Appealing to a man’s strength is a coquette’s trick (& a man’s weakness), but it works. Calvin Trillin repeats his father’s advice – “You might as well be a mensch.” A man wants to be heroic, virtuous, strong, manly. My daughter explained her husband’s appeal: she could count on him to take care of her. That view of him was her appeal. (My somewhat strident daughter stands at 5’10” and holds many fully formed opinions – she doesn’t appear dependent. But she leans on him.) A boy becomes a man by finding his strength; however, heroism – rescuing a community from plagues and a princess from a dragon – has taken a sentimental turn. We’ve always found vulnerability attractive, but a pattern has emerged in which the hero rescues the most vulnerable – seeing in a child his own unformed self. The rescue redeems. The hero’s transcendence, increasingly difficult in our ironic world, remains possible with a fragile baby or toddler.
My husband’s colleague is high on a South African movie, Tsotsi. We watched it last night. The township setting and the unattractive thugs Tsotsi leads take American viewers into an exotic world, where the inhabitants wait in line for buckets of water but wander into a twenty-first century city to pilfer and kill. It is sentimental and somewhat unrealistic (few babies – especially ones that appear to be fed but once a day – cry as little as this one, for instance). It is also moving, well acted, details poignant. It appeals to universal feelings. We see Jim’s heroism in Huckleberry Finn, transcending his role as the superstitious butt of Tom’s jokes to become Huck’s caring, moral mentor; Huck, on the other hand, moves closer to manhood by choosing to free Jim – protecting the father figure vulnerable by skin color. This is the plot in the more sophisticated but even more jaded culture of Kolya. That both Tsotsi and Kolya won Academy Awards as the best foreign films of their years indicate the Academy buys this form of sentimentality – and I must admit that, I, too, enjoyed them. And I much preferred it to similar plots in American adventure movies where Harrison Ford or Bruce Willis (attractive as they may be) find themselves in circumstances where they become more caring by protecting a child. We are touched by the great (indeed primitive and evolutionary) instinct to protect the next generation. And so a hero is brought to self-consciousness, buried emotions rise up – none more poignant than Tsotsi, standing, with tears streaming down his face. The baby has taught him to feel sympathy for others, to feel sympathy for himself. If some emphasize the chase more than dialogue, the emotion they evoke is old: sympathy for the vulnerable and appreciation of the self-sacrifice of the strong.
Part of the problem with sentimentality is that it appeals to emotions that are already there – it doesn’t have to earn them. The creator can count on our responses – but they are there because they are real. The sentimental simplifies a reality complicated, varied, and even tainted. We are moved by the growth of a cynical character, hardened and ironic, who is redeemed using his strength to protect the vulnerable. The pathos – a characteristic of the sentimental – is required because the larger dilemma – fighting for the king, freeing the damsel from a dragon – isn’t available to such writers. We’ve seen in the way Hollywood seems impelled to see Iraq that these great old themes are beyond some modern artists’ imagination. Who is anybody – or anything (including our country) – to expect fealty from us; how dare we see women as vulnerable, as weaker? We question the old ways, but we still want a hero. And our men want to be heroic, they want purpose. I love the weathered emphasis upon renunciation and duty that Americans as well as Victorians celebrated in the late nineteenth century. But many (especially certain kinds of artists) cannot take duty seriously. I am reminded of the story Peggy Noonan told of the reaction to a story of the priest giving firemen the last rites before they entered the towers on 9/11 – a young man said, simply, those guys must have been crazy. We can’t see heroes as crazed. So, in some modern imaginations that old appeal only comes with the rather saccharine image of a vulnerable child, whom a character is moved to protect. But, Tsotsi makes clear that the protector remains a child –moved by identification with a vulnerable child, who reminds him of himself. (He “names” the child the name he has left in his past, David, having taken on the name of Tsotsi, thug.)
Watching the movie, I was reminded of a conversation that afternoon with a student. His work is quite passable – when he does it. But he doesn’t often do it. He feels his papers could be better; he doesn’t hand in the paper that is finished, he argues, for he thinks of the paper it could be. His paths through a series of colleges seem marked by his lack of clarity about what he wants to do, why and how he wants to be trained. He had at one point not gone to school and made fairly good money working. As he continued talking, he told of his failed relationship with a girl, a relationship that had produced a baby his parents idolized and were helping support. If I were his parents, I, too, would have made that choice – taking responsibility for the children they loved – both their son and their son’s. And wanting to give their son a launching pad, they encouraged his work toward a degree, seeing it as a transition to a fulfilling, productive and lucrative future. Last semester, I heard a similar story from a student whose relationship had continued, but they had chosen abortion – an abortion first botched and then redone. This disaster, not surprisingly, left him often absent in body but almost always in mind. This student, too, appeared to have more potential than his work demonstrated.
