Dispatches from the genderquake zone

On Men: masculinity in crisis by Anthony Clare (Chatto & Windus, £20)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Faced with waiting-rooms full of swooning Viennese matrons, Sigmund Freud exasperatedly asked: "What do women want?" A century later, Anthony Clare surveys the smoking wreckage of 21st-century masculinity and asks: "Why do men need to be in control?"

Faced with waiting-rooms full of swooning Viennese matrons, Sigmund Freud exasperatedly asked: "What do women want?" A century later, Anthony Clare surveys the smoking wreckage of 21st-century masculinity and asks: "Why do men need to be in control?"

This demanding but worthwhile book claims that if modern men let the last strands of patriarchal power slip from their fingers, they'll be calmer, happier, easier to be with and easier on themselves. Heard that before? Dr Clare has - and, in On Men, he is trying to make the old case for the "new man" in a different way. With High Fidelity in the multiplexes and Tony Parsons' Man and Boy a bestseller, the time is ripe for fresh discourse about manhood that goes beyond hand-wringing or chest-beating.

There's a delightful irony in the style of this book. Never has the case for male gentleness been built upon such hard and unyielding scientific prose. Anyone expecting the brogue-laden psycho-ramble that Clare serves up on Radio 4 won't just feel disappointed, but verbally assaulted.

Occasionally, his characteristic man-of-the-world sagacity breaks surface. But the Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Trinity College, Dublin has decidedly not done a breezy celebrity cash-in. No - this is about as scholarly a survey of modern masculinity as a middlebrow audience could take. Persevere, and you will be as informed about "generative parenting" and the ethics of donation as you could ever wish. Whether it adds up to some solutions for a "masculinity in crisis" is another question.

Clare's argument is admirably constructed. If men are in danger of seeming like violent, suicidal, anti-familial, child-abusing losers, it's because there seems to be empirical proof. The new Darwinian common sense says (to amend West Side Story) that we're depraved on account of we're evolved. Clare does a thorough job of demolishing the "unreconstructable caveman" that pop science peddles to the media. It's easy (but false) to say that testosterone causes aggression; the truth - that T-levels and aggressive behaviour are linked in a circular relationship dependent on a multitude of environmental factors - is hard to fit into a tabloid headline.

Clare doesn't deny the burden of male destructiveness. But he takes pains to demonstrate that economic, psychological and cultural variance disproves modish assumptions about the monstrosity of manhood. In places, Clare is an out-and-out lefty, roasting "consumerist, competitive capitalism" and the culture of overwork. But what is the doctor's prescription for men? It seems to reside in a new model of fatherhood; and this is where his clanking armour of research starts to seem too protective.

On marriage, he evinces a very Irish prejudice, supported by his usual snowstorm of findings. They reach the creaky conclusion that, when parents stick together "for the benefit of the children", these kids (particularly boys) will always do better than those in the bewildering spectrum of post-marital arrangements. Clare is militant about government support for the stability of marriage. But fathers also need to be better at what they do. Does that mean they should be anything more than mothers-with-tackle? Clare's list of male parental virtues - consistency, involvement, awareness, caring - is agreeable, but hardly the basis for a masculinist manifesto.

At the end, he takes a dive into rank Freudian pessimism. By virtue of their Oedipal disconnection from mother, men will always be ambivalent about women. Boys can become mature if they can identify with the "good enough" father, although "such a development assumes there is a father there to be identified with".

Clare's innate conservatism doesn't spoil this book as a useful compendium of facts, anecdotes and theories. But you leave feeling that the "genderquake" has a few more major tremors to come - and that, after the rubble clears, the masculinities that survive will be a lot less familiar than Clare's Dublin-bourgeois preferences.

Comments