Posts Tagged ‘masculinity’

There comes a time in a person’s life when he realizes that he is collecting the complete novels of Milan Kundera, and he decides to embrace it as a conscious decision. The local bookshop has two more (the two that I haven’t pursued as steadily because I read them first, fifteen years ago), and then it’ll be off to find the either more elusive or more recent books. When you shop primarily in used bookshops, recent novels are rather elusive.

Kundera didn’t publish any novels until he was about the age I am now, and this one, the second, still has a strong focus on youth. It seems a little allegorical, and I wonder if it might not be a little autobiographical as well. It’s about a young poet who comes of age during the Communist Revolution. While there are several important characters, they’re only named according to their function in the poet’s life, so while he is Jaromil, they are the janitor’s son, the artist, the redhead, the cinematographer, the silver-maned poet, etc. The janitor’s son becomes a policeman and a reminder of how far Jaromil is from the stereotypical adult masculinity he wants to achieve, but he only gets called the janitor’s son, even though his father isn’t in the story. This is indicative of Jaromil’s extreme self-centeredness. The ending makes the Narcissus metaphor explicit, but long before that I was sickened by Jaromil’s contempt for other human beings.

In some ways this book feels like a rewrite of Sons and Lovers – Jaromil’s mother is a little too close to him, and he has a relationship with a shopgirl that he knows she will disapprove of. Maman is imaginative, in the sense that she creates a mental reality when the perceived reality is unpleasant, but not in the sense that she is in any way unconventional. Jaromil (Communist poetry) was conceived by an engineer (the educated working class) out in nature, according to his mother, but it was more likely in a disgusting bachelor apartment borrowed from the engineer’s friend. Indeed, nature as landscape or unenclosed space has very little place in this book at all. Nature exerts itself over Jaromil as weather or as disease, or the idiosyncrasies of human biology. Maman was never that crazy about her shotgun husband, so she liked to pretend that a figure of Apollo (classical influences) conceived the boy without the father’s intervention, despite the obvious limitations of such a fantasy. This reading might seem facile and forced, but issues of artistic inspiration, expression, and responsibility are at the center of the book.

World War II figures largely in twentieth-century Czech history. German occupation and redrawing of boundaries is big on a national scale, but in the daily lives of people, particularly children, it seems to have had little effect. Jaromil’s father was killed in a concentration camp because he was having an affair with a Jewish girl, but his father was mostly absent anyway. This lack of a strong masculine presence in his life, coupled with soft delicate features, leads to his preoccupation with his inferiority as a male human. He does have an art teacher, but the teacher is concerned about the philosophy of art changing under Communism, and Jaromil tries to assert his independence by disagreeing with him, which damages their friendship. Jaromil never tries to build up the rest of his body, so he’s a spindly little artist who isn’t brave enough to talk to girls. Eventually he does find someone, and losing his virginity is a huge milestone for him, but his masculinity has turned toxic by this point. A sexual relationship doesn’t relieve his insecurities; it makes them worse. It leads to sexual violence, which brings up some unpleasant memories for me, and reading this part might explain why I’ve been so anxious and angry these last few weeks. Partially, at least – I have good reasons in my real life, too.

The book reaches a crisis at the end of the fifth section, and it seems like Kundera is about as sick of this kid as I was, because there’s this violent wresting of the narrative at the beginning of part six.

Just as your life is determined by the kind of profession and marriage you have chosen, so our novel is limited by our observatory perspective: Jaromil and his mother are in full view, while we glimpse other figures only when they appear in the presence of these two protagonists. We have chosen this approach as you have chosen your fate, and our choice is equally unalterable.

Still, every person regrets that he cannot live other lives. You, too, would like to live out all your unrealized potentials, all your possible lives. (Alas, unattainable Xavier!) Our book is like you. It, too, yearns to be all the other novels it could have been.

That is why we are constantly dreaming about erecting other observatories. How about putting one in the middle of the artist’s life, or perhaps in the life of the janitor’s son or that of the redheaded girl? After all, what do we really know about these people? We hardly know more than does foolish Jaromil, and he knows precious little about anyone. What kind of novel would it be if we followed the career of the janitor’s son, and Jaromil would appear only once or twice in the course of brief episodes about a poet and former schoolmate? Or we could follow the artist’s story and learn at last what he really thought of his beloved Maman, whose belly he had used like a piece of canvas.

And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was so great to get away from Jaromil for a while, even if only for twenty pages. There’s a middle-aged man, widower, who likes to have a sex life but doesn’t like to get attached, so he sees a girl only once in a while, and he has several girls. One of them is Jaromil’s girl, and they discuss him briefly, but this section is a few years after Jaromil’s death, so he’s seen at a great distance, as one who ruined the girl’s life but now has no more power to hurt her.

But who is this unattainable Xavier? Jaromil dreamt of becoming this guy, young and smart and strong and sexy, like a younger Czech James Bond-Indiana Jones hybrid, but there’s more than that. Xavier only exists in dreams – things get tough, he falls asleep and is instantly in another, equally real reality. He works through problems from one reality in the next, possibly nesting several dreams like in Inception (oh, how I love this film), and ultimately wakes back up to solve his problems and escape, even if only as a dream hiding in dreams. Xavier is Jaromil’s ideal self. But much as the poet dreams of freedom, he is continually caged in by his mother’s vampiric love. This is a trope I see in media a lot, and I suppose is relevant to my own life as well, the mother that wants her children to be strong, brave, confident, and successful, but constantly shelters them from experiences that will allow them to develop strength, bravery, self-confidence, and the other qualities that lead to success. Yes, it’s important for parents to show love to their children, but it’s also important for parents to know when their children can handle things on their own, and to sit back and let them do it. I have a lot of animosity built up toward The Ex, but I admit freely that she is an excellent mother, and I see my children growing up as intelligent, confident, capable boys. I know that living with her is the best choice for them. Perhaps not for always, and I keep hoping that I will be geographically close enough to have an emotionally close relationship with them, but for now they are having their best possible life, and I wouldn’t take that from them.

