Thursday, November 03, 2005

Making A Choice

Strange to think, at this point in my life, I persist in the opinion that men and women differ. I should have a more thorough understanding of men than I do of women. I have, after all, logged considerable experience (that is pronounced ”trial and error”) as a man. I have had wives—yes, plural—and a son. I have had a business. I have both owed money (though not at present), and have had the onerous task of collecting it from others (some of whom, theoretically, still owe it from long ago; you know who you are).

I have never been a soldier, but I know that all maleness involves some kind of soldiering: the tasks soldiers usually do, surviving, getting rained on, enduring mud and slime, peeling potatoes, hauling out the trash. Glory is extremely rare in life, and then, Sic transit gloria mundi: when it comes, it leaves. You cannot count on fine moments. Everyday life is the vein you must mine. It’s one of those mines from a western, with desperadoes out there with guns waiting to steal your gold; if you finally do get down the mountain to the assay office, they rob you with a pen. You do what you can with what remains.

Despite the wonderful quote from Ray Davies—“girls will be boys and boys will be girls/it’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world”—I think the contrary applies: except for certain people who are genuinely confused, men are men and women are women. You hear popular talk of a man getting in touch with his “feminine side.” Claptrap; men don’t have feminine sides. Oh, they do have receptive abilities, nurturing instincts, gentle and sensitive aspects, but they are receptive, nurturing, gentle or sensitive as men, not as women. These sides of the male persona are admirable—necessary—just as strength, perseverance, courage and the like are indispensable in their female manifestations. Male nurturing and female nurturing, male courage and female courage, are not identical. I can sense and even be awed by these qualities in a woman, but I can go further than that and live them as a man.

The fact that the female is outside our male cognizance presents us with a great trap when we forget the fact that women, individually and in general, are real, not our fantasies. (I cannot speak of the distortions women may make of men in their imaginations, but undoubtedly I have female counterparts who may treat this issue.) One man, who represents the blundering all of us undergo from time to time (or in perpetuity, in the case of those of us who really are fools) was Paris, prince of the royal house of Troy. Troy is in ruins now, buried beneath successor cities that are themselves buried, all the fault of Paris.

Eris, the goddess Discord—nasty, for sure—threw the apple of discord among the gods. Picture this sphere as about as benevolent as a hand grenade; on it was engraved the rubric “for the fairest.” Zeus, king of the gods, lacked the confidence to tackle the question of who among the goddesses qualified. (Today’s equivalent of this unanswerable question may well be, “Honey, does this dress make me look fat?”) Zeus was no slouch, however. He had a W.C. Fieldsian instinct for finding a sucker; Paris was a natural.

Paris chose Aphrodite as “the fairest,” spurning the goddesses Hera and Athena, because Aphrodite promised him the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen, whom Paris had to abduct to get, causing a war of revenge, devastation, and ruin. This war was a cauldron that tested the mettle of every one of its participants, Trojan or Greek. The twin epics it spawned raised questions relating to the male role that we have been debating ever since.

I am glad of Aphrodite, but I am not calling her to my corner. Aphrodite is called the “goddess of love,” but she is better termed the goddess of the “narrow feminine archetype,” that fantasy woman every man wants but who will never be. Fantasies are about as fleeting as glory, even if they appear more often. Fantasies don’t work. They are fun when we perceive them as fun, ruinous when we confuse them with reality.

From what I know of Hera, wife of Zeus, I’d have to be alone on a desert island to have anything to do with her, you’d have to hold a gun to my head, I’d have to be sure it was loaded and that you’d actually pull the trigger. I’ve run across Hera many times in my transit across the arc of life; I’ve paid my dues. I’m already on her bad side, so these words shouldn’t make my lot on this earth any worse.

I will take real women in the real world as they present themselves, without expecting of them the benefits and burdens of a goddess, but if I must have an archetype, let it be Athena, so-called goddess of wisdom, though I would rather call her “goddess of considering the moral basis of action.” Spiteful Hera sent Hercules on his mighty labors; Athena stood beside him and allowed him to prevail. Athena stood behind Theseus as he slew the Minotaur. Athena guided Perseus in his high-risk raid on the terrifying Gorgon Medusa. Athena protected Odysseus during his ten-year ordeal after the sack of Troy; she inspired his son Telemachus to seek his father and protect his mother Penelope. Athena is responsible for great things: the courage of action, to be sure, but also the courage of endurance. For every morsel of action, we live a thousand chunks of endurance.

Athena is a demanding goddess. She is both a war goddess and the goddess of peaceful assembly and political affairs. She protects the brave, in all aspects of life, but she does not give them their bravery; instead she expects it.

Men have enough of their own momentum toward baser things in life: appetites and all that. Athena provides a balance: an austere standard of heroism, integrity, intelligence, capability, leadership. Athena represents the finest attributes women bring to the table of life. You can get kissing and snuggling with a real woman, you can certainly get nagging, but if you’re talking about a goddess looking over your shoulder, Athena is the one who can really help you make the most of yourself. Athena is not your wife, not your girlfriend, not your sister, not your mother, not your beloved nanny, and yet she is a woman, that other phenomenon out there, that difference. One of your teachers—the one who first credited you with intelligence and judgment perhaps—may have been Athena. That wonderful real woman in your life takes on what you think is the beauty of Aphrodite not because she is Aphrodite but because she is Athena. Athena is the fairest.

You, reader, may actually be a woman. Good for you. Keep at it. You can see Paris for the dolt he really is. I do hope he isn’t too familiar to you. You are right to want your man to be a hero, to look to Athena for his standard, not a shoot-em-up action hero to be sure, but the do-the-right-thing workaday hero just the same. Everything a man does well—be it leading, be it nurturing—he does with courage. Do not think for a moment that this courage is bluster, bravado, or boast; it is difficult, multi-dimensional, and exacting. Men do not understand their courage, yet they have no choice but to live it. Athena stands and reminds them.