We should be cautious of prophecies that claim that we are on a path of infinite political “progress,” infinite “economic growth,” or, conversely, headed toward civilizational collapse. Things are more complicated, and there always remains opportunities for the creation of interesting new cultural movements and for personal ascent (though perhaps not for those who are determined to fit themselves into some outdated societal mold).
A century ago, the German intellectual Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) argued that civilizations are organic, that they take root, blossom, and then wither and die. According to Spengler, the West is now in its dying phase. His thesis, however, was rebutted by another German thinker, Jean Gebser (1905-1973), who argued that human consciousness evolved through the emergence of new stages of consciousness. The previous stages remained in the psyche but were superseded. Such stages (the archaic, magic, mythical, mental, and integral) were characterized by new developments in language, art, and even in perception — hence our ability to see the color blue (something that humans have only been able to do for a few thousand years or so), and the appearance of perspective in art (which man did not understand and possibly could not really detect at one point).
Spengler’s work has gained some interest over recent years, mostly in fringes of the Right. However, he is far from being the last to have prophesized the collapse of Western civilization. Social critic Camille Paglia (who is on the Left of the political spectrum), has suggested, more recently, that we may well be in such a stage of decline. As proof of this she notes the rise of the transgender movement, suggesting that transgenderism gains popularity in the “late phases of culture, as a civilization is starting to unravel,” e.g., the late Roman Empire, the Weimar Republic, and so on.
The people of such societies, says Paglia, think of themselves as very sophisticated, but, yet, out there on the margins of society, or just beyond the borders of the state, those — from the Hun to ISIS — “convinced of the power of heroic masculinity” are gathering, waiting to strike.
She is not the first to contrast ISIS or al-Qaeda with young, effeminate, Western men or an effeminate, modern, Western culture that “no longer believes in itself.” Nor, again, is she the only one worrying about the emergence of hyper-masculine men, though she is unusual for her criticism of the latest political fads. The target of the “sophisticated” tend be pro-masculinity groups (such as in the men’s rights movement), survivalist-types, or groups advocating physical as well as mental strength. All of this is denounced as “fascist,” of course.
It would be easy for me to come down on one side or the other — placing myself firmly in the camp of the neo-masculinity movement or that of the transgender and “gender-ambiguous” (to borrow a term from art school). Nevertheless, I want to play Gebser to Paglia’s Spenglarianism, and to look at things from a different perspective. First, however, I want to say a few things about my own misbegotten youth, which will be relevant.
As a teenager somewhat out of love with mainstream society, I listened to David Bowie, Bauhaus, and other bands that played with gender, or at least with identity — such as Joy Division. Physically, I was skinny (though I ate normally) and pale — and, for a few years, I grew my hair long.
Around the same time, I discovered alternative spirituality and soon immersed myself in the study of such subjects as paganism, runes, Tarot, Shamanism (reading especially Mircea Eliade), Hermeticism, magic (especially Aleister Crowley), and religion. Having always been artistic, I had finally found something to inspire me, and I started painting on a daily basis. I was also meditating, and practicing esotericism. Later, I went into art, design, and writing.
Bowie, art, writing, alternative spirituality: all of this could be seen as pretty feminine, let’s be honest. Certainly, it was seen, at the time, as not the sort of pursuits that should interest young men (or perhaps anyone).
I had completely forgotten, until a few years ago, however, that before then I had had a very different type of interest: before and into my early teens, I was obsessed with war movies (and perhaps just war), to the point where I went out and bought as many soundtracks to them, or just army-type music, as I could afford. I also ordered a number of magazines on wars throughout history. And, while I found school generally tedious and soul-crushing, I read Run Baby Run — a graphic account of violent gangs in New York City — and Rumble Fish with extraordinary enthusiasm. The usual books on the curriculum didn’t interest me at all.
Run Baby Run had been introduced to us, somewhere around the age of 13, by a substitute “teacher.” Teaching didn’t seem to be high on his agenda, but saving our souls did (in what was undoubtedly an anti-climactic ending for me at the time, the author of Run Baby Run later gave up being a gang leader to become a Christian minister).
Though clearly not on the curriculum, to further illustrate the dangers of the world, our substitute teacher — a tall, skinny man with a beard, if I recall correctly — brought in some letter-sized black and white photos of murders and suicides from the USA — the blood from each violent scene sprayed, from the corpse, up the walls, and all over the room and whatever was in it.