Today is Mothers’ Day in the United States, and while I have some animosity built up toward my mother as well, it’s the day that I pretend that doesn’t exist and call her. Sometimes she feels abandoned, which Jane Austen would call “the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning”; my mom was emotionally unavailable during my childhood because she was coping with the divorce and her own anger issues, and the work of repressing all that kept me at a distance. In my roving life I often regret the type of relationship we have, and I wish I could be closer to my biological family, but the bottom line is that I don’t miss them, the actual people that they are, very much. There’s a big family thing this summer that I’ve been planning to go to, but these days I’m thinking of skipping it. I miss my kids, and I’d rather put my time, energy, and money into seeing them rather than into seeing people that I’m really angry about.

Art and revolution. Poetry seems to have been at the forefront of the Communist Revolution, at least in Czechoslovakia. The arts were bent toward propaganda, which leads the artists in the book to ask the question, How do I adequately express myself? In modern abstract experimental forms, or in the more mimetic forms that will appeal to the uneducated masses? With the Party taking a strong interest in the arts, the question also becomes, How do I adequately express myself without getting arrested? A lot of artists and thinkers seem to have been sent to do manual labor on farms (I’m thinking forward to the guy in Slowness, as well as back to the teacher from The Joke), and while there is value in that sort of life, it’s not the life that they chose for themselves. So, it’s either follow the unstated, unacknowledged rules of the establishment, or be forced to give up art altogether. It’s a dangerous gamble/game.

This was a hard book for me. I’ve got my own issues with mothers, though, and with governments, and this troubled relationship with the idea of being a writer and whether or not that makes me an artist, so it may not be for you. Happy Mothers’ Day.

This entry is tremendously long. Please, sit somewhere comfortably and refill your cup before you proceed.

This book was difficult to read. Not the vocabulary or sentence structure, it’s the outdated ideas. Some of them, anyway. It’s twenty years old; society has moved on.

Badinter is a French feminist theorist, writing about men. I should have known to be more careful. Do you remember what Virginia Woolf said about Charlotte Brontë? I’m sorry I don’t have the quotation from the letters to hand, but she basically said that Brontë had a way of putting herself between her material and her readers, which prevents her from reaching the objectivity of Jane Austen. I don’t think any of us complain about finding Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre, but the novel isn’t a work of scholarly nonfiction. Badinter’s book is, and finding the author putting her offensive opinion between me and the facts upsets me. For example,

The medicalization of homosexuality should have protected it from moral judgments. Nothing of the sort happened. The problematical question of “perversions” allows for all kinds of ambiguities. No distinction is made between disease and vice, between psychic illness and moral illness. By consensus people stigmatize these effeminate men who are incapable of reproducing!

Or in other words, she attacks homophobia not by saying that fearing and hating other people based on a difference in sexual orientation is dumb because that type of fear and hate is irrational and leads to violence; she says homophobia is dumb because girly men are inherently unthreatening. Which fills me with shock and rage, but it isn’t nearly as intolerant as her comments on transgender individuals. She denies the validity of the very idea that some people’s gender identity does not match their biological sex. Maybe you could have this idea and still be a successful academician in the 1990s, but I don’t think the attitude would get published now.

All of that being said, most of her comments are absolutely spot on. When she puts herself aside and delivers the theory, it’s accurate and well done.

In traditional societies, becoming a woman is a fairly straightforward process. A girl separates from her mother in infancy, then sometime later begins to menstruate. While it’s not a smooth ride, it is not as complicated as becoming a man. Woman is at least defined positively, she is; man exists by not being something, which is much harder to prove. Badinter describes three stages, or gates, that a person must pass through in order to become a man. First, I am not my mother. Second, I am not a girl. Third, I am not gay. These are typically accompanied by rituals that mark the person’s developing masculinity. In industrial Euro-America, we’ve lost the rituals and the traditional definition of being a man, and while some of that isn’t terrible, it leaves a void.

The difficulties of masculinity are obvious, especially nowadays, in our countries, where the power that served as man’s armor is crumbling on all sides. Without his age-old defenses, man’s wounds are exposed, and they are often raw. One has only to read the literature of European and American men of the last fifteen years to grasp the entire range of feelings by which they are assaulted: rage, anxiety, fear of women, impotence, loss of reference points, self-hatred and hatred of others, and so on. One element that is found in all these texts is a man crying.

She frequently refers to novels as evidence of men’s thought processes; some that she finds significant are Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides and everything by Philip Roth. I’ve never read the Conroy book (or seen the movie – in my childhood, watching it was proof of effeminacy, sort of like Beaches), and I hated that one Roth novel I experienced, so I’m not sure if she and I have similar ideas about masculinity. But then, I feel like there’s someone inside me who’s crying all the time and never stops, so maybe we’re not so different after all.

I AM NOT MY MOTHER

And thank God for that. I was the fifth child; my brother’s fifteen-month birthday was the day after I was born. Our proximity in time meant that our mother’s body hadn’t recovered sufficiently for me to be a completely successful pregnancy. Since there were three more before him, she was sort of worn out with the childbearing. Fortunately, I was the youngest for two and a half years, so my little sister developed in a more nurturing womb than I did. I was a sick baby – now I know that I was allergic to breast milk, but back then there wasn’t a reason; there was only the fact that I did better with soy formula. My mother didn’t like nursing anyway. She likes babies because they love you without your having to work for it, but that’s hardly enough reason to have seven. I suppose the point is that for me, the mother-child dyad was never as pleasant or healthy as other people seem to think it should be.

On the other hand, if this total love has not been reciprocal, the child will spend the rest of his life painfully seeking it.

And that explains a lot.

Of course there exist here and there admirable mothers who give their child what he needs to be happy without holding him prisoner, who spare him excesses of frustration and guilt, hindrances to his development. But these “gifted” women, like great artists, are miraculous exceptions that confirm the rule that the reality is difficult, unclear, and most often unsatisfying.

