Thursday, 10 January 2013

Confessions of a Misogynist: Notes on the Hysterical Male

Rupert Street turns into a narrow court before becoming Berwick Street. There's an old Georgian over pass that bridges the alley way and under it is the small heart of heterosexual Soho. Two bouncers stand outside a strip club, and neon dresses the doorways and sex-shop windows. The rest of Soho, obviously, is gay, but here's where you come if you want to buy a woman's body.

I came here because I now had money in my pocket. My belly was full following a gentlemanly sized dinner on the Southbank and after half a bottle of Montepulciano I felt that I had only one need left to satiate. I'd just started a new job, and after two years living in London without a sex life – being overweight and impoverished hadn't helped much – I thought maybe I deserved a little pleasure. Maybe I had earned a woman's touch.

It took me a while to find the right place to go. Going round in circles on a busy Tuesday night in Soho I had to dodge the cocained crowds of leering gay men, duck the gaze of the transvestites and stride confidently and without consequence through the noise of liberated house music and bitchy arguments in the smoking pens. Not as easy as you might think.

'Girls,' said a voice from the bustle.

It came from a little raggamuffined man in a tattered parka. He wore a moth eaten knitted hat over bushy eyebrows. His skin was swarthy, and covered in grey hairs. Not so much a beard but wiry, burnt white savannah bushel, the facial hair of alcoholics. Not exactly Snoop-Dogg.

Yes, as it happened, I was looking for girls.

'Cash machine?' He answered quickly. He'd done this before. Plenty more where I came from obviously.

'Come with me, I'll show you nice girls.'

'Nice girls?' I asked insistently.

'I'll show you. You don't like, it's okay. Just look after me, okay?'

We marched through the pissy rat runs out onto Shaftesbury Avenue where I took out eighty pounds. Even at at that moment a voice on my shoulder was saying – 'You don't have to do this.' You can probably guess what the other shoulder was saying.

My generous friend was all smiles and small talk. He wanted to know where I was from. I told him, Scotland. Why was I in London? Work. What did I do? He wasn't so warm when he found that one out.
'You wouldn't write about this, it would not be good for you,' he said after a bit of hesitation.

'Tell me,' he went on, still with the small talk. 'Why do some people in Scotland want to be separate from the UK?'

'Where are you from?' I asked back.

'Why did India want to be a separate country?'

'Ah, I understand. Thank you for this answer. You are a very clever man.'

Jesus. He was acting like a legitimate salesman, keeping me sweet as I signed on the dotted line.

He took me to the first option. Through a battered doorway and up crooked stairs covered with red linoleum. A card on the wall with words written in black marker, said 'Beautiful girls upstairs'. The plaster work peeled and crumbled and there was a smell of damp and rotted wood.

A dark haired woman opened the door and turned exposing her immaculate body. She was dressed only in a leopard skin bra and g-string. Had thick black Mediterranean hair, large thighs, and dark eyes lined with blue-dark mascara. A beautiful face, but not exactly flush with joy.

The room was quite big, a neatly made double bed, pleasant lighting, but still had that wood-rot smell from the stairs. There was a sadness in that woman's eye, but it didn't inspire pity. What startled me was the resignation in her black eyes. That and the lack of atmosphere in the room, no intimacy, no warmth. It was unsafe. For her, but also for me. The whole place stank of soulless anticipation.

Another door was half open. A second girl sat on a toilet seat, she was dressed only in a pair of knickers and a vest, and she had her hair up. She smoked a cigarette and seemed the picture of domesticity. The beautiful brunette seemed all the more lifeless because of this little scene. I felt a jolt of shock and asked that we leave.

Cambridge psychoanalyst Juliet Mitchell, in her book Mad Men and Medusas, argues that not only should hysteria be recognised as a serious mental condition again, but that male hysteria should be studied and understood as the norm for socialised male behaviour. She refers to the Don Juan myth, its various incarnations and examines the role of what she calls 'lateral relationships' in the formation of masculine hysteria.

