PRINT February 1992


Moving Men

AS A MS IN SEARCH of her neglected anima, I closed my eyes to dream. A figure seemed to approach: lacy, flowing, yet stern. A voice as old as the ages called to me, the voice of Kali, Aphrodite, Demeter. My wounded spirit thirsted for the dour yet dulcet tones of the Great Mother, the Hairy Magdalene. She spoke:

“It would be futile for Miss Manners to pretend to know nothing of the wicked joy of correcting others. There is that pleasant bubble in the throat, a suppressed giggle at another person’s ignorance; that flush of generosity accompanying the resolve to set the poor soul straight: that fever of human kindness when one proclaims, for the benefit of others, one’s superior knowledge.”1

The sibyl paused, then spake the object of her revelation: that heresy known as the men’s movement. Not that Miss Manners is totally opposed. As a woman (forgive me, we are dreaming—as WOMAN), she is unable to experience the constraint of being a white man; it cannot have been pleasant to have been yelled at (the term, she gathers, is now “shamed”) by women for at least twenty years, and though “Miss Manners cannot be expected to experience embarrassment firsthand. . .it is something for which she has a moderate amount of sympathy.” Finding it in dubious taste to slam anybody else’s liberation movement. she fears that some women, in their righteous anger, may have o’erthrown their long-ingrained politeness. And when she finds men physically ill or emotionally traumatized, yet unable to say what hurts or that it hurts, when she sees their isolation, the confusion undermining their stoicism—her heart breaks. She can only agree with Mr. Sam Keen and Mr. Robert Bly, whose well-liked books seem for now to have made them the movement’s spokesmen (in December, Mr. Bly’s work completed a full year on the Times best-seller list), in their view that men require closer relationships with each other.2 And, just as important, as Mr. Keen urges, we must abolish war and save the earth.

Furthermore, Miss Manners does not wish to commit the faux pas of taking rhetoric seriously. After all, camping is fun. Miss Manners and some of her girlfriends would love to participate in one of those initiation rites. Would Mr. Bly mind?

Still, just too delicious is the naughty thrill of pointing out distracting contradictions in the reasonable Mr. Keen’s remarks. Mr. Bly’s prose style, which has the tone of a pedagogue lecturing a child, makes him oh! so easy to dismiss, and she cannot bother with him much. Mr. Keen,on the other hand, suggests the transparency of the totally honest male.

Mr. Keen pays lip service to freedom of sexual preference, yet regrets “the lack of substantial some gay communities,” and advises that “throughout the eons of history we move toward becoming fully human only through a sexual dance of men and women.” Well justify your love, as that nice young woman Madonna croons; justify your existence. Mr. Keen believes that “artificial separation of masculine and feminine qualities. . . [is] an act of intellectual and psychological fascism that forces the complex beauty of actual men and women into the two-column goose step of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ attributes”; Miss Manners understands. Yet when Mr. Keen laments that “the encompassing arms of the mother and the muscular arms of the father are replaced by incubators and the care of professional, anonymous child handlers,” his zeal is clearly to preserve the family, and in this priority he perhaps inevitably forgets his commitment to Foucaultian deconstruction.

He feels, for example, that in marriage our infantile selves will out, and this is good: “I will play the brat I was forbidden to be, and you will play the bitch.” Now why does his infantile self remain human, if nasty, while hers becomes animal, a dog? And are we to suppose that he has never actually been a brat, that being forbidden, while his wife has always been an unqualified bitch? (Miss Manners, needless to say, has never been a bitch.) Hardly surprising that in a letter addressed to his wife Mr. Keen tells her that he both “loves and hates” her, finds that “one moment I am encompassed in your earth-mothering arms. . . . A moment later I. . . see bloody Kali ready to devour me. . . .You delight me, except for those times I could wring your neck and dance a jig on your grave.” Miss Manners gently suggests that Mr. Keen not post this letter.

Society, Miss Manners knows, is a mean and brutish place, which is why she devotes so much effort to rendering it tolerable. Curiously, neither Mr. Keen nor Mr. Bly appears even faintly aware of its arduous realities. Mr. Bly, for example, ascribes men’s distaste for working in coal mines to a conspiracy by female teachers to alienate young men from their bodies by persuading them that physical work is bad; he seems ignorant of black lung disease. And does Mr. Keen know why so many literary narratives about the coming of age of women and African-Americans end in madness or physical breakdown? Miss Manners suggests, sweetly of course, that these stories, unlike Mr. Keen and Mr. Bly, acknowledge that individuals are initiated not simply into adulthood but into a place in adult society; and that when that society has no place for them, it displaces onto them its own failure. Both Mr. Bly and Mr. Keen are overtly antiurban, blaming gang activity, for example, on the absence of nature in the members’ lives; essentially refusing to deal with the city, they dismiss a whole social reality. Quite likely, as Mr. Keen remarks, inner-city gang youths need adult men to learn from, but are not the adult men of these children’s communities themselves refused full participation in the world? Like the middle-class feminist program of old, the men’s movement pays little attention to racism.

