30 November 2008

One for Men

It’s surprising that so many of us Literature-wallahs falter when it comes to men.

Ok, that was a bit too loaded; the title of this piece is in itself a bit too loaded…but still, isn’t that true?

Critical attitudes towards men are often black and white from the one pole of harsh condemnation to the other of negligence with almost nothing substantial in between. Criticism seldom, if ever, focuses on men except to highlight their deviousness, their duplicity, their sadism, their nihilism, their moral degeneracy…so on and so forth.

This, of course, stems from feminism.

Of the few ‘readings’ which are regularly applied to texts, one of the most prominent, and indeed, the most predictable, is feminism. You’re sure to come across this; critiques on the condition of women in such and such society, lengthy essays on this or that aspect of a bildungsroman of a female protagonist, intense speculations on the evolution of constructs and institutions like motherhood, womanhood, matrimony etc…these are stock and barrel strategies of modern (or is it post-modern?) classroom criticism. One begins with discussing the society of so and so period, goes on then to deduce the attitudes towards women from the given text and, with the help of critical material, concludes with an overview of the deplorable conditions of women at that time.

So far, so good. All this is right and proper. Women have suffered a lot, perhaps an inestimable lot, throughout the course of human existence. Our way of life-patriarchy-has thrust onto them innumerable privations and indignities…the annals of social history are full of the most appalling crimes, the most horrendous violence against them. It is important for all to realise the enormous magnitude of these inequities, for only when we are aware of the injustices of the past can we successfully strive to forge a better world. In this, and in many other things, feminism aids us.

Yet, like all schools, just as feminism broadens one’s horizon, it simultaneously narrows it down. An excess of feminism, like an excess of everything else, ultimately brings about subtle changes in a critic’s objectivity till the same dissolves with his/her subjectivity to morph into a more or less indistinguishable body. Texts wherein feminist readings are warranted are given overtly feminist interpretations, almost obliterating other explanations. Be it professors or students, all focus exclusively on the condition of women, on the crimes perpetuated against them, on the hazards of patriarchy, on the tyranny of men…

This is what is dangerous.

First of all, I have a problem with dealing with these issues as concerning females, or being ‘feminist’. I would much rather see them as concerning not one half (or, sadly, a bit less than half…) of humanity but the whole of this race, as being issues which affect males and hermaphrodites as well.

Secondly, and more pertinent to this discussion, is the exclusivity of these interpretations. True women have suffered a lot, but that doesn’t negate the suffering of men. Just as females are gendered into women and womanhood is a construct, so are males gendered into men and so is manhood or manliness a construct. While analysing texts to critically comment on the condition of women as projected through them, we very often forget, deliberately or not, to consider the condition of men.

More than that, we often go overboard with our criticism, blowing things wildly out or proportion, demonising men and patriarchy far more than is necessary. When Calonice in Lysistrata talks about her household chores, we immediately shake our heads with sympathy: poor dear she had so much work to do, how awfully burdened she was with all those petty domestic jobs, what a miserable life she must’ve had…Sidney’s Stella is a figure of even greater pity, a non-existent creature without a voice. In fact, the more things change, the more they remain the same- look at plain old Jane, she had a voice, but then she also suffered so many trials and tribulations. It’s so unfair…things were too easy for men, way too difficult for women!

Agreed things were difficult for women, but that doesn’t mean they were easy for men. The ancient division of labour on the basis of sex and age was very much a survival tactic. This is not to say that women are inferior to men: no, instead, this is to say that males are for the most physically stronger than females and that it is all the more efficient for the former to do the greater amount of manual labour. When poor Calonice would be spinning wool inside the comparative safety of her home and instructing slaves to do this or that, her husband would as likely as not be out in some dusty, stuffy factory painstakingly making that famous Athenian pottery or in some wheat farm ploughing with his own hands or, as is actually the case in the said play, out on the battlefield risking his life for her sake. So very unfair that men had to risk their life in battle every now and then while women would sit at home spinning at the wheel, or making bread, or washing the clothes, or tending to the baby.

Let no one perceive this as an invective against housework. Having voluntarily had some experience of cooking and washing, I have the greatest possible respect for all domestic goddesses. It is hard work, there’s no doubt about it: without our modern amenities it would’ve been harder still. Yet, that applies for men as well; their life too was difficult, their existence too fraught with dangers. Being a woman, leave apart a lady, is no easy task, but then, so is being a man, more still a gentleman, an onerous challenge. The codes of arête and dharma in ancient times, of chivalry in the Middle Ages, of gentlemanly behaviour in the Age of Science and Reason and their remnants in our own (post?) modern days…these are the constructs at the hands of which gendered men have suffered, will continue to suffer along with women. The point is not whether the latter is difficult than the former: no, instead, it is that the both, as more or less universal constructs originating from a more or less universal way of life, are equally difficult, or equally easy, and that while analysing one the other should always be kept in mind


Prashansa Taneja said...

Very well said, gentleman!

Ali.mostaque said...

You write very well. You should write more frequently. I enjoyed your swear article. You could have touched on some of the regional swear words, or not so common swear words. You focused on the most common and controversial ones; though interesting.

At another level I think South Asians are verbose people, and some where there expletives must come into the language both to express endearment and anger.

Sorry to be off topic.

AP said...

Thanks, both of you.

To Mostaque-
Ah, well, I do feel like writing more but then I'm not able to take out that much time for it...

About my choice of gaalis, I've used all those which the people in the dedication gave me. I was aware of a few of these, esp. the chode ones because they're so common, but many were new to me.

Perhaps South Asians are verbose...but I guess everybody is, eh? There are quite a lot of swear words in English as well...