The Beauty Myth in Books

Culture stereotypes women to fit the myth by flattening the feminine into beauty-without-intelligence or intelligence-without-beauty; women are allowed a mind or body but not both. A common allegory that teaches women this lesson is the pretty-plain pairing: of Leah and Rachel in the Old Testament and Mary and Martha in the New; Helena and Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Anya and Dunyasha in Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard; Daisy Mae and Sadie Hawkins in Dogpatch; Glinda and The Wicked Witch of the West in Oz. Veronica and Ethel in Riverdale; Ginger and Mary Anne in Gilligan’s Island; Janet and Chrissie in Three’s Company; Mary and Rhoda in The Mary Tyler Moore Show; and so forth. Male culture seems happiest to imagine two women together when they are defined as being one winner and one loser in the beauty myth.

Women’s writing, on the other hand, turns the myth on its head. Female culture’s greatest writers share the search for radiance, a beauty that has meaning. The battle between the overvalued beauty and the undervalued, unglamorous but animated heroine forms the spine of the women’s novel. It extends from Jane Eyre to today’s paperback romance, in which the gorgeous nasty rival has a mane of curls and prodigious cleavage, bu the heroine only her spirited eyes. The hero’s capacity to see the true beauty of the heroine is his central test.

This tradition pits beautiful, vapid Jane Fairfax (“I cannot separate Miss Fairfax from her complexion”) against the subtler Emma Woodhouse in Jane Austen’s Emma; frivolous, blond Rosamond Vincy (“What is the use of being exquisite if you are not seen by the best judges?”) against “nun-like” Dorothea Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch; manipulative, “remarkably pretty” Isabella Crawford against self-effacing Fanny Price in Austen’s Mansfield Park; fashionable, soulless Isabella Thorpe against Catherine Morland, unsure of herself “where the beauty of her own sex is concerned,” in Austen’s Northanger Abbey; narcissistic Ginevra Fanshaw (“How do I look to-night?… I know I am beautiful”) against the invisible Lucy Snow (“I saw myself in the glass… I thought little of the wan spectacle”) in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette; and, in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, vain Amy March, “a graceful statue,” against tomboyish Jo, who sells her “one beauty,” her hair, to help her family. It descends to the present in the novels of Alison Lurie, Fay Weldon, Anita Brookner. Women’s writing is full to the point of heartbreak with the injustices done by beauty—its presence as well as its absence.

But when girls read the books of masculine culture, the myth subverts what those stories seem to say. Tales taught to children as parables for proper values become meaningless for girls as the myth begins its work. Take the story of Prometheus, which appears in Sullivan Reader comic-book form for third grade American children. To a child being socialized into Western culture, it teaches that a great man risks all for intellectual daring, for progress and for the public good. But as a future woman, the little girls learns that the most beautiful woman in the world was man-made, and that her intellectual daring brought the first sickness and death onto men. The myth makes a reading girls skeptical of the moral coherence of her culture’s stories.

As she grows up, her double vision intensifies: If she reads James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artists as a Young Man, she is not meant to question why Stephen Dedalus is the hero of his story. But in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles—why did the light of description fall on her, and not on any other of the healthy, untutored Wessex farm girls dancing in circles that May morning? She was seen and found beautiful, so things happened to her—riches, indigence, prostitution, true love, and hanging. Her life, to say the least, became interesting, while the hard-handed threshing girls around her, her friends, not blessed or cursed with her beauty, stayed in the muddy provinces to carry on the agricultural drudgery that is not the stuff of novels. Stephen is in his story because he’s an exceptional subject who must and will be known. But Tess? Without her beauty, she’d have been left out of the sweep and horror of large events. A girl learns that stories happen to “beautiful” women, whether they are interesting or not. And, interesting or not, stories do not happen to women who are not “beautiful”

—Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

It seems obvious after reading this, but I was never before fully conscious of this great divide between men’s and women’s writing. Of course I rolled my eyes at Dickens’ beautiful and virtuous models of pure womanhood, but I didn’t link them with Tess and all the other “beauties” who sustain damage and devotion in men’s novels, or oppose them to the more active and substantial heroines from Austen, Eliot, the Brontës, etc. Is this the real source of the latter authors’ enduring popularity, that they explode the beauty myth under which all women labour? Do we love these novels because they give us the hope that someday we will not be judged by the clarity of our skin but by the content of our character?