I had always hated horror movies. I regarded them as sick amusements for the morally and mentally dull (i.e., most of the people I met, and all of my classmates). The male students loved them, of course, and, as such, I was amazed to see that — while I had no problem looking at the real, grizzly scenes of death — they turned away, their faces screwed up with disgust, unable to look at the images. Their reactions struck me as girlish (or, at least, as indistinguishable from that of the girls in the class), and exposed their usual talk of gore, and their daring each other to see even more violent movies, as phony.
As with my musical, artistic, and spiritual interests later on, my fascination with war, in particular, raised some concerns. It was all a bit too mucho for a boy barely — or pehaps not even — into his teens.
Later, as a young man, I found myself feeling estranged from ordinary men who, after all, loved nothing more than to talk about “the game” they had seen on television the night before. Such was the defining mark of “manhood” — in the contemporary sense — but it didn’t interest me. At school, I had liked athletics, and I had quite liked playing rugby, but I had hated soccer — which struck me as little more than a sulky ego-fest. But, more than that, I didn’t see the interest in being a spectator.
At around age 23, I took up Kung fu (I stopped practicing for many years, but took it up later on, and still practice). On one occasion, I injured my ankle and went to the hospital to get it checked out. There, an older man started talking to me, smiling. He asked me why I was there. “How did that happen,” he enquired after I told him,”playing soccer?” “No, martial arts,” I replied. The older gentleman turned away, apparently put off.
Martial arts, war, the ability to look at death, and, yet, art, spirituality, music, and so on. In terms of mainstream society I was — and perhaps ironically still am — both too masculine and too feminine. But is modern, mainstream society a good guide to what men should be? And how might I have been regarded in some ancient, “barbarian,” society?
When we look at television and movies today, we see that men are not infrequently portrayed as clueless, weak, ignorant, stupid, cowardly, or thuggish. Heroes are dead. This angers a lot of men — especially in the men’s rights movement — and some claim that it’s a Hollywood conspiracy to deracinate masculinity.
But, let’s be honest, if these images of men caught on it is because that was the experience that so many people had of men. Notably, fatherless is on the rise, with about one-third of children in the USA being raised in homes in which fathers are not present. Leaving aside the fact there are many exemplary fathers who pass on valuable life lessons to their children, we cannot doubt that while many are absent from their children’s lives, other men are emotionally absent or — in our consumer society — simply have no archetypal knowledge to pass on.
Beyond which team to support and which political party to cheer for, the stock advice to children is often little more than “get good grades, and get a good job — or at least some kind of job.” It doesn’t really grasp most men or women as a satisfactory plan for life, does it? I mean, where’s the adventure? The glory? The stamping of our name on deeds that will be spoken of long after we are dead?
I mentioned the portrayal of men and women on television. The sitcom Friends was recently blamed for the downfall of Western civilization. The premise of the critique is that because the character Ross was both an intellectual (or at least intelligent) and boring — and shown to be a drag on the good times of the rest of the Friends’ gang — society was given the message that intelligence is bad. He got the girl he deserved, the writer tells us: Rachel, the girl that liked to go shopping.
While the writer says that there is now a “resistance” forming, made up of “new Rosses” — people of “grit” who are “hiding” in art museums, chess clubs, and so on — Rosses aren’t going to save civilization from the nightmare Paglia imagines — the collapse of civilization and its takeover by new barbarians. In real life, Rachel (by which I mean the actress Jennifer Aniston) married (and then divorced) Brad Pitt.
We don’t need to pick through Aniston’s off-screen love life, and its ups and downs, to know that real-life-Ross wouldn’t have got a look-in with real-life-Rachel. And, frankly, why should he? He wanted a woman that was, physically, well out of his league. He could have gone across the hall and asked Joey for some pointers on working out, and then set to work improving himself physically — but he didn’t. And, unlike most people, he didn’t want to, or couldn’t, adapt his conversation to his friends, either.
Ross — and the Friends’ gang as a whole — is a reflection of the West’s compartmentalization of people into types: the intellectual, the jock, the artistic dropout, the Democrat, the Republican, and so on. The intellectual looks on in disgust at the physically developed, as if the body were dirty. The Jock disdains the bookworm, as if the mind were something to be wasted. These types have surrendered to an entire worldview. Exploring other ideas, pushing oneself to the limits mentally, physically, and spiritually is off the table, and would be denounced by them.