Indeed, yes. As an adult, I find that my relationship with my mother is still difficult, unclear, and unsatisfying. I talk with her once or twice a year of my own volition, and from time to time I text her because she doesn’t know how to text back. She likes to feel that she’s involved in my life, and I like to feel that she’s not. My mother is not great with the idea that we’re different people; she is the most adamant about projecting an identity onto me that doesn’t fit with reality. She’s been doing this as long as I can remember, at least as far back as my parents’ divorce. I was eight, so I retreated from my feelings, and thus the entire outside world. It was easier for my mom to fill in the blanks with her own rage than to get to know me. Remember the six siblings, most of whom directed their energy outward and so got the attention they needed. I found greater acceptance from my remaining parent by not needing attention. It was easier for me not to challenge her assumptions, to let her act as if she knew what was going on inside me until I could figure it out. I didn’t really figure it out until I was an adult, so that became how I interact with the world. It’s unpleasant for me to assert myself if I’m not being confronted directly; it’s still easier to let other people assume I’m the same as they are. Which I seldom am. This is how I have so many people who think of themselves as my friend whom I don’t. And this is also why I feel alone most of the time, because I need to feel known in order to feel accepted, or like I belong. I keep searching for this mythical feeling of home/family/security without finding it.

I AM NOT A GIRL

I have three older brothers. My mother and my older sister really wanted a girl. I was a bit of a disappointment, from birth. And now I find myself in the midst of a community of men who sometimes use female pronouns and references, which is very odd. Just last week a friend of mine called me princess – I have rarely been so offended. I had to think through the fact that he enjoys being offensive and pushing limits; he’s cultivated this persona of the lovable idiot so that he can say whatever he feels like, and if it’s bothersome, he can fall back on the “I’m too stupid to know better” routine. It’s designed to turn other people’s anger into pity, and is actually a fairly common tactic among men of our socioeconomic group.

A girl is just one of those things that I am not, and other people seem to want me to be. No matter how many times I erase it, they keep writing it on my blank slate.

I AM NOT GAY

Okay, so in my case we all know this one isn’t true. But people have long expected this as part of being an adult man.

Masculine identity is associated with the fact of possessing, taking, penetrating, dominating, and asserting oneself, if necessary, by force. Feminine identity is associated with the fact of being possessed, docile, passive, submissive. Sexual “normality” and identity are inscribed within the context of the domination of a woman by a man. According to this point of view, homosexuality, which involves the domination of a man by another man, is considered, if not a mental illness, at least a gender identity disorder.

We all know that a long time ago some homosexuality was considered a normal part of a boy’s education. Some groups believed that a boy had to drink the “man’s milk” from a penis in order to become a man; others that the close relationship with an older man was necessary to learn how to be a man. The part that was always missing, though, is just how much older this older man should be. We imagine guys in their fifties sleeping with ten-year-olds, but that’s not how it was done. Older man really means only slightly older; it’s much more likely that a fourteen-year-old was hooking up with an eighteen-year-old. People expected a man to put away his homosexuality when he became an adult ready to marry. Under this model, men who are honestly gay are seen as either arrested in development or regressive. And, men who are “normal” and straight these days deny themselves the expression of a natural desire. Gay is a socially constructed identity; before a hundred and fifty years ago (estimating), gay was an action, not a person. The heteros have lost a lot by this polarization we have; if they get interested in another guy once, they feel like it ruins everything they are, it makes them not-man. Teenagers may look around the locker room, but they’re often too afraid to reach out and touch. Even with adults, it’s natural for usually straight guys to form an attachment with another man, but now it’s overladen with the “No homo” recitative. It’s a special friend who will let you sit in the seat next to him in an uncrowded movie theatre.

But, some facts:

Thus, the sociologist Frederick Whitam, after having worked for many years in homosexual communities in countries as different as the United States, Guatemala, Brazil, and the Philippines, suggests six conclusions: (1) homosexual persons appear in all societies, (2) the percentage of homosexuals seems the same in all societies and remains stable over time, (3) social norms neither prevent nor facilitate the emergence of a homosexual orientation, (4) homosexual subcultures appear in all societies that have a sufficient number of persons, (5) homosexuals of different societies tend to resemble one another as to their behavior and their interests, and (6) all societies produce a similar continuum between very masculine and very feminine homosexuals.

PROBLEM MAN 1: THE TOUGH GUY

The tough guy is the natural response to this sort of society. He denies any sort of femininity in himself. If he feels compassion or emotion, he hides it. From himself, if possible. Acknowledging any internal womanishness is failure. The problem with this is that society has arbitrarily divided basic human qualities into masculine and feminine categories, so the tough guy is really only half a person.

Jourard postulates that men have fundamentally the same psychological needs as women (to love and be loved, to communicate emotions and feelings, to be active and passive). However, the ideal of masculinity forbids men to satisfy these “human” needs. Others have insisted on the physical dangers that lie in wait for the tough guy: boys are forced to take risks that end in accidents (e.g., various sports); they smoke, drink, and use motorcycles and cars as symbols of virility. Some of them find confirmation of their virility only in violence, either personal or collective. In addition, the competition and stress that follow in their professional life, and their obsession with performance, only add to men’s fragility. The efforts demanded of men to conform to the masculine ideal cause anguish, emotional difficulties, fear of failure, and potentially dangerous and destructive compensatory behaviors. When one sizes up the psychosomatic uniqueness of the human being, the influence of psychic distress on physical illness, and when one realizes that men find it harder to consult medical doctors and psychologists and do so less often than women, then the shorter life expectancy of men is easier to understand. If one adds that in our society the life of a man is worth less than that of a woman (women and children first!), that he serves as cannon fodder in time of war, and that the depiction of his death (in the movies and on television) has become mere routine, a cliché of virility, one has good reason to regard traditional masculinity as life-threatening.

