Friday, 27 April 2012

Thoughts around my birthday

I am now officially old.  Last week, I became 65 and am now in receipt of my State pension.  I am, in fact, older than my father was when he died.  One one level this is reality but on another there is my own concept of myself which does not seem to have changed since I was a child.  On an emotional level, little if anything has changed.  I am still waiting to grow up and do not know what I will be when I do so.

When I was physically a child, the world of grown-ups was a complete and somewhat terrifying mystery to me.  Full of strange rituals and incomprehensible actions, it also seemed bereft of any sense of the wonder of imagination.  To be grown-up appeared to demand that I settled for a dreary conformity and discarded the sense of wonder.  In return, I would be given the keys, not to the kingdom, but to a living death of 9-5 and the commuter train.  The shades of the prison house loomed large on the horizon, they awaited me and I dreaded them.  Dreaded, that is, when I thought about them.  Which was not often.  Most of the time, I did not think about it.  I suppose that I was aware that one day I would get older but that had no reality.  Adults aroused in me a feeling akin to pity for they had lost a precious thing and received in return a spurious authority and standing in a world far removed from mine.  It was a world beyond my comprehension.

It still is. I am now old but somehow have not managed to get a handle on being an adult.  Although I know that there is an etymological distinction, I cannot but associate it with adulteration.  It is an added substance which pollutes and corrupts the original.  It is a violence inflicted from outside that has no connection with the original essence but overlays and masks it. It is the violence, both physical and mental, of school and the moulding of the young into something warped and inauthentic.  It is where play becomes competition with the inevitable rift between winners and losers.

I have tried to be competitive but am not very good at it so perhaps my vision is slanted.  But I find it pointless.  For, in the end, we all die.  We cannot win at that game.  In his talk with the gravedigger, Hamlet ponders the ultimate futility of human ambition:

Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
O that that earth which kept the world in awe

Should patch a wall t' expel the winter's flaw!
This is the reality that Gilgamesh strove to avoid in his search for immortality.  Having previously spurned Ishtar, he and Enkidu embark on what is the first example of what would later become the buddy movie.  However heriocally Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid might seek immortality in a rain of bullets, their fate is identical to that of the lowest peasant.  Later, we may well mythologise and apotheosise but the harsh reality of death levels all men.  However, we are told we need heroes.  I was raised with such heroes.  Gordon meeting his death at the hand of Islamic savages in Khartoum was an ideal held up to be admired.  The reality that he was a vainglorious failure who led his men to a terrible fate in a country far away in which we had no business did not enter into the adulation.  For he was an ideal to be emulated by all young Englishmen.  An ideal that should, in any rational world, have been laid to rest in the fields of Flanders along with the rotting bodies of millions but is even now trotted out in the latter day Imperial adventures of the nation to which we are now client, the USA.  The soldier, if he dies, becomes a hero and will enter the Valhalla of national memory.  At each Remembrance Day parade the pious prayers of "Lest we forget" are parroted over the heads of the heads of those destined for a future, pointless, premature death.  We never remember and we never learn.

This last paragraph contains, I accept, a bit of a rant which is somewhat of a digression.  But I will let it stay for it is related to my main theme.  It is the world for which I, as a boy child, was being prepared.  My imagination was already colonised even though it seemed to be free.  However much he resisted being an adult man, the boy was rehearsing the masculinity that he would someday be expected to wear.  He would shoot his friends and be shot by them but death was counted in seconds and the resurrection would be frequent.  It was never real.  War was and is a part of being a man.

And it is as a man that I write all this.  My body is that of a man.  I am not a boy anymore.  But when did this change happen?  I don't know.  There is no point at which I can locate it.  Even this recent shifting of status to pensioner has no real meaning beyond an arbitrary, Government decreed, date on a calendar.  I have in sense drifted through each transition in my physical life without any point at which I can mark a change.  No moments of passage from one state to another just a series of imperceptible minor changes which only have coherence in retrospect.

