Tuesday, June 27, 2017

male gazer

. . . as you were when first your eye I eyed, 
Such seems your beauty still. 

-- Shakespeare, Sonnet 104 (1609)

I realized that, in this world, there would be many instances when my body would not feel like my body.

-- Heather Burtman, New York Times (June 16, 2017)*


I'm a man. I'm straight. Even when I was an unhappy straight man, I knew there was no alternative role, no other kind of creature I could be, because there is no question which portion of humankind attracts me. I look. Science says that men are visual creatures, and old age is no cure. I'm an old straight man. Any relationship based on the notion that I am some other kind of creature would be a house built on sand.

   "When you're a star, they let you do it."** Women are in danger from men who look and reach, who see with their hands and their physical strength, making an empire of vision. There are too many assaults, violations, gropings, catcalls; but even short of violence the male gaze, they tell me, tramples a woman's agency, marks her like a terrain to be colonized, a piece of meat to be carved. And I am male, and I gaze.

     I must resolve the contradiction. I must see, but I must not own what I see. I look, but my look must meet the consent of another gaze. This is, as Kant would say, categorical: no woman exists as a means to my pleasure (nor of course do I exist as a means to hers). I suspect that women do their share of looking, though they are less often on the upper side of a power differential. The gaze must be mutual and continuously responsive, a kind of utilitarian duet whose pleasure, if there is pleasure, arises not from body parts or instruments but from the concert of all. My look dwells nowhere, for there is no home where I look, only a provisional permission. Keep moving. My eyes, goes the joke, are up hereThis is a principle I have always known, but I was not taught how to live with it, and the world taught me its contradiction.

   In the David Lean movie Summertime, released in 1955, Rossano Brazzi gazes at Katherine Hepburn across the Piazza San Marco, appraising her like a sculpture. The Ohio schoolteacher, discomfited and denuded with her clothes on, braving a place where American conventionalities are suspended, did not intend to be a spectacle. The gaze provokes an affair. Though there is no act of force, the man exploits a power differential, his Machiavellian skill against her solitariness. The seduction is exposed when she learns he is a married man with a family right there in Venice. This may be how you do things in Venice, she concludes; but I'm from Ohio and it isn't how I carry myself.


     I was eight years old when Summertime was in the theaters. The seduction and betrayal, beginning in the male gaze, was presented with favor. We are to notice that the schoolteacher is traveling alone: she is a spinster, and the seducer is doing a good deed. Rossano Brazzi represented a middle term, unattainable by American men, of the universal message -- that women were to be perused, pursued, taken and possessed. He doesn't take the woman by force, which we all knew was a crime. His second way, by Venetian polish and deceit, was far beyond our capabilities. In our dreams! So what third way was left for respectable men? Hard to describe -- it seems to have gone by the name "respect." Opening of doors, pulling out of chairs, protection from harsh realities, combined with the right hair cream, discreet boasting, and promises of good providing for herself and hers. But the purpose was to pursue and capture, own and dominate. We were so alone.


This definition of a man's relation to women corrupted the youth into competition. There were a few who seemed to be winners and the rest, observing the evident winners, came to see themselves as losers. If you couldn't capture and possess, if you couldn't display trophies of conquest, you were exposed, and your mates might say you were queer. (That was the definition in those days -- a "queer" was a a failed heterosexual.) The most respectable trophy of manhood was a wedding, but the more common trophy was the narrative of progress on a four-base scale, of notches on one's gun, the communal soiling of reputation, a race to ruin characters by betrayal or by outright lying. If you weren't a winner you were a loser: the only cure for your defect was somehow to recover your "confidence" (for the winners were said to be always confident, and confidence was what opened doors and bodies). You were supposed to carry Vivienne Leigh up the staircase despite her wishes, your doubts and your bad knee: after all, you owned her and you knew what was best. Many of us had no such tales and did not want to fabricate them, so we opted out; but opting out was opting out of manhood.


     We don't tell our stories of man and woman in the same way we did sixty years ago, which is why some of the classics embarrass us in our affection. In The Bishop's Wife, it hurts to watch Carey Grant and David Niven toss Loretta Young through hoops. "Fight for her," says the angel to the bishop, but no one asks her what she wants. And I flinch, in the coda of Casablanca, as Bogart mansplains to Bergman that "Someday you'll understand . .  . . if that plane leaves the ground and you're not with him, you'll regret it." It's all for the best, little woman, I've got man's work to do, so go along now with the other guy. Oh well.

     We're trying -- I and the people I know, work with, befriend and love -- to figure out a better way of living with each other. There are still glass ceilings and pay differentials, harassments and intimidations, but I think sometimes we succeed. Growing up is hard, and it can take many decades for a person or a society to learn the obvious. A joyous truth dawns on me, again and again: a woman, member of that other persuasion who are the majority of humankind, is first middle and and last a person. Rossano Brazzi was on the wrong track. My will to power, if I could find it, would not prove to be my most attractive feature. I've a good head of hair for my age, with a natural wave and hints of its original color, but the best things about me are my mind and my heart. They are only good, can only attract if I give them away. I've been learning: in life as in ministry, it's not about me. My best move is to listen, attend, breathe. I have to be present to that other person. This isn't easy, and I'm messing up right now as I write a thousand words about me and my feelings. Not in me or in the other, but somewhere on the other side of the membrane, beauty might arise. My eyes, goes the joke, are up here.

