Page 1

EDITED BY ALAIN CORBIN JEAN-JACQUES COURTINE GEORGES VIGARELLO

A H ISTORY O F VIR ILI TY


Copyrighted Material

" 22 Brawn in Civilization

Virile Myth and Muscular Power Jean-Jacques Courtine

common to reproach Sigmund Freud, bourgeois man of the nineteenth century that he was, for having forgotten the question of “gender,” and for having written off male domination. It would be safe to point out the anachronism of the accusation or to indicate that this has not always been the case. In a long note to Civilization and Its Discontents, the inventor of psychoanalysis actually does come to speculate in these terms on the discovery of fire, “that great cultural acquisition:” It is

It is as though primal man had the habit, when he came in contact with fire, of satisfying an infantile desire connected with it, by putting it out with a stream of urine. . . . Putting out fire by micturating—a theme to which modern giants, Gulliver in Lilliput and Rabelais’s Gargantua, still hark back—was therefore a kind of sexual act with a male, an enjoyment of sexual potency in a homosexual competition. The first person to renounce this desire and spare the fire was able to carry it off with him and subdue it for his own use. By damping down the fire of his own sexual excitation, he had tamed the natural force of fire. This great cultural conquest was thus the reward for his renunciation of instinct. Further, it is as though woman had been appointed guardian of the fire, captured and conserved on the domestic hearth, because her anatomy made it impossible for her to yield to the temptation of putting it out.1


Copyrighted Material

Brawn in Civilization

Twilight of the Penis? As with many of the anthropological developments of Freud’s work, this narrative must be understood with caution, in the manner of a fable. Whatever the case may be, the lesson from it is clear: the economic foundation of a sedentary society (the hearth), just as male domination (that assigning of women to the guardianship of the fire within the domestic space), implies the abandonment of an infantile form of virile power, i.e., renouncing the enjoyment of standing up to piss—farther, stronger, and longer. The Freudian conclusion is therefore paradoxical: at the origin of the wielding of virile power, rather than the manifestation of all-powerfulness, we find the necessity of a renunciation. Echoes of this fable come to us from contemporary Western societies, although weakened and considerably deformed. In these societies the perception of virility remains profoundly divided: a widespread feeling of crisis, vulnerability, and uncertainty about masculine identity coexists with the aggressive proliferation of virile images, displays, and parades. Let us turn, for example, to those who in literature have explored most closely the condition of the modern male: Philip Roth’s entire oeuvre could thus, in some ways, be read as the uninterrupted chronicle of the contemporary setbacks of American virility. [A] man bearing between his legs a spigot of wrinkled flesh where once he’d had the fully functioning sexual organ, complete with bladder sphincter control, of a robust adult male. The once rigid instrument of procreation was now like the end of a pipe you see sticking out of a field somewhere, a meaningless piece of pipe that spurts and gushes intermittently, spitting forth water to no end, until a day arrives when somebody remembers to give the valve the extra turn that shuts the damn sluice down.2

From the adolescent problems in Portnoy’s Complaint, passing by adult glory, followed by the tragic fall in American Pastoral, to the later novels about the terminal crumbling of masculinity in the agony of prostate surgery, this pathway across the ages of virility makes Roth’s work similar to the Stations of the Cross. Miracles in them are of short duration—“It’s all called back—the come back virile man called back to life! Only there is no virility. There is only the brevity of expectations”3—and the result is ineluctable: “Should he ever write an autobiography, •  586  •


Copyrighted Material

Brawn in Civilization

he’d call it Life and Death of a Male Body.”4 Virility is not an object of renunciation but of mourning. No use seeking consolation somewhere else, on the other literary side of the Atlantic, whether yesterday (“There is virility, and there is male disease, with its millennia of possession, vanity and fear of loss”)5 or today (“It is possible that in earlier times when bears were numerous, virility may have played a specific and irreplaceable role; but for several centuries men have no longer been visibly good for anything”).6 Abandon all hope, ye who enter the empire of the male. . . . This feeling of a twilight of the penis in the West coexists, however, with what seems to be its opposite, its daily, obsessive, universal celebration in the manner of a depressive base that maniacal rituals would continually ward off: the rampant deflation of the self would be compensated for by a continual inflation of the body, a hyperbolic virility consisting of extreme muscular development and hypermasculine appearances that has never had an equivalent or precedent in the history of the body in the West. It is the historical anthropology of this paradox that the following pages sketch out by tracing in Europe and North America the genealogy of the images and practices of these virile displays—their ostentatiousness, but also the worry that accompanies them.

