David M. Odorisio on what it means to be an American “self-made man”, and how that’s repressing both body and emotion in males today.
We’re all familiar with the now stereotypical concept of the American “self-made man”: an independant go-getter, yet solitary, often detached, isolated, and alone. He’s been made famous in film and television, as well as portrayed in American literature across multiple genres. He is a modern day Atlas, bearing the solitary weight of his own personal world on his shoulders. This is a man that prides himself on that which he has built with his own two hands. He has pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, supports his family financially as “breadwinner,” and has achieved the American ideal of the independent, autonomous existence we call Freedom. The issue is that this man doesn’t exist anymore. Not in the movies. Or on television. Few traces of him are to be found in modern literature. He’s a phantom – a figment of a past that was illusory at best; that although many men emulated, in the long run failed them, due to his inaccessiblity, his god-like invulnerability, and his distance from not necessarily what it takes to be a “man,” but from what it means to be human.
In his Manhood in America: A Cultural History, sociologist Michael Kimmel highlights the qualities (read: necessities) of the self-made man: self-disciple, self-control, and self-restraint. Kimmel perceptively underscores, however, the shadow side of this indoctrinated and culturally conditioned masculinity complex: the painful psychological splitting and emotional dissociation that results from what is at its core a severe form of male perfectionism. Kimmel draws upon the examples of Charles Atlas and Arnold Schwarzenegger as physical models of a chiseled masculinity, while movie stars such as Marlon Brando and John Wayne exemplify the emotional detachment of what became a typically American masculinity.
My critique of American masculinity is not in its heroic valor, its self-reliance, or its desire for solitude, as these are not necessarily negative characteristics. The issue is that these qualities have become the only model or option for men that is out there. For most of the history of men in America a wicked self-denial, coupled with an excessive hunger for more, is all that we’ve known. The repression of the body and emotion has been the shadow-scape of American male existence. The denial of both has reduced many men’s inner lives what amounts to that of a wounded animal: defensive, driven, and emotionally defended, and unable to slow down enough to appreciate, much less enjoy, the pleasures of the body, an incarnational spirituality, or an embodied sexuality, not to mention authentic emotional expression and connection with another (whether male or female, romantic partner, or child).
The ugly truth is that the repression of both body and emotion – which are intricately connected as contemporary somatic psychologists have shown us – the “boys don’t cry” or “man up” mentality, can be seen as a core attitude that has led to the de-evolution, regression, and arrest of the male psyche. In other words: soul loss. All of the symptoms are there: isolation, alienation, and aloneness, leading to staggering rates of alcoholism, drug use, depression, anxiety, and suicide.
I’m not about to say that an archaic mythological figure from an extinct religious culture is going to solve any of this. But I might at least suggest it. Bear with me. Dionysos: Ancient Greek god of the vine, of religious madness, ecstatic frenzy, the “loosener” and “liberator,” shape-shifter, initiator. Dionysos might just be what we need. Now “Dionysos” is just a name. And this name might be otherwise extinct. But his Spirit and his legacy lives on in the people, cultures, traditions, and especially in the wine and food of the Mediterranean and Aegean. Archetypal psychologist Rafael Lopez-Pedraza refers to Dionysos as currently “in exile”; however, I believe it is time to bring him back. Dionysos has always been the resisted outsider – both before and since Euripedes’ 5th-century BCE play The Bacchae. It is time to invite in Dionysos, and along with him to overcome the “repression of body and emotion” that Lopez-Pedraza believes underlies many of the ailments of our time.
Hence, the work becomes a recovery of the male soul. It is not lost; it’s simply buried under aeons of self-chiseled dust. “Male liberation” then is not about ridiculous pseudo-arguments about “men’s rights”; no, male liberation worships Dionysos as liberator and loosener: to loosen up the jaw; release the weight in the belly or the chest, to take the boots off, and return the feet to the soft, moist soil of the earth. What male liberation looks like today is not about blaming feminists for men’s current socio-economic woes, but about the return to the body, to emotion, and to authentic self-expression. It’s a turn within – not in a hardened or chiseled stance – but turning towards nurturing and supporting one’s family in ways other than strictly monetary or material. It’s about sexual passion, enjoyment of the flesh, and presence to another. Male liberation becomes, then, a movement of embodying emotional authenticity and aliveness; the ability to speak, hone, and honor one’s truth; to live a life of purpose and passion; to be emotionally and physically awake. This is neither a “soft” nor a “hard” masculinity. Just an honest one.
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