Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Sixty-Seven: Filters

I've been engaged in a sporadic discussion about on-line dating this past week. My interlocutor has been a woman who's an alternative-press journalist. She's based out of the one of the larger cities in the American South, but spends much of her professional time in Manhattan. I know very little about her personally. I know something of her politics (progressive), and I know that she's active in local animal-rescue groups where she lives.  At a guess, I'd say that she's in her later thirties. That's really all I know. Our exchanges on line have been very polite, which I do appreciate.

We've been discussing on-line dating. It's not something I've ever done. I still see a certain social stigma attached to it, even among groups who do spend most of the their lives on the web. Lots of people may be using sites like OKCupid these days, but there are lots of sites set up specifically to mock OKCupid and its ilk. Some are merely funny, but far too many have a hostile (and often ideological) edge. I feel the social stigma, or at least can understand it. I'd feel just a bit desperate using a dating site. The ideological hostility is another matter, and something I'd prefer to avoid.

My interlocutor tells me that she's always good luck with on-line dating, that it gives her the chance to maximize her own strengths and present herself well. We've disagreed on that. On-line dating strikes me as something that wouldn't end well for me. The sites are designed, I fear, to keep people like me outside.

All on line dating profiles are filters. That's a given. A user constructs her profile to talk about what she's looking for and to wave away those who don't meet her specifications. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Everyone has specific tastes and desires. Mine are very specific, and I know that. I suppose that what puts me off is knowing that I don't meet anyone's profile requirements. On-line dating sites also require suitors to produce photos and possibly speak via webcam--- two things designed to cancel out any chances I may have.  To be seen outright--- seen outside of context ---is not something I can risk.

My young companions have met me...where? Almost always on terrain where I feel safe: bookstores, cafes, museums. They've met me in places where I can lead with my own strengths, with what I know and what I can say about things that are important to me. I don't lead with anything visual; that's not what I am. I lead with what I have to say, with what I have to say about certain specific things. I present myself as someone who has knowledge to offer, and a passion about knowledge. That does allow my age to seem like it might be a positive thing. I'm safe on terrain where it can seem like I might be part of a sentimental education, where a young companion can listen to me and think that I could be a part of a learning experience. I'm not like to be able to pass the filters at an on-line dating site. My task is always to encourage a lovely young girl to consider an exchange of beauty and youth for knowledge and passion about knowledge.

Despite what my interlocutor says about crafting on-line dating profiles, I know that I can't present myself well there. What I have to offer has to come in context. I lead with a voice, with things I can say. The trick is always to make my own appearance fade away into the background, to be the voice talking about books or art or ideas. If I'm to be seen, it must be mediated not via webcam, but through a girl's view of what's been on her bookshelves, on her visions of other worlds. I can lead with that. I can be an introduction to things--- that's what I have to offer. Just as a face on a screen,  or as a set of answers to profile questions, well...I have so very little value. I can be...Virgil to her Dante? Something like that, I think.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

SIxty-Six: Cages

My friend did ask me about the parts of contemporary visions of manhood and masculinity that "suffocate" and "marginalize" men. Well, that I'm uncomfortable ever calling myself "a man" has to be connected to that, doesn't it? That "manhood" requires constant re-affirmation, or that it's a title that can be lost in an instant--- those things count.

I've followed a few links my friend sent to articles about the failures and dangers of contemporary ideas of masculinity. I can't say that I'm too impressed with the articles. One kept invoking the idea of "hypermasculinity" in American culture, but never explained--- never tried to explain ---what the base line for masculinity was.  Calling something hypertrophied means nothing if you don't know what the ordinary--- normal ---form is like.

And there seems to be a failure to look at the history of the concept. The articles all tended to focus on the idea that contemporary ideas of manhood are linked to physical force and physical strength and assert such things should have no place in a "true" vision of manhood. Okay, well, that's a respectable argument to make. But you have to be aware that over the last three or four thousand years, manhood has almost always been defined in terms of things martial. Manhood was something that entailed being ready to engage in combat. That's certainly true in the West, all the way back to Homer. It's true in the other cultures I know anything about, too. Make the argument if you want that it shouldn't be so, that there should be clear alternative paths to being seen as a man, paths that don't focus on physical force. Make the argument that the older ideas are obsolete and dangerous. But I think you have to have to recognise that martial prowess has been associated with manhood across all kinds of cultures for a very long time and ask why and ask why that link has endured. Asking that strikes me as key to finding a replacement.

