MAKING SENSE OF CATALAN MASCULINITY: A CHALLENGE…

Last Friday 24 I taught a group of visiting American undergrads a seminar which I called ‘Making Sense of Catalan Masculinity.’ I published a post on 12 April regarding my worries about how to organize the contents; here I offer a summary. I must say that the students were great, I enjoyed very much the ensuing debate and their intelligent questions. As it often happens, when I asked the 3 young men (and 15 young women) about their view of masculinity, they were a bit taken aback. One young man told me very candidly he had not really thought about the matter. The girls had… And, yes, they agreed that Hollywood movies reflect well American men’s fears about appearing to be ‘losers,’ ‘homos’ and ‘sissies.’ Quite different here, I think.

It seems that Catalan men have not given much thought to Catalan masculinity so far. If you Google “homes catalans” and similar variations, you’ll see that nothing comes up. I did come across a list of the 50 most influential Catalan women, and the 50 most influential Catalan media personalities, but nothing specific about Catalan men or masculinities. Well, I did learn from a Canary Islands female journalist that our men are complete morons since they have more sex on the days when local football team Barça wins matches… My academic search did not go much further, either. The two main volumes published in Barcelona and in Catalan are: Calçasses, gallines i maricons: Homes contra la masculinitat hegemònica, edited by Josep-Anton Fernàndez (Angle, 2003) and Masculinitats per al segle XXI: Contribucions als congressos de masculinitat a Barcelona, 2003-2007 edited by Josep Maria Armengol (Centre d’Estudis dels Drets Individuals i Col•lectius, 2007). In Armengol’s volume there is no specific essay on Catalan masculinity; I still need to read the other book…

Catalan men… I spoke to colleagues, friends and family and, of course, I was told that it is impossible to generalize and that once I start categorizing a particular local masculinity then I should need to map them all. This is funny, as the day before the seminar I had an interesting conversation about Basque matriarchy, whether it does exist or it is a myth (and in which way, here is the paradox, it is patriarchal). Anyway, I made a gigantic list of Catalan male icons and decided finally to choose a few, or collapse under the weight of so many popular names.

I think I am on safe ground if I claim that Barça’s football team is essential to understand Catalan men, and not only in the sense highlighted by the Canary Islands journalist. Since star Leo Messi is an Argentinean (and Neymar from Brazil), I focused, rather, on Xavi Fernández, Andrés Iniesta, and Gerard Piqué, who seem to be the most obvious poster boys–and, of course, Pep Guardiola, now coaching Bayern at Munich. This is the man who, together with Jorge Valdano in Real Madrid, taught men that football is not incompatible with personal elegance and with an education. The other Catalan male icons I showed the visitors are: Ramon Pellicer and Josep Cuní (media), Artur Mas and Oriol Junqueras (politics), Joel Joan and Andrés Velencoso (acting and fashion), Albert Rivera and Jordi Évole (Catalan men with a Spanish projection). The students deduced that Catalan men are not much concerned as regards physical attractiveness, but they saw in the photos an inclination towards idealized middle-class professionalism. Um, yes, I think so. Or was it my choice of names and photos?

In the course of preparing the seminar I came across a hilarious piece on a website, “10 Tipus d’Homes Catalans” (http://benegre.cat/2014/12/03/10-tipus-dhomes-catalans/ ). This is not intended to offer an exhaustive catalogue of all men you can find in the streets of Catalonia but it is true that you recognize the types, to which I have added two. Here they are, with my approximate translation: 1. el perroflauta (the recycled hippie, with his local okupa undertones), 2. el fucker (the sexy but tasteless guy), 3. el runner (more obsessed by sports equipment than by sports), 4. el modernillu (the hipster), 5. el cholo català (the son of Latino migrants), 6. l’extraradi (the son of Spanish migrants), 7. el pijet (the brand-obsessed son of the 1980s ‘pijo’ or trendy guy), 8. El pijipi (the posh hippie, yes…), 9. El marca blanca (the non-descript guy), 10. l’emprenedor (money matters rule…). I added l’indepe (for Independence!) and the pagesot (the country boy). I had great fun choosing the illustrations for the PowerPoint… I used Manel, everyone’s favourite Catalan pop band, to explain the ‘non-descript’, possibly the most common type right now…

Here are the main traits I came up with, in my pseudo-sociological approach:

*Catalan men are not blatantly patriarchal. My personal impression is that sexism is moderate in Catalonia but, as a friend reminded me, perhaps the truth is that patriarchy is less vocal while still keeping a firm, covert hold.