The End of Average: Jagged Brain

The End of Average  talks about the “jaggedness principle,” which is the notion that what seem to be homogenous qualities, like intelligence or physical size, turn out to be quite heterogenous or  “jagged” when broken down into their parts. For instance, measuring one part of a person’s body provides no clue whatsoever to their other dimensions (which would explain why off-the-rack clothes never fit properly). We are all variable in every possible way, all the time.  Another classic example is intellectual performance:

[James] Cattell administered a battery of physical and mental tests to hundreds of incoming freshmen at Columbia University across several years, measuring things such as their reaction time to sound, their ability to name colors, their ability to judge when ten seconds passed, and the number of letters in a series they could recall. He was convinced he would discover strong correlations between these abilities—but, instead, he found the exact opposite. There was virtually no correlation at all. Mental abilities were decidedly jagged.

For a devout believer in ranking, there was worse to come. Cattell also measured the correlation between students’ grades in college courses and their performance on these mental tests and discovered very weak correlations between them. And not only that—even the correlations between students’ grades in different classes were low. In fact the only meaningful correlation Cattell found at all was between students’ grades in Latin classes and their grades in Greek classes.

—Todd Rose, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness

As it turns out, even standardized IQ tests reveal the variability in people’s talents, at least until it all gets boiled down into a single number. When IQ subtests are broken out, jaggedness rears its ugly head, and it turns out the everyone has a unique collection of strengths and weaknesses. Trying to characterize people’s abilities with a single score, such as IQ or GPA, gives us the wrong answer because their shining talents get obscured by their mediocrities. No one expects an artist to be good at math or an astronaut to be a talented singer (Chris Hadfield notwithstanding), but we somehow expect students to be good at everything and dock marks when they are not. Is that fair?

Todd Rose proposes a system of higher education where students pursue the competencies they desire for their chosen career, and receive certificates for each subject area they master. So, instead of a single degree and a single GPA, you get a portfolio of proven abilities tailored to your interests and ambitions. This must be music to the ears of every student who wondered why they had to learn algebra to become an English teacher. It might also take some of the guesswork out of hiring motivated employees. When students are simply following a required course of study, it’s hard to know what they are really jazzed about. An à la carte education makes a lot of sense, especially if it can be extended as required without signing up for a whole degree program. Rose points to MOOCs and the Khan Academy as examples of this new paradigm of education. The Internet makes self-paced, self-directed education viable for almost anyone in a wide variety of fields. This is a good time to chart your own course, and learn what you need to know.

The Beginning of Average

I just started reading “The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness” by Todd Rose. I am both enjoying it greatly and getting freaked out by it. The author tells the story of Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1874), a Belgian astronomer who started applying mathematics to human beings after his observatory (and country) was taken over by rebels. He wanted to understand humanity, and thought measuring them would help. But he went further than merely crunching numbers.

Quetelet developed the view that the “Average Man” was perfect, as God and/or Nature intended, and any variation was a “deformity” or “monstrosity.” What he ended up doing was putting a scientific seal of approval on racial, criminal, and psychological stereotyping, and mid-19th century Europe lapped it up. It fit right in with their program of subjugating the rest of the world and keeping everyone in their place at home. We all know how that turned out.

It took the bloodbath of World War II to discredit this kind of “science,” but general discomfort with the diversity of humans remains. The notion of “average” or “normal” human beings (e.g. “we all want the same things”) is so ingrained in our culture that it takes great effort (and years of therapy) to fully accept others and ourselves as we are. Try as we might to celebrate diversity, the Hydra of conformity sprouts another head and we rush to stuff ourselves or someone else into the locker of normalcy. Perhaps knowing exactly where these ideas came from can help us accept more deeply the unique qualities of every human being.

