Great Pattern Changes

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Love Stories With Only One Character, OR, Nature Programs

Here are two. In the first, many things fall and have to be picked up, and the converse is also true. What SEEMS like seven and some minutes of effortful tidying up is really a story of heartbreak. There is drama. There is an inexplicable surplus of tires. Shirtwise, there is feast and there is famine. It could only be helped by a David Attenborough voiceover saying “Very impressive, but no one is watching.”

Luckily, in our next video, David Attenborough says THIS VERY THING. If you must, fast forward to 1:59, but I advise against it:

In a perfect world the star of One Man, One Dream, One Chance would do a buddy film with the bird of paradise. There would be a really intense danceoff to Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes.” It would end happily, in a muscular embrace. And it would be called “Birds of a Feather.”

Three Men Walk Into a Bar. One says “I’m a member of a minority about which the stereotypes are indeed true. I am male.” The second one says, “I live with a monkey.” The third says, “Join my nation of men.”

Dear CF,

The main questions of the Polanski case seem cut-and-dried and I don’t have much to add while Hollywood dons its queen’s necklace and conservatives and feminists strike an extremely uneasy alliance.  It’s all interesting enough, and it’s been rewarding to watch the public try to adjudicate between principle and genius, but what interests me more is how Polanski’s defenders shiver off the rape itself as if it were something bug-like that will land again, and again, and again. They know it’s there, they know it’ll land eventually, but there’s some baser circuit of alliance and sympathy, some more instinctive imperative at work.

Given the comments on our Sterling Institute post and in anticipation of some thoughts on Mad Men and Flight of the Conchords, I’ve gathered three very different explorations of this problem of evolutionary or “instinctive” or “authentic” or “animal” manhood which all investigate Johnny Cash’s “The Beast in Me,” and (by extension, I think) the root of that impulse to sympathize with Polanski.  Which isn’t, by the way, exclusive to men but which seems to partake of some older evolutionary view that makes Polanski so fit a Darwinian and the victim so obviously (and intentionally, it’s implied) vulnerable (dropped off by her mother, etc.) that rape is sort of okay, according to a totally unacknowledged set of principles.

The explorations that follow don’t all succeed. Some will go down in the annals of history and some will go down its near-homonym, and to atone for that awful pun I’ll jump right into our

First Man: The Geek

In his book The Trouble with Testosterone, excerpted here, Robert takes on the myths and facts about biological manhood. In this excerpt he addresses the conundrum that arises when (in connection with Ezra Pound) “good poets do bad things.” He  anatomizes the “creeping empathy” the geek within might have with a Ted Kaczynski (or, I submit, a Roman Polanski):

There is a wonderful Russian story that takes place at the gates of heaven, where the newly arrived are judged. A dead murderer is on trial, fresh from earth where he was shot by the police after his umpteenth murder, the strangling of an elderly woman for her money. A panel of deceased judges sirs in session. And where does God fit on the scene? Not as a judge, but as a required character witness. At some point in the proceedings, he shambles in, sits in a magisterial decrepitude born of the weight of infinite knowledge, and in a meandering, avuncular way, does his best to defend and explain the man–“He was always kind to animals. He was very upset when he lost his favorite top when he was a small boy.”

Sapolsky calls for awareness of this process and promises a (surprisingly psychoanalytic) way to take measures against it.  “There is the danger,” he says, “of a certain empathy creep, the transition from recognition to understanding and then to something resembling forgiveness. And thus, the remainder of this piece must be about the reassertion of our superegos.”

Second Man: Is Tired of Just Being a Man

Charles Siebert lives with a monkey named Roger. This odd little essay in Salon is part of Siebert’s larger quest to come to some sort of affective and transspecific understanding of animals. It starts with Siebert trying to impose a humanoid motivation on Roger’s activities and veers off into a reflection on his reasons for searching for Roger, who in the end occupies very little of the piece. He can’t occupy much of the piece since Siebert is trying to protect him from his (Siebert’s) impulse to narrativize everything, even evolution, even when surrounded by a group of Christian college kids in Africa.