The violence is really a problem, especially in the United States. We have more people in jail than any other country in the world, and that doesn’t cover the crimes that aren’t reported.

Rape is the crime that is increasing the most in the United States. The FBI estimates that if this tendency continues, one woman out of four will be raped once in her life. If one adds that the number of women beaten by their husbands every year is estimated at 1.8 million, one will have some idea of the violence that surrounds them and the fear of men they legitimately feel. The threat of rape – which has nothing to do with the fantasies of the hysteric – has caused one woman to say: “It alters the meaning and feel of the night . . . and it is night half the time.” More generally, the fear of being raped looms over the daily life of all women.

I question the word all. It’s a big world, and I don’t believe that 51% of it is living in fear. But more of them are than I might realize. Strange women seem to find me threatening; being alone and silent and male is enough to be considered dangerous. Though I suppose the silence and the solitude aren’t as important as the maleness. Giving women I don’t know a wide berth seems to be a good solution, and living in the Middle East was good training. Now I don’t even look at women.

PROBLEM MAN 2: THE SOFT MAN

For a long time I dealt with the problem of being a man as many others do: we reject the aggressive, violent qualities of the tough guy and end up a softie.

The couple that consists of a feminist and a soft man share all household tasks and organize “a scrupulously exacting democracy, to such a degree must the division of tasks be fair.” Merete Gerlach-Nielsen points out that adaptation to the role of the soft man is not easy: it is often the feminist spouse who imposes this new behavior on her partner, though it may be profoundly alien to him. The man feels his masculinity is being attacked, his identity becomes uncertain, and most often the couple separate.

The ex and I were like this at first. I spent my undergraduate career reading feminist theory, and shortly before graduation I married someone who seemed to share these ideals. But after a year or two she didn’t want a soft man anymore. She wanted a tough guy, but I wasn’t him. So she lived with a man she didn’t respect, and I was plagued with my own inadequacy. Then, when the kids were born, she thought I was too violent to be left with them. I kept being pushed this way and that without being respected, without someone who claimed to love me taking the time to find out who I am.

The absence of attention (love?) on the part of a father prevents a son from identifying with him and establishing his own masculine identity. As a consequence, this son, lacking a father’s love, remains in the orbit of his mother, attracted by feminine values alone. He regards his father and his virility with the eyes of the mother. If the mother sees the father as “maybe brutal . . . unfeeling, obsessed . . . and the son often grows up with a wounded image of his father” and refuses to be like him.

Or, in my case, the son reproduces his parents’ relationship in his own marriage, with a similar situation of depression, dissatisfaction, suicidal ideation, and separation. I can only hope that my sons are going to make better choices.

To judge from Ernest Hemingway’s biography or those of other famous American men, an all-powerful mother who ceaselessly castrates those around her and a father obsessed by a feeling of incapacity produce boys who are very badly off.

I feel less incapable now than when I was still with the ex. Getting divorced was a terrible experience, but I’ve gained so much in self-respect that I’m glad I did it.

THE WAY FORWARD

Badinter points out that fathers are separated from their children in almost all these situations, and writes that bringing fathers back into their children’s lives is the best way to create a masculinity that doesn’t destroy traditionally feminine virtues.

All the studies show that paternal involvement also depends on the willingness of the mother. Yet many women do not want to see their companion become more occupied with the children. In the 1980s two studies showed that fathers who wanted to involve themselves a little more were not encouraged to do so: 60 percent to 80 percent of their spouses were not in favor.

To explain their rejecting attitude, many women mention their husband’s incompetence, which makes more work for them than it saves. But on a deeper level, they experience their maternal preeminence as a form of power that they do not want to share, even at the price of physical and mental exhaustion.

As with FGM, male personality mutilation is often performed by women. The ex hasn’t wanted me to be involved with her children for a long time. She used to say that she did, but she wanted me to interact with them in ways that she had scripted without giving me my lines. Naturally, I didn’t perform according to expectations. Even today, her children are her source of power and identity. I’m not sure if she exists without them. She thinks I don’t love them, perhaps because I understand myself as a separate human being.

Single mothers who work full time know that children are a heavy responsibility. For some, the emotional compensations are well worth the price. But for others, the reasons for the choice have more to do with guilt and a sense of duty – pressures that as yet do not weigh very heavily on fathers!

Badinter doesn’t have much use for fathers either, apparently. Guilt and a sense of duty weigh so heavily on me that they’ve often pointed me toward self-harm.

The thing that Badinter couldn’t predict, that I believe no one could have predicted, is what has actually happened. There was this show called Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. The title serves as an abbreviation for this complex cultural phenomenon where heterosexual men have appropriated traits seen as characteristic of homosexuals while retaining their heterosexual “real man” identity. For a while there was the metrosexual, who seemed totally gay while still being totally hetero; now straight guys put some work into their hair and clothes, and even get a little flamboyant in their style. Badinter wanted a mixture of tough guy and soft man attitudes, and it’s sort of happened by absorbing the gays instead of by reforming parenting styles.

One would have to be ignorant of identity problems to believe that one and the same generation of men, brought up with the old model, could succeed all at once in performing the dangerous triple somersault: first, questioning an ancestral virility, then accepting a feared femininity, and last, inventing a different masculinity compatible with that femininity.

I’m not sure where in this triple somersault we are now. I’d like to think that we’re on that last stage of things, but there’s no real way of knowing. The thing is that it’s like an idea I used to think about a lot: that every person goes through the ages of history in his own life. In childhood we’re interested in physical pleasures and making everything into a god, like the classical empires; later childhood is sort of Medieval, with the superstition and the ignorance; the Renaissance is an early adolescence, followed by an Age of Reason in young adulthood, a bit of Romance/Romanticism, and a Victorian middle age. Then it’s all (Post-) Modern and fragmented as we drift into senility. We each have to question the old virility, accept the feminine side of ourselves, and then figure out what that means. Every man has to relearn how to be a man; we recreate masculinity in ourselves all the time. That’s the inevitable result of an identity that is always provisional and based on negation. The important question is, is it the same old masculinity or something new? Does our gender performance lead to violence against women or not? Is it based in fear or respect? Are we more concerned about being a man or being a human?