The Victorian Internet: A series of tubes

Appropriately enough for the nation that pioneered the first telegraphs, the French had their own twist on the use of pneumatic tubes. For of all the tube networks built around the world, the most successful was in Paris, where sending and receiving pneus became a part of everyday life in the late nineteenth century. Like the pneumatic tube networks in many other major cities, the Paris network was extensive enough that many local messages could be sent from sender to recipient entirely by tube and messenger, without any need for telegraphic transmission. In these cases, the telegraph form that the sender wrote the message on actually ended up in the hands of the recipient—which meant that long messages were just as easy to deliver as short messages.

So, in 1879, a new pricing structure was announced: For messages travelling within the Paris tube network, the price was fixed, no matter how long the message. Faster than the post and cheaper than sending a telegram, this network provided a convenient way to send local messages within Paris, though the service was operated by the state telegraph company and the messages were officially regarded as telegrams.

Messages were written on special forms, which could be purchased, prepaid, in advance. These could then be deposited into small post boxes next to conventional mailboxes, handed in at telegraph counters in post offices, or put into boxes mounted on the backs of trams, which were unloaded when the trams reached the end of the line. Once in the system, messages were sent along the tubes to the office nearest the destination and then delivered by messenger. Each message might have to pass through several sorting stations on the way to its destination; it was date-stamped at each one, so that its route could be determined. (The same is true of today’s e-mail messages, whose headers reveal their exact paths across the Internet.) No enclosures were allowed to be included with messages, and any messages that broke this rule were transferred to the conventional postal service and charged at standard postal rates.

The scheme was a great success, and the volume of messages being passed around the network almost doubled in the first year. The network was further extended as a result, and for many years messages were affectionately known as petits bleus, after the blue color of the message forms.

Could this be where Senator Stevens got his “series of tubes” idea about the Internet? Perhaps he wasn’t that far off after all.

The Victorian Internet: You had me at …. . .-.. .-.. —

“Romances of the Telegraph,” an article published in Western Electrician in 1891, tells the story of a “pretty little romance” that took place at a remote station out in the desert at Yuma, Arizona… There was nothing to do, it was unbearably hot and very difficult to sleep, so unsurprisingly the operator at the station, John Stansbury, turned to the telegraph wire for companionship.

An acquaintance soon sprung up between Stansbury and the operator in Banning, Californian, known as “Mat,” whom Stansbury described as a “jolly, cheerful sort of fellow.” They soon became firm friends and agreed to spend their vacation together in the mountains hunting and fishing. Every detail of the trip was arranged, with Mat insisting that they take rubber boots for fishing, even though Stansbury said he was quite happy in his bare feet. But at the last minute Mat pulled out of the trip, having decided to take the train to vacation in New Mexico instead, a trip that involved passing through Yuma, Stansbury’s station. But by the time Mat arrived at Yuma, Stansbury had been taken ill with a fever and was quite delirious.

“During the days of my agony I was vaguely aware of gentle, womanly hands and a kindly female presence in my sick-room,” Stansbury later wrote. “And when I returned to the conscious world I was not surprised to find a fair and pleasant face beside me. Its owner said that she had been on the train when I was found stricken down, and had stayed to minister to my sore need. The idea may seem preposterous, but I believe the foundation for my affection had been laid while the unconsciousness of fever was still upon me, and the affection grew into the deepest love as she cared for me during the days of my convalescence. After a time I ventured to tell her of my love, and to ask her if she would be mine; but I was not prepared for her answer. ‘John,’ she said, ‘do you really mean that you wish to marry a girl that insists upon wearing rubber boots?’

