Saturday, 25 May 2013

Australian Masculinity

Chris Barker, The Hearts of Men: Tales of Happiness and Despair (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2007)

The Hearts of Men starts from a banal premise: not only do men have emotions, but they even sometimes talk about them.  (‘What a surprise!’—p.3.)  Barker knows this because he has conducted interviews with 107 of these strange creatures, the majority of them Anglo-Australians.  Only three of his interviewees were gay and only four non-white.  So his actual topic is not men, but white men; and not just white men, but straight white men.  Even this does not quite fit the bill, since Barker shows virtually no sign of any interest in non-Anglophone cultures, with the rather serious consequence that it does not occur to him that there are Catholic cultures as well as Protestant ones.
This omission has considerable ramifications when it comes to his arguments about the nature of the family.  It is not until p.101 that he even mentions a non-Anglophone country, and then only in passing; and not until p.171 does he mention an Italian-Australian.  Yet this latter individual, who seems to baffle Barker, is worth remarking on at greater length, since he proves radically different from any of the other interviewees: he takes paternity leave when his children are born, reduces his working week in order to share the burden of child-rearing, and allows his career to take second place to his family.  Moreover, the concentration on white men looks especially threadbare when it transpires that Barker’s solution to men’s ills is a form of faithless meditation filched from Buddhism.
            From the outset, Barker’s tone is one of wide-eyed, Candide-like innocence.  Characteristic insights include: ‘apparently “bad” men often turn out to be “sad” men’ (p.11); ‘fathers who participate in sport often encourage their sons to play games’ (p.31); ‘The seeds planted at childhood grow differently in varying social and cultural soils’ (p.97); ‘Human beings seem to like drugs’ (p.135); ‘Heterosexual men often rely on women for friendship and emotional support’ (p.158).  It is not clear what purpose, or what readership, this affected naivety serves, especially given the fact that the book has been issued by an academic press.  When we do get footnotes, they are sometimes inaccurate (Michel Foucault never wrote a book called Discipline and Punishment), as are many of the researchable details in the main text (Philip Larkin did not say, in one of the most famous lines of modern verse, ‘Your Mum and Dad they fuck you up’—p.67).
When Barker reports that, ‘sadly, divorce statistics suggest that marriage is not always a happy experience for men or women’ (p.158), one yearns for an author who, rather than scurrying to the shelves of the office of statistics, is actually emotionally literate, or even just literate.  Who in the world but he, until he consulted the divorce statistics, could have imagined that marriage is ‘always a happy experience’?  Has he never observed married people; or has he never read about a marriage?  To be fair, he does speak of his own experience throughout—he is himself thrice married and divorced—so, again, the question is why he is writing as if he knows nothing of the world.  Occasionally, this mode leads Barker into a sentence of monumental fatuity: ‘The stable family backgrounds of corporate executives are in striking contrast to the chaotic and emotionally painful childhoods of heroin users’ (p.14).  Here we are in the domain of stereotype, which tends never to allow for any crossover between hermetically distinct types.
But where I most emphatically depart company from Barker is in his unquestioned assumption that men need to emote more.  The truth is that the more moving stories come from the older, more emotionally controlled interviewees.  What is wrong with the suppression of emotion, anyway?  Do we seriously believe that if more fathers had said ‘I love you, mate’ to their sons, they and the world would be in less of a mess?  I, for one, was very fond of my own father’s diffidence and distance.  Do we seriously believe that, by contrast, emotionally loquacious relationships between mothers and daughters are, generally speaking, not a mess?
            Besides, there has never been any dearth of male emotion.  Given the structures of patriarchy for several millennia in ‘the West’, it has almost always been men’s emotions that mattered more than women’s, and, indeed, it has consistently been men who defined the emotions and mapped out their structures.  Male emotion generates the visual arts, music, poetry and the novel…  Not to mention wars and methods of torture.  For one fleeting moment, Barker seems to recognise the idiocy of his initial assumption, when he admits: ‘Shakespeare was a man.  Wordsworth was a man.  Freud was a man!’ (p.3)  Quite.  It is entirely apt that Barker should mention the arts here, but he hardly ever returns to them, except in a passing reference to listening to ‘beautiful music’ to calm oneself down.  I am especially interested in the exclamation mark he grants his recognition that Freud had a gender and a sex.
            What a surprise!  Men can suffer.  Welcome to the human condition, chum.

[This review first appeared in Journal of Gender Studies 17, 1 (March 2008), pp.90-91.]

No comments:

Post a Comment