Sunday, January 28, 2007


To Arnold, bodybuilding was the world. In Sir Isiah Berlin's famous essay 'The Hedgehog and the Fox', the historian of ideas argues "there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory." Arnold was a hedgehog who pulled most of his meaning, purpose, faith, ambition, and ideas out of bodybuilding. For almost anyone else, it would have been like divining water from the desert sand, but Arnold filled his glass up. When he said years later that everything he knew from life he had learned from bodybuilding, he was not far from wrong.

-- Laurence Leamer,
Fantastic: The Life Of Arnold

In Fantastic, Laurence Leamer's exceptional new biography of Arnold Schwarzenegger, there's a photograph of the young titan posing with his bodybuilding friends at the lake in the village of Thal, Austria, where he was born and raised. It is the summer of 1963, and Schwarzenegger is sixteen years old. In a few more months, American President John F.Kennedy will be shot dead in Dallas, Texas. The world will shift.

But let us linger on that picture a moment longer in this more innocent time, and the let the world's oncoming cataclysmic change remain distant. For here we have the freshness of youth, and the seeds of Arnold. If you had asked the residents of Thal, Austria, on this bright summer morning what would become of young Schwarzenegger, the policeman's son, the boy in the centre of the photograph (posed between childhood chums Karl Gerstl and Willi Richter), they would have answered, most likely, that he would become a carpenter, as his parents hoped, as his schooling led towards, and he would, most certainly, stay in Thal, get married, raise a family. Everyone did. You didn't leave Thal. And if you had had the temerity to suggest during this final summer of Kennedy's reign that young Arnold would, in fact, marry John F. Kennedy's niece, and become the most successful bodybuilder in the history of humanity, and the biggest movie star in the entire world, and the two-term Governor of the State of California in the United States of America, well. They would think you were mad, the citizens of Thal would. And rightly so. Nobody would believe you.

Nobody but Arnold himself.

For the essence of Arnold's story is the power of belief. Belief not in a higher being, but a belief in oneself. A belief in the possibilities of belief itself.

Fantastic is an appropriate name for this biography, and not only because it is Schwarzenegger's favorite word. Arnold's whole life is improbable and absurd. How could a boy from the middle of nowhere, in rural Austria, become a world champion in a little-understood, little-seen sport? How could a young man who spoke no English conquer the American silver screen? How could an immigrant be elected, twice, to the most powerful position (outside of the presidency) in American politics?

The book attempts to answer these questions, and the answer lies in the philosophy of Arnold Schwarzenegger himself.

From bodybuilding, Arnold learned that there were no limits, imagined or otherwise. He would push himself to the point of exhaustion, to the point of passing out. He believed that the true training began when everyone else quit. Sculpting his body was a means by which his will could be actualized, repeatedly, and the final result was nothing more than the logical result of one's own focused, laserlike intention.

Becoming the best bodybuilder of all time would have been enough for most men, any man. For Arnold, it was just the beginning.

People have always written that Arnold went out and got himself a Kennedy. No. He and I fell in love. He wasn't finished growing and he saw in me someone who believed he could go further. And nobody felt that he could go further but the two of us. And everybody laughed at his dreams. People were mad at me, because I was supposedly taking him further away. That's where Arnold wanted to go. You can't take a guy like Arnold somewhere he doesn't want to go.

-- Maria Shriver

By the time Schwarzenegger met Maria Shriver, daughter of Kennedy's sister, Eunice, and Sargent Shriver, founder of the Peace Corps, his bodybuilding career was all but over. It was on to bigger and better things. In Shriver he found somebody who could accompany him on the next stage of his journey. His mother wanted him to come home to Austria. After all, hadn't he done enough? Wasn't complete mastery of the bodybuilding world enough?

Actually, no.

Arnold set his sights on the world of cinema. He did not expect to become the best actor in the world, but he did forsee himself becoming the biggest movie star in the world.

Given that his English was heavily accented, his social graces almost non-existent, his sense of humor bawdy and outraegous, his acting skills non-existent, his politcal leanings Republican in a Hollywood that leaned distinctly Democraticm this would seem an exceedingly unlikely aim.

For Arnold, the policeman's son from Thal, it was perfectly plausible.

And here is thus revealed Schwarzenegger's most compelling quality: his enthusiasm in the potential of his own possibilities. Life is not an endeavor to be limited by the actions of others. Life, in Schwarzenegger's philosophy, can bent towards ourselves. Should we work hard enough. Should we seek our goals strongly enough. Should we demand levels of intensity within ourselves that are unseen even by our own secret souls, but must be summoned nevertheless.

Time Magazine: You wrote Arnold Schwarzenegger's first big action film, Conan The Barbarian. How do you think he's doing as governor?

Oliver Stone: It's irrelevant. He's got a face that people like and forgive. Arnold is one of the great faces of the 20th and 21st centuries. He's taken humanity to the cyborg stage, truly. Even at the time of Conan, we knew this man was a champion and nothing could stop his will.

