Desperate Dan

At a recent conference, entitled ‘Men on the Couch’, which took place on the top floor of Foyle’s book store in Charing Cross Road, the Israeli psychoanalyst, Eyal Rozmarin, a somewhat intense, bald headed young man with a light beard, answered this with a story.

A mother had taken her young son, aged about 4 or 5 to a park to ride his bike. There she met a friend and chatted, while her little boy cycled round and round in ever decreasing circles. Inevitably he crashed and fell off, scraping his knees. He seemed a little shocked and was clearly in pain, but he did not cry. His mother looked round, told him to be careful, and got on with her conversation. Her son, his knee bleeding, looked at his mother, but not getting anything more in return, got back on his bike and cycled away, much more slowly. He had learnt what it was to be a man. Real men don’t cry.

War and Masculinity

Being brought up shortly after the Second World War, I can relate to that narrative. My father had been badly injured during the war, but we were always told how brave he was. As his boys, we had to be brave. The same message was repeated during my ‘all-boys’ public school. We couldn’t allow ourselves to show any vulnerability; this would just attract bullying. We had to tough it out.

In 1915, the same year he wrote Mourning and Melancholia, Freud penned his ‘Thoughts for the times on war and death‘. Europe was obsessed with nationhood and militarism. A mechanised arms race was heading to oblivion, tearing apart the idea of a more cosmopolitan identity. Although Freud wrote that war was a primitive regression to violence, he was nevertheless impressed by duty and bravery. These were the demands made by society to men. Men had to do or die. Women had to bear the anxiety.

Strangely, for somebody who understood human frailty, Freud does not identify with the danger and terror experienced by his sons, who were in the army.  Instead, he  proselytises that ‘the full meaning of life is to be found, not in anxious attachment, but heroism, glory and the risk of death’. Freud is with Siegfried. So is Tolstoy: in War and Peace, Prince Andrei Bolkonsky declares he would give up all attachments to wife and family for one moment of glory.

I have known rock climbers claim that life is more exciting and more meaningful when they are in most danger. Nevertheless, glory on the battlefield, can seem a narcissistic delusion that justifies sadomasochism. Dying is no longer threatening, it is seductive.

The idea of glory permeates the bedrock of our culture. It is there in all Abrahamic religions. Samson was raised to save the state of Israel. God sacrificed his only begotten son to die in order to save mankind. Glory justifies the fanaticism of Isis, the rhetoric of Donald Trump, the provocation of Kim Jong Un. But what is glory but a kind of homo-ecstatic drive?

My friend Maurice embodies the same male archetype. He shows the same compulsion in fighting for justice as he does in flying alone around the world in a 70 year old light aircraft. Is he mad? Yes, in a sense he is; there is a delusional grandiosity in it all, a quest for fame and glory, but also, like all action heroes, a desire to risk all to right a perceived wrong.

The emotionally unavailable father

The roots of ‘masculinity’ are thought to reside in our earliest relationships. As Donald Winnicott famously declared, ‘there is no such thing as a baby’, there is just the relationship between the mother and her infant. Mother is the complete life support system, supplying warmth, nourishment, protection, shelter and love. With fathers entry into this maternal dyad, there is a split, a conflict between desire for all the comfort and safety that mother provides and a prohibition of that desire. Much is repudiated and foreclosed with the arrival of the archetypical father, but what emerges is gender identity. Boys identify with the masculine element; they learn what it is to be male, to subsume one’s needs and desires into a cause. In previous generations, boys were meant to be boys and learn to serve in harm’s way. Losing a son at war was the ultimate sacrifice a family could make.

The archetypical father is proud and ambitious, but cannot show his feelings. His sons grow up without their father’s love. In the Old Testament, Isaac could not oppose his father, the only way he could show his love was to be sacrificed. The consequence of failing to live up to the notion of manhood is shame. The boy who fails to show courage in the face of adversity and danger is not living up to the ideas of manhood and is shamed in the eyes of himself and others. But he is in a bind. Either he gives way to desire and fear and is weakened by it. Or he goes for glory and either dies or never quite makes it. Shame is an inevitable consequence of this notion of manhood.