Much of the focus of the movement is on men’s need to recover their children—to which Miss Manners quietly responds, Hallelujah. Yet as they do with so much of social reality, Mr. Keen and Mr. Bly ignore the little details, for example equal pay for women, so that she could support him through paternity leave. Nor, significantly, do the authors address the issue of abortion, an issue of, among other things, one’s readiness, emotional and economic, to take on the sacrifice of child rearing. The fact is that neither Mr. Keen nor Mr. Bly can really begin to conceive of the members of their movement as primary caretakers for children. They have the most banal notions of biological determinism. Mr. Keen may fashionably agree that gender is socially constructed, but later he writes, “Biology alone assures [woman] of a destiny. . . . [Man] creates only artificially and metaphorically.” Miss Manners wonders why the supposedly self-respecting men of the men’s movement don’t take umbrage at this insult. And how many times need it be said that having a child requires no skill? Raising a child is what’s creative. “Biology is not destiny” could be the slogan of every single person who has ever elected to undergo surgery to save her or his life. Yes, biology is in many ways inevitable (and, increasingly, in many ways not); for instance, we all must die. But are our social fates destined?

Under the cover of preserving sexual “difference,” Mr. Keen suggests an “error in judgement in the effort to eliminate the distance between men and women.” They are, after all, “mysterious opposites whose different gifts shape all relationships.” So all women will remain mysterious to all men. This is totalization in diversity’s clothing. It is Miss Manners’ experience that individuals of whatever sex remain ultimately resistant to appropriation by each other. In Mr. Keen’s earnestness here she smells apprehension: could poor Mr. Keen, by insisting on women’s mysterious “otherness,” in fact be assuring himself that he could never, ever resemble them—could never, ever be “unmanly”? Perhaps the lady doth protest too much—or rather, of course, the man.

The way the men’s movement simultaneously elevates separation (from Mama, from women) and connection (with Papa, with men) seems peculiar to Miss Manners. She supposes that it is after all the system of child rearing in which Mama is made the primary caretaker—so convenient for Papa—that forces men to separate so completely in order to achieve identity in the first place. Surely it is too late to wait until adolescence, as Mr. Bly suggests, to connect with Papa? Connection will by then be unnatural, as when fathers in early tribal societies kidnaped young initiates from the homes of their mothers, a practice Mr. Bly likes to describe as a kind of game in which the women’s protests were but humorous pretense. In his admiration for such old routines, Mr. Bly revives the “separate but equal” formula of power sharing. (Note to the creators of the men’s-movement TV sitcom Home Improvement: will Mom at some point get through an episode unburdened by a laundry basket?)

Miss Manners knows that we all must learn to separate, to learn the difference between self and other, or where would etiquette be? Mr. Keen’s and Mr. Bly’s overemphasis on separation, however, leads to an insistence on the metaphysical that is likely near the heart of their escapist appeal. From both authors there is much talk of “soul.” It is perhaps telling that during a segment of the television news program 20/20 devoted to the men’s movement a while ago, a man crying out for his absent father looked for an answer not to those sobbing beside him, who might have understood his pain, but up to the vacant sky.

While Miss Manners finds analysis and abstraction most useful herself, abstraction is linked to separation. Is there not a contradiction in a movement that cries out against abstraction but is at the same time so emphatically spiritual? Why are emotion and sensuality linked here not to the body but to the soul? The coincidence of attention to the metaphysical and ignorance of the social is striking. As the cunning Mr. Terry Eagleton points out, “Metaphysical delusions simply distract. . .from the proper business of actual knowledge, which must always be knowledge from one perspective or another.”3 The very establishment by Mr. Keen of a denigrated “ideological” feminist (his term of disapproval, as though his own vision weren’t ideological) as opposed to a sympathetic “prophetic” feminist shows the degree to which the metaphysical, the vatic, is preferred to the historical, the psychological, the real. . . .

Miss Manners has more to say, but knows it is bad manners to monopolize the conversation, even in a dream. As a parting sentiment, she wishes only to add that she is sure the women’smovement, which has itself gone through goddesses and essentialism, shame and blame, would wish the men’s movement good luck in its coming-of-age. “Miss Manners prefers to believe that everyone means well, and that if anyone seems to be doing something wrong, it is probably not from intent but from forgetfulness, business, absence of mind, or illness.” (An air of moral superiority is one of the few tangible rewards of Miss Manners’ calling.)

Jeanne Silverthome is an artist and writer who lives in New York. She contributes frequently to Artforum.


1. This and the other quote-marked remarks of Miss Manners’ are from “Some Thoughts on the Impulse Rude and the Mannerly Way of , Life,” in Judith Martin, Miss Manners’ Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior. New York:Warner Books, 1979.

2. The books in question are Robert Bly, Iron John: A Book about Men, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1990, and Sam Keen, Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man, New York: Bantam Books, 1991.

3. Terry Eagleton, The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990, p. 77.