Father-types

In one of the lost posts from our Masculine Dreams days, I proposed that a recurring feature of the blog could be the identification of various male archetypes, or sterotypes. I gave as an example a short preview of a Jason Mraz concert I once wrote, which I titled "Male Archetype #22":

In high school, he was the soft-spoken boy who managed to make friends with the good-looking girls. Their boyfriends hoped that he was gay, but worried that he wasn’t, and that the platonic friendships might evolve, late one night after a deeply felt conversation, into something more.

Now in his mid-twenties, he’s come into his own. People pay money to see him play acoustic guitar and sing folksy songs with thoughtful and funny lyrics. Women swoon as he serenades them with lines like, "your body is a wonderland." His features, which in high school seemed too feminine, are now perceived as either delicate (elfin) or gentle (hobbit-ish). His clever T-Shirts, faded jeans, retro sportscoats and surfer-boy necklaces, which once seemed odd, now say sensitive in his own skin . Women — mostly white women — love him. Gay men ignore him. Straight men, inclined to hate him, find him so unthreatening, and his music so appealing, that they end up liking him (though they don’t admit so to their friends).

Celebrity Incarnations: John Mayer, Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson

It occurred to me just today, inspired by something I was reading, that we might also try to catalogue some father archetypes, since so much of being a man in these, our discontented times, has to do with our fathers. Here’s the passage I was reading that inspired me:

I am not competent to discuss the immediate grounds for the separation of my parents, whom, moreover, I may not judge or judge between. I can only note their incompatibilities.

No doubt, in his own way, my father loved his wife and children. Like other people, he must have craved affection himself, at least at times. Yet the slightest display of spontaneous affection toward him caused him an almost organic embarrassment. It challenged a similar response from him, and that he was unable to make. At the least loving gesture or word, he would freeze physically. His whole nature seemd to withdraw in a slow, visible motion that I can compare only to the creepy contraction of a snake into its coils–and as in a snake, it was physically disturbing to watch. Then, from a cold fastness, he would strike deliberately at the very impulse of affection, by waiting silently with a cuttingly tolerant smile, for the impulse to pass; or he would simply disregard it with a bitingly irrelevant word.

The effect was inhuman insult. Two or three such treatments were enough to poison a lifetime. There was almost no defense, since it is in the nature of a family to show its father affection, and spontaneous affection, by its nature, always lays itself open to sch repulse. My father never failed to take advantage of this whenever we forgot ourselves. Or so it seemed. Yet sometimes, when the irreperable damage had been done, and the wincing victim was turning angrily away, my father’s face would reveal a baffled loneliness, in which his inability to give and take simple affection encased him, like a mute in a coat of mail. Only to those who made no real claim on his affection, did my father seem able to step out of his armor. Then, to his friends, and he had many of them, he would appear as a being singularly simple, gentle, warm, fun-loving, rather childlike, rather happy.

The father in this case is Jay Chambers. The son is Whittaker Chambers, whose autobiography, Witness, I’m about 150 pages into (only 600 to go). It’s a fascinating, thus far beautiful book — not at all what I expected from what little I knew of Chambers, the pudgy, awkward anti-hero of one of the most iconic anti-communist trials of the American century (Alger Hiss being the more urbane anti-hero of that trial).

The kicker, in Jay Chambers’ case, is that he was gay (or "bisexual," as Sam Tanenhaus puts it, somewhat nitpickedly I think, in his biography of Whittaker Chambers). Chambers’ description of his father’s artsy-ness, earlier in the book, is fascinating, and would seem stereotypically gay if the book weren’t published in 1952, when we hadn’t all agreed, quite yet, on what stereotypically gay looked or sounded like.

In justice to my father, it must be said that he regarded himself first and foremost as an artists. … Just what his own standards were, it is difficult to say. … At last, to my astonishment, I was forced to conclude that for art in its great forms–painting, sculpture, architecture–my father had no real liking at all. I first suspected this when, in our occasional dreary tours of the Metropolitan Museum, he would rush me through the great paintings down to the medieval armor or textiles. I had the feeling that greatness annoyed him in a personal way, like a challenge to which he felt unequal, and that he endured it only as backdrop to his real interest, which was in ornament, costume, scenery–the minutiae and surfaces of things.

Later on, he developed a passion for grand opera. … For the yearning of my father’s mind was for far horizons in time and space. … The gorgeous East held my father’s spirit very much in fee. He was always sketching the Bosphorus waterside (in fancy) or describing the Oriental restaurants he frequented in New York. … Around the house, in those early days, my father sometimes wore a flowing linen samurai robe on which was stenciled a magnificent Japanese dragon that harmonized with the mood of the ferocious Japanese masks and windbells, the Chinese lanters, parasols, and the Hindu elephant go, Ganassa, that stood on his desk. There were five illustrated editions of the Arabian Nights in my father’s room, and both Scheherazade and Omar Khayyam were to play an important part in our lives, as I shall presently describe.

But the subtle spirit that informed our culture, and the only point of intellectual unity that I can detect in it, was pre-Raphaelitism. …. my father fell under the spell of the serpentine neck, the elegant anemia and flowing robes, the flight from the actual and ugly into the arabesque and the exotic. I suspect that my father’s artistic sense came to birth in that brief spasm of the dying 19th century, and there it rested. He never outgrew it. It was the names of the pre-Raphaelites, and others oddly associated with them, that I first heard as a child, in awed conversations between my parents or with my father’s artist friends, who occasionally visited us in those days: Rossetti and his sister, Holman Hunt, Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde, Walter Pater, Botticelli (whom Pater had helped to revive), Whistler, William Morris, Hokusai, Du Maurier and his Trilby. I memorized the exciting names as naturally as a boy memorizes a bird call and with no more understanding of what they meant.

On second thought, maybe Whittaker did know what he was describing. There’s something in the tone that hints at it, and even way back when, in the square, pre-Stonewall 1950s, a cultivated person like Chambers would likely be aware of the sexual subtext of the pre-Raphaelites and the Decadents.

Anyway, I’m not sure what the word or phrase is to describe Jay Chambers’ archetype, but there seems to be something universal about it.

Author: Masculinity and Its Discontents

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