More generally, those in favor of the tough guy or the soft man are making the mistake of thinking that there exist certain qualities exclusively characteristic of one sex and alien to the other, such as aggressivity, supposed to be specifically masculine, and compassion, essentially feminine. In fact, whether one considers aggressivity as an innate virtue or an acquired disease, one would have to be blind to say that women are not aggressive. Even if the patriarchal education and culture have taught them – more than men – to turn it against themselves, women are thoroughly familiar with this human impulse. They are, like men, influenced by the degree of violence in the social environment. Aggressivity is characteristic of both sexes, even if it is expressed differently. What is more, it should not be identified merely with a destructive, gratuitous violence. It is not only that, as Freud saw. It can also be equivalent to survival, action, and creation. Its absolute contrary is passivity and death, and its absence can mean loss of freedom and human dignity.

This entry has gone on for rather a long time, rather longer than necessary for a book this short. It provoked a strong response, and I have even more quotations that point out that my experience of my sexuality (convinced I was straight, marrying and having kids, then coming out) is far from idiosyncratic, as well as my experience of the homosexual community (not so polarized into female or male gender stereotypes as people think), and I was going to talk about a return to nearly traditional heroes after September 11, but it’s really quite long enough. Just one last thing:

Today, in our societies in which rituals have lost their meaning, the transition is more problematic, for it is not sanctioned by glaring proofs.

Fight Club showed us that rituals have not lost their meaning. Meaningful rituals are perhaps rare, but humans will never completely lose their taste for them. And while becoming a man is indeed problematic, we affirm each other; we negotiate manhood in communities rather than on the lone prairie. Every day we remind each other that being a man does not mean cleaving one’s heart in twain and throwing away the worser part of it; it means accepting all of ourselves, kindness and strength and compassion and anger and fortitude and adventure. All things human belong to all beings human. It takes a real man to love himself and others.

Last week I had a conversation with an old coworker about being rehired at a former place of employment (different position, different supervisors, so it feels like a step forward, not back). She told me that the person I had been before would not do well in this position, and I told her that I’m not who I was four years ago. Apparently, I impressed her with that fact enough that she commented on it with a few other people. In thinking about it, the difference is in the way I understand who I am. Four years ago I had several props that I substituted for my own identity – my marriage, my faith community, my career – I don’t think I’m unique in having relied on those things to tell me who I am. But I could see how precarious it all was, and as my awareness of my homosexuality became more pressing, I could foresee the imminent collapse of my life and self. I lived in perpetual fear of ceasing to exist. I thought that without those things I would no longer be. Not death so much as disappearance, like in ‘The Masque of the Red Death’ when Prince Prospero unmasks the death figure and finds only an empty robe that falls to the ground. I would lose all my social masks and be revealed as nothing at all. And that was how this potential employer knew me before, as the consciousness on the verge of extinction, the damaged and endangered psyche. And then everything did collapse. I lost all of those crutches that my injured identity was leaning on. But I didn’t die (getting rid of the sleeping pills helped with that one), and I didn’t disappear. I came through it all just fine. It took a few years, but I’m better now than I have ever been in my entire life. I have fewer labels, but I don’t need them. I can’t describe myself as easily, but I know more accurately who I am. And if the paradigm shift called coming out didn’t destroy me, I know that nothing else can.

Milan Kundera’s Identity is about a similar issue: how we derive our identity from the people who love us. Chantal and Jean-Marc don’t split up as the ex and I did, but there are many elements of their relationship that remind me of ours. The relationship is marked by insecurity: they’re excessively afraid of losing each other, possibly through death, possibly through indifference, possibly through forgetting.

I see their two heads, in profile, lit by the light of a little bedside lamp: Jean-Marc’s head, its nape on a pillow; Chantal’s head leaning close above him.

She said: “I’ll never let you out of my sight again. I’m going to keep on looking at you and never stop.”

And after a pause: “I get scared when my eye blinks. Scared that during that second when my gaze is switched off, a snake or a rat or another man could slip into your place.”

He tried to raise himself a little to touch her with his lips.

She shook her head: “No, I just want to look at you.”

And then: “I’m going to leave the lamp on all night. Every night.”

This is what we had, and it’s what I don’t want to have again. I don’t want to be an enthralled captive; I want to be in love with someone who makes me feel free. I want to be with someone who wants me because he likes me, not because he needs me. Love shouldn’t make me feel trapped or afraid.

Part of the insecurity comes from inequality.

All at once he knows that the assertion he often made to Chantal is finally about to be confirmed: that his deepest vocation is to be a marginal person, a marginal person who has lived comfortably, true, but only under completely uncertain and temporary circumstances. Now suddenly here is his true self, thrown back among those he belongs with: among the poor who have no roof to shelter their destitution.