What I missed was any sense of an experience "making a man of me".  I was not in the armed forces, nor an apprenticeship. Neither was I sent to any residential institution dedicated to inculcating a model of masculinity - whether it be a prison (yet!) or  a public school (for non-UK readers a "public school" is a fee-paying school - a strange use of the word "public", I grant).  I have never, in short, had those experiences which are said to "to make a man out of me". . I am a man but I have never been made one. I am, it must therefore be assumed, somewhat less of a man than those who have been so made. (Not, I must most emphatically add, that I regret this!  I am, despite my own all too patent fuck-ups, happy for the most part to be the man I am although I readily acknowledge that there are many areas for improvement)

We talk of the need to "make" a man, it is common parlance.  We never, however, speak of the need to "make" a woman.  There is, in the onset of menstruation, a definite and inescapable event.  There are, in women with various genetic conditions, exceptions to this but, in general, the transition between girl and woman is one that is clear.  A woman is not "made".  A woman "is".   Herein there lies a major difference between the two biological sexes.  (Here I am deliberately avoiding the use of the word "gender" and keeping strictly to the physical.  That a person can realign themselves between genders is clear and I have no problem with anybody identifying themselves as other than the gender into which they were born.  Only they can know what they feel they are.  This whole issue is worthy of much more attention than I can give here, so I may well return to it).

For the making of a man there is one vital first step.  Separation from women.  The next step is the eradication from the male psyche of all those traits deemed to be feminine.  Military basic training is the clearest example of this.  A similar process can be seen in gang culture.  In both instances, the main desire is that the initiate not be a pussy and the marker for unpussiness is to demonstrate an ability and willingness to inflict violence on the bodies of other human beings.  Empathy and compassion must therefore be rooted out and replaced by homocentric loyalty to the peer group. How the inclusion of women on the front line will impact on this is yet to be seen, but the cases of rape and molestation that have come to light already indicate that the process is not easy for them.  However, we now have all-volunteer armies and widespread youth unemployment.  Very few men are, therefore, being made.  Women are, in many fields, already challenging and often out-performing their male colleagues.  The old certainties no longer apply.  There is, in this sense, a real crisis of masculinity.  This has given rise to a fightback against what is perceived to be a takeover by women.  From  the men's rights advocates and the apostles of the various religious fundamentalisms comes the same brand of rhetoric.  The only way for men to be men is to keep their women under their thumb.

A similar thinking occurs, I believe, in the works of such as Robert Bly and, I fear, some of those within  New Paganism.  Having rejected the Abrahamic religions of their forefathers they seem to have adopted mythologies that have the same stereotypical  binary gender divide.  On reading some of their works, I have been reminded very strongly of my childhood visits to the rugby club where my father spent most of his free time.  I remember very well that every evening there was a chorus raised from the bar of, "goodnight ladies, goodnight ladies" and the women and children would depart, leaving the men to get on with the serious business- whatever that was beyond drinking.  This was a time for men to be men.  Whether they had the occasional stripper or so, I have no idea but strongly think they might.  Whatever went on, it was not for the eyes of wives and girlfriends.  This was a clearly male preserve and a male mystery.  Is there, in fact, any need for such male only space? Perhaps for some men, but I am not convinced that it applies to all.  I accept that, for many reasons, it is inappropriate for me to be present at some ceremonies that pertain to women's unique experience.  But I can think of few, if any, significant occasions in my life that could not be shared by a woman.  I am a man.  I grew to be one.  I was not made one and I do not wish to be made one.

Men and women are different, I am very glad to say.  They are, however, both human. Neither have to be "made".  We do not need to look for a new model of masculinity beyond one that recognises that we all, men and women alike, have our strengths and weaknesses and that these are not necessarily sex-specific. There are many within each sex that prefer to socialise within that sex and many who don't.  The problem comes when one set of values, or preferred mode of socialising is privileged and the others considered deviant.

I had no idea where this post was going when I started it.  The same is true of my life.

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