     Beauty has no objective meaning, but is in the eye of the beholder, and relies therefore on a certain forgiveness. All bodies will prove hideous when viewed without limit or compassion, for in the rule of facts we are all just sacks of bone and meat, blood and worse. God pronounced the world tovah, beautiful, as God created it, but put the human beings in the world, male and female, for shamar, to watch over and keep it, well, beautiful. Beauty vanishes without attention, and thrives with tending.

    "I'll have what she's having." In When Harry Met SallyRob Reiner asked if men and women can be friends, and Harry thinks no, because sooner or later the man will want to "nail" the woman. But this is a love story, and before it ends we learn that Harry and Sally belong together because they were friends.

   How's this for a concept? Not every love is a love story; most, in fact, are not. But first things first. I wouldn't want to be in a love story with someone who wasn't my friend. Can men and women be friends? If they cannot then life is not worth living.

*"My Body Doesn't Belong to You"

**Access Hollywood, 2005

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Thursday, June 1, 2017

college reunion

They don't understand, do they?

-- Our Town

Look you, the stars shine still.

-- The Duchess of Malfi


I fear reunions. I fear a flood of grief and regret.

Grief not for wildness of youth, scrapes and escapades long gone and not to be revived. There were no scrapes. There was no wildness.

Primary narrative for a preacher's kid: a joy-riding car-wrecking dope-smoking wild-oats-sowing scourge, disciple of Marlon Brando on his loud bike, just bailed out at midnight by discreet arrangement in respect of the parson's position, an arrangement known across the town and in the pews by morning's light, and that is why the pastor's cheeks are burning as he ascends the pulpit. That was not my narrative. Sometimes I wish it had been. You hear how it lives in my imagination.

Mine was a second scenario, impulse curtailed and curdled, perfection imperfectly performed. Never arrested, never flunked out, never made anyone pregnant -- the clean slate that can bring no joy as an end in itself, but only as a modest flower on the vine of love. Paranoids have real enemies, and the lonely are not always to be pitied. Good grades at the prep school down the street appeased the parents, covering many sins of omission. If you are a "good kid" and no athlete, your grades are all most people want to know. Buttoned down, consumed in fantasies that rarely intersected with the world. More conversant with ancient characters of drama than with persons of my age, my sentences too long and lexicons no longer current, I was so old in youth, bitter in isolation.

And there was always an enemy, someone I was angry at and appointed chief wrecker of life. If that villain had only not done this or that to me . . . I thought life would then be good. Not that I had an idea what good life would be, too busy defending myself against real slings and imaginary arrows to look in other faces and wonder what behind their personae they were making of life, where their tender spots might be, how we might, or might not, have made a little bit of life together. Not a hot mess I was, but rather a cold one.

So what I feel, setting foot again on hallowed grounds that once I failed to make my own, is not grief but guilt: for a sour virtue, acts undone, roads not taken, dice not thrown, conversations not started, confessions aborted, opportunities of growth tabled in self-pity and delayed to future decades. What a jerk! -- the refrain of a critical heart no longer proud of misery.

We only learn big lessons the hard way, and the longer we wait the harder is the way. It seems I have lived long enough, not having learned the easier way, to scissor up such scripts of anger and futility. Perhaps I do not need a script at all. I don't draw castles in the air and rage because they do not meet the ground. For half a decade now I've not had enemies. Well sure, there are people who make me angry, but it's not a cosmic thing. I get over it.

I was of course saved, or I could not write this. There were those who, for whatever reason, reached down into the well and pulled me out. Some were friends of a year, or a decade; some were of a lifetime. Some were foolishly blind to my folly, and thought I was smart, or talented, or kind, or god help me good looking. And here's the simplest romance: when they put your newborn child into your arms, and she looks into your eyes saying please save my life tonight, you have to start growing up, whether you know how to or not. Fake it till you make it they say in showbiz and many other trades, including ministry.

And Carol, who gave me two babies and a half century of waiting for my adulthood, went to her fiftieth reunion at our college this year, and had a good time, and she commands me to go to my fiftieth reunion next year and also to have a good time. Perhaps, if I go, they won't remember what a jerk I was. Some of them at least. Maybe I'm not a jerk any more. Is that bar low enough? can I leap over it?

Do I really want to have been a bad kid? I'd rather be a good man. I'm not ambitious. I don't want to win anything. I'm not pursuing prizes or advancements. I'd like to be someone in whose presence living things can thrive.

I might turn out to be a younger, better old man than ever I was a young one. I hope. I think. I think I can. I think I can. . . .

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