Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Woolly Tales of Fashion and Philosophy

Ol’ Penn is going to tell you a wee tale of two things important to cyclists: water and wool.   This tale begins with one of his favorite eccentric cyclists, not of the racing variety, but of the literary variety—George Bernard Shaw, the renowned playwright, a “nervous specimen without much physical courage” but a “mad cyclist,” according to his biographer, Olivia Collide.  Shaw loved to ride his bicycle, but the historical record suggests he was prone to prostrated positions (he fell off a lot), and he liked to wear wool. Of course, wool has been worn by cyclists for many years.  But for Shaw, wool had protective qualities, not unlike, perhaps, the cotton “magic underwear” or temple underwear worn by Mormons, and medicinal qualities, much like a daily dose of cod liver oil.  Shaw wore wool garments because he believed they promoted healthy living.  

One apocryphal account recalls the occasion in 1898 when Shaw jumped on his bike with an injured, diseased foot.   This foot, he believed, would need amputation.  Nonetheless, the desire to ride his bike, even if it meant using one foot only, superseded the pain—suffering of which even Nietzsche would approve:  Praise the Philosopher, Penn says.  Poor Shaw, however, “fell over and sprained his ankle and was thus confined to a wheelchair.” His proclivity for falling off his bike (and other apparatuses) seems to be a common narrative thread in Shaw’s life.

 In another story of Shaw’s bicycle feats, this time recounted by Bertrand Russell, the great British philosopher, we are told of his tremendous resiliency:
At this moment he and I were involved in a bicycle accident, which I feared for a moment might have brought his career to a premature close.  He was only just learning to ride a bicycle, and he ran into my machine with such force that he was hurled through the air and landed on his back twenty feet from the place of the collision.  However, he got up completely unhurt and continued his ride; whereas my bicycle was smashed, and I had to return by train.  It was a very slow train, and at every station Shaw with his bicycle appeared on the platform, put his head into the carriage and jeered.  I suspect that he regarded the whole incident as proof of the virtues of vegetarianism.

But was it Shaw’s vegen philosphy or was it the wool that saved him from these cycling mishaps?  Shaw was a proponent and follower of the the German health culturist Gustave Jaeger.   According to Scientific American Supplement, November 27, 1880, Dr Gustave Jaeger was alarmed that the “amount of water in the human body may prove to be the utmost importance.”  His theories seem dubious, to say the least, and somewhat convoluted to follow.   He divided individuals according to their gravity:  “the greater the weight of the of the human body in comparison to the space in which it occurs i.e. the greater its specific gravity, the more it is able to resist epidemic diseases.  Persons of low specific gravity are taken ill from very insignificant causes, such as colds, and are very susceptibale to contagious diseases.” What this all meant, if Penn can interject, is that to stay healthy “everything that is worn by mankind should be made form sheep’s wool.”   Wool can breathe, letting out the accumlation of bad “fat and water.”  Wool would let the pores of the body breathe and let loose the body’s secretions.  Praise the sheep, Penn says.  Shaw, moreover, only wore wool clothing—a strict adherent to Dr. Jaeger’s principles of fighting illness by wearing wool. 

So, the philosophical  moral of this little tale is the following:  Cyclists should wear more wool.  Shaw died from a fall off a ladder while pruning a tree at the age of 94.  

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