strongman whose signature trick was tying a #2 iron horseshoe into an overhand knot with his bare hands, and many more – among them, and far from the least, Jack Lalanne.

It takes only the briefest bout of research, especially in the age of the internet, to uncover all this and put Lalanne into his proper context. Why, then, the distortion of history, reminiscent of nothing so much as those Politburo photos from Stalin-era Russia from which former members were so studiously erased? Why, for that matter, is it a fairly safe bet that when Jane Fonda passes away, the media will briefly if lavishly praise her as the pioneer who taught America to exercise, and pretend that Jack Lalanne never existed?

There are at least three reasons, and all of them are relevant to the wider project of this blog.

The first, a point discussed here tolerably often, is the contemporary American obsession with fantasies of progress. We don’t like to think about the fact that by and large, Americans these days are weaker, less healthy, and less capable than their great-grandparents. When we do think about that, we like to frame it in a narrative that turns it into a brand new problem ready for some clever solution or other – that is to say, another opportunity for progress. Now it so happens that declining health and fitness in industrial societies has been a recognized issue since the nineteenth century, the physical culture movement emerged as a response to that issue, and what we are pleased to call cultural progress since that time has undercut the response and made the situation significantly worse, but this doesn’t fit the sort of historical narrative most of us prefer. The tacit amputation of the past is a neat solution to that difficulty.

The second reason, which is closely related to the first, is that from its beginning, the physical culture movement took a critical stance toward the products of industry and the lifestyles made possible by the extravagant use of fossil fuels. That expressed itself in a great many obvious ways – Jack Lalanne’s trademark habit of teaching people to exercise using simple household items instead of expensive apparatus, and his insistence on leaving most industrially processed foods out of the diet, are classic examples – but it also ran right down to the root assumptions of the whole movement. The core idiom of modern industrial society, after all, is the replacement of human capacities with gaudy technological crutches; we buy cars as substitutes for feet, televisions as substitutes for imagination, and so on.

Physical culture focused instead on developing the innate, extraordinary capacities hardwired into the human individual. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when a great many people were deeply concerned about the consequences of human dependence on an industrial technostructure, that was an exhilarating prospect, and it’s no accident that the most famous stunts of the more colorful physical culturists very often took the form of an unassisted human body accomplishing some feat usually left to machines. These days most of us have surrendered to the technostructure so completely that we try to avoid thinking of the downside of that surrender, and spectacles that astonished and delighted our great-grandparents make today’s audiences uncomfortable and bored. How many people would turn out nowadays to watch the Mighty Atom tie horseshoes into knots? We’ve all seen fancier things done with CGI, and CGI allows us to avoid the awkward and quite explicit subtext of the Mighty Atom’s demonstrations, which was that anybody who was willing to do the necessary work could accomplish the same thing – or, for that matter, very nearly anything else.

That brings up the third reason why Jack Lalanne had to be presented as a unique, eccentric, and therefore harmless figure, rather than the last major public exponent of a movement that invited everyone’s participation. His accomplishments, like those of the great physical culturists before him, depended on something utterly unmentionable in contemporary industrial culture. It’s more strictly tabooed than sex or death or the total dependence of today’s middle-class American lifestyles on Third World slave labor. Yes, we’re talking about self-discipline.

It’s an interesting wrinkle of history that imperial societies in decline normally fear what’s left of their virtues far more than they fear their vices. James Francis’ useful 1994 study Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World chronicles how Rome’s rulers found the reasoned self-discipline taught by Stoic and Platonic philosophies an unendurable challenge to their authority. You can find similar conflicts in the history of imperial China, the Muslim world, or, really, wherever the decline of imperial states is well enough documented. The reason behind these conflicts is simple enough: people who are ruled by their passions and appetites can be ruled just as efficiently by any political system willing to pander to those things, while those who control themselves can’t reliably be controlled by anyone else. Thus the Roman government regularly sent Rome’s philosophers into exile, failing Chinese dynasties praised Confucius to the skies while doing away with anybody who took his teachings too seriously, and modern America uses every trick in the media’s book to marginalize those who remind us that the life of a channel-surfing couch potato might not express the highest potentials of our humanity.

