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Meet the Existentialist Bodybuilder
‘Powerlifting gave me the butt of my dreams. It also taught me about death.’
When you lift weights enough to look like you lift weights, people have all sorts of questions.
“How much you bench?” (As much as I can.) “What gym do you go to?” (The one that’s open when I go.) “What program are you on?” (Time, dragging us all toward the void as we claw the dirt.) Questions usually stop there.
Programs. Plans. Training. Goals. We’ve come up with a lot of concepts and structures designed to imbue our workouts with a sense of purpose and make the act of repeatedly lifting weights feel like less than a literal exercise in absurdity. Some of them work; most of them don’t — not because the plans are bad, but because we are human and we fail ourselves.
Over the past 10 years or so — as fitness has become our national pastime and preoccupation — I’ve undergone a transformation that has not only bestowed upon me 50 extra pounds of body weight, a butt that (if I may speak for it) refuses to quit, and a new and omnipresent (by my husband’s reporting) cumin-esque musk, but also a not-necessarily-motivational mind-set about what it is I’m doing at the gym, why I go, what program I am indeed on.
If I’ve learned anything after a solid decade in the gym (apart from the observation that the most terrifying part of a straight man’s day appears to be the three seconds between removing one’s towel and pulling up one’s underwear), it’s that the best way to get shredded is to fully embrace failure, futility, weakness, absurdity, and our only certainty, the steady advance of death.
Nihilist pep talks make for iffy fitness gurus, I understand. But I have my reasons. And like the doomed and heavily burdened King Sisyphus and his own futile push into eternity, my story starts at the bottom of a hill.
It was eight years ago, early morning on the last day of Bear Week in Provincetown, Mass. I was cruising (in this case I mean rolling freely on a bicycle) down a steep stretch of Bradford St. when my front wheel struck a particularly slick and non-figurative manhole.
I lost control, flew over the handlebars, and broke my fall with my face and hands. A small crowd gathered in front of the leather bar.
If you want to experience true theater of the absurd, go to the gym.
The sensations of the accident are still vivid: the chalky crack of my front tooth against the hot pavement, the fresh spike of snapped bone stretching the sunburned skin of my forearm, the warm blood from my forehead splashing off the tip of my nose, the chaos of my cells determining which fuck-up to fix first.
But the two months of recovery following the crash are a bit more blurry. I spent most of my time on the couch, my two casts propped up on a pair of tiny IKEA tables, waiting for my bones to fuse around my new screws and plates, and riding the oxycodone snake to the ancient lake, etc.
To pass the time, I’d stare into three-hour episodes of “Big Brother After Dark” (an oddly charming terrarium of douchebags), or I’d greet the top of every hour by sobbing through the reveals of a seemingly endless marathon of “What Not to Wear” (oxy is a hell of a drug).
But when my eyes would start to glaze, or when the plots of “NCIS” started blending together (hard to imagine, I know), I’d attempt to read.
Novels were too dense to look at, poetry too diffuse to parse, but a box of plays I had from my days in the existential trenches of grad school — particularly a stack of one-acts by Samuel Beckett — were sparse enough in both typesetting and meaning that I could drift in and out of them like a heavily medicated ghost.
But rather than transport me from my broken body, Beckett — over and over again — reminded me that I was inseparable, even indistinguishable from it. I can think of no other author more adept at making his readers feel more like sentient sacks of meat.
I saw myself in Krapp of “Krapp’s Last Tape,” pitifully playing and replaying the moment everything changed for the worse for my own consumption. I saw myself in Didi and/or Gogo of “Waiting for Godot,” numbly longing for something I couldn’t identify and that might never arrive to fix me.
But most of all I saw myself in Hamm — whose very name signals spoiling meat — from Beckett’s grim buddy-tragicomedy “Endgame.” Blind, bound to his chair, constantly calling out for his pain pills (it’s unclear if they cause it or cure it), Hamm spends his life (?) in the play awaiting some force of will or nature to move him elsewhere.
“If I could drag myself down to the sea,” he declares, “I’d make a pillow of sand for my head and the tide would come.” (Same.)
Beckett’s plays weren’t exactly a Get Well Soon card, but it was easy to identify with his characters in my busted state, with their formless, gormless existences, and mutually agreed-upon helplessness.
But when my casts were finally sawed off and the excruciating second act of my recovery began, all of that resignation I once heard in Beckett’s writing started, strangely enough, to register as the sweet music of realism.
My grueling twice-weekly physical therapy sessions felt like the other kind of therapy, where pushing through pain cleared the only path forward, and often led to weepy revelations.
