The Case of the Skeptical Pragmatist

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston
Ernest Hemingway in Key West, Florida

These are dark times for the humanities, or so we are often told. We have had the melancholy litany drilled into us: the best students are gravitating to the sciences; funding for nonscientific research is drying up; good jobs are scarce for graduates with degrees in English or art history. Ah, Bartleby! Ah, the humanities! So shrill are the jeremiads that one might think the fate of humanity itself is somehow at stake in the decline of English departments. Amid so much ritualistic handwringing, it is encouraging to come across the work of a young scholar that offers clear-eyed insight into the origins of the current malaise, while also exemplifying what a fresh contribution to humanistic study might look like today.

Mark Greif graduated summa cum laude from Harvard in 1997, attended graduate school at Oxford and Yale, and teaches at the New School. He is a founding editor of n+1, the lively and serious-minded magazine of culture and opinion described by another of its editors, Keith Gessen, as “like Partisan Review, except not dead.” Greif’s much-noticed essay “Against Exercise” appeared in the inaugural issue; he has since written smart and sharply faceted pieces on such varied topics as the rock band Radiohead, the rebirth of the hipster, and the philosophy of Stanley Cavell, one of Greif’s teachers.

Reprinted in Harper’s and included in The Best American Essays 2005, “Against Exercise” derides the American obsession with fitness, which turns the gym into a “voluntary hospital” of heart monitors and stress tests. “Were ‘In the Penal Colony’ to be written today,” the essay begins, “Kafka could only be speaking of an exercise machine.” More than Greif’s title recalls Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation,” another defense of pleasure and the private life against the inroads of quantification and puritanical moralizing. “Running is most insidious because of its way of taking proselytizing out of the gym,” Greif observes, in his distinctive blend of outrage and high comedy:

It is a direct invasion of public space. It lays the counting, the pacing, the controlled frenzy, the Famíliar undergarment-outergarments and skeletal look, on top of the ordinary practice of an outdoor walk. One thing that can be said for a gym is that an implied contract links everyone who works out in its mirrored and pungent hangar. All consent to undertake separate exertions and hide any mutual regard, as in a well-ordered masturbatorium. The gym is in this sense more polite than the narrow riverside, street, or nature path, wherever runners take over shared places for themselves. With his speed and narcissistic intensity the runner corrupts the space of walking, thinking, talking, and everyday contact. He jostles the idler out of his reverie. He races between pedestrians in conversation. The runner can oppose sociability and solitude by publicly sweating on them.…

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