Tragic Manhood

Still reeling from having seen British auteur Christopher Nolan’s latest cinematic gift, Dunkirk, I am reminded of the following statement from Yukio Mishima:

The average age for a man in the Bronze Age was eighteen, in the Roman era, twenty-two. Heaven must have been beautiful then. Today it must look dreadful. When a man reaches forty, he has no chance to die beautifully. No matter how he tries, he will die of decay. He must compel himself to live.

Though I am not convinced that Mishima had his life expectancy information correct, regardless, the rhetorical point remains sharp and penetrating: there is a singular beauty in the death of men stricken down in the height of their virility. Such men, merely through the accidental timing of their deaths, will remain forever young and beautiful, their blood having secured for them an immortality that could come at no other price. The British, French, and German soldiers engaged in the Battle of Dunkirk were, by and large as with any war, men still ascending the mountain of their manhood–men, the flesh and blood playthings of (((international bankers))), men whose only compensation being the glory they gained either in victory or in death.

These ruminations coincide with what I have thus far read of Jack Donovan’s Becoming a Barbarian. As short as the first chapter is, I would like to quote it in its entirety, but writing is nothing if not the art of culling. He begins the chapter with the following:

Masculinity is tragic.

Masculinity is a lifelong struggle, a gauntlet run against nature and other men to demonstrate virility and prove one’s worthiness as a man in the eyes of other men. Masculinity is a challenge to honor that ends only in death–a challenge to win coupled with a guarantee that, eventually, even the best men will lose. 

This, perhaps, captures the essence of manhood more succinctly than any other expression: struggle. Contrary to feminist vulva flapping claptrap to the contrary, men possess no inherent honor simply because they are men; men do not hold positions of power simply because they have testes. Masculine ontology, unlike feminine ontology, does not garner immediate respect. (AKA: sperm is cheap; eggs are costly.) Rather, from the youngest age, a man is told, either explicitly or implicitly, that he must prove his worth and that his worth can change in a moment’s notice. Men–at least the ones who keep the fire burning in their souls–then proceed to spend the rest of their lives doing this in sundry ways: athletic accomplishments, feats of physical strength, intellectual accomplishments, feats of romantic prowess, cultural accomplishments, feats of lineage line drawing, etc. No self-aware man, though, can in good faith and with total self-honesty lie about, expecting to be honored simply for being a man. Those who think such, male or female, are deluded.

Echoing the sentiments of Mishima, Donovan continues:

Every man who does not die in his prime will live to see his body fail and become weaker, making him more reticent. Most men will live to see their father’s competence falter, then their own competence falter, and they will live to see themselves lose the esteem of men. The best an older man can hope for is to have his achievements remembered, and to be respected for his wisdom and consulted for his experience. 

Men are born to struggle–to struggle in such a way that will ultimately consume them. Every man who is not a potential brother-in-arms is a potential threat. However, given that no man can either take on or befriend all other men, this is why, as Donovan preaches, men need tribes. Men need a clearly demarcated group of men to whom he is responsible and to whom he owes duties, not caring to impress or protect or assist anyone else. This is because universalism is antithetical to manhood, for, as he writes, “If every man is a brother and a potential threat, who do you fight for?” Thus, men must determine who are their brothers in order to determine for whom they will struggle and for whom they must die–and will die. Tribalism, however, is disruptive, as it should be, and this is why international corporatism seeks to tarnish it at every opportunity, for it disrupts the disembodied, unmoored, and unaffiliated flow of capital. Loyalty is valued only when it brings profits to those who are loyal to no one but themselves.

Sadly, men will find no respite from their struggles with the fairer sex. Knowing how fickle and ephemeral the opinions and respect of women are, men continue to spend themselves in order to win the respect/admiration/fear of other men. The nod that I once received from my boxing coach, the occasional praise from my jiu-jitsu professor, and the smiles of acknowledgement from the older male lifters at the gym mean more to me than any compliment or sign of interest a woman could give me. Any man who lives his life seeking the approval of women–mother, wife, girlfriend, daughter, woman at the gym he really would like to shag in the gym shower–is embarking only on a journey for which there is no true destination and no chance at arrival; he might as well spend the rest of his days attempting to keep the shore dry.

Reflecting upon what both Mishima and Donovan have said, I consider my own decay. I will turn forty next year. Though I am in better shape now than I have perhaps ever been (and in far better shape than most of my students who are half my age), I have only, truly, decay to anticipate. Though I may continue to develop martial technique and though I hope to continue to grow in wisdom as I distill moral lessons from experience, I may be close to plateauing when it comes to physical strength and vitality. When challenging younger men, my goal is usually not to conquer, but simply to keep up with them. If I can make an eighteen year old struggle for five minutes on the mat, then, in my way of thinking, I have won, even though he may arise the technical victor. More threatening, though, than the inevitability of my physical decay is the fear that I have nothing in terms of wisdom to offer younger men. Would the aforementioned eighteen year old choose me to be a mentor, or would he consider me a fool, easily forgotten and even more easily despised? I believe that there are few sights sadder to see than older men who have nothing worthwhile to say even though they have a lifetime of experiences for which to show.

I disagree with Mishima. I believe that a forty-year old can still die a beautiful death. However, the beauty he leaves behind must be moral and spiritual rather than physical.

About Bourbon Apocalypse: A Whiskey Son of Sorrow

"If you can't annoy somebody, there's little point in writing." ~ Kingsley Amis
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6 Responses to Tragic Manhood

  1. Philologos says:

    The ¶ just after your long quotation of Donovan is very fine–an important point very well stated. And you are right to disagree with Mishima. Herodotus says interesting things about worthy death in old age, of which Socrates provides an apposite example. And while He wasn’t in His forties, Christ certainly died a very worthy death.

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