Rosses may be a resistance to the dumbing down of society. Some of those becoming transgender may, as Paglia suggests, be the sorts of people who would have become Beatniks in the Fifties or Hippies during the Sixties, and may be rebelling against some 1950s-type notions of gender. Men’s rights groups may be a resistance to men not being taken very seriously in relation to a range of issues (e.g., incarceration). Culture may be “starting to unravel” (as Paglia suggests) into different types, none of them whole in themselves. But opportunities remain.
As Paglia notes, that opportunity is open to those who would destroy us and take our liberty away. But that is hardly the final word. Opportunities are open, too, to those who see the weakness and limitations of compartmentalization and of the fear of those who retreat into abstract thinking as much as those who retreat into spectator sports and making that their reason for living.
It is open to those who recognize that politics cannibalizes culture, perverting it, and robbing it of its energy. Bowie and Warhol’s Factory, were — like Punk, or Rock ‘n’ Roll, or Biker gangs, or Goth, or Hip Hop — a creative shock to the system. These movements emerged mostly in rundown, forgotten areas of cities and were created by those with no money and little hope, but by those with ideas, energy, and a sense of aesthetics and sense that the world could be different.
“My adepts stand upright; their head above the heavens, their feet below the hells,” the English occultist Aleister Crowley said. Despite his numerous and often very obvious shortcomings, Crowley — who was of some influence on Bowie and the Sixties’ counterculture, incidentally — offers us a glimpse of possibilities that lie open to us, to extend ourselves and to expand our personal horizons, and to leave behind the pressure to fit in on this side or that.
A boxer, a mountaineer, an adventurer who traveled across the globe when few people ever left their own town, Crowley was also a painter, poet, ceremonial magician, author (fiction and non-fiction), and founder of his own religion. (Not bad going for one lifetime.) If we take half his accomplishments, he is a cliched “man’s man.” If we take the other half, he is an effeminate, dandyish “girly man.” But, as he advised his adepts, in himself he managed to embrace and develop the “Angel” and the “Demon” — what society might call the “male” and the “female,” the “left brain” and the “right brain,” the body and the spirit, etc.
Similarly, as I’ve mentioned before, samurai Miyamoto Musashi was also a renowned painter and calligrapher. Egill Skallagrímsson, a feared Viking warrior, who killed a man when he was seven, was a well-respected poet.
Today, poetry, painting, calligraphy, etc., are all seen as “feminine” or “girly.” Modern culture has hemmed us in. “Real men” do not write poetry. In fact, “real men” don’t seem to do much at all.
Whether we like it or not, in part, it is against this that the transgender movement is reacting. And I agree with them that we must break the cliches of gender that the last century or so has imposed on us — though not necessarily in the same way. The contemporary molds of men and women that we are expected to fit are little compared to a Crowley, a Musashi, a Skallagrímsson, and to what each of us, in fact, can be.
The future is not open to those who subdue themselves to the latest fad or pressures of mainstream society or those of the ever-changing convictions of the political sides. It is open to the Superior man and Superior woman, to those who can push forward in different ways, developing themselves creatively and artistically, physically, intellectually, and spiritually, discovering new symbols, creating new movements, new aesthetics, new rituals, and new routines all somehow hinting at what is sacred in man and in the world.
“History” has spoken of primitive barbarians against progress and civilization. But, on closer inspection, the barbarians always turn out to be cultured — with literature, myth, religion, mysticism, aesthetics, and so on — even if their beliefs and culture is different.
The modern era shows us only cliches, some worse than others, some a bit better than others. Nevertheless, we who know history and pre-history can find inspiration in warriors, prophets — men and women who would not fit in today — and gods of the pre-modern world, both East and West.
God, Odin, Krishna, Kali, Buddha, the Cosmos — whatever we call it — does not want us to emulate others, slotting ourselves into molds that we did not make. But nor does it want us to fall into the trap of merely doing the opposite of what we’re told we should do — to become merely Rosses, “girly men,” or “manly men” in reaction to something we dislike; to be led around by our nose, while thinking we are rebels. It wants us to be bigger than that: to become as gods, reflecting the greatness of the universe, beyond cliches, radiating power and charisma — warriors, poets, artists, musicians, writers, all in one — torches of blazing light to those who are trapped in darkness.