Chantal makes four or five times as much money as Jean-Marc, so he is maintaining a standard of living that he feels he doesn’t have a right to. She’s also a few years older than he is, and with an ex-husband and a dead child, she seems to have a world of experience beyond him. He seems to need her much more than she needs him. In the early days of my marriage, we relied pretty heavily on the ex’s parents for things like rent. We had known that neither of us would ever have money, majoring in literature and music as we did, but the reality of that didn’t hit until we were on the wrong side of the country in jobs that would never pay our bills. Then I went to graduate school and she got a good job, but she didn’t see my studying as work, so she had very little respect for what I was doing. When I finished school, though, I went to work and she stayed home. I’m not sure how much of this was conscious, but she felt all the insecurity of being dependent on another human being for the necessities of life. When she worked, she felt independent enough that she looked into divorcing me, and she was afraid I’d do the same. So she bound me to her with insults, reminding me how lucky I was to be with her, making me feel like no one else could ever want me. I worked at The Home Depot for a year and a half, and I was physically stronger than I had ever been, and I was the happiest with my body I’d ever been, but my muscles get flat instead of rounded, so I was also thinner than I had been in ages, and she’d tell me I looked like a Holocaust survivor and threaten to buy my clothes in the kids’ section. After our third child was born I wanted to go back for a doctorate so I could get a better-paying job, and she told me repeatedly that I was too old, too poor, and had too many children to chase after dreams. What I needed to do was get a shit government job for the next thirty years, give up ever being happy with my life, and content myself with what satisfaction there is in knowing that my abject misery provided the basic needs of my family. That’s what real men did. This is the kind of poison that comes from an insecure person in an unequal relationship. She tended to get between me and family or friends, interpreting and packaging me for them so that I felt like I couldn’t interact socially without her. I felt like Jean-Marc, even after I was the one bringing home the organic preservative-free bacon. And at first I did feel homeless and marginal; Kundera’s novel doesn’t show how it gets better. As I reflect on it now, I don’t wonder that I survived the divorce; I wonder that I survived eight years with her.

Y’know, my parents thought that it was important never to fight in front of us, so when they divorced it sort of came out of nowhere. At the time, I didn’t see it as a conflict between them so much as the natural state of things. People ran away from time to time; my brother did it, every teenager in a 1980s sitcom did it, it’s just what people do. The ex also thought it was important not to fight in front of other people, so we didn’t. Or at least, I didn’t. When she started yelling at me in front of the kids, I knew things were bad. But even when she only yelled at me in private, I felt like everything was ending because I had never seen people who love each other fighting. Right now I’m staying with some friends who have been together for more than thirty years, and they have their disagreements as people do, not in front of me though I can hear when they raise their voices, but I’m finally learning that not every fight ends in divorce, not every disagreement is final, not every frustration is the end of the world two people have built together.

One of the things that frustrates Chantal (and my ex) is what has become of the men in their lives.

Chantal thinks: men have daddified themselves. They aren’t fathers, they’re just daddies, which means: fathers without a father’s authority. She imagines trying to flirt with a daddy pushing a stroller with one baby inside it and carrying another two babies on his back and belly. Taking advantage of a moment when the wife stopped at a shop window, she would whisper an invitation to the husband. What would he do? Could the man transformed into a baby-tree still turn to look at a strange woman? Wouldn’t the babies hanging off his back and his belly start howling about their carrier’s disturbing movement? The idea strikes Chantal funny and puts her in a good mood. She thinks to herself: I live in a world where men will never turn to look at me again.

Then, along with a few morning strollers, she found herself on the seawall: the tide was out; before her the sandy plain stretched away over a kilometer. It was a long time since she had come to the Normandy coast, and she was unfamiliar with the activities in fashion there now: kites and sail-cars. The kite: a colored fabric stretched over a formidably tough frame, let loose into the wind; with the help of two lines, one in each hand, a person forces different directions on it, so that it climbs and drops, twists, emits a dreadful noise like a gigantic horsefly and, from time to time, nose first, falls into the sand like an airplane crashing. She was surprised to see that the owners were neither children nor adolescents but always men. In fact, they were the daddies! The daddies without their children, the daddies who had managed to escape their wives! They didn’t run off to mistresses, they ran off to the beach, to play!

Again the notion of a treacherous seduction struck her: she would come up behind the man holding the two lines and watching the noisy flight of his toy with his head thrown back; into his ear she would whisper an erotic invitation in the lewdest words. His reaction? She hadn’t a doubt: without glancing at her, he would hiss: “Leave me alone, I’m busy!”

Ah, no, men will never turn to look at her again.

Chantal seems to value the old days when Sean Connery was James Bond, when men would drop whatever was happening for a quick lay with whichever objectified female happened to be closest. There’s this weird equation of promiscuity with adult masculinity and paternal authority which seems to run counter to today’s accepted model of male behavior. As if authority can only be exercised at a distance, or as if he’s only a man if his cock is actually inside a woman at the moment. Well, there’s a price to be paid for gender equality – I know we haven’t succeeded in that goal yet, but it’s a useful touchstone just now – we all like to feel physically attractive (regardless of gender), but men have been taught that James Bond is just a fantasy, that real life is not a nonstop sexual buffet, so we don’t act like it is. In general, we’re more guarded in expressing the pleasure we take in the sight of people we find attractive, so attractive people get less external validation. Most guys don’t like to be thought of as rape-y, so we go in the other direction. [I wonder how sexual orientation affects self-esteem in this area. I can look at myself in the mirror and think, yeah, I’d fuck me, without feeling like there’s anything weird about that. Can straight people do the same?] When the ex and I got together, we were both really into changing traditional gender roles, but over time she became more religious, and she felt more strongly that she needed to submit to me (at least superficially), but I never wanted a fuckable child-care worker who has to resort to manipulation to get what she wants. I’ve always wanted to be with someone I felt was my equal, and I’m still not sure how the powerful feminist I loved became a resentful housewife, or why she chose that.

But I can say that the kids strapped to their daddies won’t care if they turn to look at a strange woman. I could use a urinal without waking the baby strapped to my chest; they can handle a slight turn of the torso. Yeah, I was a baby-tree for a while at first, but as I started working full-time, the ex trusted me less and less with the boys. I don’t have any strong memories of carrying my youngest through shops or down the street, though I’m sure I must have done it.

I spent eight years expecting my life to end at any second. Every day I’d wake up and wonder, is it today? Whenever the phone rang unexpectedly, I’d think, is this the call? For a while I thought she was going to kill herself before I got home from work. Then I thought she was going to die in a car crash or some other accident. Then I was afraid she was going to leave me because I was a worthless shit, and then I was afraid she was going to leave me because I was a gay worthless shit. Then she did. It wasn’t quite as I had imagined it; in many ways it was worse. I really want to be in love again, but I don’t want to go back to that constant fear of loss.