A changing world

The world has moved on. Gender roles and identities are much more fluid. There is no reason why women cannot identify with manliness, especially if they were brought up to be self sufficient and resilient. Last weekend, I sat opposite two women at breakfast in 22 York Street. They were both in their late fifties or early sixties. One was an adviser to NATO and had been a pilot in the US Air Force, the other had served in a parachute regiment and was now an instructor/mentor to the military in Europe. The each told stories of their fathers exploits during and after the D day landings and had been brought up admiring their father but not able to gain their love. They both embodied a masculine idea of bravery. These days, they might complain that they were born the wrong gender, but they each explained that after they had demonstrated that they could do the job just as well as a man, they were accepted as part of the fighting team and their biological gender was irrelevant.

The military metaphor no longer seems appropriate. The male stereotype is a generalisation, that seems too heavily influenced by the wars of previous generations and the idealisation of an emotionally absent father. Although gender dimorphism have been demonstrated in the organisation of the brain and the behaviour of infants, and sex hormones have a major influence on behaviour in adolescence and beyond, this basic biological predisposition is overlain with many layers of identification and meaning. Conflict, competition, ritual, routine, rigidity and justice may well seem more engrained in the male psyche, but they do not define masculinity. Many women show the same attributes, while some men can be just as adaptable, caring and understanding as women. 30% of psychotherapists are men.

Masculinity under threat

If we can believe what we are told in the media, the idea of masculinity is under threat. Traditional roles, not only in the workplace but also as husbands and fathers are being questioned. Men are no longer necessarily figures of respect and fear. Although women have not yet achieved parity in many occupations and professions and are still more involved in childrearing and housekeeping, enormous changes in family dynamics have taken place over the last 50 years. Housework, cooking and the rearing of children are more shared than they ever used to be. Father isn’t always the one who goes out to work while mother stays at home. Both parents tend to be in employment, leaving their children to feel like emotional orphans during the week. But at weekends or holidays, both may play an equal role in the care of their children. There may be little separation of roles. Father may be present but not visible or separate. This may make it difficult for children to know how to be. Who are their mentors? Who can they identify with? What is their notion of being a man or a woman?

Within the last few years, an increasing number of young people are declaring themselves neither boys nor girls, not even gay or Lesbian but transgender or non-binary or just ‘queer’. What does this mean? How has it come about? Is it a product of single parent families and the absence of a father figure? Or is it more subtle than that? Is there no such thing as a man any more? If both parents are absent for much of the time and both equally involved when they are present, is it any wonder that many young people grow up with a degree of gender ambivalence that may be all too readily influenced by cultural icons and celebrities.

Nevertheless, basic differences still exist. We only have to observe the ways men talk to each other compared with the ways women communicate. Men still tend to be competitive, they test each other out before admitting them to their tribe or club. Women are more inclined to a one to one sharing of confidences. Men and women support each other in different ways. The testosterone-fuelled urgency of aggression and desire means that shame probably features more prominently in men than women. After all, the nature of the sexual act means that it is men who ‘do things’ to women, who play a more passive role. Men are still expected to be stronger than women. They are expected to accept ‘sledging’ or ‘banter’ from other men and give as good as they get, even if it might become physical. Many women want their men to be strong, but at the same time berate them for not having feelings. Men may sometimes feel they can’t do right for doing wrong, and may wish to avoid the interdependency of attachment. The rise of feminism may well have felt threatening, even castrating for many men.

Impacts on a future society

Have the changes in gender politics that have occurred over the last 50 years produced a society that is more tolerant and understanding, but at the same time one that is weaker, less secure and decisive? Does this only apply to white middle classes? If so, has it led to more divisions in society? How will this impact on the next generation? Will the circumstances of our precarious global existence plunge us once again into a militaristic model of existence, rekindling the notion of manliness?