Muscle: Confessions Of An Unlikely Bodybuider
Samuel Wilson Fussell/Poseidon Press/252 pp.
Leon J. Podles
In 1983 Sam Fussell graduated from Oxford and took a publishing job
in Manhattan before his planned enrollment in American Studies at Yale.
This tall, thin young man, the son of literary critic and war writer
Paul Fussell, had been raised in Princeton, attended Lawrenceville and
Oxford, and had been sheltered from urban American life. His size (6'4"),
skinniness, and academic demea nor made him a target for all the nuts
and con men that infest Manhattan. He was literally scared shitless.
He came down with chronic diarrhea, as well as pleurisy. His parents
had just divorced and he had nowhere to go. He was tired of being hurt
physically and emotionally by life. He decided to take up bodybuilding.
It was quite a change from Oxford and Princeton. Ever the academic,
he researched the subject in the bodybuilding magazines before he took
the plunge. The gym at the Y was not what he expected. It was full of
homosexuals and maniacs busy constructing shells to protect themselves
from reality. He built himself up to 257 pounds and was able to bench-press
405. He left his publishing job (to avoid getting fired for throwing
a coworker through a door) and lived off a small inheritance. He moved
to California, studied under the professionals, and became a trainer
in a gym. He filled himself with steroids. He entered shows, and fortunately
lost. Per haps it was the disappointment that brought him to his senses.
He realized that he had started at too late an age (26) ever to have
a "great body," and decided to quit in order to return to
the family tradition of scribbling.
During his bodybuilding episode, his mother tried to comfort herself
by telling her friends that it was a form of art. She was right. It
is a type of art: Mannerism. The ideal male figures in Greek and modern
art bear little resemblance to the bodybuilder's. The antecedents of
bodybuilding are to be found in the Hellenistic and Renaissance Mannerism
that displays a taste for the distorted, the exaggerated, and the perverse,
which sets in when perfection cloys. The bodybuilder, with his bulging
biceps and starved waist, is to the normal athletic male body what Pontormo
is to Raphael. The bodybuilders are conscious of their artistic precursors.
The poses they use in bodybuilding shows are derived from famous Mannerist
statues, such as the Hellenistic Farnese Hercules and Michelangelo's
In writing this book, Sam Fussell recasts his experience with a self-conscious
artistry reminiscent of his father's. Paul Fussell's books on war put
forth the persona of The Hero without parading his own courage: he
admits to near-cowardice during his battlefield experience in France
in 1944. He joined ROTC because he didn't want to display his soft body
in gym. He ended up in a rifle platoon, saw the men he led blown apart,
and was himself severely wounded. He shows himself as the hero who leaves
normal life for the world of combat, there to wrestle with death and
attain a wisdom and a sympathy denied to ordinary men. He is like Gilgamesh,
Odysseus, and Beowulf.
Throughout his book, Sam Fussell uses the metaphor of bodybuilding as
military action. He speaks of men being "in the trenches too long," and
of a buttock scarred from steroid injections as looking like an aerial
photograph of Ypres. Like the soldier in combat, Sam Fussell attains
something of wisdom. He has a sense of irony, and realizes the ersatz
nature of this heroism, but he does come to realize the folly of building
shells as protection from pain, and is able to return to normal life.
Sam Fussell places his escapade in the context of self-invention, the
particularly American belief that you can make yourself whatever you
want to be. He wanted to be a musclebound bully, so he made himself
one. The Princeton background did not fit into this persona, so he invented
a new one. When asked about his father:
I couldn't very well pipe up
and say, "Oh, he's a literary and
cultural critic, perhaps you're familiar with his latest—it's just out
in paper you know, The Rhetorical World of Augustan
that wouldn't do. I had to find something stronger, something nobler.
"He's dead," I said.
"Was he a lifter?" Nimrod asked suspiciously, pausing with his fork at his mouth.
I was in over my head, but I couldn't stop now.
"He certainly was," I lied. "His
name was Tug. He was so massive, they buried him in a piano case and lowered
the casket into the grave by crane."
The transformation of Jimmy Gatz into Jay Gatsby looms in the background.
But like William Henry Harrison with his nonexistent log cabin or Ben
Franklin in London with his coonskin cap, Sam Fussell engages in reverse
social climbing. Like his father, who wrote keenly on American social
distinctions in Class, he enjoys slumming. And he turns self-invention
into an art form; he concocts a bizarre background to fit his bizarre
body, so that the Mannerist reconstruction of self can be complete.
Bodybuilding is a profound warping of sexual identity. "Health
fascists," Fussell calls the gym rats. But although fascist, bodybuilding
is not Nazi: blacks and others whom Hitler would have regarded as Untermenschen
are successful and admired in the field. Bodybuilding bears the sweaty
aroma of Mussolini's hypermasculine ideology and of the artistic game
that Futurists like Marinetti made of war and masculinity. Bodybuilders
quote slogans reminiscent of that cripple and weakling Nietzsche: "That
which doesn't kill you makes you stronger"; "Only the strong
survive"; "No kindness forgotten, no transgression forgiven." They
wear hats that say "Pray for War." When his mother came to
visit him in the bunker apartment he had found, he was wearing
military fatigues camouflaged to look like tree bark, spitshined black
combat boots, [and] a T-shirt which read "Respect my spirit, for
our spirits are one." ... A cardboard cutout of Arnold with loincloth
and sword as Conan the Barbarian stood against one wall. ... I could
see from the look in her eyes that her worst fears were realized. All
that was missing was a rifle and the President's travel itinerary.
But bodybuilding is also narcissistic and effeminate. Steroid use made
Sam Fussell impotent. He accepted that; sexuality, after all, made
him vulnerable, and he wanted to be cut off from all other human beings.
Homosexuality is prevalent among bodybuilders, and it is, oddly enough,
an effeminate homosexuality. At the Y he encountered "a man dressed
in a sing let and what appea red to be a tutu." The professional
bodybuilder Paul Harris "revealed his marriage to his 'husband,'
male model Rod Jackson, and the joy they shared in their 'children,'
two dogs and a macaw named Barney." Bodybuilders give their bodies
the attention that women give theirs, and do not show the gener al
lack of consciousness of bodily appearance that normal men have. Fussell
also links bodybuilding with pornography, which is an introverted sexuality.
What he does not point out is that bodybuilding is yet another symptom
of America's failure to find a way to help its boys become men. All
other societies have ways of turning boys in to men: puberty rituals,
military se rvice, or the hard and dangerous business of learning
a father's trade. Paul Fussell, like most middle-class parents, tried
to protect his son from the seamy side of life; but there is something
in the young male personality that needs to descend into danger before
it can mature. Young men turn to all sorts of dangers—crime, drugs,
skydiving, risky sex, bodybuilding—to go through the experience that
other societies provide in a structured way, under the guidance of
responsible adult males. Feminists yelp about the disabilities that
young women labor under; I suggest they visit a prison, or an AIDS ward,
or perhaps a military cemetery, and reflect on what happens to young
men in our world.