*Catalan men, I believe, are family-oriented but strictly as regards their own nuclear family, and not a more extended kind of family. I put as an example of the local fusion of patriarchy and matriarchy the Pujols: the many corruption scandals they have been involved in recently do stress that Jordi Pujol, the President of the Catalan Government for more than 20 years, is actually a tool in the hands of his power-hungry wife, Marta Ferrusola.

*Catalan masculinity is defined by a contradictory discourse which mixes professional success and political victimization. This a nation of small businessmen, perhaps still best represented by shop-owners, both the classic ‘botiguer’ and the more modern versions. Yet, this commercial success clashes with the idea that national leadership is limited because of the enmity of the Spanish Government. Catalan men appeal to this supposed victimization indeed too often, failing in the process to make more effective civil and civic contributions.

*Catalan men are not particularly emotional in social and personal contact. The whole culture tends towards limited displays of positive and negative emotion (perhaps with the exception of Barça… and the demonstrations for independence) both in public and private.

A few years ago I started a paper on Joel Joan’s TV series Porca Misèria (2004-7) as I thought that his own character, Pere Brunet, and that of his brother and antagonist, Roger Brunet (played by Roger Coma), are interesting representations of Catalan masculinity. I abandoned the paper half-way through as I am, after all, a specialist in Anglophone culture and I decided that working on Catalan texts was becoming a distraction. I feel now that, after so many years studying Anglophone masculinities, it might be time to have a good look at our local guys. Perhaps I should study the current TV3 soap La Riera, or Joel Joan’s recent El crac, or the political humour of Polònia but then I think that all this is for my Catalan Studies peers to research. The additional problem is that local Catalan Cultural Studies hardly exist as such, and sociology can provide us only with limited cultural insight.

I’ll be happy, and I really mean it, to receive proof of the opposite, so if you happen to know about any study of Catalan masculinity (or masculinities), I would very much like to read it. For next year’s seminar.

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AFTER SANT JORDI: ROSES OUTNUMBER BOOKS

For those reading me outside Catalonia, I need to explain that 23rd April, Saint Jordi’s festivity, is a gigantic civic holiday all over the nation. According to the segment devoted to this celebration on the website of Barcelona’s Town Council, Saint Jordi fuses together the old legend of the dragon-slaying hero (possibly descended from Perseus and his sea monster) and the martyrdom of a knight (doubtful…) under Emperor Diocletian (284 to 305 AD). Both legend and saint are commemorated around the time when roses bloom, and it seems that already in the 15th century Barcelona boasted of a rose fair celebrated at the Catalan Government’s palace. It seems that the tradition by which men (must) give their sweethearts a rose dates back from that time…

The idea of celebrating books on the same date is much more recent. In 1927 Valencian writer Vicent Clavel i Andrés, also a publisher, proposed to the ‘Cambra Oficial del Llibre’ of Barcelona and to the ‘Gremi d’Editors i Llibreters’ that a holiday was established for the promotion of books in Catalonia. The original date chosen, 29 October, was changed in 1929, when the booksellers mounted the first street book market on 23rd April. This also happens to be the date when both Cervantes and Shakespeare died, in 1616, which came in handy for UNESCO to declare in 1995 23rd April ‘World Book Day’. Not that you hear much about this internationally.

This year’s Saint Jordi has been hailed as one of the most successful ones in recent memory, meaning during the current economic crisis. At least 250 writers (possibly 50 more) signed books; major figures like Ken Follett kept fans queuing for more than 2 hours, many of them failing even so to get his autograph… La Rambla was so packed, that Major Trias suggested moving the main bookstall area, once and for all, elsewhere for fear of accidents… The best-selling writers were María Dueñas (in Spanish) and Xavier Bosch (in Catalan). A group of medicine students and a group of Roma street sellers almost came to blows towards the end of the day when the students’ decision to lower the prices of the roses they were selling to make some extra money threatened to destroy business…

Now, of all the hullaballoo what caught my attention this time is that 7,000,000 roses were sold (yes, that’s right, as many as Catalonia’s inhabitants) but only 1,500,000 books. Roses, (over-)priced 2 to 7 euros, are obviously cheaper than books, 15-20 euros on average (minus the customary 5% discount). Also, they’re bought on Saint Jordi’s day itself, which is not the case with books (I, for instance, purchased the 6 books I gave as presents 2 weeks before, which means that the total number of books sold around Saint Jordi must be bigger, as not everyone loves the massive street crowds of the holiday). Even so, the picture that emerges is that although Catalan men are romantic enough, Catalans altogether are not that keen on reading… Let’s say that only around 20% got books.

