Heroes, misfits, and men: two reviews
In “Sexual Personae,” controversial feminist Camille Paglia wrote, “When I cross the George Washington Bridge or any of America’s other great bridges, I think: men have done this. Construction is a sublime male poetry…. If civilization had been left in female hands, we would still be living in grass huts.”
Professor and writer Anthony Esolen agrees. In “No Apologies: Why Civilization Depends on the Strength of Men,” (Regnery Gateway, 2022, 204 pages) Esolen assesses the value of men and manliness — that word will make some people cringe — in chapters like “Strength,” “The Team,” and “The Family.” Like Paglia, he understands that construction, not only of bridges, cities, and tall buildings, but of all sorts, is quintessential to the meaning of manhood. A man builds everything from houses and bookshelves, founds governments and laws, makes music and books and paintings, and a thousand other things. He is by nature homo faber, a maker and creator.
While stressing their complementarity, Esolen also examines the physical and mental differences between men and women. In his chapter “Strength,” for example, he points out the obvious physical attributes of both sexes that distinguish them one from the other, differences driven home by the success of transgender competitors in the modern female sports arena. In “Agency” and “The Team,” among other items he looks at the dissimilarities between men and women in planning and problem-solving.
In “The Family,” Esolen notes what objective commentators have long reported, that absentee fathers contribute to gang violence, greater drug abuse among boys, and failure in school. For those willing to abide by statistics, these points are not up for debate. As he writes, “When fathers are missing, do not expect women to take their place,” an observation which cuts both ways. After my wife died, a female acquaintance said to me within earshot of my 9-year-old son, “Well, you’ll have to be mother and father now.” On our drive home, I told him, “I’ll always be here for you. I’m your dad. But no one can take the place of your mom.” Take away one member of the mom-and-dad team, and the dynamic changes.
As readers by now will surmise, Esolen is not averse to offending our current cultural directives. “Iron niceness rules the land,” he writes. “Not moral virtue, but niceness — a soft and fluffy cover for vindictiveness, resentment, and hatred. In which places does a man now feel most comfortable speaking his mind, a university classroom, or a bar?”
Make mine a Coors Light, please.
For decades, our culture has demeaned males and manhood. From” toxic masculinity” to the failure rates of our young men in school and in life, those cruel attacks have damaged men young and old. To rebut this squelching of manhood is the entire focus of “No Apologies.” As Esolen writes in the very first sentence, “I am writing a book that should not have to be written, to return to men a sense of their worth as men, and to give to boys the noble aim of manliness, an aim which is their due by right.”
My son-in-law recommended Christopher McDougall’s “Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance” (Vintage, 2016, 352 pages). Centered on the Nazi occupation of Crete during the Second World War, the story focuses on the exploits of a small band of British and Cretan guerillas who tied down thousands of German troops, escaped capture again and again, and committed daring raids and acts of heroism. The history of these warriors and the odds they faced every day, their disguises, their shrewd tactics, and their sheer physical and mental energy are truly amazing.
But “focuses” is perhaps a misnomer, for in “Natural Born Heroes” McDougall is all over the place. He discusses Greek mythology, the vital importance of bodily fascia to human power and strength, various fighting arts like Wing Chun and pankration, edible weeds you can gather from city sidewalks, and enough other topics to fill a small encyclopedia. The names of so many characters flitting in and out of the narrative also confused me, so much so that I finally abandoned keeping track of them.
And yet “Natural Born Heroes” fascinated me.
Why was I so taken with this book? Why did I find such delight in a narrative that on the surface seemed so tangled? Why do I intend to replace the copy I borrowed from my public library with a copy of my own and come back to it again and again?
I have no idea.
Maybe it’s because I’m an old guy, and I was fascinated by the physical feats some of these men and women performed, both then and now. Maybe because each half an hour or so of reading “Natural Born Heroes” left me feeling pleasantly stuffed with new information and wild ideas. Maybe because, as happens every once in a while, the right book came along at the right time.
At any rate, I don’t really know why McDougall struck such a chord with me.
But this I do know. As Sancho Panza sings in “Man of La Mancha:”
I like him
I really like him
Pluck me naked as a scalded chicken
I like him
So, it’s a mystery to me. But then, the older I get, the more mystery brings me pleasure. Add that pleasure to the enjoyment I’ve taken from “Natural Born Heroes,” and you’re left with a happy reader.