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Life lessons from Arnold Schwarzenegger

To dismiss him as a right-wing cigar-chomper would be to disregard that rare phenomenon – a true star, an embodiment of the aspirations of his time.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1974, six years before his breakthrough film role in Conan the Barbarian. Photo: George Long /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Hasta la vista” is a commonplace Spanish phrase that means “See you later”. But add the word “baby” on the end and it becomes what USA Today recently called – with little explanation necessary – an “Ah-nuld-ism”. It demands to be intoned in a robotic, metronomic monotone, with each syllable apportioned the same measure of emphasis. And don’t say it in a Spanish accent. An Ah-nuld-ism should sound unapologetically Austrian, regardless of phonetic rules. Hasta la vista, baby.

For a catchphrase circulating in the 21st-century anglophone world (a quick online search reveals several newspaper headlines riffing on it and even a set of fireworks called the “Hasta la Vista, Baby Fountain”), it’s a curious one. It’s mostly in a foreign language, it entered pop culture 24 years ago and it’s not particularly funny. To a generation raised on the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, however, the phrase is as resonant as “Here’s looking at you, kid” must have been to movie­goers who caught Humphrey Bogart on his first go-round. It’s an in-joke shared by the millions who saw and loved Terminator 2: Judgment Day, James Cameron’s 1991 blockbuster that, like Blade Runner, Alien and Star Wars, epitomises the kind of mega-spectacle that only Hollywood can deliver. Despite the film’s path-breaking use of computer-generated special effects, its biggest spectacle – for me, at least – was always its star, Schwarz­enegger, the stern-faced and muscle-bound superman.

The mention of that particular Ah-nuld-ism transports me back to the early 1990s, to a tenth birthday party at the home of an American school friend whose parents sat us boys down in front of a boxy, wood-panelled TV to watch our first 15-certificate movie (a serious rite of passage for young film obsessives, like a secular Bar Mitzvah). Exhausted from a long session of baseball in the rain, we struggled to keep our eyes open – until the carnage began. Guns were fired; cities were nuked; flesh was pulled from an arm as if it were a long glove, exposing the metallic bones of Schwarzenegger’s T-800 cyborg. Terminator 2 was a cinematic revelation that, to our ten-year-old minds, almost possessed the gravity of scripture (it occurred to me much later that the best-known line in the film – “I’ll be back” – is a paraphrase of Christ’s “I will come again”). The credits rolled, accompanied by the former Hall & Oates keyboardist Brad Fiedel’s futuristic score. Arnie had entered our lives. And he was a giant.

Schwarzenegger had worked hard to become a giant. “I always wanted to be an inspiration for people,” he writes in his 2012 autobiography, Total Recall – an ambition he willed into reality by becoming first a bodybuilder (he was the youngest ever Mr Universe at the age of 20), then one of the highest-paid Hollywood film stars of the 1980s and 1990s, before being elected as the governor of California in 2003 (the most powerful political post he deemed it possible to win as an immigrant). Yet nothing about the circumstances of his upbringing suggested quite how much of a giant he would become, both physically and as an international cultural figure.

Born in 1947 into an Austria humbled by the Second World War, Schwarzenegger spent his childhood in relative poverty in a house with no phone and no plumbing. In the year of his birth, food shortages had led to riots in Vienna and the situation got so bad in Styria Province, where his family lived, that his mother, the wife of a disciplinarian police officer, was compelled to go from farm to farm, foraging for butter, sugar and grain. A highlight of these years was when the Schwarzeneggers finally got hold of a refrigerator.

The cold war had begun in earnest. “We all lived in fear that the Russian tanks would roll in and we’d be swallowed up into the Soviet empire,” Schwarzenegger writes in his memoir. The roots of his well-known suspicion of socialism seem to lie here: his championing of the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman (“one of my heroes”) throughout the 1980s was framed in terms of a perceived opposition between a supine, collectivist Europe and a red-blooded, macho United States. He praised Ronald Reagan for reminding Americans “of their strength” and considers Richard Nixon a “terrific president”; he was a personal friend and “admiring protégé” of George H W Bush.

In line with this Republican world-view, Schwarzenegger’s most successful film roles celebrate strength and individual agency as inherent virtues, from Colonel John Matrix in the 1985 movie Commando (who single-handedly wages “World War III” on a group of South American mercenaries) to Major Alan Schaeffer in 1987’s Predator (who single-handedly wages a war of the worlds on a rubber-faced alien in South America). When not single-handedly waging some sort of war on behalf of the US government, the on-screen Schwarzenegger seeks to destroy an evil wizard (Conan the Barbarian, 1982), all of humanity (The Terminator, 1984) and Satan (End of Days, 1999), among others. So far, he has killed almost 400 people, 88 in Commando alone.