The main local newspaper, La Vanguardia, published on Saint Jordi’s a summary of the general survey by CIS (Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas), published in December 2014. CIS data refer to all Spaniards, but this will do for my purposes. 35% of Spanish people never read: 37,9% of all men, 32,1% of all women. They just don’t like reading (42%), lack time (23%) or prefer other type of entertainment (15%). As I always say, if you like something, you always find time… I prefer the two other, far more honest answers. Among those who do read, 65% of the Spanish population then, many claim to read every day (men 24’40%; women 34’90%), which I very much doubt. If seems Spaniards do not only lie about how often we practice sex… It seems more realistic to claim, as around 16% do, that they read twice a weak (does this also apply to sex??). By the way, the average books-per-year figure for Spanish readers is 8’69… less than one a month… They must be very slow readers…

A common complaint on Saint Jordi’s day is that books may be celebrated but not really culture as many best-selling authors on that day are media celebrities or, at best, middle-brow authors. You can check for yourself at http://www.lavanguardia.com/libros/sant-jordi/20150422/54430780161/firmas-autores-sant-jordi-2015.html. Mariló Montero was there, but also Carme Riera… Anyway, back to CIS: which genres do Spaniards enjoy reading? I’m not sure whether it is surprising that they prefer historical fiction (23’6%), followed by general fiction (17,9%), adventure (7’6%), detective fiction (7’4%). There is a joke somewhere in the fact that 6’1% read romance fiction and 4’4% science fiction, as both figures are very low (3’7% fantasy??? Who did CIS ask, I wonder…). Below 4% you find other genres like biography, essays, short fiction, self-help, poetry, cooking books, travel, drama, comics. I find it very, very hard to believe, all the same, that self-help (1,9%) and poetry (1,7%) have a very similar share of the market… or that only 0’6% read comics and graphic novels. Really, CIS? Have you ever visited FNAC? I got curiouser and curiouser and checked CIS’s website to find out that Spaniards read mainly for entertainment (61’6%) and not really to improve our culture (10’4%) or be better informed (12’8%). We choose books by subject matter or genre (64’5%), and not by author (16’6%)–poor things! Blurbs matter more than covers, by the way.

The other matter that got me curious is what Spaniards do instead of reading. CIS asked how much free time they have on a working day and the answer baffles me, for only 5’8% claim to have no time at all… whereas 44’1% grant they have between 2 to 4 hours of leisure every day. 27’7% of all Spaniards say they have from 8 to 5 spare hours a day. I don’t get it… This, however, makes sense if we consider that daily viewing time of TV in Spain (for 2014) amounts to 238 minutes per person, that is, 4 hours. The historical record was 246 minutes, reached in 2012. Figures are possibly much higher for Spaniards aged 65-75 who do not use the internet (25% claim they do) than for young people aged 16-24 who do surf the net (98,4%). These claim that they have mainly quit watching TV (62%) rather than reading books (27%).Yet, as everyone knows, internet consumption among the young is closely tied to watching TV series online or using downloads. I won’t say a word about the 25% of unemployed general population in Spain or the 50% of unemployed young people under 25. Well, just one question: how do they fill in the hours spent in despair, hoping a job finally materializes?

Five roses for every book sold, this is who we are, the lucky ones with money to spare and limited time in our hands.

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RESPONDING TO ‘THE ACADEMIC MANIFESTO’ (BY HALFFMAN AND RADDER): SHOCK AND AWE

My colleague David Owen has circulated among us, Literature teachers, a juicy article by Dutch professors Willem Halffman and Hans Radder, “The Academic Manifesto: From an Occupied to a Public University” (Minerva: A Review of Science, Learning and Policy, 3 April 2015, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11024-015-9270-9/fulltext.html). This is a very bitter indictment of the intrusion of what they call ‘management’ and I call ‘bureaucracy’ into the university, clearly far more advanced in the Netherlands as regards the occupation of our professional world by private corporate interests than in Spain. They call for the counter-occupation of the university and its transformation into a real ‘public university,’ by which they don’t simply mean ‘state-sponsored’ but working to benefit the citizens. I’ll refer here extensively, then, to the article and try to answer back in some way, from a different yet similar (Spanish) university context.

