On Sam Fussell’s Muscle”

June 18, 2019 ☼ essaybodybuilding

The intended audience of Fussell’s memoir was that large (though now diminishing) proportion of the public who, like his parents, regarded bodybuilding as inherently ridiculous… In fact, the whole structure of the book reflects this audience expectation: it is a katabasis, figuring Fussell’s foray into bodybuilding as a descent into the underworld.

Samuel Wilson Fussell, “Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder,” Abacus, 1992

Sam Fussell is the son of Paul Fussell, historian and author of The Great War and Modern Memory. In that book, Fussell Sr. wrote that its subtitle could be An Inquiry into the Curious Literariness of Real Life”; I would like to take this as the motto of all of my projects. Fussell Sr. makes a couple of appearances in his son’s memoir, Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder (1991), including one towards the end (of Fussell Jr.’s bodybuilding career and hence the book):

Muscle,” 253.

At the news that I’d abandoned bodybuilding but started a book on the subject, my father sent me a wire celebrating what he called my iron étude.” All is forgiven,” he said, literature is bigger than people.” As an author, I’d resumed my rightful place among the patricians.

Clearly, the intended audience of Fussell’s memoir was that large (though now diminishing) proportion of the public who, like his parents, regarded bodybuilding as inherently ridiculous. Much of the memoir is therefore shaped around this audience’s expectations, not least the prodigal son conceit above. In fact, the whole structure of the book reflects this audience expectation: it is a katabasis, figuring Fussell’s foray into bodybuilding as a descent into the underworld.

The Record for David Foster Wallace’s copy of “Muscle” at the Harry Ransom Center Another coincidence: googling for the cover image above, my eye was caught by a hit also referring to David Foster Wallace. It transpires that Foster Wallace owned a copy of Fussell’s memoir; the catalogue promises notations throughout text.” Is this surprising? Not really: Foster Wallace was drawn, in his sports writing and elsewhere, to the extreme things people do with their bodies. Moreover, bodybuilding may have furnished an irresistible example of American kitsch for one of its preemininent literary collectors.

In her Hell in Contemporary Literature (2007), Rachel Falconer describes the katabatic imagination”: a world-view which conceives of selfhood as the narrative construct of an infernal journey and return” (2). That constructive selfhood is of definitional importance to modern katabasis is born out in Fussell’s contribution to the genre. Falconer cites Dante as the katabatic writer with the most influence on modern literature, for having put the autobiographical, narrativised self” at the centre of his work (2).

In this respect, Dante’s Divine Comedy stands poised between the great classical epics of katabatic self-making, principally the Aeneid, and the modern tradition of confessional autobiography. In this respect, Augustine is interesting figure to triangulate with Virgil and Dante: Augustine venerated Virgil’s Aeneid, he was placed by Dante in the Paradisos Empyrean. At the same time, his Confessions inaugurated a long line of self-interrogative autobiography in the West, not infrequently borrowing or adapting Augustines’s own title, right down to Fussell’s example in the present. The two senses of the word confession” are always in play here, as every searching account of oneself is necessarily an admission of culpability.

Etymologically, katabasis means going down,” and nobody makes its connection with self-formation clearer than Nietzsche, who, throughout Thus Spoke Zarathustra refers to Zarathustra’s untergehen, or going down.” This going down is also Zarathustra’s prescription for humanity; untergehen also means to come to an end,” to be destroyed,” or to perish”: these are the kind of thing that must happen to man” in order to produce the superman,” and this is the sense in which the creation of the superman is both a going across” (“man is a rope stretched over an abyss”) and a doing down,” a play on words that every translator of Nietzsche has grappled with. That there is something destructive and purgative in the process of self-creation is also reflected in Fussell’s story.

But whereas Nietzsche’s going down is supposed to begin a new epoch, katabasis instead usually ends in a return-with-a-difference: the reintegration of the returned hero into the community he had left, or the continuation of his larger voyage. As the (ambivalently ironic) quotation above suggests, the end point of Fussell’s journey was also his reintegration into the community he had spurned by becoming a bodybuilder: among the patricians.” In that sense this is a reverse katabasis: the descent is harrowing, yes, but there’s no prophetic insight to be found at the bottom. Instead wisdom consists in reconciling oneself to the world one had fled from.

This is the meaning of the term unlikely” in the book’s title: by the logic of the time, someone with Fussell’s background (academic family, Oxford education, job in publishing, etc.) was not supposed to become a bodybuilder. Hence he refers throughout to bodybuilding—or the muscle fixation underlying it—as the disease.”

This, too, is conditioned by audience expectation: the class connotations of bodybuilding were different then than they are today. So to explain the hold it developed on him, he adduces the late 80s crime wave in New York City and the fear he felt as a resident of that beleaguered place. From this state of mind, Fussell adduces a broader desire to cut himself off from a threatening world, building a barrier between himself and the outside literally instantiated in muscle:

Muscle,” 22, 24.

My New York days I spent running wide-eyed in fear down city streets; my nights passed in closeted toilet-bound terror in my sublet. My door triple-locked, windows nailed shut, the curtains, needless to say, drawn. The place was going to explode at any moment—I could feel it—and I less I gained something fast, some uniform, some Velcro, I would catapult into oblivion along with the rest of the shards. Caught in this nightmare, I needed something, anything, to secure my safety…

I quickly sought shelter in the nearest building, which turned out to be the New York landmark, The Strand bookstore. I was an appropriate refuge—I’d used books all my life for protection. I caught my breath and, as was my custom, made way to the autobiography section (I frequently found myself there wondering how they coped with life).

