The Collapsing Upper Lip: Loving The Unlovable Early 20th Century Masculinity

If one was so inclined (which I am) it would be easy enough to argue that Western Masculinity has been undergoing a dramatic change in nature over the last century, far more rigorous and bewildering than that of Industrialisation and the rise of the merchantile classes spreading the notions of masculine power and responsibility through more individuals. Improvements in communication, I think, may have a lot to do with it: women more able to speak to each other without interruption, across countries and continents, are more able to organise and achieve what their forebears were already battling for.
It would be hard to pinpoint the exact moment when the notion of the All Powerful Upper Class White Empire Male began to decline, because it hasn’t been an abrupt descent, but a series of small jerks and crunches. Doubtless each of the World Wars have played a part in crushing class barriers and gender inequalities. For Britain, the dissolution of the Empire brought more and more knocks to the notion of Natural Leader role we’d collectively brainwashed ourselves into thinking we deserved.
The imminent crash of Western Masculinity & Power, and the conflict between a fully-bought subscription to the idea of Masculine Power & Responsibility/The Empire and the necessary sense of Otherness derived from being homosexual (or merely not-heterosexual) is, I think, a potent source of fascination for me and at least partially at root in my interest in figures like T. E. Lawrence and Siegfried Sassoon.
T. E. Lawrence as a cadet at Newport Beach, near Falmouth, Henry Scott Tuke, 1921-22, Clouds Hill (National Trust), Dorset
Siegfried Sassoon in a rare smiling shot.
There is none of the sense of righteous struggle that there is in more visibly maligned demographics of the time: while there is the sense of secrecy and imposition of internal struggle due to societal homophobia, sexual orientation is one of the few things than CAN remain secret, festering as an internal wound comprised of self-disgust and fear of exposure. With the misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, classism, and other vicious prejudices in the last days at the height of an already-fading empire, there was no option for recipients of this treatment to participate in expected rule while carrying their own weight of internal self-horror with them.
Righteousness without hypocrisy bores me as a reader: it interests me more to see individuals unpicking their own beliefs and in conflict with themselves, and T. E., at least, is a rich seam of internal conflict. He is rabidly, ashamedly self-aware, and in later life filled up letters to Charlotte Shaw with self-analysis and recrimination for earlier views. Even in the midst of driving the engine of Empire he was engaged in doubt, piling transparent (even to him) self-deception over his too-soon clarity at what he was enabling. In hypocrisy and in self-pity, in high-mindedness born of torturous childhoods (the standard fare for men destined to Run An Empire: psychological destruction and the attempted murder of compassion), queer manhood in the upper and upper middle classes as the Empire reached the brink is a specific and heady drug.
There is again, I think, a particular idea that role models and subjections of historical fascination must be morally upright, and people we want to emulate rather than learn from, which remains with us from childhood. Peter Pevensie, who becomes a fine and wise heroic figure of a man, is a children’s role model. Sad, flawed, mistake-making men who are not quite brave enough to completely destroy their own privileges or buck the narrative that claims they somehow deserve them – who eat themselves from the inside while pouring their best efforts into Not Failing those they feel responsible for* are mine. Not because I think I ought to be like them, but because I think there’s a lot to be learned about how to improve from both their failures and their successes, and from their blind spots as well as their self-awareness.
More than this, I suspect I have a certain amount of fondness for them because it is handy to be reminded that at least some people felt that the powerful place they occupied in society conferred a responsibility of care onto them. I don’t believe it was universal, and I am sure there are people who still hold that belief, but it feels less as if that is the case; perhaps it is only that the few individuals who feel a real sense of responsibility for those less powerful than them no longer have such eloquent and self-assured figureheads.
Perhaps I will be optimistic, and suggest that the power in society is more evenly shared. It doesn’t look that way from here.
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