Simulacrum Cultures Let us consider American society in this way today. Virile muscle has set up its Mecca in Venice, one of those Los Angeles neighborhoods that stretch along the ocean. The crowd of yuppies on the go—joggers, cyclists, skaters, and surfers—press around, curious, in front of a fenced enclosure, where bodies with bulging muscles “pump iron.” Muscle Beach, California: tourists snap photos, and the bodybuilders strike a pose. Make no mistake, however: even though the fencing of the enclosure suggests a cage at the zoo and the overdeveloped strong men’s bodies at county fairs of bygone days, this muscular unpacking is not the residue of some freak show. Bodybuilding fully takes part in the muscle culture celebrated by the middle class, although in a hyperbolic mode. The history of the place7 actually retraces and condenses the gradual integration of the model of a hypervirilized anatomy into the labor devoted to masculine appearances in contemporary America. Muscle Beach opens its door in the 1930s, in the midst of economic depression, and offers right away a labor-like distraction for the male population hit by unemployment: gyms, •  587  •


Copyrighted Material

Brawn in Civilization

after all, share with the factory this one distinctive trait: the greatest possible concentration of machines and the most restrictive mechanical discipline of gestures. The athletic exercises practiced there legitimate the display of partially naked male bodies in a still puritanical America. They are quickly converted into magazine images, whose distribution contributes to the gradual erosion of modesty. A virile photographic genre is invented then: the masculine muscleman smiling against a background of a sunny beach, a delighted young woman at some point leaning on his shoulder. Then in the 1950s, the place becomes the inescapable meeting place between muscle and cinema as it experiences its first golden age by furnishing Hollywood studios on a daily basis with hordes of Roman legionnaires and gladiators needed for the shooting of innumerable epics. We also see the unveiling of the first male stars, such as Steve Reeves, who move directly from the catwalks of Mr. Universe to the big screen. Cinema thus helps these virile, sculpted muscular stereotypes in the flesh at Muscle Beach saturate visual mass culture before making the place itself a cinematic subject.8 This will immortalize its world of iron, machines, sweat, and grunts, to the point of fostering its replication in a chain of commercial franchises.9 The place will experience a second golden age in the 1970s, now even promoting its guests—including the most famous among them, Arnold Schwarzenegger—to the rank of universal ambassadors of oversized virility, recruited on occasion when the threats of the second Cold War come to trouble movie screens, and during the time when Ronald Reagan could conclude a speech thus: “And, in the spirit of Rambo, let me tell you, we’re going to win this time.” Muscle is patriotic, but the history of the diffusion of these virile models stops being a strictly American affair relatively soon and is enlisted in a global history, in which the international film industry has played an essential role10—a phenomenon that Marcel Mauss had already perceived in the early 1930s with regard to the transmission of corporeal characteristics beyond national borders. Hypermasculinity has become a central element of body culture in contemporary America, and beyond that of global visual culture. It possesses in this regard the value of a symptom; it presents this symptom by enlarging it, literally, as much as possible. For muscle is everywhere. It jumped over the walls of the stadium and the ropes of the ring a long time ago. It reigns absolute on screens large and small.11 It has ceased being the prerogative of one sex and the crushing sign of the domination of one over the other: women first appeared among the elite of bodybuilding in the 1970s and have proliferated ever since.12 The claim on muscles has been democratized, the practice of bodybuilding now tends to be widespread, and anatomical power is displayed as a continuous, obsessive, universal spectacle. •  588  •


Copyrighted Material

Brawn in Civilization

The spectacle is first of all in the street.13 Among the crowd of walkers, bodybuilders draw attention to themselves by the way they walk: arms outstretched, head sunk into the neck, chest sticking out, stiffness of step, and a mechanical balance. The practice has engendered its own “theory of walking,” which its enthusiasts name, among themselves, “the walk.” For the virile man does not walk; he moves his body. Not in the manner of the obese man, that other creature indigenous to American crowds, who drags his anatomy like a burden that hampers and stigmatizes him. The bodybuilder’s body, on the contrary, seeks to get all the benefit of its weight into the field of vision, to saturate what is seen with muscular mass. It aims “to be impressive,” to make an impression on the gaze of the other by the combined action of an effect of mass and mechanical movement. Muscle calls out. It is one of the favored modes of the male body’s prominence within the urban anonymity of physiognomies, the veritable signature of a virile lifestyle. Most often, bodybuilders can be found near or in the nutritional supplements aisles of supermarkets, in the neighborhood of many gymnasiums, or else in bookstores paging through magazines devoted to them. But virile muscle does not live in a ghetto. On television and in the movies, the displays of muscles have become widespread since the 1980s. Special cable channels and occasionally major broadcast networks have conducted bodybuilding competitions on ordinary programs. It is a strange spectacle, however: men’s bulging bodies, artificially tanned, carefully depilated and oiled, lined up on stage in accordance with a ritual that evokes beauty queen contests: mutant women whose sex is effaced under the transvestitism of muscles. They strike curious poses—those who think they are reviving classical statuary when the oversized quality of their anatomies sticks out like an insult to the art of ancient sculpture. They are unusual muscle masses, purely decorative; they serve neither to run nor to throw and thus break with everything in sports logic that associates muscle with movement. These leaden choreographies are striking confrontations, images of duels without contact or violence contests purely of appearances that separate virility from its origins in the trials of warriors in favor of a simulacrum. All this should lead to a questioning of the fate of the most up-to-the-minute virility. Historically, virility has always been associated with the use as well as the image of strength. It originates in hunting and combat; and the competitive sports that keep it most explicitly alive today are the most brutal: rugby and football, certain martial arts, and boxing, about which Joyce Carol Oates has written: “Boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost religion of masculinity all the more trenchant for its being lost.”14 This celebration •  589  •


