Salvo 05.16.2022 7 minutes

Manhood: The Eternal Frontier

Road leading to Capitol Reef NP, Utah, USA

Recovering manly endeavor in an age of docility.

At the Edge of the Desert

I opened the car door so that our five-year-old son could feel the breeze. I looked in the direction behind us: nothingness. I looked in the direction in front of us: nothingness. A mirage of heat would appear and disappear occasionally, but other than that, there was nowhere to go and nowhere to hide. The sheer enormity of human vulnerability matched the size of the Nevada desert. Here was the vast expanse I had only seen in movies.

We were somewhere between Barstow and Las Vegas when the cooling fan started to buzz like an angry hornet. We pulled off to the side of the road. It felt like the edge of the desert alright: once you’re actually outside of the car, once you stop buzzing along at 85 miles per hour, you feel the vastness of the empty landscape in a whole new way. 

We were driving back home to Buffalo, NY after spending a few days in California. We had clocked around 3000 miles and were steeling ourselves for another 3000. My husband had finished putting in a new engine and transmission into our 2001 Audi Allroad mere days before we began our journey to California.

We got out. A few cars and semi-trucks rushed past. The heat was unbearable, the wind that accompanied it both comforting and disturbing. The land was barren, save for a few dead shrubs here and there with plastic bags tangled in between the morbid branches, tumbleweeds lazily moving around, a few crumpled beer cans. 

“There’s nothing to worry about,” my husband assured me.

And strangely enough, I felt at peace—both from my husband’s assurance, and from the sheer size of the desert we found ourselves in. There was something very American about it all: We only had ourselves to rely on. My feelings of vulnerability were overpowered by the sense of freedom, and responsibility. We had to keep moving forward, and we had to find a way to do so. That was that.

I remember how people looked at us before we left, the incredulity: “You’re gonna drive? With a kid? Why don’t you just fly? It’s so much easier.” But flying was never an option, not in these times. We both hated cringing before the COVID regime, having to make the ritual gesture of masking and bowing to stewardesses in their petty fiefdoms. Once you have a car, you are in control. Sure there are discomforts, but that’s part of it too. My husband got the engine running, and we headed on to Denver.

The Road

The open road in America has always symbolized not only freedom, but also a masculine impulse to stride forth into the world. On the road there is direction and force, motion and speed, but also self-awareness: a restlessness and a sensitivity to the environment. Both the need to explore and the need to escape. In The Rum Diary, Hunter S. Thompson reflects on the propulsive energy of these two contradictory forces in productive opposition: “It was the tension between these two poles–a restless idealism on one hand and a sense of impending doom on the other–that kept me going.”

Reflecting on the wildness, the peculiarly masculine stubbornness of this frontier spirit, it’s hard not to feel a sense of loss. Given our current environment of absolute repression, one wonders whether there is any place to go anymore—any breathing room or space to explore. Memory can veer into nostalgia—but even accounting for that, it’s hard to deny that the world of the open road seems to be slipping away.

What happened? How did mediocrity and conformism become American moral imperatives? Repression wears many false faces, and first, we have to recognize that our society is indeed repressed, in every way. It is a self-reinforcing state of affairs: envy is rebuked by excellence, and it is easier to enforce collectivism than do the hard work of seeking new realms for endeavor. Those who acquiesce to mediocrity resent even halfhearted initiative in others, and so our culture has become actively anti-masculine. The constant attack on masculinity renders everyone impotent, and no one is able to fulfill his potential. Innovation, which requires a charge into the unknown, is not accepted in such a world—any so-called “innovation” must be in service of the pre-approved, dominant ideology. 

People are worried about being “canceled,” and so they keep their opinions to themselves. If they do express themselves, then the statements usually sound like poor facsimiles of past representations of masculinity. We can’t become John Wayne or Robert Mitchum, although we can certainly find a desire to be something resembling those images. Many often criticize the nostalgia seekers by saying that even images of Mitchum and Wayne’s masculinity were just aesthetically created mythologies. This is not necessarily incorrect, but I see nothing wrong with being inspired by the myth that contains truth.

Comedy also is one of the casualties of this cancel culture, and that’s no accident: without a doubt, masculinity is tied to comedy as well. In 2007, Christopher Hitchens wrote a piece for Vanity Fair called, “Why Women Aren’t Funny”. It would seem impossible to utter such a statement today (although, being the provocateur that he was, Hitchens caused much anger even then). More importantly, though Hitchens points to a fundamental difference between men and women. Yes, of course, women can be funny. But their humor is not tied to a pursuit of a man. As Hitchens writes, “Why are men, taken on average and as a whole, funnier than women? Well, for one thing, they had damn well better be. The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men. In fact, she equips many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one, outside chance: he had better be able to make the lady laugh.” 

If a woman is indeed funny (which, by the way, is not forbidden!), it is for a different purpose. It might indicate to a man that she has a verve and passion for life. In other words, having a great sense of humor (for both men and women) indicates a possibility of love and sex but most of all, joy. Joylessness is the killer of love, of encounter, of desire, and of endeavor.

