For a man so much associated with effete decadence and homosexual scandal, to say nothing of his dandyism and love of lilies, this story acts not as a counterexample against the cultural perceptions about maleness and creativity, but rather serves as an exception proving the rule, given the surprising violence of the story.
Creativity and masculinity are not supposed to go together. Male artists created the culture we enjoy, and yet, something about being creative and expressing yourself makes you less of a man, in the common perception.
|Wildred Owen used poetry not only to cure his traumas but to transcend them and to become an unlikely warrior|
It is true that for a man to be creative he must be in touch with femininity in a way that an athlete or political leader doesn’t need to be.
However, there is a presumption that being in touch with femininity somehow amputates masculinity.
This is silly, of course, because in all true healthy people, both femininity and masculinity exist together, and neither is repressed. That’s not to say that they are equal. However, they very much need to be balanced.
There’s a lot of posturing going around these days, that somehow it is now more acceptable for men to express their feelings; that gender is a construction, so what I am addressing here doesn’t matter anyway. After feminism, vulnerable men are celebrated and creativity is seen as being very masculine indeed.
This posturing is dangerously false. It is a kind of PR that people tell themselves about themselves, so they can bask in the glowing self-image of openness and tolerance.
It is the great falsehood of our age that eradicating differences somehow makes one more ‘tolerant’. If only we could get rid of gender, race, culture, borders, hierarchies, somehow we would become a more tolerant people.
It is baffling then that the very people who espouse this view, are often not very tolerant in practice.
Sex differences have a cultural impact. We could argue the toss about whether gender is a construction or not, but the reality is, for the large majority of people, sex differences manifest themselves in common behaviour patters. To deny this, is to augment reality through political abstractions.
One of those gender differences happens to be around the area of creativity. Expressing feelings, is still seen as being anti-male. And if it exists at all, it is a decadence. Creative men are aberrations of the norm.
One of the ways this manifests is through the jokes men make to each other about opening up their feelings, or through the default insult of homosexuality.
I remember myself, at school I was ridiculed for liking Jim Morrison, often on the receiving end of aspersions cast about my sexuality. I am no saint, either. I remember teasing other men for singing in the choir, likening them to girls, or saying they ‘have no balls’.
Women too, insult and degrade men for being creative or for expressing their feelings. Social scientist Brene Brown has recently studied the difference between how women talk about vulnerable men, and how they actually treat them.
My own experience is that women pay lip service to wanting to be around more sensitive and creative men, but in reality, they find such personalities disconcerting and uncomfortable.
Of course, these are generalisations, and there are plenty of artistic men and women who ally with other creative people, regardless of gender. The point stands, however. If we are not comfortable with openness and vulnerability, then we find it repellent in others, whether we admit to it or not.
It is tempting to explain away the distaste among men for vulnerability and creativity. We could resort to evolutionary speculation, and quite sensibly say that men needed to be tough to survive, that a certain amount of repression became instinctual and made normal, in order that men grew up able to kill in the hunt, and devastate in wars.
It is thought that violent rituals around manhood were ways of encouraging this toughening up in young men. Too much vulnerability and sensitivity then would be a liability.
However, this is too simplistic, despite making some sense. Another aspect of survival apart from resilience and strength, is adaptivity.
In conscious animals, creative thinking, the ability to innovate new solutions to unforeseen challenges is an essential tool. Terence McKenna, the psychedelic thinker, speculated that the role of the artist is a modern version of the role of the shaman - someone who serves his community by confronting the unknown.
Whatever these theories amount to, it is clear that there is a friction inherent in being a male artist. Competing kinds of strength exist in creativity and physical survival, and both can’t exist without the other.
Artists like Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald, Hunter S Thompson and Jack Kerouac are extreme modern examples of this friction being barely managed and eventually being badly handled.
The strength needed to confront physical challenges can often conflict with the strength needed to face the challenges of the psyche. There is a reason that the contemplative and the warrior led different lives throughout history.
However, there are civilised traditions where those two kinds of strength are brought together. Disciplines in which imaginative courage and physical courage are married.
The Samurai tradition of Japan, and all eastern martial arts, at their most exquisite, manifest this paradox of vulnerability and monstrous violence.
The Knights Templar lived like monks, turning their warrior training to the service of a philosophic idea.
The Renaissance ideal of the Courtier, the civilised man, is often thought of as slightly effete, however, the courtly Prince was required to be as much a swordsman as we was a lover and a scholar. To be civilised also meant being ready and able to defend that civilisation from the all too real threat of barbarism.
Vulnerability, and a capacity for beauty, are not non-masculine traits. However, they do exist alongside physical strength and warrior sensibilities, with a certain amount of friction.
One of the most striking examples of how an artistic personality can exist in a warrior context, is the story of Wilfred Owen. Not only did the practice of poetry help him to heal his PTSD and the trauma of being a sensitive, Keatsian boy thrust into the bloodied hell of the trenches in World War One, it actually facilitated a transformation of the aesthete into courageous leader of men.
Owen, once cured, insisted on going back to the trenches to lead his men and to carry out his duty. Had it not been for his work as a poet, this transformation would not have happened.
On top of that, Owen has left us with a body of work which to this day is a portal into the horrors and trauma of one of the most shameful humanitarian disasters in civilised history. If it wasn’t for this marrying of the poet and warrior, our culture and countless schoolchildren every year, would be markedly ignorant of the full implications of modern warfare.
The platitudes about men opening up and being more vulnerable, and this being a kind of strength, are generally false. They tend to be uttered by people who in practice exhibit a quick and fierce disdain for that same vulnerability in men.
Creative men are celebrated, but they are not celebrated for their skills and their imaginative capacities, so much as their successes and triumphs of social status.
Regardless of these uncomfortable truths, masculinity and creativity are intimately linked, and creativity clearly manifests itself differently in men than it does in women.
To be creative and vulnerable is not to be any less a man. It does however, present an ongoing challenge for creative men to negotiate a psychic diplomacy between their imaginative inwardness and their ever strident physical instincts.