I suspect that movies like these are derived from our suspicion that the rather unattractive aimlessness of the protagonists is not a signal that life has been too hard (though in these cases life has, indeed, been quite hard and, especially in the South African film, incredibly so) but rather that too little has been expected. When we no longer expect men to take on the responsibilities of being fathers we forget that we are also no longer expecting them to become grownups. Most of all, we forget that being responsible for another is not just a marker of maturity but often a path to it. When I was young, in what sometimes seems not just another century but another world, many a boy found himself at 18 with a pregnant girl friend and a community that expected him to shoulder the responsibility for that wife, that baby, and that future. That some of these marriages ended up quite badly is true. That many did not – and certainly not many more than those of their children who wed at 25 or 30 – is also true. Of course, college became more difficult. And in places like villages along the Platte, opportunities were few and bleak. But that many boys and girls became men and women by their early twenties is also true. They weren’t drifting, they weren’t waiting for the perfect moment for wife or baby or paper or presentation. Nor is it all that surprising that in my summer class is also a girl who had a baby at 16. That baby is not yet three, but the girl apparently pulled herself into something like maturity. She missed class to find daycare in the city where she is moving this fall. But, she asked permission, requested notes from that day, and then came back the next day with the place for her little family secured. Her abilities and that of the two boys do not appear strikingly different; their grades, however, will be.
I didn’t have my first child until I was 32; the guys I dated in my late teens are better left undisclosed; I’ve always felt the most difficult job I’ve had in this life was raising my children and that I’ve often failed – despite the fact that it took all the maturity I had with difficulty pulled together by the time I started having them. I am not in a position where I can judge others. That any marriage I entered during those years would most likely have been severed by now is true – and if it hadn’t, I doubt I would have been a good mother. I suspect I would be beset by bitterness and anger. In other words, I am probably one of those people who shouldn’t have married then and it would have been a disservice to any child I might have had to have me as a mother. Perhaps, of course, if pregnancy had happened – if we had had to face that responsibility – maybe those guys I think of as immature jerks would have become mature fathers, maybe I, who was neither stupid nor lazy if self-absorbed and silly, could have pulled it together and become a mother. Maybe. . . I don’t know.
One thing I am quite sure of, however, is that our society, by finding so many ways to tell us that all moments are salvageable, that we need commit to nothing, that all mistakes can be cleared and we can begin again – does our children a disservice. Neither redemption nor forgiveness wipes the tablet clean – facts are facts and what happened did happen.
I suspect that “moving on” is often denial – and seldom a path to a productive life. It breeds the kind of cynicism that we always feel when the words differ from the reality. We aren’t fools. Denial is not a good basis for maturity. We can’t transcend if we don’t face this memory. Heroism may well be moving out of our own weakness to protect a weaker form of us. But at some point we need to think of ourselves not as child but parent, not as damsel but as knight.
So, I see these boy/men, sitting in the back of my classes, their minds wandering. No one – least of all perhaps themselves – thinks of them as grownups, but many of them have reached their mid twenties. At most other places and at most other times, they’d have an adult’s responsibilities. And sometimes I worry that it is dangerous to move into our twenties with such perceptions unchallenged. We can’t develop a good accent in a foreign tongue after puberty – master the language though we may, learn it as we can, write in it as beautifully as Conrad writes in English; maybe there is an age that once passed means that being grown up will never be an integral part of who we are. Perhaps maturity will be an acquired rather than a deeply felt condition. I should know. My maturity was late and in some important ways I’m only now beginning to understand what I should have known long ago.
A society with a strong sense of duty has compensations. Certainly, renunciation can enlarge and strengthen as it limits and dwarfs the romantic’s “I.” These plots show us that growth is sublimation, but it also leads to transcendence: a broader freedom in the confidence it nurtures. These movies were enjoyable and powerful. I would like more of them; I would like to feel the kind of tragic triumph those last scenes promise. But I would also rather that the industry did not feel the only way to evoke that sympathy was so strongly weighted with pathos. And I would like to live in a society in which young men saw themselves as responsible for consequences – whether of late papers or babies.