One of the disadvantages of her book is that she doesn't appear to clearly define what Hysteria is. Mitchell claims that it would fruitless to do so. Her main thesis, however, is that it is a condition usually associated with women, and that the feminisation of it is what led to it being abandoned completely from psychoanalytic dialogue. One the one hand feminism rightly objected to such a fast and loose catch all for the female condition, but on the other, the male dominated world of psychoanalysis wasn't equipped with the self-awareness to attribute hysteria to other men. To do so would be to admit Mitchell's key point about 'normalisation.'

'Men are rarely visible within the component illnesses and conditions into which hysteria has been decomposed, but they can be seen instead in the psychopathologies of everyday life.'

Mitchell also says that the Don Juan myth is a far more useful motif for understanding male behaviour than the Oedipal tradition. For one thing, it captures the importance of lateral or sibling relationships. That is relationships that are either family-siblings, or surrogates, as in peer groups etc. In the Oedipal paradigm, the amorality of behaviour is atoned for. Fate punishes Oedipus and he dies in the salvation of being a tragic figure.

For Don Juan, in his various incarnations, there is no such redemption. His is a state of endless pathology, a jealous need to make his presence known through repeating the same mistakes and the same acts of violence and sexual conquest over and over again.

For the sake of argument, Mitchell uses Mozart's Don Giovanni to illustrate the form of the myth. Mozart's moral tale portrays a Don Juan insistent upon his own satisfaction, without remorse, unsympathetic, prepared to defend his right to sexual pleasure through murder. Other characterisations are kinder, some ephasising the aesthetic or poetic traits of Don Juan's freedom rather than his amoralism.

But Mitchell believes the key to understanding this myth is jealousy. Don Juan is the platonic form of a male hysteric, one whose inner world is devoid of value, and who must assert his existence at all costs, through the satisfactions of his desires. His violence and abuse is not incidental to his need-satisfaction. The very satisfaction he gets is by demeaning others, by exorcising his jealousy and rage and instilling it in others. By making others jealous of him, by soaking up everything around him, he is able to affirm his existence through the annihilation of others.

'The key theme in Don Giovanni is jealousy. Don Giovanni is riven by need to make others jealous so as not to be tormented by jealousy himself. Compulsively, desperately, he makes Masetto, the bridegroom jealous by seducing his bride to be, and he makes every woman jealous of the other. The hysteric whose passion of wanting is fuelled by remorseless envy and jealousy always fear he will fall into madness. Instead, the hysteric the drives the other mad, by making the other jealous, as Iago does Othello, as Don Giovanni does Donna Elvira: 'She's crazy.''

It's important to note the role of sexuality here. For Don Giovanni, and all Don Juan myths, sexuality is a narcissistic pursuit. It's a tool, a form of asserting his personality and imposing himself on his environment. Sex is not an end itself. And it certainly has no relationship to intimacy. Don Juan uses women like one might use a drug, addictively, a way of satisfying a sense of power, a way of affirming that he can have a need and also have it satisfied. The women are incidental, and so too are the men that love them. Sex is a drug, just like everything else.

Seduction is not the declaring of love, it is not wooing. It is fooling, bribing, or buying a woman into bed. Don Giovanni is a serial seducer, it is the act of seduction that most thrills him, that affirms his power, and therefore his self-image. If you think of any 'ladies man' that you know, you will recognise Don Juan in him. The game is more interesting than the 'prize.' What's important is that Don Juan satisfies his own needs.
Seduction in the context of the Don Juan story is the moral equivalent of rape. It's about smoke and mirrors, deceit, lies and abuse. He does not take no for an answer. As Mitchell notes:

'Rape is not sexuality that is violent, but violence that has become sexualized. We can constructively use Don Juan for the purpose of understanding this.'

In an increasingly industrialized or mechanized world, and one grounded in property and expansive economy, the Don Juan myth is very seductive in itself. Byron's self-mythologising tale was a riveting read because it offered a cathartic expression to the hidden desires of a modernised male, one whose sensitivities are exhausted, whose needs become lusts and whose senses are stimulated at every turn. The myth of Don Juan offers up a model of a hero who always gets what he wants, and who suffers no consequences as a result. He is amoral, and does not fear death or God. In fact, he scorns both.

