CrossFit, Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac, and Approaching the Threshold

By Mari Gomez




It starts with a desire to disappear into motion, a desire to feel more, to feel everything, to experience everything all at once. To approach the threshold, to drive oneself to the edge only to look over for a moment. It is a desire to overwhelm the body to the point of climax and then to retreat into the release.

What is the meaning after all of something like a workout of the day. This is what the Bearings is about. I started the series because I was trying to understand what CrossFit meant and this has taken me all sorts of places.


(a necessary detour)

The film director Lars Von Trier has a capability of taking a complex and nuanced psychological phenomenon and creating a film, both graceful, and brutal in its depiction. Sure, it is stylized and tinged with the absurd, but it is also deviantly accurate.

Lars Von Trier is a man with good sense of humor, I have seen as much in some of his interviews. His films, certainly, always have a strange coating of dark comedy. He captures the drama and tragedy of life with a cheekiness and subtle jab to its stomach. His critics would argue that his films are gratuitously scandalous or over the top. I disagree, his stories have a strong core; they tease the fantastical, stretch reality, but maintain the human element. They are often exaggerated and in a synopsis can sound almost ludicrous (Go read the synopsis for AntiChrist) yet they slowly envelop, drug you with their ecstatic and somewhat esoteric charm and then take advantage of you and the soul’s propensity for wild tragedies.

This is life, Von Trier says, and look at how beautiful and horrific it can be. Look at how beautiful a child falling out of a balcony can be, as the snow drizzles slowly downward and his parents, off in another room, copulate passionately on a washing machine to Handel’s Lascia ch’io pianga. (The opening to AntiChrist) His films put characters at their most vulnerable; they come apart on camera and reveal themselves as they suffer.


(continue detour)


Nymphomaniac, Von Trier’s recent film, begs the question of love, but it also goes beyond making Joe, the protagonist, a sheer tragic heroine caught in the whirlpool of addiction. The film portrays the delicate self-destructive, elusive, and stubborn characteristics of Joe’s struggles. She somewhat transcends the obvious: to illicit pity. Instead her story draws out ideas about human nature, obsession, and passion.

Joe begins as a young girl experimenting with sex as a way of control, manipulation, and self-fulfillment.Joe’s addiction seems to start off as fun adolescent experimentation, but it ferments into something far more profound, a need to maintain the self through sexual pleasure.

In the film, she is re-telling her story to a kind stranger and there is thus a layer of interpretation, a coating of fable, common in a Von Trier film. The first line of her story is, “I discovered my cunt at the age of two,” which is an absurd line really, but it takes the story back to a point of innocence, showing perhaps how innate, how primal, how fundamental that desire can really be.

As she grows older, Joe rejects love. She cannot stand the idea. Instead, sex is used as a kind of rebellion against the concept of love, a protest against what has been created in movies and popular culture as romantic love and turning it into pure pleasure and a means of control. It becomes an obsession, it becomes the way through which she experiences the world. And that endless desire allowed Joe to fend off any other responsibility in her life, to become impervious to her surroundings. Her search for satisfaction takes over her life and it causes her to lose her child and her husband.

Once she is faced with the possibility of love it conflicts, confuses, and humiliates her. Love, quite literally, numbs her, so she must look then for other ways in which to feel, in which to fulfill that elusive desire.

It’s easy to ride off sex addiction simply as uncontrollable lust. However, Joe was subject to a desire so deeply embedded in her nature that it appeared nearly impossible to address. So instead it was fed like a caged animal that only grew more ferocious and insatiable with time and loneliness.

There is a particular scene in the film where Joe, trying to battle her addiction, is advised by a therapist to cover and hide anything that might remind her or urge her to think about sex. So she lays in bed, incapacitated, with everything in her house covered, mirrors blocked off, corners of furniture taped over, and her hands in mittens so as to keep from touching herself. Without her addiction, her life is quite literally reduced to nothing. She becomes immobile, paralyzed.

At some point Joe needs to look for other ways to satisfy her yearning; she wants to feel MORE, she can no longer be pleasured by the norm. So she ends up in a waiting room with a handful of other desperate women, who come to participate in odd masochistic rituals arranged by a professional sadist.

There’s a scene where said sadist ties Joe to a couch, her pelvis on the armrest; he plays with altering Joe’s position slightly by putting a book under her hips, to get just the right angle that might increase lubrication before he proceeds to whip her. And one sees how the whip, upon making contact on Joe’s skin, brings her pain and a simultaneous release. It is at this point in the film that one realizes how insatiable Joe’s need really is. Her adamant search for the ultimate sensation is never ending; it’s a trap. She yearns for that threshold. The momentary intensity of the climax or fulfillment, but that threshold will continually grow farther away. And it’s as if this becomes a metaphor for how elusive happiness and satisfaction can be.

At some point in the film Joe is in an alley, beaten, pissed on, and the only thing she manages to say is, “Fill all my holes.” A piercingly absurd line because of everything that Joe has lived through up to this point; her desire continues to be fulfillment, the absolutely insatiable need to fill oneself to the brim. Everything else, all the rest of the world seems to fade into the background.