He reviews the history of mythic and actual chimp-human relations. Apparently at least one primatologist let his pet chimp “mouth his penis,” Stalin wanted to breed a superrace of chimp-human Orcs, and there’s a bit of a tradition of women being gladiatorially raped by drunk baboons.

Roger, whose status as a “chimp entertainer” is one of those sad cases where he’s more at ease with humans than conspecifics, almost comes to function as a doppelganger for Siebert, who titles the article “I’m tired of just being a man” and revels in the pointlessness of his endeavor as much as Roger seems to like stacking cups of nothing in the air.

Third Man Has Strong Male Qualities and is a Hero and Reigns with Strong Male Character and Experiments with the Concept of “Tribes” and is Male and Strong and a Man

I give you the Nation of Men, who are “not feminized, politically correct men, though our members exhibit varying degrees of civilization,” so don’t even think it. Civilization is for sissies (though there’s a fine port proviso). They’re the Sterling Institute’s kid brother but with (according to one commenter who has done both Sterling and NoM) less pressure to “sell” new recruits. And boy o boy are they a barrel of laughs! For example, they have a Heroes Team. (I am not making this up.) Also a “Team of Teams”! And an illustrious prehistory which is extremely long and detailed and long and which notes that the Nation of Men was once upon a time, before the name stuck, a community of men and women. Luckily, Masculine Mark was there to keep things from getting out of hand:

Mark always demonstrated strong male qualities in meetings. This was very important since there were many more women then men showing up at meetings. Mark’s strong male character ensured that the community was not a strictly feminized version.

The feminizing menace mightily neutralized, NoM developed and grew and eventually Tom Antolin and Steve Crowe took over. Who are they? you ask, bewildered, and I’m so very glad you did. Here is all you need to know about Tom and Steve: (Did I mention the prehistory was long?)

Tom Antolin and Steve Crowe … were called Master Blaster after the Mad Max Thunderdome movie. Steve was the Master with the brains, Tom was the Blaster. Tom was short in stature but, he was extremely strong physically and in presence. During their reign, we experimented with the concept of “Tribes.”

Then, like America, or perhaps like the Indians, they decided to break away from Justin A. Sterling—King George III in our analogy—and his repressive rule! The Founding-Father-Master-Blaster-Heroes-Team met to discuss their Tea Party in a meeting that “became known by NoM men as “Bloody Sunday.” Men and their teams found themselves divided, physically and spiritually. Many felt a loss of trust and pain in their hearts.”

‘Twas a sad state of affairs. Brother fought against brother, Master against Blaster, and all that remained was the great yawp of a ravaged and tattered community. Someone once said that time heals all wounds, and by time, they meant port. Fine port. (Or Reconstruction, in our metaphor for a Men’s-Only America).

It was time to stop crying and to organize a new men’s organization. That night, over a pool table, drinking fine port and smoking cigars, we agreed to form the Nation of Men.

It’s a moving story. Suspense, conflict, hopes dashed and rebuilt, and the result is a nation of men that, like Macduff, is not of woman born. Hurrah! You couldn’t ask for a more American utopia.

(Well, I guess you could. But it would be about a nation of men and women in which compatibility doesn’t have to be oppositional. Where a man doesn’t necessarily need to look at a woman he admires and make himself her opposite. And where manliness as a concept can emerge from the weak and defensive position it’s taken up so that even if it wins and becomes a nation all its own, all it will ever be is “not feminized.” )

You’ll be pleased to know that the Nation of Men has a “humorous” piece on color, a list of Teddy Roosevelt quotes which are well worth perusing, and a Links page that ought not to be missed. Sample links include “Abuse-Excuse,” a website dedicated to defending men against false allegations of child and spousal abuse, MensFlair, a quite chi-chi and serious online publication on men’s style, MenAlive, an intriguing site on Irritable Male Syndrome and Male Menopause, and The ManKind Project’s New Warrior Training Adventure.