Copyrighted Material

Brawn in Civilization

“of the male in the man”15 has retained its enthusiasts, and the “tragic theatre”16 of virile violence always fills sports arenas. But a cult of the sole image of virility has gradually emerged in the course of the twentieth century, before becoming more and more radically dissociated from virility. It has given rise to a culture of the simulacrum, which will be our main point of interest here. This culture strengthens today the original founding principles of the virile tradition by parodying them, one after the other, in mass spectacle: strength in bodybuilding contests; the extreme popularity of wrestling bouts on TV; the seductiveness of the Chippendale shows; and the sexual power of the moneymaking porn film industry. Now we have to understand why.

Bildungsromane, Paternity Searches The fact remains that in view of the paradoxes and excesses of this grand virile show, the most surprising thing is probably that the paucity of astonishment has made such headway throughout the West and probably beyond it. This is because our eyes, little by little, have become accustomed to this muscular kitsch: bodybuilding and the spectacles that are related to it are just one of the forms of a visual culture of the masculine image, dating from much earlier, which has become gradually established and which exploded beginning in the 1980s at the same time that it took on new characteristics. The instances of it are too abundant to be detailed here, whether it is in the world of advertising saturated with pectorals or in the media’s constant broadcasting of sports events, whether it is children’s toys, comics,17 the number and extensive distribution of magazines devoted to body culture, even the “gay” aesthetic inspired by it, or finally the fabulous public success of Arnold Schwarzenegger, thanks to whom muscles have had their Hollywood apotheosis before winning their political and social recognition. More recently, hypermasculinity has appeared on the literary scene, and no longer only in the useless old form of the how-to manual on improving virility, which appeared earlier in the century as penned by strongmen of yesteryear, Eugene Sandow and Charles Atlas (How I Succeeded in Life Thanks to Weightlifting, I Was a 97-Pound Weakling . . .). Now the novel is finding subjects in the area,18 and, for the first time, with the autobiographical narrative of Sam Fussell, the confession is available of an intellectual converted to weights and barbells. He traces his

•  590  •


Copyrighted Material

Brawn in Civilization

discovery of bodybuilding, details his practice of it, dissects its virile rationality and necessity, relates the quasi-religious intensity of the experience, and in the end tells the story of his disillusionment.19 Upon closer reading, however, one realizes that this narrative is but a contemporary variant of an older genre: the building of muscles has come to play a central role in male initiation novels (Bildungsromane). Physical education tends to be substituted for sentimental education in the American Bildungsroman. The same scenario is repeated, more or less. It begins with a supposed paternal failure—an absent, indifferent, or brutal father; this leads the young man on a quest, beyond this missing link in the genealogy of masculinity, for a model of virile mastery, which the experience of a mature man will be able to transmit to him—unless the fraternal warmth of a community is involved. Thus, with the help of an old coach or blood brothers, virility is acquired. This extremely old literary model, in which the genealogical quest for virile modeling in an exclusively male lineage is still the rule, has recently seen a spectacular flourishing, fostered no doubt by the feeling that something about virility has been lost. It includes now, besides its extensions in the novel,20 a quasi-universal diffusion in mangas (Dragon Ball) and a literature aimed at the global adolescent (Harry Potter). In mainstream Hollywood film production, it stands guard over the access to virile violence by young immigrant men (Gran Torino) or even by young women (Million Dollar Baby). America as a whole and the global culture of the West seem engaged in an interminable search for paternity.

