A treadmill killed Oscar Wilde. What more need be said about the relationship between exercise and wit?
To be fair, ugly wallpaper was the cause of death identified in his last words. But when he was sentenced to two years of hard labor in 1895, Wilde’s prison time included walking on the newly invented machine, “a useless but exhausting task that fitted with Victorian ideals about atonement achieved through hard work.” As he wrote in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, “We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns / And sweated on the mill.” His health was shattered by the experience and he died in exile three years after his release.
“The only possible form of exercise is to talk, not to walk.”
— Oscar Wilde
Wilde has plenty of company in the pantheon of wits who sneer at the thought of sweat. You can picture them sitting together in a high-school cafeteria, making fun of the dim-witted jocks with lines like:
“I still begrudge the trifling exertion needed to climb in and out of a bathtub, and hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense.”
— H.L. Mencken
“The only exercise I get is when I take the studs out of one shirt and put them in another.”
— Ring Lardner
Underlying all that deeply seated bluster is a firm (but not toned) belief in the Cartesian mind-body divide. They think, therefore they are high-functioning brains that happen to be propped up by lumpy flesh.
And when those sport-hating brains focus on the absurdities of exercise culture, they find easy slam dunks in the end zone:
“Just as a bank won’t lend you money unless you are too rich to need it, exercise is a pastime only for those who are already slender and physically fit.”
— Christopher Hitchens
With notable exceptions, the more perceptive wits eventually notice the meatsuit in which they are encased isn’t going anywhere. Or rather, it is slowly going downhill. They might also notice that different thoughts arise when the body is in motion, which leads to the walking wits. Fran Lebowitz, lifelong New York snob who derides the wellness industry as a form of greed —“It’s not enough for me that I’m not sick. I have to be well,” — uses her perambulations to distinguish herself from suburban tourists:
“I’ve never taken a walk just to walk. People who drive everywhere “take a walk”, but for me it’s a form of transportation.”
— Fran Lebowitz
The British writer Will Self takes his walking several thousand steps further, pointedly strolling into cities like New York and Toronto from their suburban airports because such walks are “the only form of real exploration left.”
“I like long walks, particularly when they are taken by people who annoy me.”
— Fred Allen
The best exercise regimen is provided, unsurprisingly, by P.G. Wodehouse. He lived to the age of 93 and wrote about that many books, a feat of endurance he credited to a strict routine. Each and every morning from 1919 until his death in 1975, he would perform the Daily Dozen, a set of 12 squats, stretches, and lunges. And every afternoon, according to a 1971 New Yorker profile, he would take a nice long walk.
As he explained in his autobiography Over Seventy, the goal of all that exertion was continued laziness:
“The less tonnage, the easier the heart can take it, and I am all in favour of letting my heart loaf a bit, always provided it understands that it must not stop beating.”
“Use your health even to the point of wearing it out. That is what it is for. Spend all you have before you die, and do not outlive yourself.”
— George Bernard Shaw
One of the real secrets to exercise is to not think about it: Have a daily plan, make a schedule, and, like the Nike slogan says, just do … n’t think about it. And then allocate all that extra processing power to choosing next week’s topic:
Wilde’s happier years
Wodehouse walking away
That was issue no. 185 of Get Wit Quick, an exercise that hopefully wasn’t too much of a stretch. Do I personally recommend exercise? Endorphinately! My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting weighs a few hundred grams, but it wears it lightly. Let that ❤️ loaf a bit, but do poke it if it seems to have stalled.
Earlier, in her prewalking phase, Fran said “To me the outdoors is what you must pass through in order to get from your apartment into a taxicab.” My role model.
Wilde on a treadmill is one of the most heartbreaking images!