The Atlantic, October 2011

The current issue of The Atlantic contains four pieces on which I took notes.  All four of them had to do with masculinity in one way or another.

Historian Taylor Branch contributes an article about college sports in the USA.  Non-USA types may not be aware that colleges and universities in the United States operate sports franchises, some of which have a mass following and an extremely lucrative financial aspect.  The athletes are not paid for their participation in this multibillion dollar industry; they are not even compensated for injuries they receive in the course of them.  Branch outlines the story of how this preposterously unfair system came to exist, and considers several recent developments that may bring it to an end.  Athletes are symbols of masculinity in the USA, as elsewhere; the amateur ideal may once have been part of a concept of masculinity that some upper-class Americans cherished, but nowadays even volunteerism is often justified in terms of its resume-building potential.  Moneymaking has become the masculine activity par excellence.  So the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA’s) model of the unpaid “student-athlete” is a bit of an anachronism.

A piece called “Sex and the Married Politician” includes several references to the fall of New York Congressman Anthony Weiner.  Mr Weiner resigned his seat in the US House of Representatives shortly after it emerged that he had posted a picture of his genitalia on Twitter.  It strikes me as misleading to call this story a “sex scandal.”  Since everything on Twitter is public, Mr Weiner’s offense was not illicit sexual relations, but indecent exposure.  As such, he is in a league with longtime Friendsville, Maryland mayor Spencer Schlosnagle, who in the mid-1990s pled guilty to charges stemming from several incidents when he exposed himself to passersby on the highway.  Mr Schlosnagle paid a fine, went to a psychiatrist, and was reelected.  He continues in office today.  I think that the case of Mr Schlosnagle shows a community and a political system with a rational attitude towards mental illness.  Mr Schlosnagle initially tried to deny the charges against him; when the prosecution made such denials impossible, he accepted punishment and sought counseling, thus reducing the likelihood that he will reoffend.  Since his behavior was a real nuisance, the prosecution was rational.  On the other hand, it was only a nuisance, not a serious threat to anyone in particular; therefore, the voters’ decision to reelect him once he had shown that he was addressing his mental health problems was also rational.   Schlosnagle disclosed that he had suffered sexual abuse as a child, thus disowning any model of masculinity that would require him to project an image of himself as invulnerable or invincible.  The description of Weiner as the main figure in a “sex scandal,” by contrast, both obscures the fact that he doesn’t seem to have had any sexual contact with anyone and presents him as a menacingly potent figure.  I suppose it makes sense that he would have an easier time playing along with that image of himself that with presenting himself as a sick man compelled to behave in a somewhat annoying fashion.

The Library of America has finally devoted a volume to Ambrose Bierce, and this issue includes an admiring review of  Bierce’s work and of the Library’s edition.  I liked this sentence: “Bierce, after all, has always been best known for being undeservedly unknown.”  Reviewer Benjamin Schwarz also makes some good points about Bierce’s lapidary style, such as this:

Bierce’s seminal contribution to American letters is that “sharp-edged and flexible style, like the ribbon of a wound-up steel tape-measure,” as Edmund Wilson perfectly defined it. But that style emerged from Bierce’s compulsion to reveal a truth that remains unacceptable—or only selectively acceptable—today. It’s all very nice to decry the horror of war, but to Bierce its obscenity and its meaninglessness were merely integral to those of life. Bierce’s friend the editor Bailey Millard explained why all the leading publishers of the day rejected Bierce’s war fiction: they “admitted the purity of his diction and the magic of his haunting power, but the stories were regarded as revolting.” Understandably so, given what Bierce knew to be our delusional and self-serving tendencies.

Schwarz approves of Bierce’s flatly declarative style, especially as regards the US Civil War in which Bierce fought with distinction.  He quotes Walt Whitman’s remark that “The real war will never get into the books,” then says: “And in fact, excepting Bierce’s work, it didn’t.”  That’s high praise indeed; Bierce, alone among the tens of thousands of authors who have published books on that conflict, succeeded in putting “the real war” into his books.  I’ve posted previously about Bierce’s characteristic pose as The Man Without Illusions; evidently this is a pose Schwarz accepts at face value, and a form of masculinity he values highly.

B. R. Myers contributes a brief review essay on Australian crime fiction.  He quotes this exchange from one such novel:

“I hear someone punched out that cunt Derry Callahan,” he said. “Stole a can of dog food too. You blokes investigatin that?”

Cashin frowned. “That right? No complaint that I know of. When it happens, we’ll pull out all the stops. Door-to-door. Manhunt.”

“Let’s see your hand.”

“Let’s see your dick.”

“C’mon. Hiding somethin?”

“Fuck off.”

Bern laughed, delighted, punched Cashin’s upper arm. “You fuckin violent bastard.”

Upon which Myers comments “I grinned right along with that, as if I hadn’t left high school hoping never to have to hear such exchanges again.”  Indeed, talk like that is common among males of many ages and nationalities, and I can sympathize with Myers’ wish to escape from it.  As with his admiration for that rather well-crafted specimen of it.