Saturday, April 04, 2015

Greaves and pauldrons

Mark Kingwell on Paul Fussell. It was at age thirteen or fourteen I think that I first read Fussell's The Great War and Modern Memory. (I also had a treasured copy of Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, loaned to me I suspect by my singularly inspiring teacher Deborah Dempsey!) I had the electrifying sense of reading a book that was something like what I wanted to write myself someday - I had already had that feeling very strongly based on novels by Robert Graves, Anthony Burgess and a few others (Gore Vidal?), but this was a new vision of what might be possible....

The best thing about Mark's Hilobrow shout-out to P. Fussell was that it reminded me of the existence of a book I heard about on its first publication but never read, and which was perhaps more perfectly suited to my current state of mind than anything else imaginable: Sam Fussell's Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder. Happily for me, this book has just been reissued, and I devoured this week (again, curiously, thinking - this is inspirational in terms of a book I might write myself one of these days!).

Here are a few snippets. First, on coming across a copy of Arnold Schwarzenegger's Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder in the autobiography section of the Strand in September 1984:
As for his body, why, here was protection, and loads of it. What were these great chunks of tanned, taut muscle but modern-day armor? Here were breastplates, greaves, and pauldrons aplenty, and all made from human flesh. He had taken stock of his own situation and used he weight room as his smithy. A human fortress--a perfect defense to keep the enemy host at bay. What fool would dare storm those foundations?
Pre-iron, I'd spent my days convicting myself of avarice and envy and sloth. To become something else seemed the only alternative. As long as I covered myself with the equivalent of scaffolding and labeled myself a "work in progress" I could escape the doubt and uncertainty that plagued my past and spend every second of my present concentrating on a pristine future. I hated the flawed, weak, vulnerable nature of being human as much as I hated the Adam's apple which bobbed beneath my chin. The attempt at physical perfection grew from seeds of self-disgust.
It had begun to dawn on me that the whole building thing might be merely a parody of labor, and I myself a well-muscled dilettante. What would Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, think of bodybuilding? He had to be turning over in his grave. After all, the iron we lifted didn't help build a bridge or a battleship or a skyscraper. It enlarged our biceps and spread the sweep of our thighs. The labor of farmers and factory workers and longshoremen had a kind of dignity and purpose that ours didn't.
Here's an excellent interview with Fussell about the bodybuilding, the book and the paths his life has taken since.

Bonus link: Lionel Shriver on the body as a trench coat.

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