Where Have All the Men Gone?

Like many intelligent men of my acquaintance, I’ve always carried something of a torch for Nigella Lawson, the well-known British television cook, popular author, and media personality.  I’m not sure whether it’s her exotically maternal beauty, or the way she brings an intelligent sensuality to the enjoyment of good food, or just that slightly husky, posh voice that sends the heart a-fluttering, but there you are.  If, as has been commented before, Dame Helen Mirren is the thinking man’s actress, then Nigella is clearly the thinking man’s foodie.

Thus when I learnt of what took place recently between her and her husband, PR guru and promoter of exceptionally bad art Charles Saatchi, at my favorite restaurant in London, I was absolutely appalled.  If there were no pictures of the event, one simply would not have believed it.  Mr. Saatchi, who is 70, is not exactly superhero material either in size or anything else, and one would think that a lady as intelligent as Ms. Lawson would not have allowed such an event to take place.  If someone had asked me what I thought would have played out in such a scenario, my prediction would have been that the moment the bounder reached to grab his wife’s throat, she would have jumped up from the table and left.  Instead, she simply took the assault he dished out.

Ms. Lawson and her children have apparently moved out of the home she shared with her husband, who has been cautioned by the police.  Fortunately she is in a position with respect to family, friends, and resources to get help, which sadly many victims of domestic violence are not.  I hope that both of these people get the help they need, since as we all know these cycles of abuse tend to repeat themselves.

Yet what I want us to think about in this situation is not why these incidents of domestic violence happen among supposedly educated people, or how to address them, since to that end I would direct you to an excellent piece on these questions by Conservative MP Dr. Sarah Wollaston in today’s Torygraph.  I want to ask a different question raised by the incident and specifically by these photographs, which might not occur to you at first glance.  Specifically: why did not a single man in that restaurant stand up to defend Ms. Lawson?

In asking this question I am not in any way discounting the ladies among my readers, who of course have an equal moral obligation to do something to aid someone in distress if they are capable of doing so.  After all, we only recently saw the incredible bravery of three British women who tried to aid the victim of a brutal murder carried out on a British soldier by Muslim fundamentalists in London.  Nor am I advocating a change to the judicial code, whereby one has a legal obligation to involve oneself in other people’s domestic disputes.

Yet we should not need a written code provision to tell us that when he sees someone physically assaulting a lady in public, no matter the identity of the assaulter, a gentleman intervenes.  How a restaurant full of management, waitstaff and patrons, let alone passersby outside where the couple were sitting, could simply stand there and do nothing EXCEPT TAKE PICTURES, simply boggles my mind.  It is clear that many of us men need to take a long, hard look at ourselves, and ask what has happened to our sense of honor, in standing up for those who are not in a position to do so for themselves, particularly women and children.

If this attitude strikes you as rather old-fashioned, then good: it’s meant to.  It seems we have so emasculated ourselves as a culture that, bizarrely enough, treatment of women has grown worse, not better.  She has become simply another sack of finite genetic material, and not a beautiful gift from God, as Eve was to Adam, meant to be treasured and protected.  Whatever our supposed multi-cultural sophistication today, the fact remains that if you choose to stand by and do nothing in a situation like this, then please do not have the gall to call yourself a gentleman, let alone a man. A real man does not allow weaker people, particularly the ladies, to be taken advantage of by bullies.

A society which does nothing to help its weakest members is one riddled with relativism and sophistry, which Edmund Burke would recognize as lethal to its survival. So yes, fellow, you should open AND hold the door for women; allow them to go through the doorway ahead of you; pull out their chair for them when they want to sit at table, and so on.  Most of all, however, you should never look the other way when you see your sister in distress.  For even if no one sees you walk by or avert your gaze, you can be sure that the Man Upstairs certainly has seen it.  And He is the most impartial of all judges.

Nigella

This should never have happened.

Count Castiglione on Confident Clothing

The other evening I attended a Christmas party thrown by some very good friends, in the neighborhood where I live.  As it was to be a cocktails and canapes sort of thing, I wore a gunmetal sharkskin suit with a subtle sheen – not the blindingly reflective sort which seems to appear quite frequently on the red carpet these days – and a black angora turtleneck.  Several people commented on how much they liked both the suit, and the combination of wearing it with a turtleneck rather than with shirt and tie.  However in truth, it really was not that unusual a combination: this was something that would not have been out of place in the Art Deco period, or the Mad Men era, for example.

