Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Alchemist

Jack LaLanne, the fitness freak who died on Sunday at age 96, was the product of a school of thinking that actually began in the Middle Ages and was known as alchemy. Alchemists turned dross into gold, a subject the Jacobean playwright Ben Jonson wrote about in The Alchemist. Alchemy was what LaLanne did with his own body after being “a self described emotional and physical wreck while growing up in the San Francisco area” (“Jack LaLanne, Founder of Modern Fitness Movement, Dies at 96,” NYT, 1/23/11). In a quote that sounds like a passage from Christopher Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, La Lanne said, “I can’t afford to die. It would wreck my image.” It’s no surprise that the origins of LaLanne’s philosophy go back to the outlandish worlds of Elizabethan and Jacobean theater, in which outsized characters carried out outlandish plots. “At 60 he swam from Alcatraz Island to Fisherman’s Wharf handcuffed, shackled and towing a 1,000-pound boat,” Richard Goldstein wrote in his Times obit. “At 70, handcuffed and shackled again, he towed 70 boats, carrying a total of 70 people, a mile and a half through Long Beach harbor.” Though LaLanne “maintained that he disliked working out,” he once did 1,000 push-ups within 23 minutes on “You Asked For It,” a TV program popular in the ’50s.

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