Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Aesthetics versus Athletics (or Don’t Hate on the Pretty Boys): A guest post from Seth

My husband was willing to write a guest post on men and beauty..it's something we've talked about often. I hope you appreciate his perspective as much as I do!

There’s a mens conference coming up this month in Portland. I seriously debated going but not only is it a bit out of my price range, the discussion about “true masculinity” or “authentic manhood” or “men coming together as men” (an actual quote from the radio spot touting said conference) is beginning to bore me. It’s not that I don’t think it’s a worthwhile topic (depending on how you phrase it) but its gotten to the point where the same things are said over and over again. Blogs, radio shows, books, articles - all of them seem to have the same theory about men; we need to be challenged, we need adventure, we need permission to be real men. Sports and business-oriented analogies abound, exhortations are given to call each other on and fight the dragon and fellowship (yes, as a verb), and after a few self-gender-deprecating jokes about not being able to multi-task (like women) or fix things around the house (for women) or being a practice round for God’s masterpiece (women) we are sent off, refreshed and ready to face the world of man-haters. And I find myself appalled at the complete lack of substance. Because there’s one thing I’ve never heard mentioned in all the talks on masculinity or read about in any of the articles on manhood; and that thing is Beauty. Sure, there’s the whole “a beauty worth fighting for” concept where apparently my whole worth as a person is reduced to how well I defend someone else (not to mention what this says about her), and I seem to recall being told over and over again how lucky I should feel that such a dazzling and beautiful creature as woman should ever deign to look at the clod-hopping, troglodytic, dunce that is me. But never once have I heard someone mention the presence and importance of beauty in a man’s life apart from woman; as an aspect of his life that is not dependent on someone else but rather exists within and around him, and calls him up into itself to find God.
The whole concept that a man might not only respond to beauty and wish to create beauty but actually be beautiful is apparently uncomfortable for the average American Catholic male. Or at least the ones in a position to talk about such things from a public platform. But why should that be? How is it such a leap from saying that God created a the heavens as beautiful, created the world as beautiful, created the plants and animals as beautiful, and created woman as beautiful to saying that man must also (as a part of that creation) be beautiful? It would seem the height of egoism to state that he was created outside of all this beauty, to be the only thing in God’s mind that is both good but ugly and that everything beautiful was made so that he could enjoy it without being a part of it. God Himself is beautiful, how can man, made in His image and likeness, not be? Yes, it is true that God is also a warrior, a priest, a lion, a thief in the night (we’re going to leave the mother hen image aside for right now but trust me, I’m aware of it). But one thing He is not is compartmentalized. So while men are called to be brave, holy, fierce, and cunning we are also called to be icons, windows of His grace and beauty to the world.
And speaking of icons - how is it that the only masculine activities I hear mentioned by the experts are “active” in every sense of the word: football (soccer apparently being too cordial, rugby too European), hunting, fishing, hiking, and the ultimate, whitewater rafting. But never music, dance, art, literature, drama, or any of the more “refined” subjects. Mechanics are manly, painters are not. We’re reminded how much Blessed Pope John Paul II enjoyed skiing and celebrating Mass on mountaintops, not so advertised is his philosophy of acting or his letter to artists (which, contrary to popular man-opinion, is not the same as Mulieris dignitatum). We appreciate the magnificence and majesty of Church architecture and art but never look to the artists themselves - Bernini, Michaelangelo, Raphael, El Greco, Andrei Rublev, and hosts of other men have contributed untold riches to the world of aesthetics, it is difficult to comprehend how they could all be somehow inferior to a kick-boxing champion or NBA player just because they dedicated their lives to art instead of sports. Mozart, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Haydn, Bach, Evelyn Waugh (yes,a guy), Francis Thompson, St. Luke, St. Augustine, Giotto, Claude McKay, Baryshnikov, … it’s not that every man on this list is somehow the perfect epitome of masculinity (or virtue) but that they were all men giving their lives to the pursuit of beauty. And I think one would be hard-pressed to say that any failings in their lives were somehow linked to their endeavors and that if only they had become CEOs or wildlife rangers all would have been well.

King David sang, played the lyre, danced for God, and was described as a ruddy and handsome youth. He also slew Goliath and ruled a nation. He wrote the psalms. He massacred the Philistines. He fell and repented and prayed and was forgiven. He clearly had a sensitivity to beauty and it’s importance to our existence. And from his line came the Christ, the Savior, God-made-Man. Truly, in the words of Fyodor Dostoevsky, “beauty will save the world.”


  1. Seth!!! You should write more often!

    I suppose it's not shocking that this popular ideal of manliness is hanging around Catholicism. It sounds like a mishmash of the Promise Keepers and Wild at Heart stuff that swept Protestantism--oh, maybe two decades ago and one (ish... I didn't do my research here), respectively. And it's great for the guys who are inspired by sports and business, but it is an imbalanced message.

    I married a man who is bored by sports and unsettled by business. He's more philosopher and scholar than artist, although he does play the piano a little--and he mostly shrugs off the notion that outdoor prowess equals manliness. I am frequently awestruck by the beauty in him.

