In the rash of trend articles in the wake of Sept. 11, a New Man is being envisaged. Of course, a New Man is always being envisaged–ditto a New Woman–by editors and writers desperate to fill pages and help their readers to “make sense of it all,” if not actually polish up their luster in the marriage market. But trenditis–a swelling of the pundit glands, the inflation of a few particles of popular culture into the deadly spores of a sociological phenomenon–reaches epidemic proportions at certain environmentally propitious moments: a national crisis, a rise or fall in the stock market, a change of season or a “transitional” era in the roles of the sexes (were we ever not in one?).
I speak not from a position of moral superiority. I’ve written trend pieces myself, bemoaning the dearth of good women’s (older women’s, funny women’s) roles; celebrating the sensitive (or swinish; crying or non-crying) male; chronicling the skirmishes in the gender wars. But I’m thinking that at this millennial moment (our Y2K was a year late, and was W.T.C.), we should rethink the whole idea of what constitutes a desirable male. It’s both simpler and more complicated than a shift in style: Barbie strutting out with a newly remodeled Ken in fireman’s red or dandy’s ruffles.
First of all, let’s stop harping on “commitment.” After all, Osama bin Laden is no commitment-phobe. With six wives each, he and his co-tribalists are helpfully reducing the singletons-in-burqas problem. It’s their attitude that stinks. Religious movements are founded by guys’ guys, and for the Taliban–as for Al Qaeda and other such enthusiastic fraternities–the primary social unit is the merry band of men. Our homegrown version is Kerouac, Burroughs, the shoot-the-wife-in-the-head Beats, as averse to settling down as any religious fanatic. Of the messiahs, Buddha was the most humane, the nicest and most androgynous of the male-bonding ascetics. But he thought women incapable of enlightenment, and that admitting them as monks would fatally weaken the order “like mildew falling on a field of rice,” according to Karen Armstrong’s biography.
We’re talking not just about behavior, courtliness and the like, but a man’s worldview and how women fit into it, a Weltanschauung that is generally not something we know by declarations of fidelity or professions of sexual equality, but something we intuit from subtler signs and behavior. Cherchez not just the femme of the moment, but the mother and the sister and the daughter.
I came across a startling passage in a Rex Stout mystery, The Red Box . Nero Wolfe’s amanuensis, Archie Goodwin, notes that his employer is rereading T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom for the umpteenth time, and wonders why. Wolfe says, “The chief reason for Lawrence’s amazing success in keeping the Arabian tribes together for the great revolt was because Lawrence’s personal attitude toward women was the same as the classic traditional Arab attitude. The central fact about any man in respect to his activities as a social animal is his attitude toward women, hence the Arabs felt that essentially Lawrence was one of them and so accepted him. His native ability for leadership and finesse did the rest.”
Wolfe goes on to elaborate deftly upon the type of man Lawrence wasn’t (romantic, Puritan, sentimentalist). But “the contemptuous realist Lawrence with his false humility and his fierce secret pride they took to their bosoms.”
I immediately sought out Seven Pillars of Wisdom , and was dazzled by Lawrence’s shrewd appraisal of the Arab psyche and his own attraction-revulsion–his experience of so identifying with an alien culture that the words no longer apply. Lawrence, like Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, is nobody’s idea of a ladies’ man, but he knew how to listen, and that may be a grander thing.
In the all-male Wolfe household that is an apparent bulwark of men’s-club solidarity, Wolfe’s misogyny is part pose, part protection, but above all, a shrewd tool of detective strategy. Archie does the romancing while Wolfe prods and offends, winnowing out the traitorous and brattish women and allowing the cream, the really great women, to rise to the top. The A&E television show based on Rex Stout’s mystery novels, with Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin, is a class act, a witty and playful take on the 30′s that never overdoes it. We deduce from the glow of those special women who do earn the detective’s good will just how discriminating and interested an observer of womankind the author is.
Writers are easy to diagnose: They expose themselves through their female characters, seen and created through a prism of fear, desire, guilt–even, occasionally, of liking. Henry James, who as a lad read culturally derided “women’s fiction,” never condescended to the opposite sex, and invests his women with soul and breadth and complex subjectivity. Like Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, James’ women become his own alter egos–but most American male writers, seeing the novel as a phallic competition for greatness, are more at ease with horses or gangsters or male facsimiles of themselves. Would more than one Philip Roth novel be necessary to know what kind of mate he’d make? Of course, women can enjoy “male” fiction, identify with the nomads, want to flee domesticity and become monks or action heroes or “stream enterers” in the Buddhist enterprise: That’s what makes any kind of rigid sex-typing absurd.
Filmmakers show their colors in tilts of sympathy or vindictiveness, as in Todd Field’s In the Bedroom , an adaptation of a short story by Andre Dubus. Amplifying a spare story of revenge told from the father’s point of view, the movie begins with the vivid capture of a female lobster. The old-salt fisherman shows the crawly monster to a frightened kid and describes her as passive, lazy and deadly, and finally–because fishing laws oblige throwing her back into the sea–useless to the lobster men as trade! After this tasty metaphor, you’re not surprised when the males in the film emerge with the lion’s share of sympathy and the women with the burden of guilt.
Clues to that central fact about any man–his attitude toward women–can be inferred from his taste in movies and books: find out what (and if) he reads. But listening is the key. It can be a con, too, the most potent form of seduction: A man intensely alert, hanging on your every word, will crumble your defenses faster than drugs, alcohol or sodium pentothol. He may be genuinely interested, or he may be gauging what kind of impression he’s making on you. Are you as fascinated with him as he is with himself? Again, be alert for signs. Don’t be flattered if he runs down other women or extols your virtues in contrast to those “man-hating feminists.” Men who profess to love your brain while disdaining signs of rebellion in other women are not good bets for a meeting of minds.