In a post-religious world, the Don Juan of today knows he is not going to be dragged into the throes of hell. Unlike in Mozart's telling, the Don Juan of today seems to have the upper hand, he is not haunted by petty morality. He makes no apologies, and why should he in an existential landscape devoid of meaning?
In the past Don Juan is a moral warning, but in our contemporary culture he is a core archetype of our values. That is to say, our lack of them. Our whole view of sexuality is one that values promiscuity. We value conquests and racking them up as much as possible. Particularly in male culture, but now increasingly in female culture, promiscuity is equated with virility. It's valued as a sign of masculinity. This is not new of course, but now we have nothing to balance it out. Don Juan's appearance in Hollywood, reflects not a tendency towards morality plays, but towards heroic celebration.

The most striking version of the Don Juan myth in modern culture is James Bond. It is important to remember that Ian Fleming conceived of the character at the tail end of the British empire. He did it to express his own nostalgic clinging to an age passing him by.

Bond always gets the girl he wants. The women in the story are set up as impossible objects of sexual promise. Each Bond girl is given an air of erotic mystery and untouchable power. And each girl, in one way or another, is worn into submission.

The sex game is primitive. The erotic dance that is repeated in every Bond film is a sort of re-telling of animalistic mating rites. The woman puts up a wall of sexual untouchability, and the man's sexuality is only fuelled to violent excitement by such resistance. Each 'no' is presented as a challenge to the man, a challenge that Bond himself is a dab hand at.

Sexuality is a war. .

Bond's erotic brutality remains his deepest pull on the hearts of women. He is, in himself ,a forbidden fruit for the civilised woman. However, filmmakers have repeatedly tried to give this archetype of essential sexual violence some kind of redemptive mask, something which makes him politically acceptable, while at the same time preserving the Don Juanist, reptilian eroticism of the character. They have stopped him smoking, they have put more women in positions of power around him. They have tried to show repeatedly that he has a human side.

In the most recent film, Skyfall, Bond's origin as an orphan is given a lot of play. The film's first act centres around making it incontestably clear that this is a man in psychological pain, that his death drive and his self-destructive attachment to his role as a glorified assassin are products of an emotional and psychoanalytical neurosis.

This is an attempt to give an air of modern and politically correct acceptability to a character whose market value is in his amoral and pathological qualities. Producers of these films are at pains to keep the cash cow alive. They know that 'Mr Kiss-kiss bang-bang' gets his universal appeal from his Don Juan qualities, from his lawless sexual power and erotic violence. The audience know this as well.

Those who make the films and those who watch the films know that intrinsic to the Bond ideal, is a narcissism and a rampant sexual aggressiveness. At the same time, audience and producers alike have engaged in a complicit lie, they have embraced extra dimensions to the Bond ideal in order to sell it to their own post-feminist, political conscience.

One of the key characteristics that defines the power of the Don Juan myth, is its complete lack of apology. Don Juan is a man who is entirely at one with his own rapacious sexuality and hedonism. This is exactly what gives him his appeal, both as an object of desire for women, and an object of idealisation for men.
Any attempt to repackage the ideal in terms of making this brutal eroticism in some way acceptable, is really a very destructive form of cynical hypocrisy. It reveals that the political emancipation of women has succeeded only in superficial way. The same repressiveness and the same conflation of sexuality with power that has caused the enslavement of women, has not been eradicated.

In the most recent Bonds we see lip service being paid to egalitarianism and mutual sexual. The women are given roles of power also. The women too, through ever more sophisticated forms of the femme fatale or the matriarch, are superimposed with the same character traits and the same pathological attachment to power, as Bond himself. This is a neat trick. It gives the illusion of having recognised the emancipation of the feminine, when in fact it has served only to subsume it into the traditional masculine ideal.

However the Bond ideal is presented, at its root is the classic mixture of sexuality and violence. Precisely what makes Bond attractive to women, is precisely what makes him an unrivaled killer. He is himself untouchable, his emotional core is permanently out of reach, though hinted at enough to give women who are attracted to it the sense of adequate propriety in their desires.

In the original novel of Casino Royale, where we find Fleming's alter-ego in its purest, this mixture of the amoral with a political sense of right and wrong is at its most stark. Towards the end of the book Bond himself questions the culture that spawned him. In a post-war, post-imperial context, Bond knows that his masculinity is in existential crisis. The good guys and bad guys are no longer clearly defined. The moral compass by which he has justified himself has been exposed as the fraud of British imperialism. Fleming hints at the confusion of this, and betrays some of his own anxieties about his masculinity, whether intending to or not.