“‘Mat!’ I said, for I was completely beaten. Then it flashed upon me. She was the operator at Banning, and I, like a fool, had always taken it for granted that she was a man. I am not going to tell you how I convinced her that I wanted to marry her, boots and all, but I did it, and here we are on our wedding journey. The Southern Pacific Telegraph Company has lost an operator, but I calculate that I am way ahead on the deal.”

My grandmother had a brief stint as a telegraph operator in the 1920s, but by then telegraph machines had been automated. She was trained on a Simplex Automatic Printer, a typewriter-like telegraph machine that sent and receive messages via perforated tape that was converted into electrical impulses and then decoded into print on paper. The cozy human element was gone, and the operators worked in shifts around the clock, which my grandmother didn’t like so she quickly moved to the bookkeeping department. But it’s quite amazing to think that in only two generations we’ve gone from telegraph to Twitter. I wonder what’s next?

Teletypewriter, 1930.

Eighty Days: Blizzard Blog

Time passed very slowly. Each day John Jennings and a couple of the others walked back down the railroad tracks to look for the rotary plow. Sometimes they shoveled snow from the tracks, or picked ice from the rails. There was nothing else to do. The men, and three of the ten women on board, did daily exercises in the train shed. Two Dominican nuns sat in the same place day after day, cheerfully reading their prayer books. One passenger set to work with paper and pencil writing a newspaper that he called The Daily Snow, providing the latest news of the train; each issue was produced in a single copy that was eagerly read and circulated among the passengers.

—Matthew Goodman, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World

That sounds like a blog, no? I guess the phenomenon of stranded travellers taking to social media is nothing new.

80 Days: Packing Light

Nellie Bly

I’m a sucker for packing lists, so when I got to Nellie Bly’s packing list in Matthew Goodman’s Eighty Days, I had to post it. Nellie Bly was one of two pioneering American women journalists who raced each other around the world in opposite directions in 1889–1890. Her rather reluctant opponent was Elizabeth Bisland, a southern belle whose natural habitat was the literary salon. Both were ambitious and had fought their way in to male-dominated world of publishing, as much by necessity as by inclination. It was Bly’s idea to try to beat Phileas Fogg’s fictional record trip around the world, and Bisland, who was helping to support her family, had little choice but to go along with her publisher’s request to join the race.

Fashionable Bisland took a typical amount of luggage for a lady, a trunk and valise, despite only have a couple of hours to pack. Bly, on the other hand, had been dreaming about this scheme for months and had decided that by packing light she could avoid delays from the transfer or loss of her baggage. She determined to take only one bag, and a small bag at that, a little leather “gripsack,” which you can see in her photo. Yes, that’s all she took.

For her trip, Elizabeth Bisland wore her new black dress, newmarket coat, and black sailor’s cap. Into her trunk and valise she packed:

  • 2 cloth dresses
  • half a dozen light bodices
  • silk evening dress
  • hairpins
  • shoes
  • gloves
  • silk underwear
  • nightdress
  • dressing gown
  • slippers
  • toiletries
  • sewing kit
  • travelling inkstand
  • books
  • paper
  • wool overcoat
  • travel rug
  • rubber overshoes
  • umbrella

That’s not an unreasonable amount of kit, especially for a round-the-world trip, and it is only the bulk of Victorian women’s clothing (not to mention the travel blanket) that would have made it impossible to carry.

Bly’s outfit consisted of a purpose-made broadcloth travelling dress lined with camel’s hair, a check Scotch ulster overcoat, and the deerstalker cap she usually wore while on assignment. She also carried a “silk waterproof,” which I gather is a kind of rain poncho. In her teeny tiny bag she carried:

  • 2 travelling caps (perhaps that includes the one she wore)
  • 3 veils
  • slippers
  • toiletries
  • inkstand
  • paper
  • pens
  • pencils
  • pins
  • needle and thread
  • dressing gown
  • tennis blazer
  • small flask
  • drinking cup
  • underwear
  • handkerchiefs
  • ruchings (gathered lace or cloth worn at the cuffs and collar)
  • jar of cold cream

That’s right, she didn’t take a single change of clothing. She writes in her memoir that “After-experience showed me that I had taken too much rather than too little baggage.” Rick Steves would be so proud. I just hope the airlines don’t get wind of this or they will drastically cut their carry-on luggage allowances!