-- April 19, 2004

By the time Schwarzenegger was elected Governor of California in 2003, he had long seen his silver-screen career begin to dwindle and fade. Not to worry. The foundations of the next chapter of his life had already been planted years before. He had worked with the first President Bush on national fitness programs; he had long been involved in Republican political events. The chaos of the California recall of 2003 added a carnival-like level to his candiacy, but his motives were serious and focused: He would change California.

And he tried. So much so that by the time Fantastic was published in 2005, it looked like Arnold was on his way out, that all his forceful rhetoric and unwanted special-elections had aggravated the California voting constituency to the point where he his approval ratings were at an all-time low. Leamer concludes his biography on a rather downbeat note, speculating that Schwarzenegger himself does not realize the extent of the morass he finds himself in: "If the last chapters of Arnold's life were to be a thick and worthy tome, they would have to be written in different colors and different tones. This was probably the most difficult challenge of Arnold's life, double difficult because he seemed not even to realize that he faced it."

So what did Arnold do?

He changed tactics, spending the last year of his first term of office mending fences with voters, reaching out to the Democrats he had recently ridiculed, promoting his environmental policies and reminding voters why they had liked him to begin with. As Oliver Stone pointed out, Arnold's face is one that people will choose to forgive, and they did, re-electing him by a landslide last fall.

Arnold enters his sixties as the two-term Governor of California. He turned it all around. And to one who has witnessed the astonishing rise of his ascent, one can only say: Of course.

Arnold used to say when he went to the gym on a rainy day, the sun was shining around the gym only. He can walk in the rain, he used to say, and it pours, and he's dry. Just like a spotlight of no rain is around him. I get goose bumps when he says this, because I've seen it. I've seen it so many times. He's bulletproof. I don't know what it is. It's something you can't even describe with words. He's chosen. I mean, it's a little tough to use that word. But he's chosen. They don't come around too often.

-- Sven Thorsen,
long-time friend

So what, one is tempted to say. Bodybuilding is a silly sport, most of his movies were terrible (box-office success notwithstanding), and politics is a crook's game to begin with. Fair enough. But the significance of Schwarzenegger's life has little do with the specifics and everything to do with the generalities that can be extracted from it.

Schwarzenegger is a testatement to intent. Plain and simple. What he intended, he achieved. I've long believed that if you want something, you will get it, and the formula for achieving such a goal is unique to the individual. You will learn how to write a book by writing a book; you will learn a language by learning the language. The how is irrelevant and particular to every different person; if the intent is there, the process will begin.

So many of us drift through life with no intentions, and are surprised that nothing substantial has been achieved. Schwarzenegger set goals, achieved them, learned from them, and moved on. If you don't aim, you can't score. All the stuff they teach us in grade school; all the stuff we forget. Arnold never forgot, and he never stopped moving, and he never looked back.

His life is not a saint's, and the biography paints a portrait of man that has his fair share of flaws. But it is also, at its core, a story of hope. Hope for the future. Hope that we can grow, excel, become better than we once were.

The most insightful observation the book makes is its acknowledgement that Arnold's success was not simply a lust for power, a monstrous testament to his own ego, as many critics claim. To the contrary, in fact. In life, Arnold did whatever brought him the greatest joy. If it made him feel good, he went after it. Bodybuilding provided the jumpstart, followed by acting, followed by politics, where he ultimately saw, based on the humanitarian legacy of his in-laws, that the most fulfilling contribution to life could be enacted by serving others.

Was Arnold 'chosen', as his friend Sven Thorsen claims?

Well, let's listen to one of Schwarzenegger's political consultants, a former speechwriter for Arnold's idol, Ronald Reagan, as recounted in Fantastic:

"Arnold built himself more than Reagan built himself," the speechwriter reflected. "Reagan felt the power of ideas. And Arnold feels the power of himself."

So, yes -- he was chosen to do great and mighty things.

Chosen by himself.

His greatest talent is his ability to learn new skills, to search and find the people who can advise him on how to obtain those skills. Then he masters these new skills and uses them when he goes in a new direction. Whether it be how to win a bodybuilding contest, become a successful businessman, make it big in movies, and now in the political arena. He just adds, adds, adds to his fund of knowledge and skills all the time. Most people can add a little bit here and there, or in only one direction, but he has added in all directions. He's learned from everything he does and has become a better all-around person for it. Believe me, I never thought Arnold would rise so high in certain aspects of his personality, but he did -- he surprises me all the time. Arnold is the Arnold he is today because of the learning process he has gone, and continues to go, through. His ability to learn is unparalleled by anyone I've ever know.

-- Albert Busek,
Schwarzenegger friend

The summer of 1963. At the lake in the village of Thal, Austria. Three friends pose for the camera, flexing, smiling their teenage smiles. The one in the middle is looking straight at us, into the future. He is happy but focused. He will leave the place that nobody ever leaves. He will choose himself, and see how far he can go.

1 comment:

Nicolas said...

Wow! What an article. Arnold has been my inspiration, my real-life hero since I was a small kid. I loved your article. Thanks for writing it.