He was thinking not of her death but of something subtler, something elusive that has been haunting him lately: that one day he wouldn’t recognize her; that one day he would notice that Chantal was not the Chantal he lived with but that woman on the beach he mistook for her; that the certainty Chantal represented for him would turn out to be illusory, and that she would come to mean as little to him as everybody else.

Certainty is illusory, full stop. The only thing I’m really certain of now is that no matter what, I’m going to be okay. Even when I die, that’ll be okay too. But relationships end. Sometimes not until death, but death parts us all. When Chantal’s lamp goes out one night, what will become of Jean-Marc? He’ll rediscover himself, as I did. All the things that he didn’t do because she hated them will come back. He’ll seek out all the friends she didn’t like. He’ll watch the movies and listen to the music she hated. He’ll read the books she didn’t approve of and eat at the restaurants where she felt snubbed. But being fictional, he will never face that. There’s a losing that he won’t have to live with.

In the last three years, I’ve realized that the ex didn’t know herself very well when we got together. I was pretty unaware of myself too, so I’m not judging her for that. But when you don’t know yourself, you can’t present yourself to another person accurately. The person I fell in love with never really existed. Part of her was there, of course, but part of her was the person the ex thought she ought to have been and not who she was, and part was who I wanted to believe her to be. Part reality, part fantasy. It was hard when she left me and I lost her physical presence, but it was also hard when I realized just how much I had blinded myself to. She’s still beautiful and the type of person I can respect, but I cannot imagine being in love with her, let alone making her the mainstay of my own identity. If I passed her on the street as a stranger, I wouldn’t look at her twice. I’d forget her almost immediately. She’s an important part of my past, but as we are in the present, I don’t find anything special about her. Jean-Marc is afraid of this state of things, but I welcome it. Yes, it represents a loss, but it’s healthy to let go of the things that hurt you.

Kundera’s work often resonates with me on some deep levels, and this short novel clearly brings up a lot of things for me. It’s a little love story, and I suppose it could be read allegorically, but I hope not all love is like this. I want to be complemented, not possessed. I want a love that feels secure, without fear. And I have faith that there are other men who want the same thing. I just have to find them.

 

Isak Dinesen is the pen name of Karen Blixen, a Danish writer of the mid-twentieth century. Those of you who have seen Babette’s Feast will recognize the characteristics that make Dinesen a little challenging for current American audiences: long exposition, tons of narration. Seriously, sometimes in this book she’ll spend thirty pages narrating exposition for twenty pages of story. That being said, like Babette’s Feast, the stories in this book are often beautiful, and worth working your way through. Just be sure to give yourself time to enjoy them for what they are instead of asking them to be something they aren’t.

These stories were first published in 1934; Blixen had published some isolated stories in periodicals, but this was her first book. She was fifteen years older than I am now, so a mature adult, but sometimes it feels like she’s still a beginning writer. She consciously copies nineteenth-century Gothic models, even the phrases in foreign languages. She writes in English, but throws in French, German, Italian, and Latin, another obstacle to the casual American reader. The Gothic tradition did eventually lead to modern horror, but these stories are hardly frightening. Maybe I’m a bit jaded after seeing films with Norman Bates and Pamela Voorhees, but there’s not much scary stuff going on. They’re not exactly mysterious, either. Four people get trapped in a hay loft during a flood; the only real element of suspense is whether they’re going to drown or not, but knowing literature of the 1930s, you know the answer to that question.

The stories use recurrent family names and settings, so it feels like they’re in a shared version of nineteenth century Europe, though everyone shares ties to Copenhagen or Elsinore. There are also recurrent figures of speech. The Monkey was my personal favorite; one of two that rely on a supernatural ending. I think I liked it because the protagonist is such an idiot, but fancies himself quite the charmer. The Dreamers has the most complex narrative structure, frame upon frame upon frame. The Roads Round Pisa feels exactly like the sensation novels of the 1860s that I love so much. The Supper at Elsinore has nothing to do with Hamlet, but it has the most poignant emotional moment. The Deluge at Norderney and The Old Chevalier were kind of forgettable. The Poet is a fit ending for the book; it’s a little Owl Creek Bridge-ish, but with Blixen’s lengthy setup.

The thing that fascinated me the most about this book, as a whole, is the attitude toward gender. Blixen acknowledges the traditional attitudes, but also points out that they are arbitrary and not inherent. She bends gender when she can – women are mistaken for men, men have feminine characteristics, and there’s a fluidity that may have shocked some people (maybe this is an element of horror that doesn’t feel horrific to me). Witness Boris with his aunt:

Boris kissed her hand for this, and reflected what an excellent arrangement it might prove to be, and then all at once he got such a terrible impression of strength and cunning that it was as if he had touched an electric eel. Women, he thought, when they are old enough to have done with the business of being women, and can let loose their strength, must be the most powerful creatures in the whole world.

When the only way a woman could manage to support herself was through marriage, she had to play up to men, acting dependent on them whether she felt herself to be or not. But when they’re too old to marry (throughout the book it seems agreed upon that a first marriage must happen before the woman reaches thirty or it won’t happen at all) and have their portion of the family income settled on them for life, they can do precisely as they like. Some people who have been beaten back their whole lives lose the ability to act for themselves. In others, the desire for independence grows so strong that it takes over their entire personalities. When a woman has hidden her strength for decades and finally lets herself feel and show it, that can be either inspiring or terrifying, but it is certainly dramatic.

