July 12, 2010

On Becoming Manly, Part I

‘My spirits were divided pathetically between the wish to stay on, a guarded child, and to proceed into the world, a budding man, and, in my utter ignorance, I sought in vain to conjure up what my immediate future would be’ (Edmund Gosse, Father and Son, 1907).
Few of us, I can only surmise, have to undergo the kind of wrench borne by Gosse (pictured left with his father) in his formative years. To break out from under a puritanical yoke and give full play to the inner voice of oneself, so long enshrined in suspicion and sin, is not any longer the kind of thing the ‘budding man’ has to accomplish. Children, at least in the West, are at full liberty to indulge in all manner of innocence-losing experiences, that we may wonder if there remains anything traditionally ‘child-like’ in them at all. Yet, all this to one side, Gosse’s dilemma, quoted above, strikes me as one more pertinent than ever for today’s youth. The issue is scarcely ever raised by anyone, and I doubt it arises so articulately within the minds of teenagers, if it arises at all. But the questions of when, how, and why to become a man are of pressing importance, lest we find ourselves among a generation of perpetual half-way houses. We shall not be surrounded by a multitude of Peter Pan figures, for innocence will be lost; but the passage into manhood does not follow effortlessly. The idea of a society of enduring adolescents should horrify us all.

I have written before on the rites of passage that I feel we have mislaid. In some respects, these have been inadequately replaced by the notion that university is a universal coming-of-age ritual that should be available to all. We should be wary of derogating the word ‘university’ to the point where it becomes a mere synonym for ‘party’, for I remain convinced that university is only for the intellectually able, rather than existing simply to boost alcohol tolerance and sexual experience. Still, I understand that the idea of university as a rite of passage has arisen precisely because of the general paucity of other opportunities in this regard. Boys and girls ought to want to grow up, or at least sense that they cannot go on in a puerile state. I am not sure that university fosters the right kind of attitude, but rather provides a space where the ‘spirits… divided pathetically’ are permitted to persist. It is, by all accounts, a space outside of the real world; an extension of adolescence; a not-so-pregnant pause. From this ‘curriculum’ (devoid of its character-building elements of old), why should we expect adults, apparently automatically, to emerge?

Rather, I suppose that some notion of what adulthood is and why it is necessary should be let loose somewhat earlier in life, and that emerging men should be aware of the choices and imperatives in bringing it about. It is no use, so I think, for a child to try to conjure with the future apropos of nothing at all; it is yet worse merely to proceed through life on a pre-determined course. A sense of responsibility, knowledge of the virtues, ingrained good habits and manners, a stout character: these things are to be built. We are not entitled to them, but must shift for them. If we merely wait until graduation ceremonies end before we inform the incipient citizenry of their roles as adults, we shall hardly be surprised if the alumni fail to live up to expectations. If, as I have said before, we are to give credence to the old adage that the child is father to the man, then we must make sure that our children are given a map, a compass, and the sage advice of those experienced in the lay of the land. Left to fumble through the uncharted territory of their adolescence alone, we must not wonder if they fail properly to emerge at the other side.


  1. Doctor, the thought has struck me recently, contemplating the youth in my clan, that what into they are supposed to grow is no longer obvious to anyone. But growth is regular and lawlike perhaps...

    I have seen the youth go on to earn their keep and spend their substance as they will, no one caring or claiming authority over them, so I have no hope business will sober anyone up anymore.

    And I have seen the youth look to what the world has to offer them and it is precious little. Pleasure and the passions are tended to profusely, granted, but that is all, and it requires no kind of growth.

    So I put it to you: is it not in fact hardship and confrontation with the dark side of nature - compelling necessity - that awakens the man?

    Finally, the child is father to the man is a Wordsworth phrase, it is no old adage fortunately!

  2. Thank you Kravien, as always. I think you are perhaps correct. I shall think about it some more as this new sequence progresses.

    As for Wordsworth, I believe that great ancestor of mine to have been utilising an already well-worn phrase.

  3. Ah, my historian professor, but can you prove it?

  4. Presuming you do not demand the exact wording, but a demonstration that the phrase's tenor was already abroad, we may find Milton, 'Paradise Regained' (1671), espousing that "childhood shews the man, as morning shews the day". I presume Milton to have not been entirely original here either, but rather drawing on that to which others may have readily nodded.

  5. I believe there is a saying associated with the Jesuits, something to the effect of 'Give me a child for the first seven years, and you may do what you like with him afterwards.'



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