The subsequent stories and films have been a subconscious cultural attempt to salvage masculine ideals from a world of masculine culture that is crumbling. It is still crumbling, and we remain in the same crisis of masculinity as Bond finds himself in Casino Royale.

The Don Juan archetype is enticing precisely because he is irredeemable, so attempts to make Bond acceptable to women betray a fatuous attempt on the part of post-feminist culture to have its cake and eat it.
Part of understanding male hysteria, and its normalisation, must involve an understanding of why Don Juan is now considered a hero. Why we aspire to a sexuality that is pathological and so intimately connected to violence. The dangerousness of Don Juan has become a symbol of modern male attractiveness. A man who makes no apologies, who gets his way, who dominates women, and increasingly, is thanked by those women for doing so.

As I said earlier, Juliet Mitchell actively avoids a clear definition of hysteria. But I have identified three core features of the hysteric and certainly the male hysteric.

  1. Jealousy. This is why lateral relationships and sibling rivalry is so important for Mitchell. They create the necessary 'displacement' which gives rise to the deep-rooted trauma that drives the Don Juan's nihilistic sexuality.

  2. Experience of the taboo. The displaced hysteric deal with their jealousy through violent fantasy. Their narcissism relies on cruelty and the use of sexual violence to displace others. Rape, murder, and even a kind of torture are the bread an butter of the Don Juan. His jealousy soaks up healthy emotions like empathy. Instead, all form of relationship are a threat to him. He must fight off the threat of annihilation through annihilation of others. Rape then is not only the means by which he satisfies himself, it is the means by which he assert his masculinity and his identity.

  3. Active nihilism. The Don Juan and hysteric are pathological. Their behaviours are relentless, because the experience of living itself is a relentless fight with the threat of being crushed. Mitchell uses the term 'death drive' a Freudian term, but a misleading one. The hysteric is not simply driven to death and annihilation. His behaviour and his violence and its pathological nature are actually expression of his life force. He must annihilate to survive. He dances with death, as Bond does, but there is an aesthetic exuberance to it, and it gives the symbol of Don Juan his erotic power.

One consequent characteristic of the hysterical male is the tendency to self-mythologise. The hysteric deals with his environment by telling himself his own story over and over again. He creates an image of himself, as a way of asserting his existence, as a way of reminding himself that he is alive. The hysterical male who does not own a story of himself is a man naked in the face if his own desolation.

Without the outward marks of rank, of property, social status, achievement and success, the hysterical male experiences himself in a perpetual state of annihilation, the terror of being crushed. He must prove himself to himself to himself all the time, or he will be nagged by the sense that he only half-exists, or that he is some way a walking dead man.

The post-modern man, the man who lives without the luxury of an imperial decree, without the exaltation of 'white man's burden' or a warrior's code, is a man who will slip easily into the solipsism of the highway killer. He is a man who teeters on the edge of a life affirming nothing else but his own annihilation.

In the modern world, desolation itself has become a religion. The hysterical male, in a post-industrial world, is something of a hero in himself. There is a boldness, a nobility in facing the bleakness of society and life itself, without needing the cushion of a religion or even a meaning.

This is the nobility of Captain Kurtz. In his Apocalypse Now guise, there is a lethal heroism to the guy. Willard's own journey downriver is mirrored with a journey towards Kurtz's madness. Willard expresses admiration for his stubbornness, for his desire to put aside rank for the quest of a battle. It is as if the sanity of Kurtz is in a battle against the threat of meaninglessness, the fear of living in a perpetual annihilation. Eventually the annihilation found in a war devoid of clarity, where 'the bullshit piled up so high you needed wings to stay above it', wins out. The zeal of Kurtz's 'unsound methods' are hysterical, and he has given himself over to them, gladly and without any more of a fight. If you can't beat it join it.

Certainly in a post-industrial context, there is something thrilling about simply letting go, about allowing the dark thrust of anguished emotion and jealousy to simply have its day. There is a relief in that. In a world where individuality is defined in terms of economic worth, the search for value and meaning becomes very often an unwinnable fight. Religion and spirituality seem childish in the face of the facts of physics and astrophysics. Politics is driven by empty promises and a false messiah archetype that diminishes in its power over culture with every decade.