Prostheses and Stimulations Bodybuilding thus constitutes one of the most spectacular manifestations of a culture that is virile in appearance. But it would be wrong to take virility for a simple ideal or for the sole representation of an ideal in our society of the spectacle. It is based, like all ideological constructions, on a materialist foundation: it is produced by an industry, organized into a market, and disseminated across various manifestations of mass participation. A considerable development can thus be noted, since the 1980s, in the marketing of muscles and the consumption of goods and services devoted to body maintenance. Industrial empires, in diverse sectors, have occupied this niche market for iron, vitamins, and sweat, producing muscle-building machines as well as nutritional

•  591  •


Copyrighted Material

Brawn in Civilization

supplements and also publishing magazines specializing in fitness, health, diets, and physical exercise.21 Muscle building at home has become an activity of mass participation, as shown by the exponential growth of the exercise machine market.22 But at the same time, the latter was being transformed: the weights and barbells of the early days as well as the simply mechanical machines were replaced little by little by apparatuses making use of all the possibilities of electronics. This technology of sweat extended but also modified practices of muscular remodeling. Thus there developed a whole range of devices, indispensable from then on for virilizing one’s appearance. The machines have become familiar: user-friendly, they dispense “amicable” stimulation, furnish psychological support, and prevent possible failure. They have even managed to be transformed into elements of home decor, a piece of furniture like any other, placed sufficiently in view—whereas the barbells used to be placed discreetly in the back of a closet—to demonstrate the integration of the bodily norms in force and to furnish proof of participation in a shared body culture. Muscle building is a way of life, and work on one’s virile image requires attention at every moment, the puritan “work ethic” having been revived. But the machines do even more: they are directly hooked up to bodily functions. The apparatus is intended to be listening to the organism, its pulsations and its rhythms, which it translates instantaneously into measurable quantities. The muscular development of virility may be controlled and calibrated, its increases calculated, the augmentation of muscle mass added up. Even the most cursory anthropological observation of the practices that prevail in West Coast gyms makes this immediately apparent. Surrounded by mirrors that infinitely increase the reflection of one’s image, attached to mechanical devices indispensable to one’s muscular development, the man looking to build up a virile body reaches the point of incorporating an imaginary machine, which leads him to perceive and treat his own body as an apparatus external to himself. It is separated into muscular cogs, submitted to the rhythmic repetition of thrusts and push-ups, subjected to the imposed circuit, which leads from one machine to another, doing over and over the routines of effort and sweat. This is the uncanniness of gymnasiums: bodies end up at times becoming indiscernible from the machines; the muscles that grow there and the virilities sought there appear to be those of robots. Arnold Schwarzenegger confided one day to a Los Angeles Times reporter, “I dreamed, once I got to the U.S., of having a gymnasium built across from every supermarket.” Sometimes dreams of immigrants are, alas, finally realized, beyond all expectations. This one, though, has the merit of locating the contemporary manufacture of the virile body where it ought to be: in our consumer society. •  592  •


Copyrighted Material

Brawn in Civilization

Virile Obsessions and the Dread of Powerlessness The practices and depictions of the body in consumer society are in fact shot through with diverse strategies for regulating the flux, the matter, and the energy of incorporating, channeling, and eliminating. They make of each individual the manager of his or her own body and of each male subject the guarantor of the virility of his image. Bodybuilding and the constellation of practices developed during the same period and more or less related to it—jogging, aerobics, low-calorie diets, and even the unprecedented development of plastic surgery . . .23—all these techniques of body management that have been flourishing since the 1980s are underpinned by an obsession with body exteriors. This obsession is expressed in a love of the smooth, the shiny, the fresh, the svelte, and the young; it has spread just about everywhere and with this comes the anxiety about what seems, by appearances, loose, lined, baggy, rumpled, wrinkled, weighed down, soft, or slack—an active denial of the signs of the organism’s aging. It is the laborious denial of a foreshadowed death. In the culture of hypermasculinity that concerns us here, these contemporary forms of the care of self yield to a desire for a massive increase and extreme tightness of the male’s exterior, augmented by a desire for quasi-transparent skin. The ideal image of the male’s body wavers between the representation of priapism and that of the flayed man, all the muscles bulging of a self-without-skin. It will not be surprising that from then on the market for masculine muscle development coincides closely with that of synthetic testosterone and anabolic androgenic steroids. Virility would seem to have found its miraculous cure: rejuvenation of the organism, stimulation of sexual activity, and augmentation of muscle mass and muscular performance—but above all the treatment of aging as if it involved a disease, prompted by the confusion between the natural signs of age and the diagnostics of declining male hormones. Getting old is a pathology: combatting the years, impotence, and death becomes a virile obsession. As the sun rises over the Palm Springs Life Extension Institute, situated amid the palm trees in the desert a hundred miles east of Los Angeles, a bare-chested patient named Bob Jones is already ascending into the foothills of the Little San Bernardino Mountains. Clasping two hiking sticks, his bodybuilder’s torso dripping with sweat, the seventy-year-old prodigy wipes a lock of implanted hair out of his eyes and •  593  •


