If you’re reading this, you should read Muscle, by Samuel Wilson Fussell, because it’s about a topic that can’t be taught, only recognized and cultivated: obsession. Obsession propels people past skill and into mastery, it’s the thing that moves from “good” into “top”. Don’t think I quite have it, myself, right now, though maybe I did, at one point. It’s the thing you do for no reason, however many “reasons” you come up with, the thing that keeps you moving. Why’d Sam get obsessed? He thinks ’80s New York streets scared him, and that could be a small part, but it sounds like an excuse. The muscle thing could be a rebellion against his parents, he implies. Could be some third thing, I’d say, and the truth is probably tautological, it got him cause it got him.
You can ask a similar question, why do some guys go from normal healthy high interest in quim to extreme obsession? I could also ask where “normal healthy” interest ends and “weirdo obsession” begins, and I could ask because I don’t properly know. We can tell each other stories about it, no one knows, not really, and the more you explore the topic, the more the topic expands to “What is a good life?”, “What is the purpose of life”, that sort of thing, that doesn’t have universal answers when you push down hard enough. Sam spends four years getting buff and two taking steroids, and he “was swabbed in posing oil and competition color, flexing with all my might, when I came to, a sadder and wiser man.” Was he wiser? I don’t know. He spends time in diapers, barely able to move, eating baby food and getting his “friends” to inject roids into his ass. No thanks, personally. Go all the way through the obsession and maybe you learn something, though… I think I’ve gone through an obsession, stuck my head out the other side, and wondered at what’s going on, like a dog with his head out the window of a car. Sam’s undergone transformation, I guess, but what he’d learned I’m not sure we know, except that bodybuilding is boring… his last chapter unconvincingly covers the supposed things he’s learned, but it’s the least convincing part of the book. Sam goes from too much in his head, thinking, to too much in his body, doing, but I guess he bothers with both just to generate feelings. Life is a series of feelings, you try to maximize the good ones, minimize the bad ones, but “good” and “bad” get sticky when you try to define them right, or when you think about short term and long term outcomes.
My own near-obsession is closer to well-roundedness… a boring obsession but one that’s worked out all right. Obsession with an individual component of the rounded player, whether weight training, fashion, money, whatever, probably doesn’t work that well and hits diminishing returns. Yeah, you can be an obsessive lifter… but if your social skills and killer instinct are shite, you probably won’t do so well. Great social skills, terrible body? You’ll underperform. Put a lot of the pieces together and you become the player.
Sam barely f**ks, in his story. He had a thing with a woman with a fiancé, broken off, and she’s never really described. He goes on a date with a female body builder. Gross. He’s married to the gym… would be better off marrying the computer, the need to put a rocket in space, math… topics that make the world into a better version of itself. The gym is too close to a kind of narcissism. It’s gross, too, the drugs, the injections, the constant eating. He funds his gym obsession with an inheritance, and it’s not clear where his money really comes from. But I recognize the obsession driving the lifting… I had it, probably, for a while, and did some things some normal people would call gross. I’ve been called similar words when I’ve been with younger, hotter women, because going with them violates the social order. I’m not a big violator of the social order, except for one or two important ways.
Sam isn’t interested in f**king, but he’s into the mind f**k that is his body-building life. We learn nothing, really, about his friends or his social world, except that he says he loses his friends. We learn about his parents, who are out-of-touch ciphers. Maybe isolation from the bulk of humanity is good for obsession, I don’t know. A lot of players seem unable to bond properly with others, but maybe that’s a thing with people who write online too much. Other people give definition to you, and other people are going to judge you by the people you’re friends with. Some players seem to have problems with getting and retaining chicks because the players writing online don’t seem to have friends or a well-developed offline, real-world social world, something normal chicks are very keen to judge, and for good reasons. Sam’s parents think he’s crazy, maybe because he’s more interested in bodybuilding than getting laid or supporting himself with income. They might not be wrong. I think he’s crazy, cause he’s not even bothering to use his new muscle armor to try and get laid, the most obvious thing to do with it. One of his housemates, a guy named either Bamm Bamm or Nimrod, or maybe one of the others, appears in pornos, it seems, although I’m not sure how given the quantity of steroids ingested.
