Since Susie’s at work, Tilly’s fed, changed and in bed for her nap, the house is clean, the washing up done, and dinner bubbling away, it’s probably okay for me to take off the apron and have a go at a post on masculinity.
The other night, I watched the first part of a three part documentary called Once Upon a Time in Cabramatta. Cabramatta is a suburb in Sydney and the location of the biggest Vietnamese community in Australia. 10,000 Vietnamese refugees were placed here in the 1970s, and the documentary charts the breakdown of traditional Vietnamese social order in the community and the crime and violence that resulted.
The thing that really stayed with me was the description of a father in one family and his rapid descent into alcoholism and violence towards his family, in the face of the ’emasculating’ effects of the refugee experience – ie having menial or no work; being in a society where you are marginalised, unrepresented, or negatively represented; watching your children drifting away into a culture that you don’t understand, and which undermines your role as a father.
It got me thinking about what a strange combination of strength and fragility there is in traditional forms of masculinity. How much men need a family and social context that affirms their status and value as men, and how quickly they fall apart without it. I am lucky that I am surrounded by people who have a somewhat more expansive view of what might constitute a legitimate form of masculinity, but even so it is sometimes hard to feel particularly Alpha as a male when you only work two days a week (in a job that ain’t goin’ nowheres), and spend most of the rest of your time hanging out with an almost two year old, reading, blogging and recording dinky little musical numbers on your wife’s iMac.
Here’s a particularly dinky number to listen to as you read on (see below). Hang in there until the end, because the outro features a little number from Tilly’s favourite musical toy, and explains the title.
Anyway, getting back to my castration anxiety, I have to say that in recent days I have been helped enormously in my struggles by the man who I consider my patron saint, Saint Leopold Bloom. You see, I was born on Bloom’s Day (June 16), which is named after Leopold Bloom, a character in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Why June 16? Well, because the entire novel takes place on that date in 1904.
I’ve had about four cracks (craics?) at Ulysses over the years, but I recently made it all the way to the summit, which was quite a relief I can tell you. For it is a monumental work, in all sorts of respects. But now that I’ve read it, I feel very proud to have been born on Bloom’s Day, because Leopold Bloom is a wonderfully flawed and wonderfully phlegmatic anti-hero, a representative of a softly subversive form of masculinity, and thus the perfect patron saint for yours truly.
In the novel, we first meet Leopold as he performs the shockingly emasculating task (remember it’s 1904) of making his wife breakfast in bed. Then, the rest of the day/novel sees him in equally ‘manly’ activities. He walks into town, buys a book, chats to friends, goes to a funeral, has a couple of drinks, masturbates on a seaside bench at dusk while furtively watching a young woman on a neighbouring bench, chaperones some young men to a brothel, pays for some damage they do whilst there, tries to protect one of the young men from a couple of aggressive soldiers, and then – having failed – helps him to a tea shop and buys him a restorative bun. His day ends with him heading home to find that his wife, a singer, has slept with her manager – as he suspected she would – a discovery that causes him to muse at length on his marriage, his family and his life. The end.
Ulysses, like Homer’s the Odyssey (a work with which it is in constant conversation) is an Epic, but unlike the earlier work it is an Epic of the ordinary. It is about the body and the mind, about the particular, and resolutely against the kinds of abstractions that lead to extremity and violence. Which makes Leopold Bloom an anti-hero in a very literal sense: he seeks no Glory; he doesn’t discipline his body, but indulges it; he neither kills nor is killed; he neither lives fast, nor dies young. Instead, he is a man who is at times kind and generous, and at others vain and ridiculous. Yet he is wise enough to forgive these faults in himself and others. He revels in small pleasures, and most importantly, he wholeheartedly embraces, rather than being ashamed of, the feminine in himself. Like I say, he’s my kind of anti-saint.
Saint Leopold is helping me to embrace a masculinity of the everyday, a masculinity of being over doing, and a masculinity of the particular; and also to recognise that there is scope for heroism in the sphere of ‘mundane’ domesticity. It’s lucky I have him, because there’s nothing more depressing than the way fatherhood and domestic masculinity are represented in contemporary popular culture. As parents, fathers are generally portrayed as either buffoons or brutes, or both. We’ve got to do something about it, people! Which reminds me, I should get back to writing my semi-autobiographical film, ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ (I was going to call it ‘The Good, the Dad, and the Ugly’, but Susie thought that might not be good for Tilly’s self-esteem.)
Note: Just out of interest, I looked up a list of the real saints celebrated on June 16, and came across a Saint called Benno – sounds pretty Aussie, doesn’t he – who didn’t do much, died of natural causes, and – here’s the best bit – is the patron saint of alliteration. He also supported an antipope, at one point (or at least, pretended to, which is even better)! He sounds like a great back-up patron anti-saint to me.