If you pay attention to clothes, one of the things you will come to appreciate over time is that there has been far less variety over the past century than there was in the centuries which came before it.  For example, this season retailers such as Ralph Lauren and Zara are selling cloche hats, tweed coats with fur collars, and velvet suits right out of the Edwardian era.  This is thanks in part to the popularity of the British television series “Downton Abbey”.  Coincidentally, the same thing happened back in the 1970’s, when other British shows set in the late Victorian/Edwardian period, like the original “Upstairs, Downstairs”, “The Duchess of Duke Street”, and “The Pallisers” saga, influenced clothing retailers both in Europe and America.

However as we watch ladies’ hemlines go up and down, it is true that men’s clothing generally does not go through the same amount of radical alterations, apart from the wardrobes of those who are victims of fashion.  Men’s duds get tighter or looser, more constructed or more de-constructed, depending on the aesthetics of the time, but not much else changes.  Many of the articles of clothing your grandfather might have worn you could still wear today, and look just as stylish as he did then.

The reason I think this is important to recognize is that, at least among the men, it is a sign of maturity to come to appreciate what suits you, rather than buying into the fever for trendiness which seems to have a death-grip on our society, from politics and religion (or anti-religion), to art and architecture, to gadgetry and clothing.  One of the things which differentiates the man who knows himself, from the boy who is still trying to be what he thinks others want him to be, is to be found in the clothing choices he makes.  This was as true during the Renaissance as it is today.

Count Baldassare Castiglione, the always well-dressed patron of this blog, writes in his Book of the Courtier that we cannot judge a man strictly by his dress.  However, we cannot completely discount dress, either, for it tells us something about the personality of the man himself.  “I do not say,” he writes, “that fixed opinions of men’s worth are to be formed only in this way, or that they are not better known by their words and acts than by their dress: but I do say that dress is no bad index of the wearer’s taste, although it may sometimes be wrong; and not only this, but all ways and manners, as well as acts and words, are an indication of the qualities of the man in whom they are seen.”

That passage from Castiglione gives us the opportunity to reflect a bit on our own choices, and how we look at ourselves.  For example, personally I have never been particularly interested in sports, and at my very jock-oriented high school I was often left on my own – writing, reading, listening to punk/alternative music, and so on while others ran about.  Thus sports-inspired clothing, like a varsity-style jacket or letter sweater, would be a rather awkward and uncomfortable choice for me, not necessarily because it would fit poorly, but because it would not match who I am, my experiences, and so on.

Whereas in contrast to trying to dress like I was on a team or captain of a squad, wearing a leather jacket over a shirt and tie is something I have done since I was a teen, and I return to it regularly whether it is in fashion or not.  It is actually rather an old idea, as we can see in the illustration from 1930’s Finland below: a mixture of modern and traditional, without necessarily being predictable.  Perhaps that describes me rather well, also, and it is why I feel so comfortable in it, whereas on someone else it would look decidedly uncomfortable.

For most of us men, we have to dress a certain way at certain times: dark suits for court or funerals, tuxedos to balls, that sort of thing.  There are many times when we do not have a lot of variety, for we are looking to be considered both dependable and in line with the men who came before us.  However where men are in situations where they can actually choose what they want to wear, there is in fact plenty of room to maneuver between the extremes of peacock and dormouse.  Castiglione throughout his commentary on dress in the Book of the Courtier points out that man should have the confidence to try things out, and see if they suit him, while at the same time avoiding the overly bright and garish.

As the Count so clearly understood five centuries ago, clothes do not exactly make the man: the monk is no less holy if his habit is new, than if it is old and worn.  However when men do have choices about what to wear, blending into the background is not always such a good idea.  If you are both comfortable and looking your best, chances are your words and your actions are going to match that level of confidence.  And that confidence is more likely to bring about a better result in your interactions with others, on many levels.

menhikingjacket

Bow tie and leather jacket combo in Finland (c. 1935)

On Masculine Pride

As is the case with all human beings, I am not always good at taking care of the things I know I ought to do.  I would argue that we men are particularly bad at this, in part because we are often lazy creatures, but also because of our masculine sense of pride.  Over this past week I have had some time to think about this, and to interact with others about it, and I think there are three things which we lads ought to be doing in these situations – advice which hopefully I will take myself.

