The historic alienation and breaking of boys and men: a serial.
Introduction: Generativity and Sons
Theoretically, if the adolescents of any era fail to take up the work and ways of their elders, the civilization in which they are held could collapse in a single generation. Moreover, if all children were uniformly separated from all parents by the same span of, say, twenty years, that very devastation would quite likely have occurred in this writer’s lifetime. But the so-called “generations” are not so tidily distanced, and the civilizations they compose therefore take quite a bit longer to collapse, and when they do, the staggering complexity of the process is likely to confound any given Gibbons or think tank.
The historical fact of the matter is that civilization is hard to kill. The trajectory of so-called “western,” or Graeco-Roman, civilization from classical antiquity through the present reveals as much continuity as it does discontinuity. Stepping back to take the long view, something very much like a Hegelian process is at work: dominant and longstanding modes of production and organized creeds and widely shared tastes and practices tend to generate their negations. These negations begin as marginal, outlaw challenges to the prevailing culture, then strengthen to uneasy legitimacy before melding into cultural dominance themselves. This dialectical process can be seen both in centuries-long transitions as well as in the transition from each generation to the next.
When Plato, in his Republic, wanted to show the transition of his logically constructed ideal society into the flawed and conflict-ridden societies historically familiar to us, he illustrated the passage with the generational dynamics of fathers and sons. The result was a clear and historically descriptive account of patriarchal aristocracy becoming supplanted by commercially driven oligarchy, the class tensions of which are resolved stormily by the formation of egalitarian democracy, the excesses of which lead to demagoguery and ultimately despotic repression.
In depth psychology too, whether Freud’s Oedipal dynamics or its related “attachment” theories or the Jungian theory of “individuation,” the progression of culture is understood through the generational tensions between parents and children, with special emphasis on father and sons. Developmental Freudians like Erik Erikson propose that certain historically situated son-father adjustments become emblematic of the suppressed longings of the larger society, and thus a dramatic cultural transformation is launched. Erikson illustrated this hypothesis by recounting the coming-of-age of a number of transformative sons, including Martin Luther, Gandhi, and Hitler.
There are two compelling reasons for better understanding generational transitions. The first is the light such understanding sheds on cultural problems like crime, poverty, intolerance or any number of other conflict-provoking, unsustainable practices. The second reason is more personal and particular: to help children come of age in a manner in which their full humanity can be realized. These two concerns of course can be seen as one. A world good for and fit for children may indeed be the world most worth having generally. Contemporary children, however, even those who dwell in the most technologically advanced and economically prosperous societies, cannot be said to be thriving. It has long been normative, first among psychologists and now generally, to consider coming of age a “crisis.” More recently there are suggestions that the crisis has devolved into a widespread and mounting failure to educate and socialize children effectively. The concern is no longer merely that they succeed in school and make transitions to adult productivity. The more immediate concern is that children will thrive at all, that they will endure a school day, with or without the intervention of powerful psychoactive medicines. There is concern that they will lapse into debilitating depression or incapacitating anxiety, that they will become addicted to drugs or alcohol or be drawn into the thralldom of gang rituals and violence, that they will starve themselves past recovery, that they will take their lives or the lives of others.
Children’s failure to thrive is increasingly normative. Titles of best-selling books about children suggest that to raise a daughter requires “reviving Ophelia,” while rearing a son is “raising Cain.” Ophelia is a suicide, Cain a fratricide. The older child or emerging adolescent in contemporary fiction and films is no longer seen as facing a challenging or even perilous world, but a world spoiled beyond redemption. The young hero is an anti-hero. It is a world in which a rebel could not conceivably locate a cause. It is a world in which a child might age but not mature. The world that created me deserves me, pledge the young terrorists of Columbine, the defiant misogynists of gangsta rap. The youthful anti-hero is no longer J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield, melancholy and adrift in midtown Manhattan. Holden is a lost boy, but he is lost longingly among ghosts of golden times and golden comrades from his earlier childhood. Today’s lost boys long for nothing; indeed they have known nothing one would long for.
The contemporary boy, the contemporary son, is not so much lost as broken. A reading of the historical and cultural record will reveal, perhaps surprisingly, that he has been lost for a long time. The broken boy, by contrast, is a genuine novelty. Where did he come from? How does he come to be? Is there repair, a way forward, a return?