Thursday, April 17, 2014

My Idea of a Man

In his well-loved poem 'The Fisherman', W.B. Yeats (after denouncing certain personalities of his own day) wrote:

Maybe a twelve-month since
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man,
And his sun-freckled face
And gray Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark under froth,
And the down turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream—
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream...

I think we all have an ideal man in our mind. I know that I do. And it's definitely an ideal man. I certainly have ideals of womanhood, as well, but I'm not sure whether they are as specific. Perhaps this is because my ideal of a man is my ideal of what I would like to be, which obviously wouldn't apply to my ideals of womanhood-- so my ideals of womanhood are less sharply-drawn. (Anyway, who can bear to listen to a man pontificating about the feminine virtues?)

My ideal of manhood is, to a great extent, based upon my father. I said this at the speech I gave at my wedding reception. It was about the only way I could possibly have said it in his hearing, given my family's undemonstrative style.

But, of course, it's not all based upon my father, by any means. And my ideal man is very different from my father in some respects. (I am aware that it is difficult for a man to use the phrase "my ideal man" in the current climate without incurring sniggers. But it's the most convenient phrase, and I really resent that we always have to be on our guard against that kind of innuendo, anyway. The reader should be well aware that there is no homosexual undertone to any of this. "Shame to him who thinks evil of it".)

The first (and perhaps the principal) characteristic of my ideal man is one that disqualifies me immediately. He is a man with a past. He has been places, done things. He is full of stories. He's had a broad experience of human nature.

For this reason, my ideal of manhood is rarely younger than forty-five. And, for the same reason, I've always had a very high esteem for old men. (Time for me to catch up, then? I'm afraid not. My ideal man, necessarily, has had an adventurous youth-- something I certainly didn't have.)

Examples of 'men with a past': Odysseus, my father (who left school before he was a teenager and worked at hundreds of jobs), Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings, Isaac Asimov, W.B. Yeats, Winston Churchill, Keith Waterhouse, Professor Van Helsing from Dracula, Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek, G.K. Chesterton and St. Paul the apostle.

My ideal man is a man of culture. He has read very deeply, and very widely. He can quote poetry, Shakespeare, the Bible. He is, however, definitely not a man of letters. Even if he is a professional writer he is not a man of letters. The idea that books should be the main preoccupation of human life would seem grotesque to him. Life always comes first. He is entirely free from any trace of dilettantism. In this he resembles Louis MacNeice's ideal of the poet: "“I would have a poet able-bodied, fond of talking, a reader of the newspapers, capable of pity and laughter, informed in economics, appreciative of women, involved in personal relationships, actively interested in politics, susceptible to physical impressions.”"

Captain Jean-Luc Picard is a perfect example of this-- the man of action who is also a man of culture. I cherish his exchange with Wesley Crusher in one episode:

Captain Jean-Luc Picard: There's no greater challenge than the study of philosophy.
Wesley Crusher: But William James won't be on my Starfleet exams.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: The important things never will be. Anyone can be trained in the mechanics of piloting a starship.
Wesley Crusher: And Starfleet Academy...
Captain Jean-Luc Picard: Takes more. Open your mind to the past - art, history, philosophy. And all this may mean something.

Or, in another episode, his conversation with his curmudgeonly and backwards-looking brother (who keeps the family vineyard):

Louis: Never did I know anyone less interested in grapes than you, Jean-Luc.
Picard: No, not true. I was interested. And I was proud that my family were helping to preserve the traditions. I just didn't feel bound by those traditions.
Louis: You always reached for the future and your brother for the past.
Picard: There should be room for both in this life.

My ideal man would not have had a smooth and gentlemanly progress through life. He must have roughed it in some way. Either he has known poverty, or he has done manual labour, or he has suffered for his convictions (a spell in prison would be nice), or he has been in a war-zone. A royal flush would be to have been born poor, to have toiled on building sites and in factories, to have spent at least one night sleeping rough, to have seen the inside of a cell, to have been sacked (or resigned) from a job because of his beliefs, to have stood on many a picket-line, and to have been caught up in a riot or two. In this regard, he should be like St. Paul: "Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked."

