Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Unspoken

How many major things never get said. How often families live and die with certain facts never explained, certain truths never acknowledged.

It was true in my family and in the culture as a whole in which I grew up. This explains, perhaps, my appreciation of the Tobias Wolff novel
Old School, which takes place at a boys' prep school in the early 1960s. When I put it down, I told myself, the title of this book could be called The Unspoken.

The narrator, a hardly fictionalized version of Wolff himself,  comments on the way certain things were taken for granted, never acknowledged, both by the school's culture generally and by his friends in particular.  "No acknowledgment of who we really were--of trouble, weakness or doubt--of our worries about the life ahead and the sort of men we were becoming. Never; not a word."

This sums up much of conventional masculine culture in which any admission of fear or the inner life in general is seen as inappropriate (i.e., effeminate or weak). These boys can and do talk about sex, of course, and their teachers' habits, but they rely on a superficial code of masculine behavior that is artificial and coolly detached. Even in the face of tragic news, they are reluctant to confide in one another and would rather be dead than seen weeping.

The novel is set in 1960, in the period of my own education in an all-male college prep school, but not a residential one in New England. As I think now of the boys I remember quite vividly from those days, I realize with a certain sadness that I never really knew them.  We had an acquaintance and an intimacy that resembled what went on our families, for the most part, where the Big Things were kept hush-hush.

The culture has changed quite a bit, after a generation of talk shows and tell-all books, yet I wonder how much has really changed in the life of young men as they grow up.  The ones I encountered in my course on masculinity (as in other courses) were often surprised at the candor of our discussions of conventional male behavior patterns, especially the stoic fa├žade, the "I don't want to talk about it" attitude.  Many were reluctant to say much on any topic.

Some of the smart ones, like Wolff, turned to writing; and it's no wonder so many people, men in particular, are drawn to writing: at last they can express what they truly feel. 

In the letters from schoolboys in earlier times, especially in the Victorian era, we can hear the yearning to share affection and other feelings with their mates, which they do in passionately romantic terms, saying things they would not be permitted to say aloud.

I have received, and still receive, written messages that nearly move me to tears--some from students, some from close friends who can only tell me of their admiration and love at a remove since when we are together, the discussion, however emotionally real or intimate, cannot quite express the depth of our bond and the gratitude we have for each other. The written word is safer.

I find this topic of men and friendship filled with sadness since so much of life goes unspoken, buried deep in the heart, covered over, sometimes crushed--adding to the stress that causes cardiovascular problems.  We all have known, or seen depicted, fathers estranged from their sons, yearning to express their love or admiration, sometimes waiting until it is almost too late.

When men can't even admit their fears and inner feelings to their wives or girl friends, tragedy invariably follows in the form of violence, alcoholism, or abuse.

I would like to think that Wolff's moving look at his high school days has become dated, but I doubt it. Fear holds men back from discussing fear, and from fear comes anger, hatred and violence.  The "real man" of strength has the courage to open his heart to others; he has outgrown the stoic code of repression that leads some boys to go so deep within that the only way they can find to validate their existence is to kill innocent strangers and themselves. No one should be surprised that the killer is almost always male.

1 comment:

Ned Kessler said...

This is what unfortunately for me is a rare visit back here to your wonderful blog. I can relate very well to this post of yours. I wonder though, if there's any irony intended in this paragraph:

"I have received, and still receive, written messages that nearly move me to tears--some from students, some from close friends who can only tell me of their admiration and love at a remove since when we are together, the discussion, however emotionally real or intimate, cannot quite express the depth of our bond and the gratitude we have for each other. The written word is safer."

I wonder if you could have removed the word "nearly" and maintain truthfulness. I suspect maybe you could.

Over the years, I've received a number of handwritten notes that moved me to tears. I've kept them but am not sure that I could give a logical, written reason for doing so.

In my letter writing, I find I can speak from my heart. I know that receiving the same words in writing can have a far different impact that if receiving the same message orally. It also removes the requirement for the recipient to hide his or her emotions, and yes, let the tears come.