Squeezing balls of colored putty until tears streamed down my face, or forcing my rigid wrist to bend ever so slightly over the edge of the table, or touching my thumb to each fingertip as if tabulating a meaningless, unending total — every painful gesture felt like an articulation of the absurd. Stage directions from Beckett himself.
And as the elastic bands grew thicker, and the turquoise 2-lb weights grew to 5 lbs., 10 lbs., 20 and beyond, and as those dumbbells turned into barbells, and as my numbers went up and as moving against resistance shifted from grim necessity into daily routine, I found myself frequently recruiting Beckett — and his adjacent ilk of existentialist philosophers and composers — as a crack team of unwitting (and likely unwilling) personal trainers.
After a few months, I also found myself getting jacked; i.e., at odds with the rational world.
If you ever want to experience true theater of the absurd, go to the gym.
There you will see machines designed to make their very purposes more difficult. You will see armies of the exhausted running in place, up an endless staircase to nowhere, around and around in a simulated loop. You’ll see objective failures boldly recast as extraordinary triumphs. You may even spot the occasional rhino charging through.
Sometimes the ethos of the gym and the emptiness of the absurd can be too close for comfort.
Take “Fail better,” Beckett’s long-echoing utterance from his 1983 story “Worstward Ho!,” which for years has been co-opted by CrossFitters, entrepreneurs, and memesmiths as some kind of bite-size adage for above-average go-getters.
You’ll spot it emblazoned across motivational jpegs, mugs, and tank tops — contexts that suggest Beckett was tooting a whistle and toting a clipboard, assuring his readers “You can do it, tiger!”
Alas, much like Beckett’s other widely abducted and misunderstood aphorism “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” (from “The Unnameable”), neither phrase was intended to stoke a fire in the belly so much as a churning in the gut. The message wasn’t and isn’t that you can go on, or can’t, or even that you should.
Beckett is clear: It makes absolutely no difference either way.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter,” he wrote. “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” That is, knock yourself out, or let life do it for you. What program are you on?
The gym can be off-putting enough without the expectation that you actually accomplish something there.
One of the many things said (and repeated) over the course of Gertrude Stein’s monstrous, nearly unreadable (but great if you can!) masterpiece “The Making of Americans” has stuck with me since I first attempted to read it. “Resisting being is one way of being.”
Gert likely wasn’t referring to her workout regimen. More likely she was invoking a mode of living — actively, consciously, livingly — against the certainty that we’re dying. The making of Americans was, to Stein, a process of accumulation and erosion, repetition and reduction, construction and collapse, of never not being in the midst of making.
And if we accept the cold, creeping advance of death as a given (as Stein would agree we should), “fitness” itself feels like contemporary branding for a “resisting being.” Lifting, then—in the Steinian participle sense—becomes a performative defiance of the inevitable, in Lycra.
Albert Camus might have called it “revolting” (the lifting, not the Lycra).
In his 1942 essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus takes up the tale of the king of Ephyra — doomed to an eternity unsuccessfully pushing a boulder up an impossible hill — as a means to confront the ultimate philosophical quandary: What, beyond suicide, is the rational response to our confinement in an absurd existence?
For Camus, the answer — and “one of the only coherent philosophical positions” — is revolt, which he defines as “a constant confrontation between man and his obscurity.” Sisyphus’s hopeless endeavour of pushing the boulder is noble, but his failure is divine.
“That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness,” he writes. “At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.”
Suicide struck Camus as a form of “acceptance in the extreme,” but revolt — i.e. “resisting being” — is what “gives life its value”:
The absurd man can only drain everything to the bitter end and deplete himself. The absurd is his extreme tension, which he maintains constantly by solitary effort, for he knows that in that consciousness and in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth, which is defiance.
Try fitting that on a string tank!
The gym, which can lately seem like a preserve for endangered alphas with beards and tall socks, can be off-putting enough without the expectation that you actually accomplish something there.
But if you can allow yourself to be led by Beckett, or coached by Camus, in full acceptance of the futility of any mission that tries to slow time’s roll (and if you can stop worrying about what you look like in your shorts), you can learn to let the revolt become the reward.
That’s not meant to be a pretty way of saying channel your existential rage into blasted quads. It’s a way of rejecting the self-defeating, goal-focused, failure-phobic, before-and-after, obsessive-compulsive demands that “fitness” forces us to address in favor of an approach centered on starting at the bottom of a hill and finding failure, every day. The blasted quads are just a nice side effect.
“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,” wrote Camus. “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” And somehow, despite everything we know about everything, we must imagine ourselves happy too.
Going to the gym, I regret to inform you, is pointless. But so is not. Which leaves you with a choice. And that right there is the heavy lifting of humanity.