Last week, I was in the Columbia gym. Walking up the stairs to the women’s locker room, talking about the possibility of cutting the time for my half-mile swim to fifteen minutes, I listened to my friend: “Ten years ago we were protesting the construction of this gym. Now, nobody would care if Columbia burned Harlem down as long as everyone had a place to jog.”
In 1968, one of the issues Columbia students struck over was the construction of the new gym. It was seen as yet another example of the powerful, white elite (I think we called them the Establishment then—or maybe by that time only they called themselves that, thinking that was what we called them) diverting funds toward the pampering of the privileged. “The Community” was to have only limited access to the gym; people from the community would have to enter by a separate door. This was seen as yet another example of large institutions using the blacks and the poor and denying them access to the fruits of their land and their labor.
If 1968 was the year of the barricades, 1978 is the year of the runner. Perhaps in despair of changing the outside world, or even the immediate community, people have decided to cultivate their gardens. It was not a dramatic step from “mind expansion” to “sensitivity training.” And sensitivity training led to the self-actualization movement: once you knew who you were, you could start becoming better at it.
But now, all these movements have taken an interesting turn. The garden everyone is cultivating is the body. The latest American obsessions are food and exercise. I suppose they have always been American obsessions, but they used to be more innocent. People used to like to watch other people be athletic; there was a lot of real conviviality out there in the stands. There is little conviviality among runners. The otherworldly glow in the eye of someone who has given up Ring-Dings for alfalfa sprouts, the Friday night fights for a daily squash game, takes part of its luster from the fire that kindled the hearts of the saints. They know they are better than you. They are saved; you are damned to an eternity of high blood pressure, fat, and arteries that harden out of season. But what are they saved for?
Food freaks are a colony of philosophes compared to born-again athletes. Conversation about one’s pulse rate is even more distasteful than conversation about one’s favorite health food. But both require a self-absorption that people used to consider unseemly. There are a lot of reasons why our present phase of body-consciousness had to follow the overactive Sixties. The Sixties could be very hard on the body; all the late nights, the junk food for the Revolution, and particularly the drugs that were a mandatory part of the good life then did not leave everyone undamaged. The new emphasis on physical health may be an attempt to repair …