Sunday, January 20, 2019

Sing to me, muse, of tears and the man

Achilles Removing Patroclus' Body From the Battle by Leon Davent (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

     That Gillette commercial, clumsily challenging men to rise above traditional toxic patterns of masculinity... honestly, I'm loathe to set out over such well-trampled ground. But someone needs to point this out: Those supposedly rigid norms that men are held to, the clenched jaw stoicism, the anger, the violence, ... well, they aren't so rigid. 
     Ever read "The Iliad"? Epic Greek poem of male warfare? By Homer? Supposedly blind bard? The one whose very first word is "μῆνις"—rage. A male domain if ever there were, particularly compared to the more feminine "Odyssey."
     That wrath belongs to Achilles the great warrior, "murderous, doomed." The very first thing that happens to our hero, at the beginning of Book One, is he gets in a rather catty argument with his fellow warriors over women ("Desert, by all means—if the spirit drives you home!" King Agamemnon sneers, in Robert Fagles' fine translation). A priest has visited camp, bringing ransom for his daughter, who had been seized in a raid and given to Agamemnon. It gets complicated. But the priest is sent packing, then prays for the gods to back him up. They do, and the Greeks relent. Agamemnon is deprived his prize and so says to Achilles, in effect, "Fine, if I'm losing mine, then I'll take your girl" and claims Briseis, who had been snatched and handed over to Achilles, who is not happy with this development, considering the loss of weaving and other services. (This is starting to sound like the plot line for an episode of "As The World Turns.")
    So what does Achilles, the alpha male warrior hero, do? Stalk off, flop down on a beach and cry to his mother, the sea nymph Thetis, who helicopters in:
     So he wept and prayed and his noble mother heard him...Suddenly up she rose from the churning surf like mist and setting down beside him as he wept, stroked Achilles gently, whispering his name. "My child—why in tears?"
     Achilles sniffs, in essence: "Aw ma, the guys were mean to me, and took my toy and it's not fair!"
     I thought of this reading Saturday's New York Times, of all places, and the four, count 'em, four pages given over to Colin O'Brady and Louis Rudd's epic traverse of Antarctica in November and December, on skis, pulling their supplies on sleds.
     Specifically this, at the very beginning of their trek, a moment which, buried in the lionization of their manly accomplishment, might be missed by those who saw the article, deep in the paper, on the front page of the Sports section.
     On Nov. 3, a Twin Otter sea plane lands them on the Ronne Ice Shelf, on the western coast of the continent. 
     Let O'Brady, 33, pick up the tale, in classic, heigh-ho bluff manly style:
     "That first day I'd been pulling for about two hours. I could see Lou in the distance going a bit faster than me, but it wasn't about the race at that point. I didn't know if I could pull my sled across Antarctica. I didn't know if I could pull my sled for another hour."
    So he does what hardened adventurers since Achilles has done: seek female guidance, in this case whipping out his satellite phone and calling his wife, Jenna "in tears."
    O'Brady's narrative suddenly takes the tone of a 7th grader girl talking about her difficult day:
    "And she's like, 'Where are you?' I 'm like, 'I've only gone two miles since the plane. I'm half a mile from the first waypoint. Should I just camp here?' And what she said was really crucial: 'Get to the first waypoint. That will feel like a victory for today.'"
     There you have it. Few things are more manly than skiing to the South Pole and then across the subcontinent. You wouldn't think crying would be involved. As this story gets recounted, no doubt the part where he phones his wife two hours after the start, crying, and she has to say, in essence, "Pull yourself together bub and keep skiing," will get overlooked. 
     But like Achilles on the beach, it is a key moment, at least in my view, and as part of masculinity as anything else. Those focusing on the inevitable knee-jerk right reaction to the Gillette commercial are picking the easy, low-hanging fruit. Being a man, like being a woman, is difficult and complicated, and always has been. And I'm not downplaying the violent and aggressive parts that need toning down. Though part of doing so is realizing the sensitive parts, the crying and collaboration, have always been there, hiding in plain sight.  An important part of being a man, like being a woman, often  and always, is expressing your feelings, no matter what those are, and relying on your loved ones for help at crucial moments in your life—I know I have in the past, do continually now, and always will.  Masculinity was never the grunting cave man brutishness some consider it to be.


  1. Setting a goal, training for it, and overcoming hardship to achieve it, all very manly. Choosing a trek across Antartica as your goal possibly more insanity than manly. I sense O'Brady subconsciously realized this 2 hours into the journey.

  2. Haven't seen the commercial, but it seems harmless. Women, for biological reasons, are at a disadvantage, but have ways of compensating in modern western societies, less so in major parts of the world where they are treated like shit for mainly religious reasons.

    The disquisition on Achilles brought to mind a favorite metaphor by the essayist Joseph Epstein, who was evidently a basketball fan. He wrote that Michael Jordan was for the Bulls "Achilles, without the sulking and without the heel."


  3. So you can get cell service in Antarctica? Who knew?

    1. Thanks. I looked it up. Actually it's a satellite phone, not a cell phone. They require the cell towers.


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