Taylor: Working out the passions

“Please do not expectorate in the drinking fountain.” This is the genial greeting you receive as you take a drink in the “Ace” Israel Fitness Center in the Payne Whitney Gymnasium. Typical Yalie multi-tasking — hydrate while beefing up your vocabulary.

As it happens, the Oxford English Dictionary has a delightfully vivid definition of “expectorate,” namely, “To eject, discharge (phlegm, etc.) from the chest or lungs by coughing, hawking, or spitting.” From the Latin root “pectus,” chest.

The immediate question, of course — besides the identity of the Victorian novelist composing Payne Whitney’s advertisements — is what provoked the public notice against the ejection of chest-harbored phlegm into the water fountain. Or rather, who provoked it. I prefer to imagine a prim, petite young woman wearing pink tennis shoes and hawking like there’s no tomorrow.

It’s a brief stroll from the fountain to the bench presses. Men grunt as they bounce bars off their chests. Across from them is the cardio crowd, whose stationary loping sometimes takes on the look of hamsters spinning on their wheels. Headphones thunder everywhere in the hope of stirring up passion.

In olden times, when parts of the body were taken to correspond to faculties of the soul, the chest was considered the seat of passion. Anger, daring, fear, love — these resided in the pectus, the spirited and soldierly part of the soul. Thus the fortifications of breastbone and ribs.

But the primary function of the modern gym is not to exercise the passions — they are only a means to the end of compensating for the belly’s indulgence. A slice of Claire’s cake must be atoned for on the elliptical. Science, ideally, will free us very soon from the drudgery of physical exertion, proffering pills or appliances with acronyms like EFG (Effortless Fitness Guaranteed). But until then we spin on our hamster wheels.

The domain of appetite, in the old psycho-anatomical schema, was the belly (to which we might append the region immediately below it). Hunger, thirst, libido. These occupied the lowest totem on the psychological pole, the brutish element. At the top, naturally, was the head, the seat of reason, the angelic element. And the mediator between them was the chest.

“We should amass,” says author Annie Dillard, “half dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show.” Televisions are commonplace in the modern gym. Gourds, alas, are not. Despite the music blaring in our ears, we are a generally unexcitable bunch. Shrieks of exaltation, fits of frenzy, Tarzan-esque thumps on the chest — these would only elicit another poster: “Please forbear from passionating in the workout facility.”

A concise formulation of the old ideal holds that the head is to rule the belly through the chest. Reason, on its own, lacks the force to subdue appetite. It must train its army, the passions, to follow its orders, to conquer the belly, to feel hatred at the things that call for hatred and love at things that call for love. It was precisely this training, in fact, that constituted education.

These days, education concerns itself only with the head. The classroom is no place to tell young people how they should feel. (Let the movies do that!) “Ethics” courses deal only with arguments and syllogisms. “Value” judgments are checked at the academic door.

The result, at Yale and other colleges, is an insane bifurcation of student life. One segment of the week — in the classroom, in the library — is devoted to the mind. Another segment — at the party, in the bedroom — is devoted to appetite. The one has nothing to do with the other. Few discussions of the good life carry over the deafening clamor of the dance floor. There is no mediator to reconcile the head with the belly. The chest, untrained, unexercised, has atrophied to the point of defenselessness.

How strange it is, then, to hear the seething philippics against September’s “Scouting Report,” when the only power capable of battling unbridled libido has been chucked from the educational enterprise. How peculiar to read the calls for beauty and justice, when the classroom makes it its business to avoid the cultivation of just sentiments and to spurn any suggestion that beauty might inhere in the external world. How perplexing to witness the raging condemnations of Bernie Madoff and Mark Sanford, when the virtue of temperance has been lampooned as outdated, when the soul’s only guard against greed and lust has been stripped of its societal buttresses and abandoned to perpetual deterioration.

The Enlightenment began as an effort to liberate reason from its oppressors. It concludes with the submission of reason to appetite. We study so that we might eat well and party hard. The old formulation turns, quite literally, on its head: the belly, through the nonintervention of the chest, rules the head.

Dear moderns, let us not fool ourselves. We are not more passionate than our ancestors. We have not been delivered into an age of reason triumphant and passion unmitigated and freedom all around. Our Geist tends more and more in the direction of apathy. Something is wrong.

In olden times, when human temperaments were analyzed in terms of humors, apathy and sluggishness were ascribed to an excess of phlegm. In our time, this temperament has reached the point of cultural disease. Modernity is morbidly phlegmatic. Our chests are mucus-muddied swamplands.

But not to despair. Societal change is possible, and it begins on the level of individuals. Carry on, bench-pressers! Let your mucus be exchanged for muscle! Let your every greenish glob be expectorated into the abysmal anonymity of the drain!

Bryce Taylor is a junior in Silliman College.

Comments

  • Plato

    “The very exercises and toils which he undergoes are intended to stimulate the spirited element of his nature, and not to increase his strength; he will not, like common athletes, use exercise and regimen to develop his muscles.”