Copyrighted Material

Brawn in Civilization

presses on toward the summit. His new and strenuous life under medical supervision has become a single-minded campaign against death and decay. “No one,” he says, “can age with dignity without a body that works.” Not surprisingly, the dignity of the body comes at a price for the institute’s affluent clientele: Jones has invested $60,000 in his own rejuvenation, and it is hard to imagine how this novice bodybuilder will deal with the fact of his mortality when the end finally comes.24

Meanwhile, indifferent to the paradox there may be in wanting to die in top shape, he pursues his individualized regimen of “total hormone replacement therapy:” “Old age,” asserts the director of the Institute, “is a disease, and it can be treated, thanks to hormones.”25 Whether with pills or with injections, virility is, from now on, for sale over the counter. Contemporary hypermasculinity bears the sharp imprint of this denial of death, this nostalgia for an earlier time, and this regenerative passion for the prime of life.26 And it does so in several ways. First the singular way that Philip Roth expressed it earlier, regretting in the autumn of his life the lost youth and strength of the male subject he once was. Another way is collective, the evocation of a permanently past time of virility, in which men were still “real men” before depending on the historical moment, the decay of morals, the falling off of education, paternal failure, maternal tyranny, and the advancement of gender and class equality—or else all of these at the same time—came along to corrupt eternal virility. We see right off that this double complaint is actually only one: it is the projection of the individual dimension of biological aging onto the collective understanding of history, that is, the essential operation of dehistoricizing virility. This is the reason why it is perceived as immutable masculine nature, why also it turns out in every era to be in crisis, and why, finally, it remains the object of interminable mourning. It can be just as easily understood why writing its history is necessary. This brings us back to one of the introductory questions of this volume: writing the history of virility is writing the history of an erasure of history, of a “historical work of dehistoricizing,” which Pierre Bourdieu and the feminist works that preceded him located at the very core of the conditions for reproducing male domination.27 To address it, we must change perspective, put into operation a tiny displacement, and consider the history of virility in a scarcely different way but one that does change our perspective on it. Virility is most often understood as the assertion of power, the perpetuation of domination. This is not false if one still agrees to see it as the consequence of •  594  •


Copyrighted Material

Brawn in Civilization

a primordial fact, anthropologically essential: but what counts in virility is just as much the dread of powerlessness as the wielding of power. The phantom of powerlessness (or impotence) haunts virile figures, practices, and assertions. In the beginning, then, there would have been fear as much as power: a fear turned back into power, a dread denied in the forms of domination, which can be brutal and aggressive and deadly at times. It is this primordial dread—that of defeat in combat—which was long ago a fear for the survival of the species, later became dread of defeat in war, and today is fear of losing in sports; that of moral failure, of cowardice; or of breakdown, of sexual failure. All this is nourished by the powerlessness experienced by the male subject at the beginning and at the end of his existence. It engenders the confusion between historical time and biological time, encourages the quest for a mature age of virility and a virile prime of life anterior to the decrepitude of the present. Are our societies still virile? Is virile man a species going extinct? It is precisely the projection of the fears of biological time onto historical time that prompts such questions. This is why the ideal of virility can be maintained intact only by erasing history. And this allows us to return to one of the questions posed to contemporary virility earlier: is it in crisis? Virility is always, necessarily, in a state of crisis, and this is the case each time that the reality of history contradicts this ideal of power that denies powerlessness, each time that real history locks away factors that destabilize the male power that virility assumes—that is, continually. The crisis is therefore endemic, and it will remain so.

Genealogies: In the Beginning Was Muscle This never-ending crisis forces virility into a continuous genealogical obsession— of which I will give a few examples in the ancient and modern worlds. The quest for virile strength has existed in the past, and, dissipated or weakened since, that quest is seen as something to revive. In this case, it involves a structural element in the configuration of virility as the organizing principle of pronouncements made on the nature of man, much more than a contingent historical fact. This is true, as we shall see, though in a historically variable manner, in ancient Europe as well as in contemporary America. And it remains true wherever ideas that celebrate the old patriarchal domination have taken root, e.g., in the depths of the colonia Santo Domingo, one of those working-class areas of Mexico where the macho was •  595  •


