Thursday, October 14, 2010

Authenticity is for PostSecret

Cards on the table: I have no idea who reads books like Proud to be Right (though I do get the sense they're not really published to be read- this may explain my frustration with the genre).

I'm not sure what one calls it- I've encountered it often on the right, though it must also exist on the left- self-satisfied collections of essays that vary from the completely inane to the occasionally interesting (in that sort of "I'll tuck that nugget away for a conversation lull later," kinda way), that know they're preaching to the choir from the very beginning, but know also that the choir is probably really big, and also probably old, because let's face it, who reads books anymore, am I right? So not only do they skip the argument/originality part, they limit themselves (usually) to the most basic, widely accepted tropes and attitudes that fall under the umbrella of whatever movement the book is variously trying to speak for/encourage/inspire/prop up. I haven't read Proud to be Right, but everything I've read about it suggests to me very strongly that this is precisely that kind of book, and so, I almost certainly will not.

I won't, except for the one essay I've already read, and which went a long way toward convincing me that this was, indeed, that kind of book: Katherine Miller's essay "Man Up", the majority of which can be read here. It is long(er than a blog post) but says, essentially, what a blog post could, and has: "Men were manly once! They're not anymore! Masculinity is stoicism! Damn this feminization of our culture all to hell! By the way, I'm a woman, and even I'm saying this, so you boys must have really fucked up! Also, the platonic form of masculinity must be determined by what women want."

I can sympathize with Miss Miller. I'm no fan of limp-wristed milksops, and I can forgive an (almost painfully) redundant essay. But something about this line caught my attention:
"Vanity over pride, selfishness over self-restraint--serious problems that can be traced from one to the next, streaks of light in the dark forming one big circuit."
Now I don't know about you, but when I read the phrase "vanity over pride" I didn't think of metrosexuals, I didn't think of hipsters, I didn't think of the Backstreet Boys, or Justin Bieber, or anyone from the 20th, or 21st, centuries at all. Those three words, like some kind of hypnosis-induced trigger, brought before my mind's eye, in rapid succession: Sebastian Flyte, Peter III, Paul I, and the stereotypical image I somewhere acquired of what most Hanoverian kings must have been like ages 7 through 36. I kept reading, and thought of the whiny, needling tone of Prince Kurbsky's epistles (justified though it may have been) and Oblomov's distinctly effete brand of hypochondria (grounded in self-conception as "delicate", rather than basic neurosis). I thought of decadence and decadents throughout culture and history, from the late Severan Dynasty of Ancient Rome to the Karamazov Dynasty of 19th century Russia.

But no, these are new problems.

"Pain + silence = masculine strength" is certainly an old formula, and one that has waxed and waned over time as the be-all, end-all of manliness. Miss Miller proposes we address its current waning by stubbornly invoking some Frankenstein's monster with John Wayne's heavy cadence, Don Draper's emotional repression and Winston Churchill's functional alcoholism. "MAN UP!" we cry, hoping they see what we do when we say it.

Now granted I hate fops- really, I do- but I have to go back to Sebastian Flyte for a moment, because I think he has a better answer. There's a scene early on where Sebastian and Charles are driving together to Brideshead, and Charles is being very inquisitive about the Flytes (for my own convenience I'm referencing the transcript of the 1981 miniseries):
"You're so inquisitive."
"Well, you're so mysterious about them."
"I hoped I was mysterious about everything."
"Why don't you want me to meet your family? Who are you ashamed of, them or me?"
"Don't be so vulgar, Charles."
That! That, there, is the answer.

We cannot attack this issue in such an obviously ethical fashion- confronting someone with their own weakness by contrasting it with strength? Then you have to go through the whole process of convincing them strength is good, which, well, hey, good luck with that.

But rudeness, vulgarity, the making uncomfortable of another- these are concepts that still can have traction, particularly with the apparently eager-to-please set we're currently trying to reform. Don't bring your emotions into things, don't be sincere, don't be open - dude, that's just fuckin' awkward, come on.

Like I said, I hate fops. Few things get under my skin more than obsessive, self-conscious concern for "propriety" and other forms of outdated custom that inevitably manifest themselves in feeble attempts to revive some long-dead idea of the bourgeois lady or gentleman (I ain't exactly what you'd call a classy dame myself), and so I recognize that this theoretical solution largely serves only to perpetuate the disease, at best treating the symptom, and at worst, possibly exacerbating it.

I do think there's something inherently valuable, however, in re-establishing revelation of vulnerability as a rare and privileged act, and I know that conceiving of emotional displays as sources of embarrassment, rather than signs of weakness, is a much easier and more natural sell.

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