(your tax dollars at work)


And I found myself thinking about Joe a lot and wondering if her problem is really all that different from anyone else’s. I was intrigued by this notion of numbing the self to a point of no return, to numbing the self as a means towards fulfillment, to some spiritual awakening. And how at the same time this act of numbing can serve as a sort of mad quest out of the rest of your life. Because for Joe, sex was not only an addiction, it was a way of life, it was how she processed the world, it was how she understood others.

I’ve never been subject to such an addiction, but I do understand on a deep level the necessity for obsession because, in a lot of ways, it serves as a form of self medication. For, there are things that are simply too astounding, too incredible or beautiful, or perhaps too painful, too unbelievable to take in, too excruciating to process, or so incredibly dull that they must be digested, absorbed, in some other way. And our obsessions and passions serve as a way to process all this. They can be a form of self medication.

To fill oneself to the breaking point, to reach an apex of sensation in whatever it is one chooses to do can induce spiritual change over time. To approach the threshold is to be reminded of ones limitations, to be reminded of the ultimate limitation that is mortality, and through that the self is altered. It is a form of taking in reality through periods of intensity, that give us release, that give us comfort. It is, ultimately, a form of self individuation.

(the destination)

All of this brings me to CrossFit.

CrossFit, as I’ve explored in other posts, provides a climactic moment of physical intensity that is, by nature, somewhat necessary for human beings. We need to feel danger and pain in order to grow. We crave moments of passion, of intensity. And if the typical day in day out doesn’t offer that, if we feel too safe, if life is too monotonous, then we need to simulate it by artificially creating scenarios.

In some strange, and perhaps minimal way, CF provides a simulation, or at least an opportunity to reach some kind of threshold by its intensely designed workouts. This threshold serves as a climax, a high of the addictive kind.

However, like for Joe, it seems that the more one does it, the farther away that threshold becomes. So that there is never a point where one could simply stop; it is a perpetual desire to reach this state again and gain. And it is through this process of subjecting oneself to the intensity (and the needed release) that exercise becomes more than merely a means to “get in shape.” It has the potential to be a form of self inflicted change, a form of self individuation.

There exists a kind of climax in a well composed workout of the day. The high of that sensation usually involves an accelerated heart rate, muscle fatigue, adrenaline, and a burst of endorphins.

The threshold is when you cannot go any faster, when you cannot do another rep, when you cannot possibly do another clean, and you reach a state where you become one big pumping heart: numb to everything else in your life, but simultaneously hyper-aware of your physical self. It is, in some way, the state Joe longed for when she demanded that all ‘her holes be filled.’ Which, again, is an absurd line, but poetic in that it’s quite simple; it begs for completion. And absolute completion, is impossible.

CF provides the high and the release, which happens after a workout, when your body has reached a pinnacle and then comes back down. And this release, I find, provides a kind of momentary shield from the rest of the world. Nothing can touch you during those moments because you’ve numbed yourself. The world gets a little farther and it becomes easier to deal with it; it’s a moment of detached vulnerability. The soreness of muscles becomes something you can disappear into.

Reaching this state regularly then, to force the body to perform tasks under strain is a way to self inflict change, both physiological and psychological.

(and a little farther)

Was it William Faulkner that said, “The meaning of life is that it stops.” And aren’t we all so aware of this? If the French refer to the orgasm the little death, was Joe trying to, in some way, approach that threshold every day? Again and again. To die and be reborn over and over. Rather, to approach the limits as a kind of challenge. And don’t many of us look for ways, physically and intellectually, in which to approach death as a way to satisfy that curiosity and/or dread?

And not so different from Joe, I find myself searching for things that will allow me to feel MORE, to reach a level of physical discomfort and pain that somehow verifies something about myself. This search however, often becomes an endless desire, insatiable. It is a constant approach to the edge of something, which becomes exhausting, but also a way to change, a way to reject stasis.

To demand of the body to reach its limits again and again, even if for a moment. For only through the approach of these thresholds do we begin to understand what really composes us.

I certainly don’t impress anybody with my lifting, or skills, for they are rudimentary by all accounts, but it’s the fact that CF, like writing, like many other things, makes one constantly reach for more and what I’ve noticed is that it has the capacity to slowly transform.

One definition of the word “nymph” refers to the immature form of some invertebrates. It is the state before they reach, “adult.” That’s how we all begin: with only potential of what we could be. And it is up to us to inflict change, to grow into that potential, to morph into something els and that takes work, it takes dedication, it takes obsession. Aren’t we, after all, simply chasing a better version of ourselves?

And just like Joe’s slow decline into madness; there is a madness to CrossFit. There is a growing necessity for that feeling of wanting to feel more, to feel everything, to fill oneself completely in order that one might reach the top, the little death, and then come down and do it all over again. Only next time you want to do it faster, with more weight, with better technique, with grace. The barbell becomes the drug, la petit mort and we become like Joe, perpetually chasing more. 

Mari GomezComment