Digital Impotence

This deflation of ambition and desire, this collapse of physical space, has little to do with what has and has not already been conquered—there is always room for new endeavor if you lust after it deeply enough. Instead, our listlessness and mediocrity have to do with our sickening suspicion that digital life has rendered physical life obsolete.

Recently, there was an article about Akihiko Kondo, a Japanese man, who was enamored with a fictional character, Hatsune Miku. This state of being even has a name–“fictosexuality, the term used to describe those people who are sexually attracted to fictional characters.” It takes the unreality of our digital-age alienation from one another, and from our bodies, to another level. 

Apparently, Hatsune Miku saved Kondo from depression. But now he is facing another problem: the software that supported the hologram is no longer working and thus, Kondo’s digitized relationship has come to an end. You could say that Kondo has experienced the death of a partner because he sees a hologram as a digital representation of the human. But no amount of intellectual bargaining can explain away the fact that Kondo only related to the hologram, and not a real woman. He denied not only a woman’s sexuality, gender, and body, but also his own. As Camille Paglia notes in Sexual Personae, “Woman’s eroticism is diffused throughout her body. Her desire for foreplay remains a notorious area of miscommunication between the sexes.” 

A hologram of a woman has none of these characteristics. Paglia writes that man’s sexuality is defined by “linearity, focus, aim, directedness.” Akihiko has abdicated that characteristic in himself, and refused to accept a woman’s eroticism. The erotic encounter was not even allowed to start, let alone to reach the climax.

This is an extreme example of how digitization kills sex, but there are milder versions in many Western societies, where people choose to navigate through the mystery of the human person by only speaking via computer. This is not to say that casual sexual relationships only happen if the digital interface is used. We cannot romanticize face-to-face encounters, which have not been too rewarding for too many people either, in recent years. But it is harder to deny the reality, the humanity, the ensouled nature of the other person when he or she is in physical proximity. Insofar as we are learning to deny these truths even in meatspace, it is because our digital sickness has infected even our precious “in-person” hours.

Trans-genderism and trans-humanism

All of this points to one thing: our society is not erotic. Men aspire to little more than not to offend. Women make a show of being boorish and unappealing. However many genuine creeps may have been caught in the crosshairs of #MeToo, the movement itself quickly declared its mission to destroy every last bit of erotic mystery in the relationship between the sexes. In other words, it now appears that men and women are less and less interested in pursuit of the opposite sex or even the mere sex act itself. At the very least, our repressed society is stalling the pursuit.

Once the physical solidity of a human being falls out of view, it is far easier to annihilate the distinction between male and female. Once masculinity and femininity are not parts of the society’s metaphysical make-up, then gender becomes an occasion for perpetual fluidity and transition. This, and no true concern with “justice” or even transsexuality as such, explains the obsession with trans ideology that has been dominating our discourse. 

Few recall that Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, the Ur-text of what is now peak trans, was centrally focused on dressing in drag—i.e., on performance. I think that we have taken what essentially belongs to a film or a burlesque and cabaret show and shapeshifted it into a political sphere that is driven by an atheistic and nihilistic moralism. In this context, virtue is a matter not of good action, but of convincing artifice, of feigning commitment to absurdity as persuasively as possible. The imagineering is the point: that is how you get someone like Rachel Levine, who has made a career not (crucially) out of being appointed an assistant to the health secretary but out of being a transgender government official. 

Ultimately, when people see Levine, they mostly see a performance. And this brings us back to the de facto ban on laughter. A male transvestite is unequivocally an occasion for laughter. Are we not allowed to laugh at Levine’s un-feminine look and awkwardly applied makeup? The point of forbidding laughter at such an obvious absurdity is to underscore that manhood, and along with it comedy and ambition, have been de-fanged. Our ruling class enforces the worst effects of the digital revolution, because it suits them: what tech encourages, the cathedral mandates. Docility is both our disease and our law.

The Final Erotic Frontier?

What room is there, then, for masculinity in America or the world today? What men are pressing forth, conquering and innovating? Elon Musk has been making news, particularly with his SpaceX program and more recently, his intended purchase of Twitter. But Musk represents something entirely different, which we are unable to completely define yet. He is funny and intelligent, but is he erotic and masculine? There is something a little too dispassionate about him for an outside observer to tell. But Musk is disrupting the stasis of totalitarianism technologically, much like Trump disrupted politics—and that at least might give other men a little breathing room to assert their own natural passions.

We cannot go back to the past. We are where we are, be it because of COVID or Biden’s regime or the delusions of grandeur of the World Economic Forum. Yet in order to renew the American character, and in order to save the feminine, we have to take an attack on masculinity seriously. This does not mean blissfully reveling in some macho images. On the contrary, authentic masculinity is not only aggressive and directed: it is also introspective. It is Robert Mitchum in Nicholas Ray’s 1952 The Lusty Men, a rodeo man who competes for the affection of woman; it is John Wayne in John Ford’s 1956 The Searchers, finding guts to do the right thing, and then enacting that very same restlessness that Hunter S. Thompson writes about, going off into the vastness of an American desert which remains a perfect metaphor for personal sovereignty and responsibility. If there is one thing that we have to reclaim, it is the human propensity for joy and inherent eros that is the life force, because our life indeed depends upon it.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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