In all of this attention to genderbending, Blixen presents the first coherent case for homophobia I’ve read. Too bad it only works for women rejecting gay men. In this passage, rumors of a regiment in the army that is almost entirely homosexual reaches the ladies of a home for older single women, and they react:

Few things could have stirred their natures more deeply. It was not only the impudence of the heroes of the pulpit and the quill attacking warriors which revolted the old daughters of a fighting race, or the presentiment of trouble and much woe that worried them, but something in the matter which went much deeper than that. To all of them it had been a fundamental article of faith that woman’s loveliness and charm, which they themselves represented in their own sphere and according to their gifts, must constitute the highest inspiration and prize of life. In their own individual cases the world might have spread snares in order to capture this prize of their being at less cost than they meant it to, or there might have been a strange misunderstanding, a lack of appreciation, on the part of the world, but still the dogma held good. To hear it disputed now meant to them what it would mean to a miser to be told that gold no longer had absolute value, or to a mystic to have it asserted that the Lord was not present in the Eucharist. Had they known that it might ever be called into question, all these lives, which were now so nearly finished, might have come to look very different. To a few proud old maids, who had the strategic instincts of their breed developed to the full, these new conceptions came very hard. So might have come, to a gallant and faithful old general who through a long campaign, in loyalty to higher orders, had stood strictly upon the defensive, the information that an offensive would have been the right, and approved, move.

Their society is built on the ideal of heterosexual marriage. Their primary mission in life was to marry because in their socioeconomic class, there was no other accepted way for a woman to make her living. These women didn’t succeed, but at least they could cling to the idea that they had been desired, that they had an opportunity to marry (or at least play around) but chose not to. And then, to be told that women are not necessary to men? That men can love and fuck each other? What use are women, then? When marriage is a woman’s only proof of value, gay men call their self-worth into question. In the conservative circles the ex was moving in at the time of our breakup, this was pretty much the same. Her blog from that time is a hymn to wifely submission and gratitude for her faithful loving husband. So when I said that I wanted to have sex with men, it broke her concept not just of our relationship but of herself. She had to reshape her entire identity, but without the convenient label that I was claiming. This is a process that I cannot imagine.

It is not only women who derive their sense of worth from the opposite sex, according to Blixen. Here’s a little digression about the De Coninck sisters:

If these sisters could not live without men, it was because they had the firm conviction, which, as an instinct, runs in the blood of seafaring families, that the final word as to what you are really worth lies with the other sex. You may ask the members of your own sex for their opinion and advice as to your compass and crew, your cuisine and garden, but when it comes to the matter of what you yourself are worth, the words of even your best friends are void and good for nothing, and you must address yourself to the opposite sex. Old white skippers, who have been round the Horn and out in a hundred hurricanes, know the law. They may be highly respected on the deck or in the mess, and honored by their staunch gray contemporaries, but it is, finally, the girls who have the say as to whether they are worth keeping alive or not. The old sailor’s women are aware of this fact, and will take a good deal of trouble to impress even the young boys toward a favorable judgment. This doctrine, and this quick estimating eye is developed in sailor’s families because there the two sexes have the chance to see each other at a distance. A sailor, or a sailor’s daughter, judges a person of the other sex as quickly and surely as a hunter judges a horse; a farmer, a head of cattle; and a soldier, a rifle. In the families of clergymen and scribes, where the men sit in their houses all their days, people may judge each other extremely well individually, but no man knows what a woman is, and no woman what a man is; they cannot see the wood for the trees.

Maybe it’s because I’m not a sailor (though living in the Middle East I can go for months without seeing a woman’s face or figure), but I’ve never really been interested in Woman as a concept. I’ve been attracted to one or two individuals of that type, but the mysteries of femininity do not charm me. Someone told me recently that the ex had always had a really masculine energy; I suppose that’s why we were together for so long. But I always felt at a disadvantage; she and her friends tended to see me as insufficiently masculine because I couldn’t change the oil in my own car (I’ve learned since), or keep my attention on a televised sporting event (still can’t do it). I also burst into tears every time I see Kate Winslet walk into Johnny Depp’s imagined world at the end of Finding Neverland. I read recently that scientists have determined that ovulation gives women uncannily accurate gaydar, so maybe they were picking up on that subconsciously (or consciously, in some cases). Something about fertility and biological imperatives lets women know who’s not interested, and in our Southern culture where a ‘real man’ is one who produces and provides for a nuclear family, gay men are left outside. If Southern masculinity is a log cabin, we live in tents in the backyard. I have recurrent fantasies about things to do out in the woods, though, so maybe that’s the best place for me.

At the end of their story, the De Coninck girls are having dinner with their brother’s ghost, and the clock strikes midnight and he has to go back down to hell. Fanny throws herself at him and

“Morten!” she cried in a long wail. “Brother! Stay! Listen! Take me with you!”

Love isn’t always sexual; Blixen seems to understand pretty clearly that love and sex rarely go together. It makes sense to me that when Disney made a movie about true love that wasn’t heteronormative, they came to the same culture that produced this scene. Fanny loves her brother so much that she would rather be in hell with him than on earth without him. She’s lived with their sister her whole life, so it isn’t as if she’s alone in the world, but if she could choose . . . There is no person in my life that I haven’t had to give up. Even my children I’ve had to release to the ex’s weird conservative Christianity. My seven-year-old came back from camp this summer talking about AK-47s, and I’m deeply disturbed by this, but there’s nothing I can do about it. She’s going to raise the boys as she sees fit. At the same time, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of someone hanging onto me so tightly that he’d follow me to hell. I’d like to fall in love with someone and really make it to ‘death do us part,’ but I’m going to need a certain amount of independence. When I go, let me go.

These stories aren’t the type that I normally think of as Gothic. Only one ghost, one bit of magic, no insane asylums or inquisitions. They are appropriately distanced from the audience in time and usually in place, but the landscape is seldom the locus of terror. People are evil enough without any help from Hawthorne’s traveler in the woods. And sometimes people aren’t evil at all, but bad stuff still happens. It’s the way the world is: flawed and somewhat indifferent to the individual human, but beautiful nonetheless. Blixen describes one of her characters as being

Of a strange, slow and angular, unexpected gracefulness in all his movements,

and I think this is the best description of her book itself. It rewards your patience with it.