Reading Camille Paglia’s essays in “Sex, Art and American Culture”, I came across a book that very much appealed to me, especially given that I only became passionate about going to the gym on the cusp of my 30s.
She gave it the highest praise, in her own characteristic way: “Muscle, sympathetically read as an archetypal hero saga of embattled masculinity, exposes the parochialism, preachiness, and bourgeois assumptions in contemporary academe, psychotherapy, and feminism.” Well, I guess I had to read it.
As promised, in 1991’s “Muscle: Confessions of the unlikely bodybuilder” Samuel Fussell pits the world of muscle building lifestyle of mid-1980s US against the bookish world of the cultural elite. He starts of as a scrawny, neurotic, helpless mid 20s New Yorker straight back from Oxford working in publishing and applying for prestigious Lit programmes, and after seeking to become stronger in this sad world, becomes a roided SoCal gym bunny solely devoted to bodybuilding. In the end realises he followed the path of Iron too far.
The book is very well written (save for the longish elaborations of exercise routines and diet): he describes honestly the weirdness of being a newbie in a gym (although these days most people don’t get to be immediately hit on or witness a fight), his paranoia and alienation from his educated peers in New York and the simple joy of becoming bigger and feeling your body more, that lifting weights provides.
Although one can see that certain things were played up (the protagonists bookishness and WASPiness, his gym friends’ weirdness) and others were played down (Fussell’s family dynamics) for both commercial and personal reasons, the book feels honest. After all writing about oneself (and especially one’s family) to a wide audience requires simplifications, embellishments and, of course, a lot of silences.
The only part that sounded rushed and not totally honest was the end, where Fussell, after having an awful time preparing for bodybuilding competitions realises he went too far and turns his back to bodybuilding. There he becomes too self-effacing and accommodating to “desirable” view of bodybuilding as “disease” with little understanding of his personal journey reflects on the late 20th century society and the way it deals with ambitious, bookish young men. Given that his break with his publishing career came after he tossed a colleague through a door, it seemed implausible that he would change his life back with so little drama and so much deference to standards, he tossed out.
As Paglia writes, in her trademark scorching way: “I’ll take the stink of healthy sweat any day over the stink of the authoritarian language of contemporary therapy, which is all over the finale of this book. A wider world perspective is necessary. Surprisingly, sumo wrestlers are mentioned only once in passing. For me, Fussell’s punishing iron adventure belongs to the noble tradition of warriors, athletes, and ascetic monks and yogis.”
However she concludes: ”I myself found this an inspiring book, since I identify not with those who seek comfort and contentment but with those “who strained and starved for the saber,” the “glorious” silver prize that eludes Fussell’s grasp.”
The view of bodybuilding and similar pursuits changed a lot since those days thanks to Instagram, and people like Taleb and Rogan. As I was starting my consulting job in London in early 2010s, going to the gym downstairs was normal, many guys were getting hooked on powerlifting and there was protein shakes and supplements aplenty in the office cupboards. One especially committed, strong and bright colleague, who was famous for his bodybuilder-ish gait in the office even competed.
Admittedly the culture in banks and consultancies is different from that in publishing and literary circles, and if somebody said they were into professional bodybuilding there would probably be a bit more cocked eyebrows, but there would have be no stigma that Fussell faced: the pursuit of ideal body through weights is these days seen as a bit extreme, a bit quirky, less fashionable than running, cycling or rock-climbing but not beyond the pale.
On the other hand, the world became a much harsher place from the mid-1980s and I could not but identify with a lot of Fussell’s motivations for getting hooked on the gym, especially as I got hooked on it recently.
Despite many differences in our experiences – my fitness achievements after four years of training are benching meagre 105kg, and never dipping below 20% boy fat will not make a competitive bodybuilder – I was drawn to Fussell’s story as there are important commonalities: we both discovered the gym late, both come from a family where bodybuilding was stigmatised, both thought of ourselves as physically ill-suited for the world around us (he sickly and gaunt, I perpetually overweight), both of us quit jobs we thought we grew up thinking we were meant to do, to pursue something different (Fussell is now a subsistence hunter and diver).
