Arrested Development

What’s this essay about? The title of A. O. Scott’s piece in the The New York Times Magazine may not say it all but almost:

“The  Post-Man: Charting the final, exhausted collapse of the adult white male, from Huck Finn to ‘Mad Men’ (with stops at Tony Soprano, Beyonce, Apatow, ‘Girls,’ ‘Louie,’ ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ Miley, Updike, ‘Weeds’).”

We will use an overview of today’s media with a focus on what is revealed about the changing role of the adult white male (it’s about all American adult males really) and what that might mean for the future of American society.

Of course, we will overlay the matrix of Simple Reality upon Scott’s P-B perspective which often turns the whole premise of the intellect, especially the male intellect, topsy-turvy. All in good fun and yet well uh uh uh—perhaps a little tension or anxiety may be felt. Be forewarned dear reader.

As we place our community under the microscope are we looking for meaningful change, emerging consciousness or sadly the demise of civilization as we know it? Nothing stays the same, we already know that, but there is a direction to change; it is either toward chaos or away from chaos. This is the truth about the relative world of P-B. Since that’s the narrative most of us live in, it behooves us to try to understand where we are and who we are in that context. Enough intellectualizing—let’s bring the evidence into focus.

It was more than his 5 o’clock shadow that “foreshadowed” the demise of the character Don Draper on the television series “Mad Men.” We should all be feeling the premonition of the downfall of patriarchy and its outmoded power structure. “Something profound has been happening in our television over the past decade, some end-stage reckoning. It is the era not just of mad men, but also of sad men and, above all, bad men.”

The symbolic “bad man” was Tony Soprano with Walter White of “Breaking Bad” surely a sociopathological “sad man.” Taking the long view of the whole of human history, we can see that male unconsciousness has been nothing but an endless litany of “sad,” “bad,” and above all “mad” men.

Scott calls misogyny a “stubborn fact of life.” In P-B it most certainly is but in the context of P-A it simply wouldn’t make sense, it would indeed be self-destructive madness. Are we moving toward a more enlightened attitude between the sexes? “In suggesting that patriarchy is dead, I am not claiming that sexism is dead, that men are obsolete or that the triumph of feminism is at hand.  But in the universe of thoughts and words, there is more conviction and intelligence in the critique of male privilege than in its defence, which tends to be panicky and halfhearted when it is not obtuse and obnoxious. The supremacy of men can no longer be taken as a reflection of natural order or settled custom.” There will still be those Tarzans with their skill-set of swinging on vines but they would do well to stop beating their chests and see what Jane is up to.

Have the adult males in the world at large ever known what they were doing? Scott, albeit in the context of P-B, implies that they did as he laments the “killing off” of all the grown-ups. A “successful” or “sane” grown-up of either sex could be defined by being “awake” and “aware” not “dominant” and or “powerful.” So yes, we are talking about evaluating a sustainable human community by looking at apples and oranges, two completely different worldviews. Now back to the one we think we all live in to see if there is any actual awakening going on.

Scott’s argument is that the demise of Tarzan has led to the rise of Peter Pan, hence our “arrested development.” In fact, the two expressions of bewildered male identity are not mutually exclusive although the latter is a later arrival. Both types of male identity are reactions to fear and both are composite expressions of the futile pursuit of plenty, pleasure and power. It, therefore, is not that we want masculine and/or mature males, getting back to our original point, but what human society needs are males that are “awake” and “aware.” These males have yet to make their arrival in the global village and in fact the male of the species has too often been fleeing the responsibility of creating consciousness. We have repeatedly had the irresponsible male leading the human tribe.

Leslie A. Fiedler in his book Love and Death in the American Novel, refers to both the adolescent male and the male fleeing responsibility as archetypes in American fiction. “The typical male protagonist of our fiction has been a man on the run, harried into the forest [Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook in James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking novels] and out to sea [Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby Dick], down the river [Huck Finn] or into combat [Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage]—anywhere to avoid ‘civilization,’ which is to say the confrontation of a man and woman which leads to the fall of sex, marriage and responsibility.”

It is not, as Fiedler concluded, that all American literature is sophomoric or as Scott agrees that all American fiction is young-adult fiction, but instead that American artistic expression reveals a profound illusion, a failure to awaken to reality. Huck Finn has been joined by what Scott calls the “bad boys of rock and roll and the pouting screen rebels played by James Dean and Marlon Brando [and] Holden Caulfield, Dean Moriarty, Augie March and Rabbit Angstrom—a new crop of semi-antiheroes in flight from convention, propriety, authority and what Huck would call the whole ‘sivilized’ world.” In truth, most human beings have always been similarly on the move, each a refugee fleeing P-B in reaction to their own tormented false self.

The specific strategies we use to flee responsibility, adulthood, or waking up can become deeply conditioned behaviors and even addictions. Those addictions can be associated with substances like “weed” or processes like watching porn or playing video games. American males fleeing adulthood either become irrelevant or turn into Louis C.K. according to Scott. “Every white American male under the age of 50 is some version of the character he plays on “Louie,” a show almost entirely devoted to the absurdity of being a pale, doughy heterosexual man with children in a post-patriarchal age. Or if you prefer, a loser.”

Yes, Scott has indulged in a reaction but we can hardly blame him. We all have some idea where this repression of reality and distracting ourselves from our suffering is headed. As much as we romanticize and envy the anti-heroes of our American fiction, sit-coms and soap operas, we know they are refugees refusing to embrace life as it is, the only life available to us.

With no river, forest or ship to offer an escape, we will find that accepting and embracing the responsibility of a mature awakening brings the greatest adventure of all. But the coming collapse of civilization will also provide an adequate distraction.

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References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.

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