The Missing Ink: Fit to Print

Edward Johnston was a remarkable man, a calligrapher and designer who thought things through from the beginning. When he was asked, in 1906, to suggest improvements to the London educational system of teaching children to write, he replied promptly that he could not approve of any of it. Like Vere Foster, he noted that ‘children were being set the hopeless task of copying with pens, on paper, letterforms made and partially evolved by gravers on copper plates’. At the same time, he was setting out in his Writing, Illuminating and Lettering what he called ‘the structural or essential forms of the three main types of letters’—square capitals, round capitals, and small letters, clearly set out as not being joined together. This sense of the single letter, formed from circle and line and nothing else, as lying at the basis of handwriting would have a dramatic effect on the discipline.

Other figures at the time were starting to suggest, heretically, that the sort of handwriting that linked every letter together was quite unnecessary. Johnston’s pupil Graily Hewitt called the insistence on a connecting stroke ‘a fetish’. By 1916, the educational establishment was starting to reconsider, and a meeting of the Child Study Society explored the possibilities of teaching print script.

The simplicity of a ‘print script’ recommended itself to beginning writers. The nineteenth century had thought in terms of ovals, curls and other natural forms—very sound philosophically, but extremely difficult for a five-year-old with limited motor skills to master. It had required long hours of drills, push-pulls and overlapping ovals before any kind of writing skill could be acquired. On the other hand, children could step readily into a world where every letter was made out of combinations of straight lines and circles, or parts of circles. (Because of this simple combination, the new print scripts were often termed ‘ball and stick’ writing.) There was no requirement to link letters together, something which every teacher knew was a great strain on the beginning writer. [90-91]

But for the most part, you can almost see, as print teaching in the early stages spreads, a joyous change of perspective, from the teacher’s convenience to the child’s advantage. From Spencer onwards, the teaching of handwriting in class was all to do with subjecting the child to the teacher’s will, and forcing him to do what must be achieved, at whatever cost. You just look at the print letters which began to circulate from the 1920s onwards, and see how attractive they are to the child, and how much easier to achieve. At this time, education began to be thought of, for the first time, from the perspective of the child, who was not necessarily merely an inconvenience to the supervising adult. Probably nowhere was this shift in perspective so clearly shown as in the move to a beginning handwriting where the letters are simple, clear, easy to make and easy to read. The fundamentalists, who believed like A.G. Grenfell that cursive should be done away with altogether, or like a Professor Shelley of the same period that ‘connecting strokes tend to make words similar, whereas to distinguish one word from another we require diverse elements’, meaning print letters, were never going to succeed in making every adult write exclusively in print throughout their life. There are adults who do go on writing in print; they always have a rather rebellious, art-school air about them. But most of us move on to the more-or-less cursive writing when we’re about seven or eight, and carry on linking most of our letters up for the rest of our lives. When we are learning our manuscript letters, we look forward, as I did, to the day when we’re allowed to do ‘joined-up writing’: it possesses a marvellous prestige for most beginning writers. Print prepares us beautifully for the task of writing in an adult way, and some people will always find it enough for their needs. But handwriting, for many of us, has an element of glamour which the lovely simplicity of the ball-and-stick kindergarten letters can’t fulfil on its own. That explains, perhaps, why as some people were moving towards a hand that could be written by pencil out of circular lines and simple verticals, others were bent on reviving a handwriting style [i.e. italic] which depended for its full effect on the use, not even of a nib, but on ‘the shaded forms of the square-cut quill.’ That’ll show the proles. [93-95]

—Philip Hensher, The Missing Ink: The Lost Art of Handwriting

Lately there has been a certain amount of hand-wringing over the fact that cursive writing is being glossed over or even omitted entirely from primary education in favour of teaching computer skills. University professors are astonished to receive exam papers that look like they were written by 8-year-olds. It does seem like a shame to rob children of a skill that us older folks take for granted. Will they be able to read old Christmas cards and love letters when they go through the family archive some day? Granted, I can barely make out the writing in letters from my aunt, but at least I have a fighting chance.