    I can list off numerous memories of being awed by beauty in my family and friends, too, the guys as often as the girls. Some of the men's moments.... My dad's long, knobby fingers holding a piece of delicate smithing work he's done. Our previous choir conductor under low Easter lights, keeping a crisp four-count with fine-boned hands, his gentle face intense with concentration. Sixteen-year-old John van Deusen, ten years ago in a low-lit coffeehouse, all blue eyes and brown curls and wandering voice and thundering piano. My father-in-law, the perfect crusty, white-haired gentleman in a charcoal suit, reading at Mass recently. I could go on and on and on, and those are just moments--there's always the fact that beauty is simply much of what I see and love and remember in everyone around me, male or female.

    We do truth such a disservice when we gender strength and beauty to the point of exclusiveness.

    Was it you and Masha I was telling recently about crying over the inscription on Raphael's tomb in the Pantheon, yet? I can't remember. He is one of my favorites, and I hadn't known he was buried there when I walked in, and then this: "Ille hic est Raphael, timuit quo sospite vinci, rerum magna parens et moriente mori," translated on a sign as something like, "Here lies Raphael, by whom Nature feared to be outdone while he lived, and when he died, feared that she herself would die."

    It's hard to beat that for beauty. Also: King David? My favorite Old Testament character, and just one of my favorite people ever. And the harp and lyre and poems and dancing are my favorite things about him.

  2. P.S.

    I seem to recall being told over and over again how lucky I should feel that such a dazzling and beautiful creature as woman should ever deign to look at the clod-hopping, troglodytic, dunce that is me

    That particular idea of male/female relation to beauty? I kind of despise it. And when the Wild at Heart kind of guys voice it, they seem unaware that they're repeating the same line that's behind the dopey-man/classy-woman sitcoms they were rebelling against in the first place.

    As for you, Masha surrounds herself with beauty more determinedly than anyone else I know, and you're clearly part of that vision, not outside it. I can't think offhand of any words that describe what I know of you less than "clodhopping, troglodytic dunce." :P Also, your art is gorgeous. Did I mention that your Etsy shop is amazing? Are you going to make packs of cards? Because you are waaaaaaaayyyy better than Hallmark...

    1. I hate it, too, Jenna! So many different kinds of wrong all whipped up together in a tower of gross.

      I think people who decry the dopey man / classy woman trope while also perpetrating their own version of it. . . aren't necessarily always unaware that there's a contradiction so much as they find both positions useful and satisfying in some way and would rather not have to give either one up, so just don't look at them too closely.

  3. HI SETH. This is pretty interesting! Sometimes I think all would be well if I had become a wildlife ranger. But only because I like hiking a whole lot.

    Heavily gendered anything is kind of hard for me to grok (that's Reason #1 I couldn't cut it as a Wiccan). I can sympathize when other people say, "This is my gender identity and here's how I express that," as long as the expression doesn't entail being a jerk in some way, but I couldn't honestly say something like that about myself. That means I'm slightly more insulated from a particular kind of disappointment. My reaction to something like Manly Man's Man Camp Retreat (or FemmeCon 2014, or whatever) would be an automatic PASS, because there isn't a hook for me. I can only imagine how discouraging it would be to hear about something like that, think, "Wow, I would like to explore my masculinity for a couple days!" and then learn that once again it was sports and money all the way down, with a side of housework jokes and a big frothy mug of Poetry Is For Girls. It sounds really frustrating :(

    Do you encounter this kind of thing in person, or mainly in Men's Retreat sorts of products (and that Way of the Passion Dragon guy whom I keep getting mixed up with John Piper; what's his name?) What do you think is behind it? (When it shows up in Catholic contexts, does it get linked up with the Mother Church thing?)

    What does masculinity mean to you? If you could design your own non-beefslab-and-sales-based Manhood Retreat, what would it include?

    Thanks for writing on this awesome topic!

  4. Thanks Jenna! I'm glad there's another guy out there who doesn't have to self-identify with some pro sports team and call them "we" (as in "ugh, I can't believe 'we' picked up So-and-So, well at least 'we' still have What's-His-Name and can you believe how awesome 'we' were in last nights game?") and that you married him. Congrats.
    And Laura, I'm glad you liked the post! I'll try and address your questions as clearly as I can...
    #1 This is a topic that unfortunately comes up a lot. I never knew it was so difficult to be comfortable in your own gender until I started engaging in late night bonfire conversations; which are usually great but can tend towards the over-complication-of-simple-things route. There seem to be a lot of guys who feel they aren't doing something right if they're not actually DOING something.
    #2 I have no idea what's behind it. Still haven't figured that one out.
    #3 "What does masculinity mean to me" is one of those questions I always feel stupid at, like when you're supposed to pick a reaction to some hypothetical situation so you can diagnose your personality. I always feel like I should know, but then I freeze. I guess I just don't like to overthink it, there's no particular formula that I've seen and I think it's problematic to try and create one.
    #4 A men's retreat, in my mind, shouldn't be so focused on MEN as it should be on RETREAT; there's merit to hanging out with just guys every now and then but the topic shouldn't always have to be so redundant. If a bunch of guys want to hang out and talk theology or philosophy or whatever it seems problematic to force them to discuss it "as guys". Aren't they already doing that?!
    -The Neglected Husband