Searching for the inner lives of men

26 May

I have been thinking of writing a book on the inner lives of men. By trade I am a sociologist, and so have studied many places; but I haven’t ever gone ‘in’ to the ‘inner life’ of men. There is such a thing as auto-ethnography but this doesn’t seem to actually entail going inside of either sex; it simply makes the doings of an ethnographer its subject when those doings are anodyne and confined to some ‘social practice’ – not the felt life, the life experienced within. The term ‘inner’ points to the intimate, the private, the sensual as well as imagined but it might be for all that a place one ought to avoid, populating one’s own but not voyaging into another’s. But I do want to undertake such a voyage – however it might be done even of the modes of anthropology seem wrong.

A separate trouble is that I don’t think many menfolk think that their inner lives are interesting. That always seems a bit of a risky label. What I find interesting most often, as a case in point, makes men laugh. Not because it is funny as because it always seems unexpected to them.

Years ago, on one of my first dates, the girl I was out with asked: ‘A penny for your thoughts?’ I was a bit startled. My mother would ask the same. The trouble was that at that moment in time I wasn’t thinking of anything. I was caught unawares and whereas with my mother I would come up with some judicious response – ‘something about homework’, with this girl I was blanked. So I said the truth: ‘Nothing’. The girlfriend replied – ‘Yeah? You would have to be really clever to not be thinking about anything’. I was taken aback. I regularly seemed to think about nothing. I certainly didn’t think of myself as really clever. Nor did my school for that matter. But then I thought – maybe my girlfriend thinks I have ideas in my head. That’s pretty nifty if you don’t have anything at all going on in there. But the cheery prospect of that was soon forgotten by a greater problem: she was now annoyed. She was convinced I was lying. I was hiding what I was really thinking. I tried a smile and jogging of my head as if to shake off the misunderstanding, but she looked down. She didn’t take my hand when I sought it. In hindsight, of course, I could have begun worrying about the dilemma in the Smiths’ song – whether a girl wants you for your body or your mind. Clearly, like Morrissey, at that age I would have preferred the former. I wouldn’t be expected to ask, A penny for your thoughts? But as it was, I learnt that one has to make ideas for talk, even when one had none. One had to invent an inner life as a tool to touch the surface – the skin of the other sex.

That was then. What I know now is that while the inner life might matter in relationships, the inner lives of the male aren’t written about much in literature. Well, that’s not quite true. There are novels written about the vernacular of modern men – the echoing phrases, repetitions that are heard as a kind of charm; the ridiculous rhythms of expletives; the dance of eyes at common sights, the conversational lulls. But most of the books that deal with this – with bad language, the grunting, the dazed looks that intersperse attempts at conversation, all of which constitute men’s talk – are bad books. In my view, anyway. They don’t really hear, for example, the poetry in the swearing, the patter of it, the shared breath of complaints that make it up. The authors of these books seem to think this vernacular is proof that there is nothing going on in the inside of men, or if it is, it is a goings-on one doesn’t want to know about. Think of Vernon God Little. All it seems to say is that adolescent boys in the US are tongue-tied by their own offensive language and that, in turn, makes them cruel in their heart. But that seems to me the argument of old ladies – well at least the old ladies that used to torment me when, as a teenager, I swore in their hearshot. I would be told off in public spaces, and in private events, in family visits and at weddings. These ladies have obviously long since passed away – ; Aunts so to speak of my mother’s generation. I am not sure whether the author of Vernon God Little, D.B..C Pierre, knew any of these ladies. But still, his book makes me think about them. To me they were like the English politician contemporary at that time, Mary Whitehouse – priggish, but without the delicious laugh (I mean, Mrs Whitehouse’s, for those who ever heard her being interviewed. It was fabulous: it was the kind of laugh that seemed to be all naughtiness). But this is getting me off the point. There are too many poor books about men. And yet there seem so many on the inner life of women – and these books are often quite exhilarating. The kind of books that make you wonder at how deep and big the world can be – how many voyages can be made around someone’s thoughts. That’s what’s so odd about it.

Think about Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. It’s an extraordinary travelogue of the inner recesses of a woman’s mind, recounting how the outer world intrudes on the inner and how the inner imposes itself on the outer in a way that creates a weird, spooky, neurotic mixed landscape: shadows from the recesses of the memory buckle the patterns of thought referring to the world at large, making it unclear what is real and what is imagined, what thoughts proceed from the outer senses and what the inner eye. Sometimes the account in Pond is about stuffy dinner parties where the guests who come aren’t those who the host had hoped would come, and, as a result, the narrator (and host) looks at those who are there with a view to those who are not: ‘The absentee at my party would have sat where I had planned her to and so I cannot look at that place now and see who is sat there without thinking about how the person who would have sat there would be swaying with the movement of people around her and so I can’t notice how the person who is sat there moves at all’. This is to paraphrase – I am not meaning to quote here, so much as trying to recount what one reads in Pond. But bear with me – I am trying to give its flavour. I recall other buckled sets of thoughts, having to do with when a boy walks past here in a country lane, another about past travails and how they echo in the narrator’s mind even as she talks to her landlady in the present. Pond is all such – a bouncing around of twisting thoughts in the moments of living where the living seems mocked by the imagined, the recalled, the predicted. Perhaps not everyone’s idea of the inner life and its glories, but it’s definitely an inner life.