However, after reading this section from The Missing Ink, I am beginning to think that cursive handwriting is not necessarily the apotheosis of human literacy. Where does this idea come from? It seems to have been a particularly English obsession. Very few languages have any kind of cursive script, and only Arabic and Sanskrit regularly join their letters together. Joined-up cursive writing is really an aberration in human history, yet thanks to the efforts of English (and later, American) promoters and self-promoters, we have all been taught that this unconventional script is the proper way to write. It seems to be more a matter of ego (and class) than a practical tool for communication.

Perhaps the children are right. Cursive English is difficult to write, difficult to read, and a confusing aberration from what we see in every book, sign, screen, and piece of paper in our environment. It doesn’t matter how neat it is, cursive writing is always less legible than printing. In fact the more regular and perfectly patterned the writing, the more difficult it is to distinguish letters, as Shelley says above. All those identical joining strokes muddy the waters and the letters start to look the same.

The one thing cursive writing has going for it is speed, or so it seems. It is generally faster to write in cursive than in print, though it may be that any time gained in the writing is subsequently lost in the reading. But I’m not convinced that it’s necessarily faster. I had a friend in college who could print beautiful, perfect letters much faster than I could scribble illegible cursive. She had been trained in traditional Vietnamese writing, so English must have been a snap in comparison. Perhaps if we were trained to print beyond the second grade we too could write a fast beautiful print script.

I’m not suggesting we all go back to “ball-and-stick” printing. I think we can do better than that. Some people (like Kitty Burns Florey) advocate a semi-joined italic hand with slanting arches that resemble the flying buttresses of Gothic cathedrals. It is certainly attractive but I’ve tried it and getting all those arches to lean together in unison is no less difficult than achieving a regular standard script, and it can easily degenerate into a saw-toothed line that is not very pleasant to look at.

I particularly like the “Latin minuscule” scripts descended from medieval Carolingian, through Renaissance Humanist book hand, and revived in the early 20th century by the aforementioned Edward Johnston in his Foundation hand. It is easy to write, looks lovely, and is about a legible as you can get. You can use either squarish Latin or rounded Uncial for the capitals depending on your whim. It actually resembles the print script I devised for myself during my teens (and subsequently dropped for faster cursive when I hit university). Perhaps it’s time to bring it back.

Eat & Run: Pheidippides Lives!

I apologize for this (cough) marathon post, but I think it effectively sums up Eat & Run, by vegan ultramarathoner Scott Jurek. The book is an account of Jurek’s career as a long-distance runner, and his discovery that the more whole plant foods he ate, the faster he ran, the faster he recovered, and the less pain he had. The link between a vegetable diet and athletic performance may seem like cutting edge sports science, but perhaps, like so many things, the Greeks knew all about it millennia ago. Eat & Run is also about the spiritual, or at least metaphysical side of running, and it seems that Greeks like ultrarunner Yiannis Kouros still understand the human potential that lies beyond all physical limits. Perhaps we need these crazy ultrarunners to remind us that we have more strength than we think we do, and that plants are perhaps our best partners in making the most of our lives.

The Persian fleet was on a roll. They had plundered their way through the Greek islands, sacked the city-state of Eretria, and then had their sights set on Athens. the Athenians sent a small force, commanded by General Miltiades, to seal off the exits from the Bay of Marathon, named after the ancient Greek word for the fennel that probably grew wild there. The ancient historian Herodotus writes that the Athenian generals dispatched Pheidippides to the great city of Sparta to ask for reinforcements in holding off the much larger invading force.

