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Concept Of Manhood

To look at the current state of manhood, we must first find the rock under which it is hidden. But the very concept of manhood itself is more of an elusive rolling stone than a solid, unchanging natural landmark of imposing and enduring prominence, as we would have it be.

The word manhood, which dates to early Middle English, was a precursor of the term humanity, and nothing more. It became gender-specific-referring to the qualities that ideally define a man as opposed to a womanonly later, in the 14th century. The Oxford English Dictionary lists these qualities as "manliness, courage, valour." And what is "manliness"? It is "the quality of being manly," which involves "those virtues characteristic of being a man." A circle game of words that say nothing.

It seems to me that the qualities of courage and valor, which in fact are one and the same, are no less abundant or rare in women than in men. So how do manhood and manliness differ from womanhood and womanliness? Going by all this talk of virtues and qualities, they don't.

The Oxford English Dictionary evades this quandary by noting that the definition of manhood by the "qualities" quoted above is now "archaic." Not archaic, however, is the use of the word, beginning in the 16th century, to refer to "men collectively; the adult male members of a population, nation, or the like." But we all know that it means a whole hell of a lot more than that to men collectively, as it does to women collectively. But what? As we do every morning when pissing, let's start with the dick.

In first century Greek and Latin, manhood was commonly used to refer to the dick alone, apart from the man - with or without any distinguishing qualities or whose dick it was. It was still to be encountered in 20th-century purple prose like "she placed her hand on his hot and throbbing manhood."

But our rock is to be found somewhere between courage and cock, valor and virility. More confoundingly, it is to be found somewhere among these and many other things: braggadocio and bullshit, fraud and folly, gullibility and self-absorption, strength and weakness, honesty and lies, posturings and pussy-whippings, truth and delusion, pseudo-cool and pseudo-hip, bench-pressing and panty-sniffing, malice and innocence, tough talk and toiletries, nobility and nothingness, reality and make-believe.

Ours is a metamorphic rock composed of all these and more. And it has been around since the first man gazed out upon the miracle of the first rosy-fingered dawn, then turned away and scratched his balls. So let's raise that rock that contains trace elements of it all - these things, these "qualities," and those who have borne them, from Achilles to A-Rod, Samson to Sanjaya. Let's raise that rock and see what's formed in the way of modern manhood.

Before shooting my mouth off further, a little perspective. In the eighth century B.C., that greatest of poets and wise men, Hesiod, declared that the "golden race of mortal men" was long gone, and he wished he were not among the debased "race of iron" of his own wretched time. And thus has it ever been: What came before us, we deem to have been superior to us; and only the most benightedly arrogant among us see themselves as the consummation rather than the dregs of that precession. What Hesiod bemoaned as the demeaned iron men of his age are to us, in this era of plastic, an unattainable and bygone ideal. The conceit of manhood has always centered on emulating that glimpsed or imagined ideal of manhood past, when men were what they were by nature rather than by practiced pretense.

My mind roams. I'm in high school, in driver's education class. The teacher, who's also the gym instructor, says, apropos of nothing, "You see these punks drivin' around whistlin' at broads" - it was a statement, not a question - "in these convertibles with their shirts unbuttoned and all this jewelry." He pauses, then delivers what I guess can be taken as the education part of driver's ed class: "These are your fags."

I'm still a kid. It's the '60s. I'm in some fleabag flop-house room in Times Square, back when it was down-and-dirty. The guy whose room it is goes by the name Popeye. He's an ex-con from whom my buddies and I score dope. He reaches into a yellowed box of Kotex, takes one out, presses it to his face like a respirator mask, and inhales deeply. "You guys want a sniff? It's almost like bein' with a broad."

Years pass. It's the '70s. I'm in De Martino's, a fish store on Eighth Avenue near 17th Street. There's this wimpy little guy with a shopping list asking about some kind of fish. The big old guy in the dirty old fish butcher apron offers him another kind of fish, says it's better. The wimpy little guy demurs, says his wife specifically told him to get this other kind of fish. The big old guy looks at him with disgust, says, "In my day, ya get married, ya smack the broad across the face at the altar, show her who's who, and that's that." He shakes his head with an expression of further disgust.

More years pass. It's the'80s. There's this guy who comes in the bar where I work. His name is, get this, Enrico Caruso. Sharp dresser, old-school. So old that he remembers the large paper currency from early Prohibition days. "Bed sheets," he tells me they called them after the newer, smaller bills came into use, in '29. One day I see him, or think I see him, coming out of Gristedes supermarket on Bleeclcer Street with a woman who looks like him and is almost as old as him. The next time he comes in the bar, I ask him if he has a sister. Why do I want to know? he asks me. I tell him about seeing him, or somebody I thought was him, coming out of Gristedes with a woman. "Yeah?" he says. "Who was carrying the bags, the guy or the broad?" I tell him that the guy, of course, was carrying the bags. "Yeah?" he says. "Then it wasn't me."

Why do these moments, so eminently forgettable, come to mind when the subject of manhood presents itself? Moreover, why have they remained with me through the years? Is my own ideal of manhood past lurking somewhere in the interstitial dark matter of these and similar, inexplicably retained tableaux?

