Some commentators, several fairly recently, have suggested that the body culture mania of the 1920s was an intense reaction to the excessive rationalization and mechanization of European civilization, whose malignant consequence was the war. Such observers stressed the government "culture film" Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (1925), with its juxtaposition of grim factory-life imagery and bucolic shots of radiantly active bodies in sun-dappled meadows. Stated one, "Every era until the great war had something of a true orgy of obedience to reason. In its complete aridity it could only end in such a catastrophe" (Graeser 12). But, as will become apparent, body culture, especially gymnastics and dance, was hardly lacking in enthusiasm for system, for rationalistic, technocratic, and mechanistic constructions of identity, even if its advocates proclaimed the opposite.
One of the most significant of these romantic metaphysicists of the body was Wolfgang Graeser (1906-1928), whose book Körpersinn (1927), remains an engrossing commentary on the body culture of the era. Graeser was a protégé of Oswald Spengler, and he shared the master's vision of apocalyptic transformation in Western civilization: "The evolution of the West now stands in its final stage. The path is prescribed upon which we must move forward" (47). This path "can only come out of those sources of life which gymnastics has rediscovered," for "so long as we feel the red pulse of our bloodstream our being is assured" (47). Graeser's book contained no pictures, no "totems" (as he put it) of body culture, no discussion of any body culture personalities, no discussion of any techniques, specific dances, body types, schools of physical education, or documented achievements; it did not even contain any dates, except for frequent reference to the war as the decisive moment in the awakening of modern "body sense." Although he clearly differentiated the objectives of sport, gymnastics, and dance, Graeser treated them as abstract theoretical categories, which he did not analyze in relation to subcategories or specific manifestations. He specified sport as the most "rational" mode of body culture because of its (unhealthy) attention to records and quantitative evaluations. Graeser sought to reveal the metaphysical significance of the body, but unlike adherents of the "characterology" cult he did not believe this significance resided in the "invisible" cognitive processes, which shifted analytical energy away from objects or forms to the logic of perception itself. For Graeser, no form of sport, gymnastics, or dance possessed the
power to produce unique personalities or distinctive expressions of identity. The transformative value of these modes of body culture lay in their power to bring bodies to a more abstract condition of being, one that transcended the oppressive constraints on identity through rationalistic particularization and differentiation. Gymnastics and dance brought people closer to the unconscious identity of life itself, to blood, breath, pulse, rhythm: "Reason and will do not undermine the pulsebeat of our blood, it is completely spontaneous and the most elementary life-rhythm which penetrates our being. In the heart is the central driving motor. . . . But we can only feel the heartbeat indirectly, because it is so overpowering. Breath is different. . . . We feel the breath directly. It vibrates with every feature of our body, the expansion of the chest puts all muscles of the body into play. When we free the breath from constraining will and muscles and submit to it, we feel with all our senses the rhythm of life itself, the 'id' within us" (145).
Graeser compared the psychoanalytic attitude toward the body with the gymnastic attitude. Psychoanalysis hoped to reveal the unconscious source of life through a new sexual discourse on the body, but its ultimate aim was to domesticate the body and adapt it to the life-draining demands of "Faustian" or "Uranian" rationalism. Language was no more capable than numbers of bringing to light the protean creative energies of the unconscious. Gymnastics, by contrast, focused on locating the unconscious foundation of power and being in the irrational, in an abstract pulse over which the rationalizing will exerted no control. But for Graeser, whose other publications were annotated editions of Bach's music, the highest and most abstract form of body culture was dance because of its close attachment to music, the core of which is rhythm (although he insisted that music and dance do not exist in "mutual slavery" to each other) (120). Dance was the superior abstraction of the body rather than an intensified particularization of it, and modern identity disclosed itself through degrees of abstraction: "It is the new dance that mirrors the image of our era in all its qualities. One finds embodied in dance the image of the machine, one finds the eruption of the chaotic ideas of the Bolshevik world as well as the strict forms of fascist hierarchies, but above all an unbridled dynamism, the sensually turbulent ecstasy of movement in the frenzied lunge toward the Immeasurable that is our life" (106). The glamorizing rhetoric of blood and irrational pulse beat is reminiscent of Nazi mythology. Graeser acknowledged that both bolshevism (in the European rather than Russian mode) and Italian fascism "feel the elementary power of red blood" and were "forms of the chthonic-barbaric life-stream which have opened a new path through the petrified crust"—they signaled an impending "revenge of the blood" (148). He did not indicate his preference for one ideology or the other, but, more than any other thinker of the era, Graeser seemed prophetically conscious of a
great potential for violence in the effort to recover through dance or gymnastics the repressed "rhythm of life itself."