Pheidippides reached Sparta the day after he left Athens, but his plea fell on deaf ears. Although sympathetic to their fellow Greeks’ plight, the religious  Spartans were in the middle of a festival to Apollo and could not wage war until the full moon. It must have been a long 152.4 miles back home with the bad news, but luckily Pheidippides had something else to report.

While running through the mountains above the ancient city of Tegea (checkpoint 60 of the modern Spartathlon), he had a vision of the nature god, Pan. The son of Hermes, the divine messenger, Pan ruled over shepherds, nymphs, and rustic places. He was a great guy to have on your side in a big battle, because he could induce a wild fear in mortals called “panic.” This god called Pheidippides by name “and bade him ask the Athenians why they paid him no attention, though he was of goodwill to the Athenians, had often been of service to them, and would be in the future.”

If we read it closely, everything we need to know about running is in Pheidippides’ story. He ran over 300 miles—the first half in little over one day—and he didn’t even get what he wanted! If you run long enough, that tends to happen. Whatever quantitative measure of success you set out to achieve becomes either unattainable or meaningless. The reward of running—of anything—lies within us…. Pheidippides kept going, and he ended up getting something even better, something outside the normal realm of human experience. Nature itself called out his name—Pan is nature incarnate—and it gave the great runner a sacred message to bring home to his people. The message was pretty much what nature’s message always is: Pay more attention to me, and I will help you the way I’ve always helped you in the past.

Pheidippides recounted his vision to the Athenian generals, who took it seriously and erected a new temple to Pan after the war. Unable to wait until the Spartans arrived, the Athenians charged the Persians. The Athenians fought with legendary courage, dividing and conquering the Persian force. Their underdog victory at Marathon is considered the tipping point in the Persian Wars, heralding the golden age of Greece.

Fast-forward 2,500 years…

The greatest Spartathlon champion was—and probably always will be—home-grown. Twenty-six-year-old Yiannis Kouros was living a Spartan lifestyle as a groundskeeper near Tripoli when the Johns undertook the first Spartathlon test run in 1982. Hearing of their mission to resurrect Pheidippides, the literary-minded Kouros was entranced. He had run twenty-five marathons at that point, with some modest successes and a personal record of 2:25; he was about to find his niche. In 1983, Kouros burst onto the ultramarathon scene with a Spartathlon and ultramarathon debut in an astounding 21:53. His margin of victory was so great—more than 3 hours ahead of the runner-up—that the race director refused to award him the trophy for two days—until it could be proven that he had not cheated.

He went on the win the Spartathlon three more times, and these remain the four fastest times ever for the course, ranging from 20:25 to 21:57. Pheidippides couldn’t have done better….

Now semi-retired from ultras, Kouros is undefeated in any continuous world-class road ultramarathon competition beyond 100 miles, and he still holds world records on the road and track for almost all distances and durations beyond the 12-hour event.

Kouros is a philosopher-athlete in the ancient Greek tradition. His results seem to stem from an overflowing energy of spirit. He paints, writes poetry, records songs, played the role of Pheidippides in the movie A Hero’s Journey, and delivers motivational talks “to get people inspired and alert, so they can discover and utilize the unconditional abilities of human beings, in order to bring (beyond personal improvement) unity, friendship and harmony to the world.”

Ultimately, Kouros teaches us that the ultra is an exercise in transcendence. He explicitly defines it as a test of “metaphysical characteristics,” as opposed to inborn athletic gifts or level of conditioning. Only a continuous run of 24-plus hours will do, “as a runner has to face the whole spectrum of the daytime and nighttime and be able to continue. Doing so, he/she will prove that he/she can run beyond the effectiveness of genetic gifts and fitness level, as these elements will have gone from the duration of time and the muscular exhaustion.” While respecting the athleticism of such events, he disqualifies 50-milers and stage runs from the category of ultra, as they will favour athletes who are well trained and gifted. The true ultrarunner must endure sleep deprivation and complete muscular fatigue. Only then can he or she “find energy after the fuel is gone.”