Is this today's man? If so, I'm in trouble. But not nearly as much trouble as those who are entering manhood today. When the first pitch of the New York Yankees' opening home game of this season was thrown, I was sitting in a local bar. As in every other gin mill these days, there were no ashtrays, but there were several flatscreen televisions. Long gone were the arts of gentlemanly and ungentlemanly conversation. Barflies and sedentary housewives now had a lot in common: Their blathering and banter did not extend far beyond what was on TV or the front pages of the tabloids. They also had much in common with obedient schoolgirls, compliantly leaving the premises to smoke, careful not to offend their bar-fellows with politically incorrect words or deeds. From a den of vice and iniquity to a chapel of dire mediocrity, the state of the neighborhood dive reflects the state of manhood. There are young men today who have no memory of real bars with ashtrays, let alone bookies and whores - just as they have no memoty of sex as a garden of carefree wanton delights undarkened by the plague-clouds of AIDS and responsible behavior.

But the baseball game. I remember the afternoon well. Not because of the game; I couldn't have cared less about that. It was imposed on me by the barroom televisions and their volume. When the game got underway, there rose from the patrons the sickliest Pavlovian cheer I've ever heard. So dismal and disheartening was this cheer that it actually drove me out of the joint, which is not an easy thing to do. It seemed to me that this sad, stupid cry was the most obnoxious noise imaginable, even coming from this obtuse crew of losers and nonentities. Only later did I realize that what I had heard, what had driven me away, was the last, inane, obligatory wail of manhood in its death throes. There were no more battle cries, no more howls of abandon. There was only this: the mutilated beasts in Island of Lost Souls slobbering, "Are we not men?"

There was nothing wholehearted here. It was the sound of men conceiting themselves to be men. It brought to mind the increasing interest that women have shown in sports in recent years. Is this some form of cultural cross-dressing, or a stand against stereotype? Are they really into it? I've never heard women get so carried away that they yell racial epithets at a television screen when the wrong team was beating the spread. Then again, the reindoctrinated men of today no longer do this. And, to be sure, the exuberance of women watching sports does seem, well, more cheerful than that of men these days.

My great-uncle Augusto liked sports. That didn't make him a bad person. Other things did. But those things are neither here nor there. He was a real loner, one of the most self-sufficient bastards I ever knew. I remember watching him struggle in vain to smear Bengay on unreachable parts of his own back, a recurring source of pain from his work as a ditchdigger. In those days a ditchdigger didn't operate a machine; he wielded a pickax with brute strength. And my uncle had the biggest, strongest arms I ever saw. The rest of him, from his bowed legs to his beer belly, looked like shit, but ditchdigging had given him arms that were truly formidable. I wonder what he would've made of men today who go to great extremes for arms like that, men for whom arms like that represent an end product rather than a by-product. I wonder what he would've thought of this whole idea of bodies-by-design that's so much in evidence today.

Earlier on I mentioned this kid Sanjaya. I first became aware of Sanjaya while I was watching the TV Guide Channel. For the fortunate among you who've never done this, the TV Guide Channel presents a scrolling grid that tells you what's currently on television. The right side of this grid shows you what's on later, and, as these listings only cover a one-hour span, the far right may reveal just the first word of a title (so you have to wait a half-hour, until the grid moves to the left, before you can see more of the title of what's coming). I prefer the TV Guide Channel to other channels because the far right will often show only the word The, which leaves you with an illusion of hope. Above the scrolling grid, there are commercials and gossipy shows about other shows. My eyes rarely wander there, and I watch the grid with the sound off. But one night, from my peripheral vision, I saw something most arresting: a little man with a large bouffant. It was Sanjaya. I learned that he was an aspirant on American Idol, which I had never seen. As luck would have it, I watched the show on the night that Sanjaya was thrown off. He looked like what in Cambodia is called a ladyboy, and he seemed wholly devoid of essence or substance. It struck me that he was the vision of manhood to come. Then, a few weeks later, I'm watching this unwatchable movie called The Devil Wears Prada - yes, it gets worse; lesser men would not go where I've dared to tread--and the guy who plays the boyfriend of the girl who works for Meryl Streep is Sanjaya. I mean, it's not really him, but it looks exactly like him. And now he's everywhere.

Manliness was always a sissy-boy's racket, best played by Hollywood actors and - in a manly way, of course - those who would play with them. But now it's casting off its disguise. And maybe this is good; maybe it will draw us to the light of truth. Little Richard is a man. Bill Clinton is not a man, especially when he tries to act butch. Those who can't clearly comprehend this are lost. And what is this "man's man" thing? Anyone who takes it as a compliment would probably feel the same way about what was said of Caesar: "Every woman's man and every man's woman."

I think true manhood is reached only when a man stops giving a fuck about it when he becomes his own man. But many men refuse to stop playing a role, and never achieve manhood. They go to the grave never having been what they really were or having done what they wanted to do, for they themselves never knew what they were or what they wanted to do. As the driver's ed teacher, who was also the gym instructor, said, "These are your fags."

It says a lot that young men try to impress the target sex by telling them how much they make. Not long ago that was a technique reserved for older men, for whom it sometimes, albeit rarely, worked. The lie of money is perhaps the most boring of them all. Young men used to pretend to be fighters, war heroes, adventurers, killers, or secret agents. Now they're investment bankers or mergers-and-acquisitions directors. Those who define themselves in terms of money, real or alleged, will be bald before they can attain the level of manhood of even an American Idol ladyboy or a common slob.

When I turned 50. I saw that there were three things left that I wanted to do in life. One was to master the tango. Another was to kill a leopard. I forget the third. Does my failure to have yet accomplished these things mean that I am a failure as a man? Probably. Then again, maybe I unknowingly accomplished the third one before or after forgetting what it was. That said, fuck it. Maxim

Nick Tosches. The State of Modern Manhood. Maxim [Print + Kindle] . September 2007.

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