The Strand Bookstore today.

It was in this aisle, in this store, in September of 1984, that I finally caught the disease.” Here it was I came across Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder by Arnold Schwarzenegger. A glimpse of the cover told me all I needed to know…

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 the weight room as his smithy. A human fortress—a perfect defence to keep the enemy host at bat. What fool would dare storm those foundations?

Well, it is a feature of the memoir as a genre that it affords us limited grounds on which to quibble with its psychological self-diagnoses, which we’re encouraged to take at face value. So a pervasive sense of physical insecurity sends our man to the weights room; could it equally (and perhaps more effectively?) send him to self-defence or boxing classes? Is a bodybuilder’s physique an effective charm against violence? Or is it a beacon for it?

One consequence of his describing bodybuilding as a disease” is that Fussell mustn’t give too persuasive an account of its pleasures. Confronted with the ascetic withdrawal from sociality, the obsessive eating, the gruelling workouts, his reader would be justified in asking, what pleasures?” But some of these are reasonably obvious: there is pleasure in asceticism and discipline, and pleasure in some of the forms of social recognition granted to built bodies. But the truely interesting challenge for the bodybuilding memoir is to articulate the far more esoteric pleasures without which we struggle to account for bodybuilding’s appeal: the pleasure of taking up space, the experience of bodily change, and so on.

Bodybuilding is a sensory feast, and not only, or even primarily, a visual one. Is internal bodily awareness, strictly speaking, a sensory experience? Whether it is or it isn’t, bodybuilding affords a suite of internal sensations (for lack of a better term) that, while they might be experienced to greater or lesser degrees in the pursuit of many sports, occur here with peculiar intensity. New contours strain against the seams of familiar garments, new ways of moving emerge around the unfamiliar ways that newly-built muscles move.

In other words, bodybuilding is a bodily experience of the uncanny. Any experience of the uncanny is, if we read Freud’s essay closely, a bodily experience, but does Freud have an account of how we may or may not feel at home in our own bodies? That bodybuilding can produce a pleasurable sense of alienation from oneself in the form of surprise at one’s own body is Kathy Acker’s conclusion in Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body” (1993):

Acker, Bodies of Work,” 150.

By trying to control, to shape, my body through the calculated tools and methods of bodybuilding, and time and again, in following these methods, failing to do so, I am able to meet that which cannot be finally controlled and known: the body.

In this meeting lies the fascination, if not the purpose of bodybuilding. To come face to face with chaos with my own failure or a form of death.

For Freud, the uncanny tends to appear at the moment when the animate and the inanimate swap positions: the automaton and the corpse may equally be uncanny. Part of bodybuilding’s uncanniness arises, I think, from the gap between intentions and results: I intend my body to grow, and so I lift weights and consume calories, but my intention is borne out only gradually, sometimes almost imperceptibly, so that when the result appears, it seems unbidden. At the outset, at least: over time, we develop an attentiveness to the slightest shifts in diet and training, and their minute impacts on the body’s condition. The daily mutability of the body still surprises even as its specifics become predictable.

Fussell is less drawn to these representational challenges than I would like because the account he has to give of bodybuilding is of a flight from the self rather than a quest for it. He comes closest in his description of shaving his body for the first time:

Muscle,” 84.

And when I rose from the tub and looked down at my naked form, I was amazed. It wasn’t the body—it was the blood. I looked as if I’d run a full marathon through briars. I waited for the sharp shock of pain, but it didn’t come. I didn’t feel a thing. I was no longer connected to my own body. I had become simply an abstract concept, a shell to be polished and plucked with regularity.

When I was dressed, the scrape of fabric on my skin constantly served to remind me of the state of this shell, a shell so foreign and cumbrous that I found myself bumping into door frames, lamp shades, easy chairs. My size had come so quickly that I hadn’t learnt to accomodate it.

But bodybuilding remains an ineluctably visual phenomenon: chief among the bodybuilder’s aims is to be seen, by peers at gyms, by passers-by on the street, and by judges at competitions, where the competitors are judged not strictly on their measurements, but on their ability to provide a visual spectacle for the judges and the audience. In the bodybuilding memoir, that visual aspect becomes a guarantor of the text’s verisimilitude. How can we know that the book is a true account of its author’s experience? By looking at photographs like this:


Fussell as a Bodybuilder in 1988, from Muscle”

Fussell as a Bodybuilder in 1988, from “Muscle”


Paratexts,” 1.

Genette has surprisingly little to say in Paratexts about author photographs, but surely they are a very potent example of what he means by the verbal or other productions, such as an author’s name, a title, a preface, illustrations… [that] present it, in the usual sense of this verb but also in the strongest sense: to make present, to ensure the text’s presence in the world, its reception’ and consumption in the form (nowadays, at least) of a book.” Photographs, of course, can deceive, and the author’s built body may cover for any number of other embellishments. Nonetheless, there is a significant entanglement of the visual with the textual here that the very notion of a bodybuilding memoir makes apparent.

As impressive as Fussell is in his final form as a bodybuilder, my eye is caught by a picture from earlier in his evolution:


Fussell and Hero Isagawa, from Muscle.”

Fussell and Hero Isagawa, from “Muscle”


If we are to argue that the bodybuilding aesthetic has migrated into the mainstream, we need to account for the fact that the vast majority of people who now lift weights don’t participate in bodybuilding contests (or powerlifting contests, for that matter). Their pursuit of a built physique is not mimetic of the competitive bodybuilder, in other words. Instead they lift weights in pursuit of something perhaps closer to the second picture: full and built without the unsustainable extremity of a bodybuilder’s conditioning.