I’m not telling you to become a bodybuilder, but I am saying a hard hour, four days a week in the gym, and the low-carb diet will yield up improvements, though all improvements diminish at some point. A million is a huge quality of life improvement, ten million less so. Get to enough cash, though, and you can bend the trajectory of the human species and experience, but most guys who make that much seem to make it just to keep watching the numbers go higher. Sufficient obsession becomes a ouroboros into self-obsession. It’s not about the weight, the money, the girls, the whatever, anymore, it’s about the person doing it and his interest in himself. The people outside your world fall away, don’t recognize you anymore, and you’re just looking for other hardcore maniacs.
Sam is meant for something else, “The son of two university professors of English, I was next in line to assume the academic mantle. My parents’ only cause for concern was the fact that I preferred American literature to English.” Except he quiets the voice in his head by lifting massive weights in a training frenzy. He probably didn’t do great with chicks, cause “At six feet four and 170 pounds… I had always been gaunt. But now, with rasping lungs and cadaverous complexion, I looked like an outpatient from Bellevue.” Solution? Get f**kin’ buff. Swole. Hit the gym. He does. He’s young, that helps. His entrance is Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, also a great book. It’s his Odyssey. F**k Achilles, it’s all about Arnold, who guys project their dreams on. Sam thinks Arnold lives “without apology, without complaint, without compliance. And to think, as he wrote in his autobiography, he owed it all to bodybuilding.” Maybe that’s true, maybe it’s not. Maybe Arnold is just low in agreeableness, lots of people are. I think I’m probably average in agreeableness, maybe slightly lower than average. Like a lot of things, too low you got problems, too high you got problems.
If he’d interrupted his training, done mushrooms, or LSD, and looked into his soul, and then at the world, what would’ve he seen? We don’t know. It takes four years for him to quit, move on, but move on to what? We don’t know that either. I wonder what adult Sam makes of that period. I’d like to read an additional chapter, what he thinks and feels decades later. Time gives us perspective we lack in the moment. The physical copy of the book I have says he “resides in Montana” and “Since 2004 he has lived as a subsistence hunter and worked as a rescue, recovery, and salvage scuba diver for the Flathead County Sherriff Dive Rescue Team.” There’s a whole story in there, waiting to be told, if he’s still alive. Whoever he was, wasn’t working.
Sam takes on a serious mental and physical challenge. For just about any human, it’s not possible to be fit without challenge. If you’re not challenging your body, you’re not going to be fit. School is miserable for a lot of people because they don’t like the mental challenge (TV is easier). The people who really succeed at anything succeed cause they overcome the challenge. Ideally, they get obsessed with the challenge state.
What should a guy reading this take away? Imagine that you want to get laid more than anything else in the world. Would you change your diet to remove sugars & carbs? Would you stretch, improve mobility and flexibility, hit the gym? If you won’t do those things, do you really want to get laid? How can you tell? How hard are those things, really, compared to colonizing Mars? Would you stop having unrealistic expectations for the chicks in your kill zone? What else would you do? The people who really want to do a thing behave differently from the people who say they want to do a thing. Sam wants to be a different person than the pencil-neck literary guy he was. He changed. The knowledge about how to execute change is commonly available. It can be found in a few minutes online. The execution of that knowledge may take months of years, but a determined person will achieve it. Most people aren’t determined in most fields, including me. It’s only possible to be determined in one or a small number of fields. For a guy who’s never gotten laid consistently with hot chicks, becoming determined to do so seems like a decent challenge to me, at least for a few years. But Sam also says being a bodybuilder is a role play, a live-action roleplay (LARP, to use the modern term), because what bodybuilders do “seemed rehearsed—as rehearsed, in fact, as any performance I’d ever seen on stage.” “Much of being a bodybuilder, I gathered, meant playing at being a bodybuilder.” Should sound familiar.
Get obsessed, stay obsessed, if you want to be at the top. Obsession is often lonely. Sam says of bodybuilders, “Mostly, they walk alone.” He sings “of my own solitary pilgrimage.” Writers are often obsessive loners. Daygamers seem the same. The obsession take you away from the normal fellowship of man and into your own world, or a world peopled by other obsessives not interested in one another’s intrinsic human worth but in performance, often extreme performance. Maybe we all need to spend a few years there, so we can bring back the boon.
Thirty years after the events described he did a detailed interview, and shows himself to be a man who won’t or can’t live like other men. Is that good, bad, or just his personality? I can’t say.