How we love to think we live on the hinge of history! Our advances, moral and technical, separate us from past generations and make our experience unique. We are the first and the most.
Ian Brown gives this notion its latest expression in the introduction to What I Meant to Say: 25 Essays on the Private Lives of Men (Thomas Allen & Son), published today. In the past 30 years, he says, "the institution of manhood -- the experience of being a man, largely unchanged since time immemorial -- has been ripped apart."
Can that be true? Only if you ignore history. Brown apparently hasn't thought much about this proposition, and he trusts to luck that his readers haven't either.
In truth, manhood has never been stable for long.
Children imagine the world has always been the way it is when they first see it. Brown may be thinking of male-female relations as they existed in 1970, when he was 16 and a fresh wave of feminism was building up. But long before that, change after change altered the lives of men. The past three decades have for sure created a new situation, but who could argue that it's more radical than the shift from illiterate to literate, from serf to homeowner or from agricultural labourer to office worker? A century ago, most Canadian men lived on farms; their descendants sit at computers in cities. Under history's pressure, men (and women) constantly transform themselves.
A wistful regret inevitably accompanies any social mutation. Henry James has a character in The Bostonians, published in 1886, complain that "the masculine tone" is disappearing, leaving "a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age."
"What has happened to the American male?" wrote Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the historian. He saw once-confident men reduced to thinking of manhood as a problem: "Something has gone badly wrong with the American male's conception of himself." That was in 1958. In the same era Marshall McLuhan complained that the mass media denigrated men. His proof was Blondie, the comic strip, with its smart, resourceful heroine and her husband, "seedy, saggy, bewildered, and weakly dependent" Dagwood.
Brown says the men he brought together to write this book don't "feel entitled to complain (at least not very often)." Actually, they complain frequently, and Brown himself announces a weirdly imaginative complaint, to be filed under Men-Get-It-Coming-and-Going. He says while Viagra eliminates anxiety men might once have felt about their performance, it has "raised the bar of expectation among women to the point where even young men are forced to take Viagra ..."
Having set the tone, Brown introduces a platoon of writers who deal in their disparate ways with manhood as it expresses itself in 2005. He acknowledges that important subjects are ignored, such as money and race, but hopes to address them in a sequel. Also among the missing are some major private as well as public concerns, notably religion, art and politics (though David Macfarlane smuggles an anti-Bush sneer into a piece on erections).
Brown has called into being several good essays, most notably Ron Graham's on his father, who was unable to speak to his children and seems never to have even known this was a failing. Ian Pearson comes up with the brightest idea. A compulsive admirer of Joni Mitchell, he reverses his obsession and composes seven pages of an imaginary diary in which Joni confesses that she's hopelessly obsessed with Pearson -- who, it seems, has become some kind of celebrity-fan, his every record purchase reported in Rolling Stone. The piece turns out to be better in conception than execution; its cleverness wears out before the end.
Another contributor, J.M. Kearns, says that in the life-and-death struggle of mating, rejection is the main peril for a man. It's made intense by competition from men who are richer, smarter, better-looking, more confident, etc. But if a man happens to have all those qualities himself, then guess what: "He meets some woman who wants him to be more sensitive, more creative, more humble." A guy just can't catch a break.
Bert Archer represents the gay constituency with a piece called "Why Boys Are Better than Girls." He regards with contempt all the subtleties of heterosexual seduction, the hinting, feinting, flirtatious negotiations that can force sex-seeking men to lie like politicians. Archer believes a man having sex with a man is a purist, "a sexual idealist." Gay sex is honest and unadorned, a yes-or-no question, a matter of wham-bam-thank-you-Sam. He presents a sexuality so emotionally crippled that you could use his essay in a campaign against homosexuality, if such a campaign were legal.
Among the assembled whiners, Douglas Bell gives a championship performance. His essay, on women's sexual demands, describes a Montrealer named Taffy ("of unparalleled status and breeding") who "made my life a living hell for six consecutive months." Then he checks his rage and says he made his own life hell. "She just happened to be around at the time."
Bell tells us about the sexual failure of his marriage, noting that it wasn't his fault. He informs us, "We're all slaves to our primitive biology." At least he's not a slave to consistency. Two pages later he informs us that "love is ineffable and beyond the reach of mere formulation." He wants a woman who will ignore the oppressive protocols of male-female sexual behaviour. It all ends happily. In the last paragraph he's found her -- "a younger woman, as it turns out, less burdened by the struggle to balance the scales."
After a while the contributors, most of them middle-aged journalists, begin to sound depressingly similar. I can't find a radical among them, or, for that matter, a conservative. Some pieces, presented as confessions, turn out to be mainly complaints about an unfair world or unfair women. The style often feels tentative and decaffeinated, as if something were being hidden or held back.
Several pieces are, as the English used to say, blushmaking, in the sense used by a character in a 1944 Terence Rattigan play: "idiotic, blushmaking, sentimental slush." Brown tries to inject some literary class with an epigraph from Camus and references to Blake and Orwell but there's little sense of cultural landscape. The thinking and tone of What I Meant to Say are standardized. The mental furniture in most of these minds comes from Ikea.