Deciding to lose weight and get jacked in the gym, after growing up in family and environment in which being muscular was associated with 1980s and 1990s Serbian mafiosi and was considered a big no-no, was something that made my life considerably better in the past few years.
Firstly, like Fussell noticed, pumping muscle, changes the way you view the world and interact with it. There are many laughably dumb articles how gyms make one right-wing, but the feeling of being able to change yourself and feel better daily just by yourself, without anybody’s assistance or praise makes you a bit more inclined to think that self-reliance is the way to go in the world. Then of course there are the physiological effects: less stress, less anxiety, less moodiness, and more energy, more ease with one’s aggressive and destructive impulses, as they finally have an outlet and are not given space to fester.
Then, there is spirit that pervades good (non-pervy, non-money grabbing) gyms: something that I found especially useful during the pandemic, and going through a few rough patches in the past few years. Even if you are a non-builder, there is a sense of honest camaraderie and support. You spot your gym-friends, you given them advice, you care that you don’t get injured, and you notice when they got better, joke with them when they let themselves go. Occasionally this extends outside the gym and outside the gym topics, but even if it is contained it provides for a few hours of uncomplicated, positive, honest social interaction, often with people you would not have met professionally or socially. Fussell torched his haughty social circle for the camaraderie of gym-nuts from all walks of life, who, of course came with a lot of their own baggage and biases.
This appeal extends across ages and genders: when I finally persuaded my mother to get healthier and exercise after her 60th birthday, she immediately made friends in the gym and got hooked on it. When, in a sad twist of ironic fate, she was diagnosed with cancer a bit more than a year later, it was her “gym buddies” who called to offer help and, later, condolences.
That joyful, warm spirit translates even virtually, even there are more scams and nasty beefs than in the real life: during the pandemic, most of the sane advice I got was from body-building obsessed Twitter anons.
Finally, there is the fact that in the world where most of us, but especially cerebral, ambitious people get bogged down in useless, often toxic, jobs (or even more stagnant academia) with no tangible positive effect on the world, pumping muscle is one accessible way of seeing progress in both your environment and yourself, and after a while, in a more profound way makes one feel more attuned to life and reality.
In a rare 2014 interview Fussell notes how what drew him out of publishing was a sense of it being a scam: he expected people there to be impressive and interested in their work, but they weren’t, he expected his hard work and drive to be appreciated, but it was not. Initially in the gym, and later in his subsistence-hunting life, he not only got the chance to really leave a trace on the world around him, but also be a in world that was more lively:
“When I first worked in publishing, I was naïve enough to believe people who worked in publishing read books. Wrong. They work at an assembly line and ‘process product.’ I worked in that assembly line (but, unlike them, I actually went home at night and read books).
So, after 25 years, does it seem real (the bodybuilding part vs. the Joe Versus the Volcano office Barnaby Drudge/Bartleby part)?
Yes, it does seem real.
Because my world went from black-and-white to color as soon as I took one step through the gym door (which I remember like it was yesterday). And through that door (‘the rabbit hole’ as some critics called it), was something missing in the Corporation.”
While Fussell, became disillusioned with bodybuilding due to much of the dishonesty and weirdness that surrounded it, he nevertheless, decades later, he did not seem to have considered his whole path of pumping muscle as a pathological dead-end, but as a strange avenue he pursued towards a more real (and happy) existence. He continued living a more physical, embodied life of hunting and diving, which he finds meaningful:
“Here in north-western Montana, I’ve carved a life for myself without steroids and without mirrors or an audience, but with the capacity for doing good for others”.
Even if you think that pumping muscle is a vain, bizarre, and even sick pursuit, in a world in which collecting neuroses and pathologizing normal behaviour is the name of the game, it is good thing to try once in a while. At least try it vicariously, by reading “Muscle”.