There was also a tendency in the articles to turn a critique of manhood into a critique of male sexuality, to critique particular forms of sex (e.g., penis-in-vagina heterosexual sex) as being so linked to ideas of being a "real man" that they were somehow oppressive and morally corrupt in and of themselves. I understand what the original intent was. The idea was to argue that other kinds of sex--- meaning largely gay male sex ---were no less "manly" than PIV heterosex. The critiques managed to go beyond that, though, to end up somehow arguing that enjoying or wanting to have basic PIV heterosex is a sign of moral failure, or at least a sign of failure of vision.

I might have to laugh here for a second. At least one of the articles I read kept attacking ideas of manhood for promoting "stoicism", which it took to mean a kind of emotional deadening. I can look at the bookshelf by my writing desk and see a copy of Gregory Hays' 2002 translation of Marcus Aurelius and what goes through my mind is that no one writing in the articles has the least idea what stoicism was all about. Let's just leave that aside for the moment.

There are suffocating parts to contemporary ideas of manhood. I've always thought the most painful one is how risky it becomes to have male friendships. Aristotle wrote long ago that friendship was the highest good--- no one male would say that now. To have close male friends after a certain age (usually somewhere in one's early or mid twenties) is to risk being thought gay. And not just that. I want to be very clear on that. There's the fear that other males would think you're gay if you had close male friends once you were old enough to have graduated university.  There's another social risk, too. Women might think you were gay, which would make hooking up much more difficult, and they might also dismiss you as a Peter Pan, as someone who still prefers "immature" relationships to a "mature" relationship with a significant other or wife--- i.e., to "settling down". I know that fear all too well. I've never married, of course. It's easy enough for anyone hostile to argue that I'm "really" gay, and that having male friends is a clear sign of that. I know that it's a fear that makes me afraid to still have male friends. I really have no male friends in the way I had them as a boy or as an undergrad---- people with whom you could share thoughts or argue about ideas, people you could go visit and hang out with. I understand about homophobia in both senses of the word, and I know what I've internalised. I know that I miss having friends, but I also know that I couldn't pick up the phone tonight and call anyone male and There are girls I could call, girls I could talk with late into the night. Though...the girls who are my friends are almost all former FWB girls.  It's hard to know quite what that means. What I do know, though, is that I am afraid--- or at least uncomfortable ---with the idea of having male friends now. I hate having to feel afraid, and I hate being afraid of being thought gay... I'm not sure what I'm more worried about--- social mockery by people (meaning other males)  who'd think I was gay or having girls dismiss me out of hand as a potential sexual partner if I they thought I was gay.

Nonetheless, there you are. There was a time when men had friends, when friendship was valued. That's no longer true. And it does leave me sad.

There are other things, too. Fear of age, fear that as a gentleman of a certain age, I can't meet the visual and physical requirements of the contemporary of the muscle-carapaced, body-sculpted mid-twenties image of manliness. As a gentleman, though, should I need those things? Shouldn't I be able to rely on attitudes and values rather than on body armour? But...isn't fear of age something else altogether, something like fear of death, or of impotence in its generalized (and not just sexual) meaning of lack of power, whether that's vitality or the ability to attract girls?

There is so much here to think about. I hope my writer friend will respond, and I hope any of my readers will respond, too.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Sixty-Five: Definitions

A friend who's something of a well-known figure in the blog world suggested that I write about manhood and masculinity, and about whether contemporary versions of manhood and masculinity are "suffocating and marginalizing". Interesting topic, and one that does bear thinking about. Manhood and masculinity are dangerous topics these days--- concepts treated with hostile suspicion in the age of the gender wars. They're also elusive topics, though they've been that way for a while.

I can recall envying boys who came from observant Jewish families, boys who were bar mitzvah'd. They had a cultural ritual for manhood: today I am a man. I grew up with no rituals to tell me I was "a man", and it's not a word I ever use about myself. I'll describe myself as "a guy", or as male, or by my professional credentials. I'll never say that I'm "a man". Doing that seems like setting oneself up to have the claim mocked or disproved, whether by fate or other people. 

I'm male, and of a certain age. I have post-graduate degrees, I have an office and a business card. But I don't have a wife or children, I don't own a house, I've never done anything physical. I certainly haven't done any of the things cultures have demanded of males throughout history--- I've never done anything martial, I've never fathered children for the community or my bloodline. 