Heavy metal: Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2

Perhaps his most iconic role is that of the T-800, which he reprises in Terminator Genysis, released on 2 July. “You can’t stop him!” exclaims one character in the 1984 film and the same can be said of Schwarzenegger himself. In December 2006, shortly after his re-election for a second term as Governator, he broke a thigh bone while on a skiing trip. As the holiday season ended, he was recovering from complex surgery, wearing a brace and doped up on painkillers. His wife watched him preparing for the inauguration speech he was scheduled to give and despaired. “This is not going to happen,” she said. Yet he decided to go forward as planned, “even if I had to crawl on all fours up the steps of the capitol”. There was no restraining him. “I was in machine mode,” he writes in Total Recall.

Like a Horatio Alger hero, Schwarzenegger is an uncritical proponent of the belief that hard work and focus can deliver anyone the American dream. When, as state governor, he was challenged by a University of California student who had been forced to work part-time alongside attending classes as a result of spiralling tuition fees, he responded with a lecture on how “the day has 24 hours” and, with six hours set aside for sleep, that left 18 for productive labour. “Have you ever thought about working more?” Schwarzenegger asked. “Maybe even taking more classes, rather than wasting your life away?”

It’s an attitude that has served him well. In his own terms, Schwarzenegger has always been a success. He has lived up to the Ah-nuld-ism “Do it!”, a catchphrase he first uttered with cartoonish intensity in Predator. Craving freedom as a teenager in Austria, he talked himself into a job at a sawmill and used the money to buy a bicycle, releasing him from the boredom of home. After he discovered the world of bodybuilding while researching for a school essay, he immediately infiltrated a gym crowd and, within a few years, was winning the sport’s top competitions. He wanted to become a film star: by the age of 22, he’d landed his first starring role in the low-budget but, crucially, American movie Hercules in New York.

Crucial because, since childhood, Schwarzenegger had longed to become a US citizen. (He would tell his incredulous schoolmates, “I’m going to America.”) He eventually managed this with the same maximalism that he brought to every other aspect of his life, becoming Hollywood’s most bankable star, marrying into political royalty (his ex-wife, Maria Shriver, is a niece of John F Kennedy) and winning the governorship of the country’s most populous state.

Schwarzenegger’s ability to visualise and achieve his goals was honed in rusty gyms across the world, as he worked to become the greatest bodybuilder on a fiercely competitive circuit. Among the most significant episodes of his life as a muscleman was a period in the 1960s spent in London’s East End, training under the guidance of a British father of six called Wag Bennett, the owner of a gym in Forest Gate. Bennett all but adopted the then 19-year-old Austrian and sculpted him into Mr Universe, a title Schwarzenegger won in 1967.

“Most bodybuilders take up the sport to make themselves better people,” says the stuntman and former Royal Artillery commando Steve Truglia, who pumped iron in Bennett’s gym in the 1970s and 1980s. “That culture is definitely about having a goal and going for it and getting involved.” Describing the London bodybuilding community that took Schwarzenegger under its wing, Truglia, who I call at his office, is evidently moved by his recollections of a vanished world of outsiders engaged in an activity most considered “weird”. “Bodybuilding wasn’t mainstream at all,” he tells me – but within the sport, Schwarzenegger was the ultimate celebrity.

“One day in the Eighties, Wag walked into the gym and said Arnold was coming down to give a seminar,” he says. “So the whole gym came, as well as everyone in bodybuilding.” I ask him how they could all fit into the room, imagining a tangle of biceps. “We sat on the equipment! I was on one of the benches when Arnold arrived. He had this incredible charisma and confidence. And in all of his conversation, everything was about focus and positivity.” It was a life-changing encounter for Truglia. Beneath the motto of the American footballer Vince Lombardi that was screwed to the gym’s wall – “Winners never quit and quitters never win” – he watched Schwarzenegger speak and was “transfixed” by his message. “I wouldn’t be doing stunts today if it wasn’t for all that,” he says.

Yet it can be hard for those who identify as progressives to love Arnold Schwarzenegger. Most of his movies are violent. He’s a committed Republican, even if his in-laws were Kennedys. His scandals have been as outsized as his achievements (in 2011, it emerged that he had secretly fathered a son with his maid of two decades, Mildred “Patty” Baena).

Simply to dismiss him as a horrible, cigar-chomping right-winger, however, would be to disregard that rare phenomenon – a true star, an embodiment of the dominant aspirations of his time. (It’s perhaps no coincidence that his pulling power at the box office declined with the rise of social liberalism in the Clinton era.) And there is something affirmative of the human will in his determination to meet his full potential and act on his beliefs, a determination that made him an action star who starred in comedies (such as the 1988 hit Twins), an immigrant who became governor, a Republican who signed through the first US bill capping greenhouse gas emissions and proposed universal health-care coverage in 2007, more than a year before Barack Obama entered the White House. Terminator Genysis may turn out to be a disappointment, like much of Schwarzenegger’s film work since he returned to Hollywood from politics – but I’m glad he’s back.

Now listen to Yo Zushi on Arnold Schwarzenegger on SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the NS:

Yo Zushi’s latest album, “It Never Entered My Mind”, is released by Eidola Records.

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution