12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (47 page)

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It might be objected (as it was, with Disney’s more recent and deeply propagandistic
) that a woman does not need a man to rescue her. That may be true, and it may not. It may be that only the woman who wants (or has) a child needs a man to rescue her—or at least to support and aid her. In any case, it is certain that a woman needs consciousness be rescued, and, as noted above, consciousness is symbolically masculine and has been since the beginning of time (in the guise both of order and of the Logos, the mediating principle). The Prince could be a lover, but could also be a woman’s own attentive wakefulness, clarity of vision, and tough-minded independence. Those are masculine traits—in actuality, as well as symbolically, as men are actually less tender-minded and agreeable than women, on average, and are less susceptible to anxiety and emotional pain. And, to say it again: (1) this is most true in those Scandinavian nations where the most steps towards gender equality have been taken—and (2) the differences are not small by the standards whereby such things are measured.

The relationship between the masculine and consciousness is also portrayed, symbolically, in the Disney movie
The Little Mermaid
. Ariel, the heroine, is quite feminine, but she also has a strong spirit of independence. For this reason, she is her father’s favourite, although she also causes him the most trouble. Her father Triton is the king, representing the known, culture and order (with a hint of the oppressive rule-giver and tyrant). Because order is always opposed by chaos, Triton has an adversary, Ursula, a tentacled octopus—a serpent, a gorgon, a hydra. Thus, Ursula is in the same archetypal category as the dragon/queen Maleficent in
Sleeping Beauty
(or the jealous older queen in
Snow White
, Lady Tremaine in
, the Red Queen in
Alice in Wonderland
, Cruella de Vil in
101 Dalmations
, Miss Medusa in
The Rescuers
and Mother Gothel in

Ariel wants to kindle a romance with Prince Eric, whom she previously rescued from a shipwreck. Ursula tricks Ariel into giving up her voice so that she can have three days as a human being. Ursula knows full well, however, that a voiceless Ariel will not be able to establish a relationship with the Prince. Without her capacity to speak—without the Logos; without the Divine Word—she will remain underwater, unconscious, forever.

When Ariel fails to form a union with Prince Eric, Ursula steals her soul, and places it in her large collection of shrivelled and warped semi-beings, well-protected by her feminine graces. When King Triton shows up to demand the return of his daughter, Ursula makes him a terrible offer: he can take Ariel’s place. Of course, the elimination of the Wise King (who represents, to say it again, the benevolent side of the patriarchy) has been Ursula’s nefarious plan all along. Ariel is released, but Triton is now reduced to a pathetic shadow of his former self. More importantly, Ursula now has Triton’s magic trident, the source of his godlike power.

Fortunately for everyone concerned (except Ursula), Prince Eric returns, distracting the evil queen of the underworld with a harpoon. This opens an opportunity for Ariel to attack Ursula, who grows, in response, to monstrous proportions—in the same manner as Maleficent,
Sleeping Beauty
’s evil queen. Ursula creates a huge storm, and raises a
whole navy of sunken ships from the ocean floor. As she prepares to kill Ariel, Eric commandeers a wrecked ship, and rams her with its broken bowsprit. Triton and the other captured souls are released. The rejuvenated Triton then transforms his daughter into a human being, so she can remain with Eric. For a woman to become complete, such stories claim, she must form a relationship with masculine consciousness and stand up to the terrible world (which sometimes manifests itself, primarily, in the form of her too-present mother). An actual man can help her do that, to some degree, but it is better for everyone concerned when no one is too dependent.

One day, when I was a kid, I was out playing softball with some friends. The teams were a mixture of boys and girls. We were all old enough so that the boys and girls were starting to be interested in one another in an unfamiliar way. Status was becoming more relevant and important. My friend Jake and I were about to come to blows, pushing each other around near the pitching mound, when my mom walked by. She was a fair distance away, about thirty yards, but I could immediately see by the change in her body language that she knew what was going on. Of course, the other kids saw her as well. She walked right by. I knew that hurt her. Part of her was worried that I would come home with a bloody nose and a black eye. It would have been easy enough for her just to yell, “Hey, you kids, quit that!” or even to come over and interfere. But she didn’t. A few years later, when I was having teenage trouble with my dad, my mom said, “If it was too good at home, you’d never leave.”

My mom is a tender-hearted person. She’s empathetic, and cooperative, and agreeable. Sometimes she lets people push her around. When she went back to work after being at home with her young kids, she found it challenging to stand up to the men. Sometimes that made her resentful—something she also feels, sometimes, in relationship to my father, who is strongly inclined to do what he wants, when he wants to. Despite all that, she’s no Oedipal mother. She fostered the independence of her children, even though doing so was often hard on her. She did the right thing, even though it caused her emotional distress.

Toughen Up, You Weasel

I spent one youthful summer on the prairie of central Saskatchewan working on a railway line crew. Every man in that all-male group was tested by the others during the first two weeks or so of their hiring. Many of the other workers were Northern Cree Indians, quiet guys for the most part, easygoing, until they drank too much, and the chips on their shoulders started to show. They had been in and out of jail, as had most of their relatives. They didn’t attach much shame to that, considering it just another part of the white man’s system. It was also warm in jail in the winter, and the food was regular and plentiful. I lent one of the Cree guys fifty bucks at one point. Instead of paying me back, he offered me a pair of bookends, cut from some of the original rail laid across western Canada, which I still own. That was better than the fifty bucks.

When a new guy first showed up, the other workers would inevitably provide him with an insulting nickname. They called me Howdy-Doody, after I was accepted as a crew member (something I am still slightly embarrassed to admit). When I asked the originator why he chose that moniker, he said, wittily and absurdly, “Because you look nothing like him.” Working men are often extremely funny, in a caustic, biting, insulting manner (as discussed in Rule 9). They are always harassing each other, partly for amusement, partly to score points in the eternal dominance battle between them, but also partly to see what the other guy will do if he is subjected to social stress. It’s part of the process of character evaluation, as well as camaraderie. When it works well (when everybody gets, and gives as good as they get, and can give and take) it’s a big part of what allows men who work for a living to tolerate or even enjoy laying pipe and working on oil rigs and lumberjacking and working in restaurant kitchens and all the other hot, dirty, physically demanding and dangerous work that is still done almost totally by men.

Not too long after I started on the rail crew, my name was changed to Howdy. This was a great improvement, as it had a good Western connotation, and was not obviously linked to that stupid puppet. The
next man hired was not so fortunate. He carried a fancy lunchbucket, which was a mistake, as brown paper bags were the proper, non-pretentious convention. It was a little too nice and too new. It looked like maybe his mother had bought it (and packed it) for him. Thus, it became his name. Lunchbucket was not a good-humored guy. He bitched about everything, and had a bad attitude. Everything was someone else’s fault. He was touchy, and none too quick on the draw.

Lunchbucket couldn’t accept his name, or settle into his job. He adopted an attitude of condescending irritation when addressed, and reacted to the work in the same manner. He was not fun to be around, and he couldn’t take a joke. That’s fatal, on a work crew. After about three days of carrying on with his ill-humour and general air of hard-done-by superiority, Lunchbucket started to experience harassment extending well beyond his nickname. He would be peevishly working away on the line, surrounded by about seventy men, spread out over a quarter mile. Suddenly a pebble would appear out of nowhere, flying through the air, aimed at his hardhat. A direct hit would produce a thunking sound, deeply satisfying to all the quietly attending onlookers. Even this failed to improve his humour. So, the pebbles got larger. Lunchbucket would involve himself in something and forget to pay attention. Then, “thunk!”—a well-aimed stone would nail him on the noggin, producing a burst of irritated and ineffectual fury. Quiet amusement would ripple down the rail line. After a few days of this, no wiser, and carrying a few bruises, Lunchbucket vanished.

Men enforce a code of behaviour on each other, when working together. Do your work. Pull your weight. Stay awake and pay attention. Don’t whine or be touchy. Stand up for your friends. Don’t suck up and don’t snitch. Don’t be a slave to stupid rules. Don’t, in the immortal words of Arnold Schwarzenegger, be a girlie man. Don’t be dependent. At all. Ever. Period. The harassment that is part of acceptance on a working crew is a test: are you tough, entertaining, competent and reliable? If not, go away. Simple as that. We don’t need to feel sorry for you. We don’t want to put up with your narcissism, and we don’t want to do your work.

There was a famous advertisement in the form of a comic strip issued a few decades ago by the bodybuilder Charles Atlas. It was titled “The Insult that Made a Man out of Mac” and could be found in almost every comic book, most of which were read by boys. Mac, the protagonist, is sitting on a beach blanket with an attractive young woman. A bully runs by, and kicks sand in both their faces. Mac objects. The much larger man grabs him by the arm and says, “Listen here. I’d smash your face …. Only you’re so skinny you might dry up and blow away.” The bully departs. Mac says to the girl, “The big bully! I’ll get even some day.” She adopts a provocative pose, and says, “Oh, don’t let it bother you, little boy.” Mac goes home, considers his pathetic physique, and buys the Atlas program. Soon, he has a new body. The next time he goes to the beach, he punches the bully in the nose. The now-admiring girl clings to his arm. “Oh, Mac!” she says. “You’re a real man after all.”

That ad is famous for a reason. It summarizes human sexual psychology in seven straightforward panels. The too-weak young man is embarrassed and self-conscious, as he should be. What good is he? He gets put down by other men and, worse, by desirable women. Instead of drowning in resentment, and skulking off to his basement to play video games in his underwear, covered with Cheetos dust, he presents himself with what Alfred Adler, Freud’s most practical colleague, called a “compensatory fantasy.”
The goal of such a fantasy is not so much wish-fulfillment, as illumination of a genuine path forward. Mac takes serious note of his scarecrow-like build and decides that he should develop a stronger body. More importantly, he puts his plan into action. He identifies with the part of himself that could transcend his current state, and becomes the hero of his own adventure. He goes back to the beach, and punches the bully in the nose. Mac wins. So does his eventual girlfriend. So does everybody else.

It is to women’s clear advantage that men do not happily put up with dependency among themselves. Part of the reason that so many a working-class woman does not marry, now, as we have alluded to, is because she does not want to look after a man, struggling for employment, as well as her children. And fair enough. A woman should look
after her children—although that is not all she should do. And a man should look after a woman and children—although that is not all he should do. But a woman should not look after a man, because she must look after children, and a man should not be a child. This means that he must not be dependent. This is one of the reasons that men have little patience for dependent men. And let us not forget: wicked women may produce dependent sons, may support and even marry dependent men, but awake and conscious women want an awake and conscious partner.

If is for this reason that Nelson Muntz of
The Simpsons
is so necessary to the small social group that surrounds Homer’s antihero son, Bart. Without Nelson, King of the Bullies, the school would soon be overrun by resentful, touchy Milhouses, narcissistic, intellectual Martin Princes, soft, chocolate-gorging German children, and infantile Ralph Wiggums. Muntz is a corrective, a tough, self-sufficient kid who uses his own capacity for contempt to decide what line of immature and pathetic behaviour simply cannot be crossed. Part of the genius of
The Simpsons
is its writers’ refusal to simply write Nelson off as an irredeemable bully. Abandoned by his worthless father, neglected, thankfully, by his thoughtless slut of a mother, Nelson does pretty well, everything considered. He’s even of romantic interest to the thoroughly progressive Lisa, much to her dismay and confusion (for much the same reasons that
Fifty Shades of Grey
became a worldwide phenomenon).

When softness and harmlessness become the only consciously acceptable virtues, then hardness and dominance will start to exert an unconscious fascination. Partly what this means for the future is that if men are pushed too hard to feminize, they will become more and more interested in harsh, fascist political ideology.
Fight Club
, perhaps the most fascist popular film made in recent years by Hollywood, with the possible exception of the Iron Man series, provides a perfect example of such inevitable attraction. The populist groundswell of support for Donald Trump in the US is part of the same process, as is (in far more sinister form) the recent rise of far-right political parties even in such moderate and liberal places as Holland, Sweden and Norway.

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