Copyrighted Material

Brawn in Civilization

invented, Today, “machismo carries with it a certain element of nostalgia; it is cultivated by those who feel they were born too late.”28 At the very foundation of virile domination there might very well have been nothing more than the fear of powerlessness, which points the male psyche toward a triple quest: the interminable search for a supposedly lost all-powerfulness; muscular or sexual embodiment in the body itself; and the search for the avatars that will, by default, furnish simulacra of it. That is to say that the ideologues who locate in virility the very nature of man, who believe they are distinguishing, in contemporary images of masculinity, the memory of a former power, who legitimate in precisely that way the domination of one gender over another—the mind-sets of those ideologues possess all the characteristics that Claude Lévi-Strauss attributed to mythic discourse.29 Like myth, virility “always refers back to past events, ‘before the creation of the world,’ or ‘during the earliest ages,’ in any case ‘a long time ago.’”30 So, let us return to old Europe, when Edmond Desbonnet, one of the pioneers of physical fitness (“culture physique”) in France, writing in the first decades of the twentieth century, tries to locate in history the necessity of “regenerating” a mass of men who are “deplorably incompetent, disdainful of engaging in muscular training,”31 and “victims of the poison of immobility.” It is quite natural that he should write about it by evoking a primitive virility: In the beginning of humanity, strength took precedence over intelligence. The chief was supposed to be the strongest of his tribe . . . , the one who came out of the caves triumphant after fighting bears. . . . It would only be natural, in the Stone Age, that when two traveling hordes met, in order to recognize the chief, everyone’s eyes sought in the middle of the caravan, in one of the chariots made of squared-off tree trunks, the tallest, biggest man, with bulging muscles, broad chest and grave, energetic face.32

In the beginning was muscle, and in its presence was recognized authority: first verse of the gospel of virility. The remedy for the powerlessness of those “men who work in offices,” stigmatized by Desbonnet, is retrospective: it must be drawn from the exemplary lineage of primitive hunters, ancient strength, medieval prowess, and the modern warrior. For the virile legend does manifest this other trait of the mythic discourse: recording its story in a reversible time: “These events, which are supposed to unfold at a moment in time, form a permanent structure. That structure refers simultaneously to the past, the present and the future.”33 Virility is •  596  •


Copyrighted Material

Brawn in Civilization

ageless: the soul of warriors travels through time, and bodies that have managed to remain virile or endeavor to become so again recapture and revive powers thought to have disappeared. Desbonnet, again, refers to a wrestler from the beginning of the century: “Apollon, the King of human strength. . . . His perfect form and his Justinian mask-like face recall the gladiators of ancient Rome. Apollon is French, born in Marsillargues, Hérault.”34 As for Jules Vallès, assiduous spectator of fights in Parisian rings, he was able to discern the aristocratic nostalgia that weaves together these virile lineages: “Vigneron is still one of the most brilliant representatives of French vigor. I can’t tell what powerful grace makes this son of the Parisian suburbs resemble a hero of the ancient palestra.”35 A virile je ne sais quoi ensures the reincarnation of an ancient hero in a Parisian proletarian: thus the question of the transmission of virility is posed at the very core of its legend. The answer comes in two stages. Virile man, first of all, is engendered by himself. Thus Triat, strongman, owner of a famous gymnasium and inventor of a method of muscular development in Paris at the beginning of the century, was able to bring into the world his own Herculean nature: There is the Master. Stop and take a look. . . . Why does his heroic vigor seem to mock our decadence? Because M. Triat, unrivaled athlete, a Hercules of modern times, is the legitimate son of his own method. . . . M. Triat, in response to his own method, has literally made his muscles swell and molded his flesh.36

Then onto “the most moving” spectacle of this modern Hercules, “the only man capable of holding such a mass of cast iron, with outstretched arms, above his head:” rallied by “his vibrant and sonorous voice, fifty students obey the Master’s words. . . . From professor to student a magnetic current passes; the Master’s power splits up, pours forth, and each one has within himself a mysterious voice that says to him: ‘March! March! . . .’ ”37 Genealogical obsession, reversibility of time, and the march through the ages engender a birth immediately displayed through a kind of erectile dramaturgy. It is the birth of a corporeal power and the quasi-miraculous transmission of that power. The virile myth presents an imaginary theory of the engendering of males by themselves. Immemorial yet completely current, this legend has at its disposal a vast anthropological foundation within the cultural space of the West—and most probably beyond, given the global diffusion today of cultural merchandise. As an integral part of the apparatus of the “archaic dominant model,” it challenges the exclusive right of giving birth, this “exorbitant and unfounded privilege” that •  597  •