I’m convinced that a lot of people run ultramarathons for the same reason they take mood-altering drugs. I don’t mean to minimize the gifts of friendship, achievement, and closeness to nature that I’ve received in my running career. But the longer and farther I ran, the more I realized that what I was often chasing was a state of mind—a place where worries that seemed monumental melted away, where the beauty and timelessness of the universe, of the present moment, came into sharp focus. I don’t think anyone starts running distances to obtain that kind of vision. I certainly didn’t. But I don’t think anyone who runs ultra distances with regularity fails to get there. The trick is to recognize the vision when it comes over you.

Now to the race…

Every time I saw someone—a villager, a vintner, and old lady sitting in a patch of shade—I yelled, “Paghos nero parakalo,” which means “ice and water, please,” but no one seemed to understand. Finally, emerging from a chalky, lonely taverna, a bent old woman in a long, navy blue dress shuffled toward me. “Paghos nero parakalo,” I called, and miraculously she seemed to understand. She yelled something to a man standing in the doorway as she mimed drinking.

She had thick arms, thick ankles, and a rough, weather-beaten face. Her husband handed her a large glass of water filled with chunks of ice, and she gave it to me. The ice could have come from keeping freshly caught fish cold. I could not have cared less. To me, the chunks were more valuable than glittering diamonds. She also picked a handful of basil leaves from the garden at her feet and thrust them into my hands. I was trying to drink and thank her at the same time when I saw her motioning to the basil leaves and then to my small waistpack, where I carried my gels and food. She was telling me to put the basil in there. When I took the pack off, though, she pulled one of the leaves out and stuck it behind my ear. Then she kissed me on the cheek.

Suddenly I felt a lightness and a strength. Whether it was her kindness, the water, or the basil (which I discovered later is the king of herbs, the word basil deriving from the Greek word basileus, which means king; it is revered as a symbol of strength and good luck in Greece), my mind shifted. It was a moment in an ultramarathon that I have learned to live for, to love. It was that time when everything seems hopeless, when to go on seems futile, and when a small act of kindness, another step, a sip of water, can make you realize that nothing is futile, that going on—especially when going on seems so foolish—is the most meaningful thing in the world. Many runners have encountered that type of crystalline vision at the end of a race, or training run, that brings with it utter fatigue and blessed exhaustion. For ultrarunners, the vision is a given.

At 100 miles, a man gave me a flower. He was crying as he handed it to me. Almost every person I met in Greece seemed to radiate a passion for life. I think it was inextricably linked to the land, the water, and the plants. There’s a myth that when Athens was founded, the gods argued over who would get to be the patron of the beautiful new city It came down to Athena, goddess of wisdom, and Poseidon, god of the sea. Zeus declared that the two should each create a gift to give to the mortals of the city, and whoever gave the better gift would be its patron. Poseidon made water gush out of the Acropolis, but it was salty and so not of much use. Athena invented the olive tree, which could give the people fruit, oil, and wood. As a plant-based athlete, it was moving to see a culture where plants retain symbolic power and where people still use herbs to heal. It’s in their history, after all. Greece was the homeland of Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine, who singled out diet and exercise as important components of health and wrote “let food be thy medicine.”…

In Greece, I filled up on pomegranates and figs, wild greens from the mountains called horta, and lots of olives. It was a foraging paradise. On almost every training run I passed through vineyards of grapes and almond and citrus and quince trees (often grabbing fruit and eating it as I went). The Greeks had a simple diet—and an exceedingly healthy one.

—Scott Jurek with Steve Friedman, Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness

Olives, basil, flowers, pomegranates, figs… Greece has been blessed with an abundance of nutritious and healing plants that fuelled and inspired the exploration of the furthest limits of human potential—political, philosophical, medical, scientific, artistic, and athletic. There may be many explanations for why Ancient Greek civilization reached heights not seen again for many centuries, but what if it was the plants?