(If this seems like a high standard, and if my inclusion of names like W.B. Yeats or Isaac Asimov seems incongruous in its light, bear in mind that hardship and adversity are relative. Yeats did know hardship in his early days. He used to "ink his socks, that they might not show through his shoes" at one point. Asimov worked in his parents' sweet shop for long hours in his youth. It's not St. Paul, but it's something.)

On the other hand, my ideal man is certainly no ascetic. ('Ascete' is probably the correct word there, but it sounds weird.) Like St. Paul again, although perhaps not in quite the same sense, he can say: " I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity". Or like St. Thomas Moore, he is "as time requireth a man of marvellous mirth and pastimes; and sometimes as of sad gravity, as who say: a man for all seasons." (Having looked for that quotation on the internet, I find that if often appears without the words 'as of who say'; but somehow, I can't say why, I feel they are essential to its flavour, despite not being sure what they mean.)

In this spirit, my ideal man is a hearty partaker of pleasures, like Gandalf puffing on his pipe or G.K. Chesterton singing drinking songs in a public house. He is no stranger to pubs. (I am not saying that teetotalism is a bad thing, and I was myself a teetotaller for the first twenty-seven years of my life, mostly out of sheer contrarianism. But I find it difficult to summon any enthusiasm for abstention. Liquor seems such an emblem of human merry-making, holiday-keeping and convivality that it seems a pity to forego it without a good reason. Even its physical lustre, in both its bottled and unbottled form, seems to me to be a symbol of life's richness. And I honestly don't drink all that much.)

He should also be fond of merry-making, joke-telling and harmless pranks. This reminds me of C.S. Lewis's well-known declaration, "There is no sound I like better than adult male laughter". (Personally, I'm just as fond of female laughter.) Or the following anecdote from Boswell's Life of Johnson:

One night when Beauclerk and Langton had supped at a tavern in London, and sat till about three in the morning, it came into their heads to go and knock up Johnson, and see if they could prevail on him to join them in a ramble. They rapped violently at the door of his chambers in the Temple, till at last he appeared in his shirt, with his little black wig on the top of his head, instead of a nightcap, and a poker in his hand, imagining, probably, that some ruffians were coming to attack him. When he discovered who they were, and was told their errand, he smiled, and with great good humour agreed to their proposal: ' What, is it you, you dogs! I'll have a frisk with you.' He was soon drest, and they sallied forth together into Covent-Garden, where the greengrocers and fruiterers were beginning to arrange their hampers, just come in from the country.

(It should go without saying, of course, that my man should be no flibbertigibbet or mere pleasure-seeker. There is no greater affront to the human race, and no greater bore, than a man who can never be serious or solemn.)

One of the most important characteristics in my ideal man-- perhaps the most important-- is that he is, most decidedly, a partisan. He believes in something, he stands for something, he proclaims something. Ideally, he should have an opinion about everything.

This is one of the reasons G.K. Chesterton is my all-time hero. He wrote under every subject under the sun and he had an opinion about everything under the sun-- and not just an opinion, but a hearty one. Pickwick Papers was his favourite Dickens book, A Midsummer Night's Dream was his favourite Shakespeare play. He hated central heating, night-clubs, snobbery, Asian religion and cocktails. He liked fireplaces, public houses, fellow-feeling, "jolly religions, where you do something-- bang on a gong or attempt to worship a bear" and ale.

Best of all, you never get the impression from Chesterton that there is any point at which you will come up against a blank wall of exhaustion or apathy. He had reasons for his likes and dislikes; and reasons for those reasons; and reasons for those reasons; and so on forever. I cherish the story of his eighteen-hour long debate with his brother, as well as the story of his attempt at political campaigning-- his fellow-campaigner had knocked on all the doors on both sides of the street while Chesterton was still arguing with the first home-owner he'd knocked up.

(I love, as well, this Chestertonian quotation: "It may, perhaps, be wondered whether one could possibly say a worse thing of anybody than that he has said ‘the last word’ on a subject. A man who says the last word on a subject ought to be killed. He is a murderer; he has slain a topic. The best kind of critic draws attention not to the finality of a thing, but to its infinity. Instead of closing a question, he opens a hundred." Please note that this attitude went hand-in-hand with Chesterton's dogmatism.)