Right there of course you can see the beginnings of a problem. "Manhood" involves a tangle of things, an overlapping of things both symbolic and concrete, a knot of biology and both social and class markers. If "manhood" were just about being a biologically-adult male, one capable of fathering children, then...well, it would be a simple enough thing. It's always been more than that, though. Manhood is social. It's about being accepted as a man by other males--- and, yes, it's about being accepted by other males at least as much as it is about being accepted by females. 

I suppose I should begin by thinking about my own definitions of being "a man" and where they came from. I always come back to the word "gentleman" rather than just "man".  I know that when I think of what manhood should entail, I think of what makes a gentleman.  There's a class thing there, of course. But then, I wanted those class markers. The personal markers I've associated with manhood are all things that have class overtones.

My own visions of being "a man" come with class markers, of course. Long, long ago I read an article where the author--- who'd been a combat officer in Vietnam ---wrote a eulogy for a friend, a fellow young captain killed in action. He compared his friend to the ideal of what a man should be in David Cecil's biography of Lord Melbourne. I was maybe sixteen when I read that; I had no idea who Melbourne was or what he'd been like. I found a copy of the book, of course. I made a point of finding a copy as soon as I could. I still have a copy. And I do rather like Melbourne--- I like that late-Georgian idea of the gentleman. But that's probably as much about class as about masculinity as such.

David Cecil's Lord Melbourne is a role model I could like--- grace under pressure, yes, and always projecting a sense of effortless competence. That vision goes back to Castiglione's "Book of the Courtier" and probably back to Hellenistic manuals. Just as a note--- yes, I am sitting here laughing at myself. My instinct is always to model myself on literary sources. My instinct is always to look into historical sources. My instinct is always to be a character in a book. Lord Melbourne rising in politics and salons, Castiglione's guide for the aspiring courtier, probably Lord Chesterfield's advice in his letters to his son--- my role models are all class-aspirational, and they have so little to do with manhood in the year 2013. 

There are phrases designed to sum up manhood. There's Hemingway's "grace under pressure" and Harvey Mansfield's "confidence in situations of risk". You can decide whether those two things are different and if so, how. And I do know that those two definitions aren't gender-specific. After all, isn't the motto of one of the old-guard girls' prep schools in Manhattan "function in disaster, finish in style"? I like all three of those, though I'll take the Hemingway line and the girls' school motto as essentially identical, and as more appealing than Mansfield's.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote that a gentleman is "kind, proud, and fierce". As a definition of a gentleman, of manhood--- well, I'd sign on for that in a heartbeat. It's an aspirational line in a number of ways. Class, too, of course. To be able to carry off all three of those things--- kind, proud, fierce ---requires a certain social position. One has to be able to afford those things--- and not just in money.

I define myself here as a roué, and that comes with its own class overtones. It's deliberate, of course. A roué may be a great many things that the gender warriors despise, but at least he's a gentleman. He may a fallen gentleman, or a louche one, but he is a gentleman. That does matter to me. I understand about being a gentleman, and I can use that as an alternative to the representations of "manly men" in contemporary culture. I can't meet the contemporary physical requirements for being "masculine". I am of a certain age, after all, and I was never physical. I can  be a gentleman--- that's about behaviour and attitudes. It's with the body that I start to worry.

Ripped abs and chiseled features are absolute requirements these days to symbolise the truly masculine. But that's a set of markers that's strangely contradictory. Depictions of "real men" focus on the hard, almost carapaced male body and focus on activities (outdoor, physical ones) that suggest blue-collar roles--- "real work". But...those are high-tech gym bodies, personal trainer bodies. They're not the bodies of actual cowboys or construction workers. Blue-collar work can build muscle, yes, but the sculpted and shaped bodies of "real men" shown in ads have to be won through lots and lots of specifically-focused gym work. That work requires the kind of money and free time that's hard to come by unless you're in a professional job or you're a trust-fund kid. That vision of the male body purports to celebrate "real work" and associates masculinity with blue-collar labor--- but the bodies seen in male fashion ads are luxury items. They're the result of expensive procedures in expensive gyms. The contradiction amuses me, even though I'm still all-too-aware that I can't have a "real man" kind of body to show as a marker to the judges and gatekeepers. 

