Sapientia Corporis

So my sister sent me the link to this YouTube video, and I've been watching it on and off all day as I sat at my desk making lists of manuscripts. It's called "Strength in Poland." [Although, as I've now learned, the men are actually from Hungary and their act is called "Golden Power."] If you haven't seen it yet, go look.

Amazing, aren't they? The first time I watched them, I started feeling impatient. Why were they moving so SLOWLY? The next time I started to realize how truly amazing it was that they could stay so STILL, almost as if they weren't moving at all. The third (or maybe fourth) time I started watching the breath on the man who is doing the lifts (look at his stomach) and realized for all his stillness how very hard he is working. There is a good reason that the YouTube post has the title that it does: that opening lift must take enormous strength for how slowly they go; much more so than the equally impressive but rather more dynamic lifts that these men use. (I'll wait while you watch the second pair.)

How many times did you watch this second video just now? It's curious, because the first time, one is simply in awe. How does he do that back-handspring so effortlessly onto his partner's hands? Neither of these men look particularly strong, at least compared to the other pair, but clearly they must be in order to be able to do the stunts that they do. Go watch again, I'll wait.... So, are you still as impressed? It's curious, because I'm not. Not now that I've watched both videos several more times. The moves start seeming ever more artificial and staged (acrobats always have trouble with what to do in between stunts; they're not really dancing and the poses look silly), and by and by you start wondering why, regardless of how impressive the moves are, grown men would clearly practice as much as they need to in order to be able to execute them.

And then, if you watch "Strength in Poland" a few more times (less so the "Duo Iroshnikov", probably only because they're clothed; watch them a few more times, then the effect will be the same), you start becoming a little embarrassed, at least I did, at the sheer bodiliness of the whole performance. Watch it again if you don't see what I mean.... There, were you able to think about anything other than the fact that these were two BODIES? Look at their muscles, breath, hands, feet, legs, arms, elbows, knees, groins, chests, skin. Are these human beings or not? Okay, so maybe the fact that they're gold is a little off-putting; perhaps these are gods who have taken on flesh, much as the Greeks seem to have imagined them through their statues.

And yet, like statues, they do not speak nor (I am sure with great effort) do they allow their faces to show the work that their bodies are doing. Fencers have much the same effect on their audience given the masks that we wear; once the mask goes down, suddenly, there is no longer a person with whom one might speak confronting you on the strip (and, indeed, we are not allowed to speak during the action of a bout, at least not in competition), only a body. What is a person with no voice and no face but only muscles and movement?

I've actually thought a lot about this in the context of learning to fence as compared with the work that I do at the university as a professor. In my classes, my students have, for all intents and purposes, bodies only insofar as they are physically present in the room. Otherwise, I interact with them solely through their faces and voices (and their hands, but only as signals that they would like to speak). Since they are usually seated in class, I often have no idea even how tall they are relative to me or each other. I can see them and hear them but I cannot touch them; they might be only faces and voices for all I know, at least in the context of our classroom discussion.

On the strip, matters are more or less exactly reversed. At least while we are fencing, I cannot see my opponent's face except dimly through the mesh of the mask. He or she is only a body, moving towards or away from me, that I am trying to hit--or, rather, touch--with the tip of my foil. That body responds only to my body, not to what I am saying or expressing with my face. We are, for the duration of the bout, in a conversation without words.

What is it that bodies as bodies can say?* Go watch the videos again (it really does help if you keep watching over and over). Is there a message here? The fourth or fifth time I watched, the thing I started thinking about was how, no matter how impressed those people in the audience must have been as they watched these men do things most of them could never dream of doing, they more than likely went home somewhat dissatisfied, for what had they learned? That bodies can be stronger than they imagined? That it is possible to balance on someone's head using only one hand? Is this knowledge? Is it wisdom? Or is it only spectacle?

Okay, so by now I hope you're thinking something like, "Who does she think she is? She couldn't do any of the things those men do, not even a handstand for more than a few seconds. Where does she get off saying that their performance isn't impressive?" And you'd be right. But think about it, unless you are yourself a professional athlete or performer, what would you pay more to learn: something expressed in words or something that you can practice only in the body? I'll pause again while you calculate your college tuition and compare it against what you've paid for yoga classes or fencing lessons or training in any other bodily practice, be it dancing or sport.**

How is it that the wisdom that it takes in order to balance one's body perfectly on another's hands or to know when and at what tempo to make an attack is less valued, in monetary terms, at least, than the wisdom it takes to discuss a text or solve a mathematical problem? Perhaps it is because things that we do in the body (like fencing or acrobatics) are so radically in and of themselves; they exist only so long as we are doing them. They cannot, like ideas that we express in words, have effects beyond their performance as physical actions.

To be sure, we may pay to watch other people do amazing things with their bodies, but unless we ourselves take up the practice, we cannot access what they know simply by watching. And indeed, this is what I actually saw the first, second, third, fourth and fifth time I watched the videos: extraordinary wisdom of balance and strength that only bodies can know, beyond words. I am pretty sure there is an analogy here, but I can't quite put my finger on it. Or can I?

*I'm not thinking about the gestures that we use while speaking here; just movements like the acrobats or fencers make.
**And, okay, yes, I know some professional and varsity coaches are paid enormous amounts for training their athletes, but I'm guessing here that more people reading this have attended college so as to learn to do things with their minds than with their bodies, even if they were athletes. All coaches out there in sports other than football, basketball or baseball, you should probably be asking for a raise.


  1. Despite the serious faces I think actually the gold men are having great fun. Only through play do we learn how to do the extraordinary--that which is out of the ordinary.
    (check out the reply spoof Re:Strength in Poland on YouTube)
    And perhaps on repeated viewing, one starts to see the performance as something practiced, esp. if you see the same choreography in a different venue. Like seeing the magician has techniques, the tricks don't just happen.
    Also, simply watching others do a task, perform a skill, sets of mirror neurons afiring. And these neurons are firing AS IF the observer was actually doing the act itself.
    You can learn (some, not all obviously) by watching.
    And what have I paid for all my play and dance, etc?
    Well, likely due to the UT system and the oil revenues, I paid more for ballet than college... even through my Masters.
    And what did I get?
    Through hard (a lot!) work, a lot of joy. Pure joy.

  2. Thanks! I actually agree with you--I think they are having fun. Maybe I need a way of marking "read all of this ironically" when I'm trying to push us to rethink our assumptions. Note the point where I say, "And you'd be right" about how obnoxious I'm being by saying I'm not impressed. The point is to challenge our usual ranking of mind over body, not valorize it. I do this to my students a lot by asking them questions posing exactly the opposite of what I think first so that they have something to react to.


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