And then think of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. It’s not about every moment as seen with the inner eye, but the inner thoughts constitutive of selected moments. These selections are tied together through the structure and layout of chapters with huge bits of living in-between ignored. It makes for a strange sense of reality. Though there is continuity on the narrative, it is odd, seemingly stitching together moments that would not naturally, in the order of living, sit side by side. When one starts the book, one imagines that these moments are so dissimilar that it is not the same consciousness whose moments are being recounted each time. You imagine that eventually – after the first fifty pages say – you discover whose these moments are – three, four persons, a whole gaggle maybe. But this never happens; you come to realise instead that these moments are one person’s alone. And you come to realise, too, that these are not descriptions of what is sensually felt, as they are moments of a particular mind and its business: for these are descriptions of how a mind makes calculations of what has been done and what has been felt by its body. The moments are descriptions of how hurtings to the heart are measured by the calculations of the brain. These moments are those when the narrator’s consciousness comes to realise how, in some prior undocumented moment, the relationship she is entangled with, the man she loves, is slowly, step by step, weave by weave, measure by measure, coming apart. You come to learn that the periods not described in the paragraphs are as important as the calculations recounted in the paragraphs, the reader having to weave their own vision of what happens in-between and thus come to understand what the calculations are about and why they are made. This makes The Dept. of Speculation sound hard work. It isn’t. It flows easily. I think it is a wonderful piece of writing.

And then there are the intellectual books – the bookish ones like The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt. This is an exploration of how her own mind assembles the world around her, taking as its sources the dialogues she has with her brothers and friends, the recounting in her mind of the tales her father would tell. Her book does not confine itself to this though – to Cartesian moments when the locked up inner soul reaches out to other’s through the dance of words. For at the same as recounting the talk, the shifting in understanding and movement in, for example, family relations that happens as a result, she also explores the ways in which consciousness is written about – from the most basic functionalism of cognitive science to the finessed inquiries of Wittgenstein. As she does so, so she explains how her inner territory is made up of the fleeting traffic of family matters alongside the lingering insights of books read and arguments disputed in the public spaces of University life. Wittgenstein’s The Philosophical Investigations echoes in her thoughts about her dad. The result is that one reads Hustvedt not to peer into her inner life, to see her soliloquy so to speak, but to see how her inner voice has vocabularies taken from the minds of those she has read as well as those she has talked to and lived with in a real, un-bookish life. Though the plot of the novel may relate to the narratives of family life, the real narrative, the actual narrative that matters in the book, is the world of her own making: a collage of the inner and the outer made up of readings and listenings – from stuff outside brought in and there combined with read material to make something new, a shared scrapbook in wonderings and perceptions inside and out.

What books do blokes have? What books tell their inner lives other than ones that focus on expletives? There have been one or two great books on this – recall the yearning of the young male and his inner desire for difference so beautifully evoked in Moby-Dick. But generally? And more recently? There’s Karl Ove Knausgård – but is that about an inner life? Or a mind that doesn’t distinguish – just allows observations to transmography into words without an inner or an outer distinction? Does Knausgård keep anything private? Is that the distinction I am after? It used to be one that seemed especially interesting – all the more so male authors. Take D.H. Lawrence. Though women often seem to be the focus of his novels they are merely the instruments – in some cases quite literally – with which he explores his own ‘inner’ and how it discords with his outer. A woman’s gasp as they climax confirms his inner manliness, not the swelling of her clitoris, for example, and this inner manliness has something to do with his external manner – what he does – his fighting, his binding with other men. But the topic of this distinction aside, his books are basically a world as seen from within his own skull. That world just happens to have women in it. But they are not the subject. He is. It makes for interesting and at times quite gripping narrative, but one doesn’t learn about other people; one only learns about him, D.H. Lawrence.

Even the high-brow and better educated male authors seem to be preoccupied with their own skull. Think of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time – it starts with a boy’s school (Eton) and ends with mens’ ends – not with his own, but those of the other boys he first met at Eton. There are one or two exceptions in the plot – the lives of a handful of women are explored – but it seems to me only because these lives affected these boys. Really, those women are only stooges to the plot, moving it along so that the author can address what happens to men, inside men.

The many volumes of Dances were finished written long ago, of course. While the first was published in 1951, the last was in 1975. D.H. Lawrence had packed up shop long before that. Women in Love appeared in 1920. These books are about men who have long passed away like the aunts who used to scold me for swearing. And today? Today the inner lives of men are hidden away in the landscapes of novels. Why is that? I often think it is because this is where they deserve to be. For theirs is the inner life of fools who just happen to be all of the same sex. Think of Paul Ewan’s Francis Plug: a novel about a man trying to write a novel but who has nothing interesting to put in it except his travels around book festivals. Here there is no inner life at all, but an attempt to make the public life a substitute for one. And for those who do try and write about the inner life of men, what is revealed is so appalling as to put one off. One thinks of St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. These are little more than laments for the damage that old fashioned English publish schools did to the boys who were sent to them and the results of this in how those same boys came to be when parents – viciously cruel, hurtful, bigots with vocabulary.

In sum, if men and their inner lives are to be written about it is to be mocked or parodied and, if it is not worth doing this, then the inner lives in question are too appalling to investigate – unless of course you want it make money out of the horror, as does St Aubyn. I suppose being an aristocrat always entails money-making schemes to keep the old firm going.

So why would anyone want to write about the inner life of men? I wonder if part of the reason for this current lack of interest in the general literary world might be because people are just too sensitive to what might be in the inner recesses of menfolk. There are giggles when I propose the idea to mates in a pub and to my colleagues in the common rooms of the universities I work in. Is this a device on their part to help me avoid what they know would be the vacuum to be found if it were really done? Or is it a horror? One wonders, one wants to explore. I might end up giggling too.

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