The Nation of Men, like MILF Island, 30 Rock’s reality show, is—all joking aside—comedy gold. It’s a Family Guy subplot. It’s a rip-roaring parody of the American Dream it thinks it champions. It could be a chapter of Huck Finn. Trouble is, it’s not a reality show; it’s real. And when people defend Polanski, it’s suddenly not that funny.

Yours in manliness,

M

The Bitch

Dear M.,

I just ate two tamales happily microwaved into melty Trader Joe’s delight, and feel fortified to write what I was going to originally try to work into my earlier post.  On one of my recent library scavenging hunts, I picked up Norman Mailer’s The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing.  I read it yesterday while waiting for Glee to buffer on Hulu (to no avail).  Yes, dearest, the majority of my literary intake happens while I wait to watch shit television without interruption.  It was an appropriate window for Mr. Mailer, who stoked my ire triple time for every nugget of ye olde writing advice.

He is a self-mythologizer, very much in love with the idea of the hungover writer who understands the virility of being.  Writing is dangerous: you risk alcoholism, depression and madness if you let yourself go into your art.  Writing is dull: only stupid people choose it as a profession (but this is so much in the vain of self-de/precation that we are supposed to begoggled).  The world doesn’t want your art, but you have to dare to look in that great void and understand it will takes its toll for doing so.  Picasso was a jerk, Vidal Gore could have learned some things from him, The Last Tango in Paris needed actual cock and vagina.  He adores Hemingway, but understands what got him killed.  Mailer reads like the writer that the young men in Mad Men are hoping to be.

I would like to say his sexism is part of his generation, but as the book was published in 2003, I’m surprised there wasn’t more editing.  Generally, when he refers to an aspiring writer, it is a he.  He also mentions that women “might be less comfortable” writing about war:

How often have women shown the same inventiveness and hellishness that men have at war? How can they approach the near psychotic mix of proportion and disproportion which is at the heart of mortal combat?

However, we can write about bravery (he goes into a long example how brave an old woman must be crossing a street, so therefore, women do have bravery in their lives).

Some other doozies:

  • He is anti-masturbation, calling it a “miserable activity…all that happens is everything that’s beautiful and good in one goes up the hand.”  And then, “it strikes me that masturbation, for a variety of reasons, does not affect the female psyche as directly.”
  • In a chapter on writerly identity, he tells a story where a friend was at a party where he didn’t know anybody.  He apologizes to Mailer because is a moment of recklessness, he decided to introduce himself as Mailer at the party.  He took a girl home. “Were you good with her?” Mailer asks. “Yeah. It was a good one. Real good,” the friend says.  “Then I’m not mad.”
  • “The novel is like the Great Bitch in one’s life. We think we’re rid of her, we go on to other women, we take our pulse and decide that finally we’re enjoying ourselves, we’re free of her power, we’ll never suffer her depredations again, and then we turn a corner on a street, and there’s the Bitch smiling at us, and we’re trapped. We know the Bitch has still got us.”
  • “Every novelist who has slept with the Bitch (only poets and writers of short stories have a Muse) comes away bragging afterward like a GI tumbling out of a whorehouse spree — –“Man, I made her moan,” goes the cry of the young writer. But the Bitch laughs afterward in her empty bed. “He was just so sweet in the beginning,” she declares,”but by the end he just went, ‘Peep, peep, peep.”

I think the heat that rises when I read this is the sexiness of it all, the great drama of writing.  The great manfeat of it all.

But, some of his advice is really helpful. For example, he says that if you tell yourself that you are going to sit at your desk and write tomorrow, it is important that you actually do it.  Otherwise, you unconscious quits trusting you, and won’t show up as reliably.  This is why it’s hard to get back in the habit of work after letting it go.

The rule in capsule: If you fail to show up in the morning after you vowed that you would be at your desk as you went to sleep last night, then you will walk around with ants in your brain. Rule of thumb: Restlessness of mind can be measured by the number of promises that remain unkempt.

So, there’s that.

Yours,

CF