Sunday, August 12, 2012

On Proust and My New Olympic Body Aesthetic

The aesthetic of the "Olympic body" dates from the beginning of the sporting event itself in Ancient Greece.   Certainly, the experience of a physical aesthetic is an abstraction of reason, emotion, and instinct.  We might not all agree on which Olympic body best represents our personal tastes - or even if that the bodies are attractive at all.

I am somewhat athletic.  I jog regularly.  I do light weight workouts.  Lots of stretching exercises.  I used to play tennis and softball.  I would not say I have an athletic mindset.  My focus on nutrition, for example, is more with regard longevity and prevention rather than enhancing strength and performance.  But, while I would certainly not call myself an athlete, I am nevertheless drawn to athletic types.  My first girlfriend was a lifeguard.  My wife plays a lot of competitive tennis and goes to state tournaments.  There were several similar stories in between.

In past years, I have generally looked forward to watching the gymnastics events in the Summer Olympics.  I think gymnastics is the most athletically demanding of all sports.  It requires equally outstanding prowess of strength and gracefulness.  The American Olympic Gymnastics Team performed terrifically at the 2012 London Olympics.  Watching their bodies and talents in competition was wonderful, such great form.

It reminded me of a passage from Proust that impresses me in his long novel.  When, as a late teen, the narrator meets a grouping of late teen girls at an elite beach resort of the French coast, he describes the experience as follows...

“…thanks either to its growing wealth and leisure, or to new sporting habits, now prevalent even among certain elements of the working class, and a physical culture to which had not yet been added the culture of mind, a social group comparable to the smooth and prolific schools of sculpture which have not yet gone in for tortured expression, produces naturally, and in abundance, fine bodies, fine legs, fine hips, wholesome, serene faces, with an air of agility and guile.  And were they not noble and calm models of human beauty that I beheld there, outlined against the sea, like statues exposed to the sunlight on a Grecian shore?”  (Proust, Within a Budding Grove, page 506)
The Olympic bodies I saw these past couple of weeks are in the spirit of Proust's description of an aesthetic experience.  But, this year it was not the gymnasts that impressed me most.  I found the pole-vaulters and the long jumpers to be more attractive.  But, beyond them, the divers truly caught my eye and sensibilities.

Both male and female athletes displayed the most splendid bodies (though their faces sometime looked pretty rediculous in certain dives).  Their frequent, brief, dives into water seemed more like moments of sculptured flight.  It was more than a sport to me.  It was an Art form.  Several divers cauight my eye.  Mexico's Paola Espinosa and China's Wu Minxia are great examples.  Of particular note, for me, was Brittany Viola.

Brittany is a good Olympic story because, like the vast majority of athletes participating in London 2012, she did not win a medal.  She advanced to the semi-finals in the 10-meters.  Then she failed to qualify for the finals.  End of her Olympic story, this time.

But, all that conditioning and practice that she put into her art/sport, was so evident on her body.  The Proust quote above applies, to me, directly to her.  She is at the summit of human physical suppleness and symmetry.

Though, as I said, you might find another athlete to have stronger aesthetic appeal, it would only be a different version of the same appeal I experience when I watch Brittany in performance.   Which, of course, recalls my understanding of Platonic Beauty in a previous post.

Of course, Brittany did not train to possess Beauty.  She trained to win at competition.  But, the wonderful by-product of her scientific and disciplined approach to her sport, is that not only does she possess a wonderful body but she gets to display it in a one-piece bathing suit that is, by most standards of western culture, a sexy accessory.

Objectification One
I read recently where there is a fundamental difference in western culture over how the general population views the body of a man versus the body of a woman.  Most people always see the man's body as a whole.  But, we tend to view the woman only in her objectified parts, exactly as Proust did to a large extent in the passage above.
Objectification Two

She has wonderful calf muscles and thighs.  Her feet are perfect.  The curve of her side, her breasts, shoulder, toned arms, face, hair, etc. are all accessible in a way that we generally do not achieve with him.  A "him" might have great abs or biceps or chest.  His legs, in their way, could be as fit and symmetrically appealing as hers, but we apparently do not see him as easily this way.  It is, perhaps, our cultural prejudice toward a woman that allows us to take parts of her instead of the whole.
Objectification Three

But, when Brittany Viola was diving, I saw all of her.  The dive itself, with the physical contortions and crispness and precision, made her athletic body a piece of installation art for a brief time as it fell into water with a regimented fashion that seemed, for her, a natural extension of herself.  That was a simple wonder to behold even if it didn't win a thing.
Brittany Viola performing an Olympic dive.

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