It is easy to understand these cultural archetypes. The insistence on meaning in the face of emptiness is no great revelation to us, What should be a revelation to us, is that the tendency to give over to a lack of meaning as a form of iconography in itself. It is a stand alone archetype that dominates human behaviours, in particular the masculine aspects of our culture. There is a large element of this hysterical resignation to an annihilating force, that is not only seductive and cathartic, but which is actually a normative influence in a man's developmental psychology.

Patriarchy is not about men. It is about hysterical men. And yet each and ever man has this hysteria built into him. We inherit it. It goes beyond nature or nurture. It is most likely a genetic disposition, a biological blueprint in our very neurons and the tissue of our hearts.

There are plenty other symbols and archetypes that govern the way men think about themselves, but interestingly they all seem to define themselves against the base level Don Juanism described here. The rampant, rapacious appetite-driven man, is the man we all secretly yearn to be, the man who lives without consequences, who owns his women, and humiliates his enemies.

This is more than just a product of subjugation. It is an energy that lives and for itself. It is perhaps the survival instinct when it is combined with the solipsistic despair of consciousness, as men confront their own ontological contingency. The lion in the savannah walks through life without the reflective knowledge his own death. For man, however, his own death haunts him at the point of his own birth. Life itself is painful and it is a delicate torture from the instant of our first independent breath.

For the male gender, to be at the mercy of our mothers is to experience the horror of our own distinctiveness, the anxiety of an indivisible alienation. We are severed from the womb. We are spat out from the sacred warmth of that place and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get back there. Women themselves inherit the womb, they are not just the products of the mother, they inherit her authority.
For the man, his existence proves no such inherit value. His life is governed by need to either transcend his sense of isolation and despair, or to quell the terror that emerges from it.

Juliet Mitchell's theory of the Don Juan and how it manifest is masculine culture is important. Where I diverge from it however, is in the analysis of the pathological behaviour. I think she is right, men are driven, especially when this hysteria has taken its fullest hold, to destructive and relentless patterns of action. But to say this is a death wish in the Freudian sense is too simplistic. On the one hand, it is a death wish. It's destructive, and it fulfills itself thought eh destruction of others. It is the sole root of rape and war. On the other hand however, it can also be described as a 'life wish.' It is the complex mix of the impulse of life and the violence with which that impulse manifests itself.

Each man inherits violence. Everyman is born into a culture of taboo, where is instincts and his his aggressive desire to live and validate his existence clash with the very same needs and drives in others.

Don Juan as a cultural icon crops up every time society experiences a dissolution of solid values, whenever the received wisdom of right and wrong is questioned, whenever wealth and power give way to the seductive promise of erotic gratification. He is always there though, and he governs the subconscious of men – a dark, gothic, hooded individual who either resorts to the battlefield, or who is left indulging himself in erotic abandon.. 

The Indian man outside insisted that I see another girl. No compulsion, no obligation. Just have a look. So on we went to another place, and once again he was all about the gentle conversation.
'She was very beautiful, no? She is just 21. Such a shame that she comes to this country and end up in this business. A dirty business.'

Alright mate, I was thinking. He had a good sales act this guy.

The next room was up a very similar set of stairs and, yes, the appropriate smell did not fail me. This time a middle aged woman opened the door and welcomed us in. The Indian left me there. I was ushered into a living room area, with a couch, pink carpet and a kitchenette.

The girl's name was Bella. Young, with peroxide hair, and milk-white skin. Bella must have been under twenty, a teenager. Spoke to me confidently, laid out all the options, what was on sale, and told me the prices. I told her what I wanted. And I paid.

The bedroom was next door. Much smaller than before, with a mirror over the headboard. The bed was smaller too. Formica bedside table, a chest of drawers in the corner. I remained there on my own for a little bit and then the girl came in. She told me I had ten minutes.

When she had finished she said a curt goodbye and went off to another room as I exited. The Indian man was waiting at the doorway with the next customer. I didn't look either of them in the eye and crept back out into the drizzle on the Soho cobbles.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting article and I agree with it! Do you have an solutions or ideas that could fix the current societal values; or the crisis of the hysterical man?