Via Activa


First Person

When physical fitness meets the literary life.

From a poster for the Works Progress Administration’s Recreation Project, ca. 1936.

Young people are a mess. They eat the crappiest fast food, make a point of drinking only to excess, barely sleep, indulge in all sorts of chemicals—and yet, given even a modicum of activity, their bodies bounce back with all the manic exuberance of a Super Ball in a many-angled room. Growing up, I made a thorough test of this proposition. Through high school and college, I neither participated in team sports (unless you count the bong-hit team) nor pursued any type of systematic exercise, and in fact I don’t recall anyone ever suggesting that doing so might be beneficial. What kept me from the obesity that has become epidemic among children today was a fast metabolism and sporadic bursts of movement: I was an avid skier, over the fifteen-odd days a year that skiing was possible for a kid growing up in Maryland; and on occasion I’d play tennis, go hiking, or ride my bicycle. 

It was at The Paris Review, in the nineties, that I became alienated from my physical existence, and where we became reacquainted. At our worst, my cohorts and I at the magazine emulated the wasted waif aesthetic of the time, and gave no thought to improving or maintaining ourselves physically. We thought of ourselves as living the life of the mind. At our best, we emulated the Review‘s founder and editor, George Plimpton, who, I now see, was an exemplar of a mid-twentieth-century ideal of vigorous masculinity. He was athletic enough for journalistic stunts, like playing quarterback for the Detroit Lions, boxing against Archie Moore, standing in as goalie in a hockey game, and taking a few turns on a circus trapeze, all of which he recounted in brilliantly hilarious books. His was an ethos of play—of recreation rather than training. And so he maintained a strong tennis game well into his sixties; he liked bird watching; he never took a taxi or the subway (let alone drove a car) when he could bike instead. But running or lifting weights, anything that might unduly spike the heart rate or tax the muscles, was out of the question: they would have interfered with the nightly revelry. The most charming of men, George was world-famous as a host. Planeloads of people flew in from every part of the globe for the parties he threw several times a week. And when George wasn’t hosting, we—the handful of us, all in our twenties, who worked at the Review—followed him like a column of ducklings out into the Manhattan night, to book parties, benefit galas, random birthday parties, intimate soirees, movie premieres, or just to a bar to get sloshed. To a kid from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and even to the metropolitan sophisticates among us, who had gone from Park Avenue to Harvard before returning to the city, our life was impossibly glamorous and exciting. We spent our nights seeded among the beau monde of famous writers, actors, TV personalities, politicians, and socialites. And with them we poured gallons of scotch down our gullets; we snorted drugs; we smoked cigarettes and pot. George, however, was not just some empty bon vivant. In fact, he had an ingrained Protestant work ethic: no matter how deep into the night he dove, he always surfaced on cue, waking each morning to put in a full day of writing and editing.

I was less resilient.

For a period, George hosted weekly Friday-night tennis matches at one of the clubs he belonged to. Then pushing seventy, he bounced through games with vim, while I, in my late twenties, was dismayed at how easily winded I became, playing doubles no less, a game I’d always thought of as being for the geriatric set. By then a flight of stairs would leave me bent over with a tubercular wheeze; I felt incapable of carrying around much more than a gin and tonic. The reason for my physical degeneration was that for the previous decade I’d lived almost entirely in my head: writing, reading, editing, looking at art, thinking. But also smoking a pack or more a day, drinking every night, and consuming way too many powdered drugs. My body had become a trash depot. Healthy eating meant a burger from the deli rather than McDonald’s or perhaps some green peppers on my pizza. Like many people at that invulnerable age, I gave almost no thought to my body. Or worse, I had a romantic view of my sorry physical state: I was an artist, a bohemian; dissipation came with the role.

For someone so enthralled with thought, I am, in retrospect, puzzled by my failure to reflect on the basic assumption on which my existence was based—that the mind and body sleep in separate bedrooms, leading their own lives. I might have considered that the brain is part of the body, that the two are in fact one: if you’re treating yourself like a sewer, you’re bathing your brain in shit. I’ve since come to understand that the old canard about choosing between the life of the body and the life of the mind (a bastardized version of the ancient and more valid distinction between the via activa and the via contemplativa, the active, political life versus the contemplative way) sets up a false distinction. It’s a bias based on the assumption that energy expended physically must be deducted from our mental account. Contrary to what I believed in high school, jocks need not be stupid, while eggheads, to the extent that they deny their physical lives, are fools.

In the New York literary world of the nineties, almost everyone—though not George—remained still gleefully stuck in that high school mentality. We thought physical culture was an oxymoron (with the emphasis on moron—we preferred our oxy with contin). That’s not to say we were inactive: we had endlessly rechargeable batteries when it came to carousing. George had an extraordinary constitution—up to a point. When his lifestyle finally exacted a toll on his health, it was steep: he died at the comparatively young age of seventy-six. But it certainly wasn’t only George or my own slide into dissipation that prompted me to consider a change. When the anchorman Peter Jennings, who was a close friend of George and someone in whose excellent company I spent a fair amount of time, was diagnosed with cancer, I had before me the example of an athletic guy felled by cigarettes. And Jennings represented not only New York to me but also mountain life: he was a strong skier. Several times each year I flew out to Utah and tried to keep up with a posse of hard-core snow addicts, but now a day on the slopes crippled me, battering my legs into useless appendages and burning through what lung tissue I had left.

Eventually, my wider circle of friends, people who had taken heroin chic all too literally, began to succumb to their bad habits. Several close friends died of overdoses; others were carted off to rehab. Each departure left a ghostly residue of questions and bewilderment. Perhaps, rather than living the life of the mind as I had believed, I was in actuality living a mindlessly self-destructive physical existence.

One morning, while trying to manage the trick of vomiting into a toilet without moving so much as a millimeter, because every twitch was like a hammer striking the gong of my migraine, sending ripples of pain through my limbs and eyeballs, it dawned on me that the state of your body isn’t something you either choose to care about or leave be, for your body never just is—it is always either decaying or getting stronger. Not choosing is still a choice.

In retrospect, although he was certainly a participant in our Dionysian revels, it was George who also caused me to change into the person I am today—one who’s asleep before the festivities begin. George had a way of turning his friends into outsized heroes in the ongoing screenplay of our lives: in our forays into the night, he invariably introduced me as a world-class or—even more embarrassing—world-famous skier. At the time I thought his hyperbole was just another facet of his exceptional generosity, but now I suspect there was an element of goading in it. To buffer my embarrassment, I began to try to live up to this image of me as an athlete that he’d created, and it is in that effort that I locate the transformation of my outlook. It is consonant, too, with what I’ve learned about the history of fitness. We all need an ideal to aspire to, whether it be the statue of a hero-athlete in ancient Greece, a photographic postcard of a strongman in the late nineteenth century, a video on Instagram, or an ideal version of yourself lofted by a mentor.

This essay is adapted from the introduction to Lift: Fitness Culture, from Naked Greeks and Acrobats to Jazzercise and Ninja Warriors, out now from Harper Wave

Daniel Kunitz has served as editor in chief of Modern Painters as well as an editor at The Paris Review and Details. His writing has appeared in Vanity Fair, Harper’s Magazine, and New York. He is also an avid CrossFitter and weight lifter. He lives in New York City.