But having opinions isn't enough. My ideal man proclaims them. He takes up the cudgels for his cause. He goes on marches and demonstrations and protests. He joins organizations. He writes manifestos. He gets up petitions. He puts up posters and banners. He joins boycotts. He attends public meetings. He evangelizes. He wears badges and pins and t-shirts supporting his favoured causes. Once again, like St. Paul, he should be able to say "I have fought the good fight" in his old age (or even in his middle age).

Of course, he doesn't have to do all these things, or even most of them. But he can't even approach my ideal if he doesn't in some way beat the drum for the cause, or causes, of his choice-- it doesn't matter how effectually or ineffectually.

All of the activites I gave as examples, above, are somewhat unfortunate in that they mostly refer to political or religious causes. But I don't mean just these-- not by a long stretch. I think any cause will do. Nudism, Luddism, the revival of folk dance, organic farming, home schooling, amateur sports-- all of these will do just as well.

A few years ago I was reading a book of reminiscences from a Dublin childhood-- a work of nostalgia for 'Dublin in the rare oul times'. I mentioned it to my father and he told me that the author (who he knew slightly) had once gone door-to-door selling toffee apples (or candy apples as Americans call them). These were very popular in Dublin half a century ago but are now much less popular. The fellow was obviously engaging in a bit of revivalism, aside from whatever profit he made. By a 'cause', I mean this kind of thing, as much as I do politics or trade unionism.

Even someone who deliberately conducts his life in a certain spirit, and tries to propagate it-- like Mr. Keating in Dead Poets' Society-- would fall within the ambit of what I'm talking about.

But then there is the opposite danger-- to become shrill, fanatical, ruthlessly single-minded. The kind of man I am holding up as an ideal would never fall into this trap. He might lose his temper in the heat of debate, or when confronted with some abuse or practice he detests, but he wouldn't persevere in animosity. He has too much imagination not to see things from the other point of view. He can step back from the fray, and he does.

Finally, I have to admit that my ideal man must have some kind of spiritual belief. I respect and love many atheists, but I always feel (to be honest) something missing in them. I feel as though we live in different mental universes. I feel as though even the things of this life are trivialized if they are not seen against the backdrop of the Eternal. I feel that confirmed unbelievers are simply missing the point-- the point of everything-- in the most drastic way possible. There it is.

Yeats described his idealized fisherman as:

A man who does not exist
A man who is but a dream.

Perhaps that is the case with the man I describe here. But I think there are plenty of men who come close to the ideal. I've known a few of them myself.


  1. Splendid post. No time for a long comment here, but I just had to quote Alexander Pope's formulation of the ideal critic (who is, I think, pretty close to the ideal man)
    But where's the man, who counsel can bestow,
    Still pleas'd to teach, and yet not proud to know?
    Unbias'd, or by favour or by spite;
    Not dully prepossess'd, nor blindly right;
    Though learn'd, well-bred; and though well-bred, sincere;
    Modestly bold, and humanly severe?
    Who to a friend his faults can freely show,
    And gladly praise the merit of a foe?
    Blest with a taste exact, yet unconfin'd;
    A knowledge both of books and human kind;
    Gen'rous converse; a soul exempt from pride;
    And love to praise, with reason on his side?
    Such once were critics; such the happy few,
    Athens and Rome in better ages knew.

    In parting, I'll just mention many aspects of "my ideal man" would be found in Tolkien's Faramir.

  2. Thanks for that, KR! And for your kind words. I did like the Pope lines, I'm sure I encountered them before but I wasn't familiar with them. As for Faramir, I have to admit I don't remember much about him, even though I've read Lord of the Rings a couple of times. When I was growing up, we had Fellowship of the Ring in the house so I read that one again and again, especially up to the Council of Elrond. I still think it's the best volume. I find Frodo and Sam's journey to Mordor quite tough to get throuh.

  3. Nudism!

    Anyway, good article Maolsheachlann. I don't really have any idea of what my ideal man would be. I don't think I ever really thought about it before.

  4. Yeah, the nudism might have been going a bit too far!