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28 October 2023

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lessons for losers

In his unlikely fourth act, the former movie star is a self-help guru who trades in the toughest of tough love.

By Will Lloyd

You were born in a lower provincial Austrian backwater. Your father is an unpleasant minor bureaucratic cog with a drinking problem. Your mother loves you very much. You realise you are a special boy, and that you have a powerful vision. Through the purest force of will you achieve notoriety, then high office, and eventually, after great struggle, a unique place in history. Who are you?

Well, you’re not Adolf Hitler. You’re actually Arnold Schwarzenegger. Readers of Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life may be struck by an intrusive thought: Schwarzenegger would have played a terrific Nazi. It’s not merely the fact that at his bodybuilding peak he looked hideous, like an Arno Breker statue of an Übermensch, marbled into the Reich Chancellery. Nor is it that the etymology of “Arnold” is “eagle power”, and nor is it that his father, Gustav Schwarzenegger, was a military policeman who swept up behind the German war machine as it blitzkrieged through Poland, France and the Soviet Union, where his war ended with a wound at Leningrad.

It’s something else. There’s something about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sharkily narrow eyes, which menace even when they are trying to smile. There’s an inarticulate abyssal darkness in him that fellow action-star rivals like Bruce Willis or Sly Stallone never possessed. If that darkness could speak, what would it say? Think about the most famous zinger in the Schwarzenegger cannon, from The Terminator (1984): “I’ll be back.” Say that line in an American accent. Say that line in an English accent. It means nothing. Now hear it as Schwarzenegger said it; with a rural, guttural Danubian inflection. They will be back…

In Be Useful Schwarzenegger divides his preposterous life into four distinct acts. First act: Arnold the Bodybuilder. The village kid who conquered bodybuilding with a 57” chest, a 34” waist, 28½” thighs, 20” calves and a competition weight of 235lbs.

Second act: Arnold the Movie Star. The unlikely Hollywood leading man who conquered the box office, who dealt in death and kitsch quips, and who, as Robin Williams put it, spoke “less dialogue than any actor, except maybe Lassie”. For a time, this Arnold variation was the highest paid actor in the world. Here was a charming heroic monster who could make audiences belly-laugh while ripping out his enemies’ entrails with his bare hands. What ought to have been limitations – his inhuman size, his extraterrestrial accent – were turned, brilliantly, into strengths. They were assets exquisitely positioned to represent the renewed strength of Reagan’s America in the 1980s. And he remains the only person to receive Golden Raspberry (“Razzie”) nominations for Worst Actor, Worst Supporting Actor and Worst Screen Couple (with himself cloned) in the same year (2000, for The 6th Day).

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Third act: Arnold the Governor. The leading man who conquered politics and became the two-term governor of California, a state that would be a G7 economy were it a nation, and left office with an approval rating of 23 per cent. And the fourth act?

[See also: Britney Spears’s American horror story]

That’s where Be Useful comes in. Schwarzenegger’s life collapsed in the last years of the 2000s. It was revealed that he had fathered what was, in less enlightened times, called a “bastard” with the family housekeeper, under the nose of his wife. They divorced. He writes that he was “face down in the mud, in a dark hole” wondering whether to give it all up, and perhaps retire to a snow-bound Austrian schloss to weepingly lift heavy weights. But the grand prospect of a final kampf inspired Schwarzenegger. He began posting inspo-videos on Instagram. He delivered motivational orations to business leaders. He attacked Donald Trump in viral clips. And so, the fourth act: Arnold the grizzled guru, the wiseman, the self-help guy.

Schwarzenegger offers the toughest of “that’s just life” tough love. He calls it being “ruthlessly positive when everyone else is being relentlessly negative”. Alternate titles for Be Useful might have been “Stop Crying You Weakling: If Your Life is Trash That’s Because You’re a Pussy” and “The Person to Blame Is Always You”.

“We always have a choice,” he writes, presumably to take his advice, do more push-ups and crush our enemies. One chapter is genuinely called “Shut your mouth, open your mind”. All Schwarzenegger’s advice is like this: violent, given as an imperative, as if there are no other options. He wants you to have a clear vision, to think big, to work hard, to sell yourself, to shift gears when things go wrong and to earn enough money to buy a jacuzzi and smoke fat cigars in it. The first six chapters are me, me, me – commands to self-actualise and bend the shape of reality to your will, just as Schwarzenegger did. He equates success with victory, not understanding that they are different things. Never, ever listen to the criticism of those who underestimate you: “Bridge their bullshit right into the garbage where it belongs.” Finally, the last 30 pages are about giving back to the community, being nice, helping old ladies cross the road etc. It’s a bizarre coda: Be Useful is a mighty call to selfishness from a man whose public life is no less than a rocketing, will-to-power drive towards greatness. It’s like reading an essay about the need for modesty written by Gore Vidal.

Interspersed with some of the maddest similes ever printed (“like being stuck in a clothes dryer with a load of bricks”; “like Viagra for dreams”; “like trying to move inside a set of Russian nesting dolls full of shit and hair gel”) there are many well-worn historical tales from the winners’ high table. The only criteria Schwarzenegger seems to have for corralling this ludicrously diverse and apparently inspiring group together – John Coltrane, Tiger Woods, Steven Spielberg, William Wordsworth, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henry David Thoreau, Michael Phelps, Sebastian Vettel, James Cameron, Jack Ma, JK Rowling, Bono, Francis Ford Coppola, Sir Edmund Hillary, Stephen Curry, Lionel Messi, and the bloke who invented WD-40 – is that he thinks they beat life into submission. They won and he tells you how. Does any book that suggests William Wordsworth has much in common with Stephen Curry, a basketball player, make any sense at all? No, it does not. But Schwarzenegger would probably clip you hard for even posing the question. Shut up! Be like a winner. Do not be – and this is a word Schwarzenegger likes a great deal – a “loser”.

Be Useful is a tragedy that thinks it’s a self-help book, just as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s life is often thought to be a quintessentially American immigrant success story, when it is, in fact, a tale of troubled Germanic murkiness. “Growing up in Austria,” he writes, “all forms of motivation involved negative reinforcement.” Gustav was a heavy drinker, who thought that the teenage Arnold was a homosexual – all those pictures of oiled up men on his bedroom walls – and belted his son as a result. “Everything, always negative, from the earliest days of childhood.” Many people would be destroyed by such circumstances. People like Schwarzenegger’s elder brother, Meinhard, who became an alcoholic and died in a car crash in 1971. But Arnold thrived.

[See also: How the Barclay brother built and wrecked an empire]

If you followed the no-bullshit, push-yourself-to-the-max advice in Be Useful you might end up winning like Arnold. There’s an equal chance you would end up, like Meinhard, destroyed by the realisation that the world is far less malleable than it seems, or a dealer of the same tortures you had survived. The best advice will always be: Know Thyself. Those are not words Be Useful has much time for.

Be Useful: Seven Tools for Life
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Ebury Edge, 288pp, £20

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This article appears in the 01 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Labour Revolts