Copyrighted Material

Brawn in Civilization

grants women “the incomprehensible capacity”38 to produce bodies similar to, but also different from, themselves. But men, too, can give birth to other men, or more exactly to that most masculine part of men, to what makes the man a man, virility. Women may very well deliver boys, so long as men will reproduce virile men. Joyce Carol Oates had the striking intuition about this masculine factory of virility that boxing has retained: “Men fighting men to establish worth (i.e., masculinity) excludes women as completely as the female experience of childbirth excludes men. And is there, perhaps, some connection?”39 This myth, related to heroic epics and endowed with an extreme structural plasticity, was able to be parsed on the basis of a whole set of historical and cultural variants. If we turn back to the New World, we can easily spot it at the very moment when Desbonnet is counseling muscle building to the middle classes of old Europe. As the historical experience of the Frontier is closing, Americans, too, become aware of the necessity of struggling against the new evils of a sedentary life: overwork linked to office jobs, urban stress, and “American nervousness.” As in large European towns, numerous gymnasiums begin to be built in the cities, conceived by their promoters as islands of regenerative good health in the morally and physically corrupt areas of the large city. And the genealogical quest starts up again here, tirelessly taking on historical forms that are appropriate, though, to a puritanical society. The time when the exaltation of virility preserves most often in France a flavor of the countryside blended with national defense is the moment when Americans choose to appear particularly sensitive to the crusade launched by the disciples of muscular Christianity. This movement, which arises at the beginning of the ninteenth century in England, reappears in the U.S. among the numerous religious revivals of the second half of the nineteenth century. Its credo? Morality is as much a question of muscular form as of religious piety, and the best of Christian men have the obligation to possess a virile body.40 Is this not the very example preached by the first and foremost among them? Virility never stops drawing on its origins for its ideal. And at the turn of the century, within a great number of churches, a greater and greater number of voices are raised by those who discern in Christ most of all a man of action, a spiritual athlete, enterprising and daring. This crusade for muscle building and health was vigorously passed on by organizations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association as well as by all those who supported the idea that America’s spiritual regeneration was to go through a transformation of lifestyle. “Jesus Christ was a healer because he was the first physical fitness enthusiast. . . . My teachings are those of the early prophets. I live as they did. It is my duty to influence the world to live that way.”41 The profound, lasting influence of muscular Christianity is stated •  598  •


Copyrighted Material

Brawn in Civilization

most explicitly in this rereading of Scripture, later reiterated by Bernarr Macfadden, who was to be the evangelist of bodybuilding after the turn of the century, the man who supporters baptized “Father of physical fitness and Apostle of health”; he was one of the pioneers of the great American pastoral of sweat. It should be acknowledged that, as the original progenitor of virility, Christ possessed some advantages: a mortal body that has escaped the devirilization of age and an immortal body that is the eternal carrier of exemplarity, not to mention a purely masculine version of the Immaculate Conception.

Phantom Virilities: Doublings, Avatars “Nothing resembles mythic thought more than political ideology,” adds Claude Lévi-Strauss.42 Contemporary continuations of the virile myth tend to prove him right. The genealogical obsession does not weaken; on the contrary, it runs through the entire century. His straight and perfect figure, muscled as the best of the ancient Roman gladiators must have been muscled, and yet with the soft and sinuous curves of a Greek god, told at a glance the wondrous combination of enormous strength with suppleness and speed.43

It is in this form, steeped in genealogy, that Tarzan of the Apes appears to Jane, as invented by Edgar Rice Burroughs in 1914. Published as a comic strip, then appearing in novel form until 1940, the twenty-six volumes of adventures and the numerous films of Tarzan arose from feelings about the corruption of urban society and from a taste for hunting literature that took over America following the disappearance of the Frontier, leaving virility orphaned from the wilderness that had cradled it. Furthermore, the success of Tarzan made of him the first global virile icon of inward-turning masculinity. Equipped to confront the untamed world, able to find the primitive man deep within, this icon inspired a continuous current of “revitalization” movements that crisscrossed the entire century, e.g., more or less militarized youth organizations, hunting clubs, tests of “survival,” “masculinist” movements of which the poet Robert Bly became the spokesman,44 or even the initiatory workshops of the Mankind Project offering the “discovery of the urban warrior who slumbers inside you. . . .”45 •  599  •


Copyrighted Material

Brawn in Civilization

The same genealogical obsession traverses the visual culture of masculinity. The strongmen at the turn of the century, George Winship or Eugene Sandow, had been its precursors: poses in the ancient style, with Greek or Roman accessories, the visual memory of a remote European aristocracy of strength continued to grant democratic muscle its warrior patronage.46 It was while contemplating the musculature of the classical statues in the Brooklyn Museum that Charles Atlas, the Hercules between the two world wars, disembarking from Italy, poor and puny, had the revelation of the path to take.47 In this regard, there is no more exemplary story than his in the great American saga of muscles and success: his conversion to bodybuilding paid off, as with others after him, in a great fortune and offered proof that, in America, one can strike it rich with muscles. But above all, the body of Charles Atlas will be the first of male anatomies to become an object of publicity in the modern sense of the term [cf. fig. 22.1]. For this is one of the paradoxes of contemporary virility: the distancing, then erasure, of the experience of combat, later increased by the accumulation, circulation, and merchandizing of images of muscular strength, ended up giving rise to a virile phantasmagoria that gained autonomy in the realm of images by distancing and then separating itself more and more radically from the brutal, wartime origins and practices that had furnished virility its historical crucible. Thus, a traumatic gap was carved between the virtual triumphs of this “phantom virility” on the screen and the misfortunes of real virility during the wars. Rambo, strangely, was absent on 9/11.

Figure 22.1  Charles Atlas, 1924.

There is no more exemplary story among the great American bodybuilding sagas and success stories than that of Charles Atlas, getting off the boat from Italy poor and puny. Thanks to bodybuilding, one can strike it rich with one’s muscles. But the body of Charles Atlas in particular is one of the first male anatomies to become a publicity object in the modern sense of the term and to promote an image of virility detached from its warrior or even athletic origins. Source: Charles Atlas®

•  600  •


Copyrighted Material

Brawn in Civilization

Virility today, then, is based largely on such dreams of strength. Thus, when Bernarr “Body Love” Macfadden founded Physical Culture in 1899, the first mass publication devoted to muscle development and the cornerstone of a press empire that was to celebrate the glory of the male body during the first half of the twentieth century, his editorials tirelessly hammered home: “Be 100% a man! Weakness is a crime. Don’t be a criminal!”48 In light of such insistence, one cannot help but sense a mounting anxiety when confronted with a sudden weakness of the strong sex. These slogans are avowals: the development of muscle mass of the ideal masculine type in the first years of the century and the hyperdevelopment that will follow are also an implicit denial of the symbolic rebalancing of men’s and women’s respective places and of the upheavals in the relations between the sexes that were sparked throughout the century [cf. fig. 22.2].

Figure 22.2  A group of middleweights, Mr. and Miss Muscle Beach BodyBuilding and Figure Contest. Venice, California, 4 July 2006.

“Muscle Beach,” today. Strange spectacle: puffed up male bodies, bronzed, epilated, and oiled, lined up as in the ritual of a female beauty contest; unusual muscular masses, purely decorative; and competitions of appearance, without contact or violence. The twentieth century has seen the development of a culture of the simulacrum that repeats, in parody mode, the foundations of the virile tradition. Group portrait with men dressed up as men. Source: (AP Photo/Ric Francis)

•  601  •


Copyrighted Material

Brawn in Civilization

“The objective of myth,” continues Lévi-Strauss, “is to furnish a logical model to resolve a contradiction.”49 One could add straight away: the virile myth attempts to resolve the insoluble contradiction between the desires for all-powerfulness and the realities of male powerlessness. Joe Shuster and Jerome Siegel understood this perfectly when they invented Superman in 1938, the first in a long line of patriotic super-heroes, whose success to this day has never been disputed.50 So many avatars of masculine strength appeared, outfitted in tights and masks and equipped with those essential super-powers; but all of them were children of the Depression as well, of bureaucratic inertia and the war effort; all of them were also “tricksters,” two-faced characters, such as that timid, self-effacing reporter (Clark Kent) who changes into the intrepid defender of America—imaginary solutions to the insoluble virile dilemma. The anthropology of bodybuilding makes it sufficiently clear: the feeling of male vulnerability and insecurity and the memory of past humiliations are often the triggers of a muscular escalation that will use as its models precisely the avatars of masculine all-powerfulness that populate comic strips.51 For it is the symptomatic destiny—in some ways both tragic and grotesque—of this muscular quest to try to incorporate avatars: He was a human anatomy chart. His skin was a transparent as rice paper and beneath that gauze I saw a trellis of capillaries, veins, and arteries. His body fat was so freakishly low that every muscle fiber beneath the skin visibly shook and swayed with every movement.52

In the pursuit of such dreams of body strength, there is evidently an impasse for the kind of virilities that are sought today. We will therefore stick here to the Freudian warning with which we started: better a voluntary renunciation than an endless mourning.

•  602  •

A History of Virility, edited by Alain Corbin, et al.  

Read the chapter "Brawn in Civilization," by Jean-Jacques Courtine, from A HISTORY OF VIRILITY.

A History of Virility, edited by Alain Corbin, et al.  

Read the chapter "Brawn in Civilization," by Jean-Jacques Courtine, from A HISTORY OF VIRILITY.