We're already losing focus here. There are distinctions between "manhood" and "masculinity" that need to be kept in mind. I suppose that at some point I opted for a version of "manhood" that was based on class aspirations, on attitudes and behaviour rather than on anything physical. And yet...and yet...I am insecure and anxious about things physical. I don't know how much of that has to do with being of a certain age and how much of it is about simple fear of judgment by the gatekeepers of manhood, both other males and attractive girls.

My friend suggested that I write about the ways contemporary manhood is suffocating and marginalizing. I'll get to that in the next part of this. I suppose you can see some of the things I'll be discussing. Fear of physical failure is always key. A tendency to apologise for not being sufficiently physical and carapaced. I want to be seen as a gentleman. I want to embody those attitudes from the Nabokov quote. And yet I do feel a nagging sense of inferiority and failure, a fear that the judges and gatekeepers will look at me with contempt and shut me out of being seen as a man. 

I'm not sure what to do with this tonight. But I will have to keep thinking about what manhood means, and about what markers I want to present. I'll have to keep thinking, too, about what it means if ever the markers aren't seen as valid. Grace under pressure, yes. But there's always, always the fear that you aren't actually a man, and that (worse) others will come to see that you aren't.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Sixty-Four: Attention

I was brought up to an old school kind of courtesy, and I believe in social forms.  So I am amazed by certain things here in the new century.

A few weeks ago a high school boy posted a video at YouTube asking a famous model to be his date to his prom. The video became the subject of a few news stories, and there was some betting as to whether the model would be his prom date. In the end, she very politely and gently declined--- prior work obligations and travel. I suppose most people reading about the video thought it was a cute story. A silly thing to do, certainly, but faint heart ne'er won fair maiden, and there would be a certain charm if the model had actually appeared. Dancing at prom with someone beautiful and famous would be an experience  that the boy would treasure for a lifetime, and most people, I think, would cheer the boy on for having the courage to ask. Most people would cheer, too, for any goodnight kiss the model might have bestowed as she departed--- a lovely gesture.

We don't live in a world where the story could be taken as merely charming and silly, though--- or at least we don't live there any longer.

I've run across a couple of blog coulmns, each with its own long tail of comments, about the story.  The columns were angry and hostile and disturbingly aggressive. The authors kept insisting that the boy's video wasn't cute, and neither was the story. The boy was excoriated as being "creepy" and as being no better than the two football players convicted a couple of weeks ago in a very ugly rape trial in Ohio--- no better, and with no essential difference. The story was pictured as being all about patriarchy and "rape culture".   The commentariat were even more hostile, and there were calls for some kind of punishment for the boy,  for making him a kind of symbol of patriarchal evil.     

His sin, and what the authors and their sycophants saw as a besetting sin in "rape culture" society, was that the boy sought someone's attention, that he'd dared to ask someone to notice him. The attacks weren't based on a kind of laughter at some suburban teen boy thinking that a girl who'd been on the covers of various magazines might be his prom date.  They were based on the idea that he might have the evil male idea that he could ask someone out--- on the idea that if he asked politely, and showed himself as confident and brave enough to ask, the girl would respond.

One author went into a long rant about the evil of seeking someone's attention. How dare this boy--- how dare anyone male ---presume to think that they can ask for attention! The author and her commentariat were furious at the idea that saying something nice to someone, or doing something nice for someone, entitles anyone to "attention". Thinking that one can seek notice and attention, the author and her choir said, was no more than coercion.  Doing anything to get attention, doing anything and thinking that someone will pay attention or should pay attention is on a spectrum leading to rape.

Despite what the columnists were ranting about, we all do live in a web of social obligations. If someone says something nice to you, or does something nice for you, you do in fact owe them your attention. You may end up saying No to them, but you do owe them your attention. That's only very basic courtesy, and its certainly the way I was brought up. The gender warriors seem to envision a world of isolated and atomised individuals with no obligations of courtesy or kindness. Never mind that they seem to despise flirtation and seduction and equate those things with coercion and "rape culture"--- they really do seem to hate the idea of any social obligations, of any kind of rituals intended to make social contact and social interactions easier.

I could never have made a video asking a cover model out, but I do admire the boy's nerve. Faint heart ne'er won fair maiden--- that's certainly true. But the issue isn't about the boy and his video. The gender warriors envision a world where there are no rituals or obligations of courtesy, where all contact between genders is seen through a lens of power and dominance. Their world is an ugly place, and it leaves no room for  anyone like me.