It was lines like “…I’m sick of being a man… steering my way in a water of wombs and ashes” from his poem Walking Around that so endeared the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda to the patriarchy-poopers of the mythopoetic men’s movement of the 1980s and ’90s. Although written decades before, Neruda’s sentiment a few lines later, “The only thing I want is to see no more / stores, no gardens, / no more goods, no spectacles, no / elevators”, spoke to men whose gratitude at Friday’s delivery from their dispiriting work grind was tempered by the prospect of another weekend trudging around supermarkets, soft-play zones and homeware centres.
Springing from the US, the movement addressed the widespread sense of loss of masculine purpose, seen as the long-term result of industrialisation, which had commoditised labour, turned men from comrades to competitors, and removed fathers from their sons’ daily lives. Similarly, post-war material prosperity was believed to have only exacerbated matters and led to excessive passivity in men. These themes found a deep, global resonance, picked up by, amongst others, this issue’s cover-story writer Steve Biddulph (The making of a man), the Anglo-Australian psychologist and author. His books Raising Boys and Manhood went on to become compulsory reading for turn-of-this-century parents who wanted their sons to become men with “warm open hearts and strong backbones”.
As Biddulph testifies, there have been many advancements in men’s behaviour and fathering over the past three decades. Overall, men spend more time with their kids, and are more in touch with their own emotions. There have been giant strides in gay rights, female equality and more recently those concerning transgender individuals. His work, and that of the American Jungians who founded the men’s movement, including Robert Bly, Michael Meade and James Hillman, have played no small part in these transformations.
Neruda was alluding to a loss more profound than that experienced in the queue at Ikea
But despite such progress, we need to look no further than our current crop of male political leaders to discern that many men still congregate at, or bounce between, the polarities of the naïve-wimp/hedonistic-tyrant scale, living lives of superficial friendships, multiple addictions and, all too often, loneliness and depression, sometimes with tragic consequences for themselves and their families (see Colette Yousif’s moving personal account, The taboo of trauma). And it is not difficult, as these and other writers have done, to connect this general male malaise to the self-destructive behaviour of our patriarchal species in its stubborn refusal to take steps to avert ecological catastrophe.
In this regard there is a tendency to focus only on climate, rather than the broader picture. It is a simple matter, as Simon Heffer has done (Not so fast with electric cars), to point to the multiple policy failures that have left politicians of all flavours with little option than to back-track on their carbon commitments if they are to ensure short-term energy security at a time of economic scarcity. But the deeper cause of our environmental ills, one apparent to the activists of the men’s movement all along, is the inability of men to acknowledge and address the existential grief that lies at the root of our relationship – or rather, lack of it – with Nature.
As the concluding line of another Neruda poem, Melancholy Inside Families, has it: “I know the Earth and I am sad.” Neruda was of course alluding to a sense of loss more ancient and profound than that experienced in the queue at Ikea; dating back, perhaps, to the sorrow of our stone age ancestors at taking life for their own survival. But what was for millennia a hunter’s lament, atoned for through sacrifice and spiritual practice, had by the 1900s become an horrendous crime covered up by universal denial (on which see Fiona Sturges’ interview with Ben Okri). Consequently, the natural world with which we were once on intimate terms continued to move further and further away from us, like the fathers of all those twentieth-century boys. Despite the rhetoric of progress at the successive COP conferences since 2005, our unabated destruction and poisoning of both land and marine habitats has made our alienation all but complete, leaving the distinct impression that we might soon be approaching the moment of sentencing for our ecocide.
Sadly, lifting the lid on this well of grief, the unshed tears of untold extinctions, would take more wisdom and bravery than any of our current political leaders are capable of. This vacuum of leadership has seen neo-conservative commentators in particular tap into the existential angst of young men seeking direction and purpose (see Fred Skulthorp’s interview with Rob Henderson). But in the absence of openly acknowledging and experiencing this deep sorrow, such prescriptions of abnegation and self-discipline risk producing even more of the same shame and guilt that characterises toxic masculinity of all kinds. We will not solve our problems by applying the same approaches that created them. As Biddulph puts it in his latest work, Fully Human: “For our Earth to survive, we have to get masculinity right.” For men it means that, before anything else, we have to get to grips with our grief.