If you heard me on the Catholic Weekend show this past Saturday over on SQPN.com [N.B. you can also catch the episode on their website or download in iTunes] I talked a little bit about a plan for stepping back last week, due to a number of problems that were attacking me at once.  The plan for doing so had several components, based in part on some suggestions from a few friends in the new media universe.  I took a “blog vacation” from Tuesday through Friday, for one thing, and I reduced my evening television to just the nightly news reports I usually watch, rather than having the TV on all night watching nothing in particular; instead I listened to classical music or jazz on the radio.  And I made more of an effort at prayer, which we all ought to do.

Like all best-laid plans, not everything worked out perfectly, but nevertheless good can come even out of a setback or disappointment.  One of the things that has become very clear to me over the past several weeks is that some priorities and habits need to be shifted.  And while ultimately I am the one who is responsible for myself, stupidity lies in thinking that I am capable of doing everything that needs to be done by myself, alone.  This tendency stems in part from the sin of pride, which we all share.

However with all due respect to the ladies, I believe a larger part of this is our hardwiring: men are more likely to suffer from this particular version of pride than they.  Men do not like to admit that we have made a mistake, are not sure what to do, or that we are imperfect, because men are supposed to be strong and self-sufficient.  Whereas women often turn to each other for solace and support, oftentimes a man will run himself into the ground before admitting that he needs help.  Thus, the particular bugbear that is masculine pride.

A wise young lady observed to me once that women sometimes complain about their problems not because they are seeking solutions to those problems, but rather because they simply need to talk about them.  Men oftentimes tend not to talk about their problems at all, or only when they see no other option left to them but to communicate.  Despite the best efforts of the “Oprah” subculture, your average American male does not want to sit around in a group and talk about his feelings any more than he has to.  It makes most of us feel uncomfortable when it happens.

That being said, gentlemen, it is important to recognize that sometimes you do need encouragement amongst the many trials we all have to deal with, and it is important that you engage actively, rather than passively, in seeking the encouragement you need to tackle these things.  It is helpful to read books or articles, listen to motivational speakers, or seek guidance in sermons, but these are not the same as interacting directly with someone who can help you to do something about what you need to take care of.   This involves overcoming certain harmful aspects of masculine pride, and I would suggest there are three ways to do this.

First and foremost I find the efficacy of prayer to be astounding.  Nothing is impossible with God, as the Archangel Gabriel points out, but nothing is possible without Him, either.  Having the humility to approach Him and say that you are a mess is a very important first step toward getting over yourself.  Moreover, take advantage of not only asking friends on earth to pray on your behalf, but also to seek out the friends you have above, in the Communion of Saints.  Over the past week a number of my friends both here and upstairs have definitely been looking out for me.

Second, we men need to swallow our pride and learn how to reach out to people who are better at something than we are.   For example, let’s say you are floundering in the ocean with leg cramps, because you swam out too far and you overdid it.  If you would rather drown than have the lifeguard come out to rescue you, because you will feel humiliated by the fact that you could not take care of yourself and he swims much better than you do, then you are suffering from a very bad case of masculine pride, indeed.  It is not an admission of failure to recognize that we can learn from another person’s success.  Oftentimes their repeated trials and errors taught them what they needed to know to get to where they are now, which they can then share with us.

Third and finally, one example which we men can safely take from the ladies is the selection of a friend or two to take the same journey with us.  If a friend has a similar problem to solve or goal in mind, then by working together or by sharing information and resources, as well as giving each other a boost when needed, we are more likely to achieve a better result.  We need to avoid creating a private, members-only pity party, of course, where we do nothing but loaf around playing armchair quarterback, whining without acting.  Yet having another self to turn to when needed, who like you admits to their own imperfections, and can keep you from falling back into prideful habits, may keep you grounded and on the right path.

All three of these ideas are grounded in the idea of rooting out that particular aspect of masculine pride which often prevents us from acting: a fear of personal humility.  We need to get over this fear, gentlemen, for no matter how powerful we might imagine ourselves to be, we are nothing before God.  We must be aware of our place in the universe, and our utter dependence on His assistance.  At the same time, we should also not be afraid of seeking out both direct, expert advice from those who clearly could be of help if we but ask them.  And finally we ought also to seek the participation of others like ourselves, who like a good and honest brother similarly recognizes areas which need change in their own lives, and can pull and push us along just as we can do for them.

Whatever you need to work on, and I for one need to work on a number of things, I hope that your journey toward achieving your goals be a successful one in all of these respects.

“Sunset (Brothers)” by Caspar David Friedrich (c. 1835)
The Hermitage, St. Petersburg