The taboo on self-discipline in contemporary America is all the more intriguing because just at the moment, sadomasochism has become the hottest new fad on the American left. Connoisseurs of the return of the repressed have much to appreciate in the spectacle of a subculture that claims to place an absolute value on human equality, but is busily getting its rocks off by acting out fantasies in which male dominance and female submission are far and away the most popular themes. Still, I suspect that part of what set this fad in motion is an inchoate but widespread sense that there are whole worlds of human possibility that can’t be reached by drifting along aimlessly and doing whatever seems easiest at the moment. Those who have that sense and are unable to conceive of self-mastery inevitably seek masters elsewhere; we will be very fortunate indeed if that quest goes no further than latex lingerie and a fashion for wearing leather collars.

However that process works out, though, Jack Lalanne and the movement that gave him his context have another lesson to teach that will be of key importance in the decades to come. The replacement of human capacities with technological crutches that provides industrial society with its central idiom depends utterly on the ability of industrial society to keep itself fueled with the energy resources that keep those crutches powered, supplied with spare parts, and replaced when they break down. As we move further into the twilight space beyond the world peak of conventional petroleum production, the ability to keep those resources flowing as abundantly as current expectations demand is coming into question. Those nations with the power to push their way to the head of the petroleum feeding trough are doing so with even more alacrity than before, while those shoved back to the end of the line are increasingly facing crippling energy shortages. Within nations, those classes and pressure groups with a similar preponderance of power are behaving in much the same way, with similar results.

The instinctive response to these struggles is generally to get right down there into the mud-wrestling pit and fight for a share. A more effective strategy, though, might well take the opposite tack. When a resource is depleting and no plausible replacement for it is in sight, staying dependent on that resource is a fool’s game; even if you win this round, sooner or later you’re going to lose, and time that could have been spent learning to function without the resource has been wasted floundering around in the mud. Phase out your dependence on the resource before you have to do so, recognizing that the actual requirements of human existence are quite modest and can be met in many different ways, and you put yourself in a much better position for the future.

Over the weeks to come, as this blog returns to the nitty gritty of the Green Wizards project, we’ll be discussing various ways to cut back on dependence on fossil fuels and the goods and services they provide. Much of the material to be covered in the posts to come will involve tools and devices of various kinds – most of them cheap, many of them suited to basement-workshop manufacture, all of them means toward a certain degree of independence from the vagaries of an industrial civilization that faces a rising spiral of crises and an increasing lack of ability to provide its inhabitants with the goods and services they have become used to getting from it. Still, it’s too often forgotten that the vast majority of the energy and technology most of us use each day goes to provide support of various kinds for an individual human body and mind. If that body and mind require less support from outside their own boundaries, there’s less need for the energy and technology in the first place. When every other source of power runs short, that’s the power that remains.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you ought to break out the Indian clubs and kettlebells and download a couple of old physical culture manuals off the internet, or for that matter pick up an old Jack Lalanne book or two, though I certainly wouldn’t discourage anybody who chooses to do this; there’s a certain definite attraction, after all, in the prospect of reaching one’s nineties with the kind of physique and vitality that most thirty-year-olds only dream about. What it means, rather, is that a certain capacity to cope with physical challenges, take over responsibility for your own health, and get by comfortably in most situations without a great deal of technological assistance, are all useful items in the toolkit of anyone who hopes to face the difficult years ahead with any degree of efficiency and grace. How you choose to pursue that is up to you, but however you do it, if you do it, I suspect that Sandow, Stebbins, the Mighty Atom, and all their sturdy peers – Jack Lalanne very much among them – would be pleased.