In my capricious and insecure teenage years, when I was desperate to know just who I wanted to be as a person, I was keenly aware of my desperate desire to be anything but ordinary. I didn’t know who I was destined to become, but I knew that I would feel like I had failed if I opened my eyes ten years later to look in the mirror and discover a person who had settled into the mundane drudgery of normality.
Though I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I was not alone in this. I didn’t realise that at the same time as I was trying to look at the world with Alice Liddell eyes, other girls were emulating the breathless passion of Elizabeth Bennett or the innocent allure of Lucy Honeychurch. So many of us had dreams of being something more, without realising the significance of our choices: we chose role models who embodied the too-little-recognised fact that it is good enough – nay, it is wonderful – to simply be you. They are strong and stubborn and find their own worth within themselves; they are heroines from the beginning – they just haven’t yet discovered it and from this, we learn that we can find fulfilment in ourselves. Though many would argue that we do not have enough representation of strong female role models, my own experience would tempt me to cite the cliché that it is quality over quantity that really matters. The value of my role models has never left me feeling cheated.
But, I wonder, can we say the same thing for men?
Because, as I look at the men that I have known and loved and lost, I recognise a tired old friend within them: that same flame of desperation, that reluctance to settle for normal, that desire to know when they are going to become more. Their role models never inspired them to find the hero within themselves or told them that being who they are is hero enough.
Male role models in literature are romantic fantasies; they are unreachable and unattainable but, contrary to popular belief, that is not merely exclusive to women. Males are taught that these are the people that they should try to be, and it is something that can leave them feeling lost and unfulfilled all the way into adulthood. There is the lingering desire to find themselves, to reject fate, to change the world, and it is a desire that hollows one’s soul.
What man doesn’t want to be Kerouac? When you join Sal Paradise as he strives to catch Dean Moriarty’s ‘burn, burn, burn’, you chase the promise of freedom and liberty, you chase the sun over the horizon and you chase the possibility that maybe, just maybe, you have got a little bit of that Catherine-wheel spark inside you too.
And when the world around us is full of politicians and yes-men and sheep, it is hard not to adopt a Holden Caulfield view of the world and sneer apathetically down your nose at those who have not realised the folly of society. When you are Holden, you are wise enough and strong enough to rebel against the shackles of conformity that are thrust upon you.
And consider Gatsby: cool, damaged and mysterious. A man who struggled beyond the circumstances of his birth and fought his way through the crowds of old money to make a name for himself, all for the love of a woman. To have people’s mouths handle his name with such curiosity and envy, to succeed in his battle against obscurity, to have the strength of conviction to tear down whatever obstacles stand in his way – surely, that is the true measure of man?
And these are but a few examples. Take A Clockwork Orange, The Sun Also Rises, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fight Club, Less Than Zero – here we find men who have nothing to lose or fear, whose lives have purpose even when it seems like there is none to find. They are poignant, richly woven characters who are a joy to read.
But they lack something fundamental in their position of role models.
They lack accessibility. They lack application. In our modern society, could Sal while away his years chasing the genius he knows lives within him? Could Holden maintain his integrity in a world that runs on corruption? Could Gatsby claw his way to the top when the disparity between ‘those who have’ and ‘those who have not’ is so great?
It is no wonder that some men struggle when faced with the responsibility of burgeoning adulthood and I am no longer surprised by the curious mix of panic and apathy that runs through their minds when they are thrust into the real world. Their role models have left them ill-equipped to find the capacity for greatness that lives within them and, rather than relying on their own strength to succeed, they are encouraged to be always searching for the external locus that will bring them meaning.
The great irony of man’s eternal yearning is that by always looking for the thing that we are missing, we can never see the opportunities that are right in front of us. And the common message that seems to link these heroes together is that happiness cannot be achieved by merely being fulfilled.
You must always be searching for something more.
Article by Phillipa Henly