Halffman and Radder offer a very through dissection of the negative effects that the “regime obsessed with ‘accountability’ through measurement, increased competition, efficiency, ‘excellence’, and misconceived economic salvation” has forced into what should be an institution geared at the production and dissemination of knowledge for the common good. The saddest part of this catastrophe is that, as they show, we all contributed to letting the Wolf in about 25 years ago when the younger generation decided to do away with the sluggish ivory-tower university and show to society what we are capable of. Since, basically, society still thinks we live in that old-fashioned ivory-tower, we have allowed their delegates, the bureaucrats (who hate us for the supposed ‘privileged’ nature of our jobs) to control our production and, frankly, to limit our capacity for thinking. How? Well, by turning us, as Halffman and Radder explain, into sheep who meekly obey all the absurd regulations imposed on us for the sake of hanging by the skin of our teeth onto the possibility, more and more remote, of producing knowledge, as it is our vocation.

From their comments, I understand that the Dutch university is far more privatised than the Spanish university, as we still run, basically, ourselves our own institutions, despite the growing control by external forces, like the ‘Social Councils’ (not to mention the companies funding research). Anyway, here are six “excesses” they identify, quite familiar too (mostly) here in Spain, followed by my comments paraphrasing their words:

1. “Measurability for accountability”: we need to produce, produce, produce to keep up with changing indicators that only result in an “illusion of excellence”; so much over-production leaves with no time to actually read and think.
2. “Permanent competition (for ‘quality’)”: this is a mechanism devised to keep everyone on their toes, for it is easy to see that knowledge is generated by collaboration and networking.
3. “The promise of greater ‘efficiency’”: Competition increases (rather than decrease) the cost of running the universities as we waste time and resources vying with each other for students and funding.
4. “The adoration of excellence: Everybody at the top!”: rather than help many to do research, top researchers get more and more resources, leaving nothing for the rest (nor for discredited, cheaply-funded science)
5. “Contentless process management”: the bureaucratization of the university means much more work for teachers/researchers, who become admin servants
6. “The promise of economic salvation”: the universities lose their autonomy in research by following the orders of the private companies that fund projects; non-profit-oriented fields, from philosophy to mathematics, are dismissed as a financial burden.

We, Halffman and Radder write, have internalised the Wolf and feed it by, I’ll add, living to fill in our C.V.s rather than to transmit knowledge. Yet, since we lost long ago the support of society, to a great extent because of the many indolent ivory tower inhabitants, there’s very little we can do to explain our plea and gain sympathy. Nobody cares. How, then, do we change matters? The authors of the “Academic Manifesto” suggest up to 20 measures, actually 21 as they also support Pels’ (2003) call to replace “the publication rat-race with more meaningful, slower-paced and more considerate research.” Publish, in short, only when you have something to say and after carefully thought out research. Anyway, the 20 measures are (quotation marks for verbatim citation, otherwise my paraphrasis):

1. An administration style open to academic staff, students and supporting staff (we do have that at UAB, yet the impression is that most decisions are made by higher instances…)
2. The administration supports the staff, and not the other way round (we justify the work done by the bureaucrats); also, point 9. the university administration must be accountable to the academic community and not vice versa
3. “Limiting wasteful control systems” (self-explanatory–consider all the resources wasted on checking what we do, and how they punish those who work harder)
4. “A ban on mergers”: currently happening in Spain at Department and ‘Facultat’ levels, though not yet at a university level; we have the opposite problem–too many universities.
5. A less intensive focus on our own institution, a more open vision encompassing all local universities; this is complemented with 6. “No wasteful competition between universities”
7. “A ban on university marketing” to attract students, followed by 8. using the university media to transfer knowledge to society, not for our own marketing
10. “No real estate speculation”, think of the universities in Barcelona occupying areas in central locations and gentrifying them…
11. No top researchers allowed not to teach (fine by me, but also limit teaching so that whoever wants to do research can do it); accompanied by 15. Rejecting ‘productivity’ as the main “research assessment criterion” and, this is a good one, 16. “Introducing the Sabbatical Year” so that once every 7 years we can stop, read and think.
12. “Free education” but also 13. a limitation of student population so as not strain public resources and 14. promoting “vocational training” as a professionally attractive alternative to the university.
17. Freeing research from its bondage to content-oriented interests, both in production and assessment (18), which also translates as giving researchers time to follow long-term lines and not only projects with immediately applicable results.
19. Make society both a partner and the target of our activities, by 20. establishing an open access system to distribute knowledge.

Now, here’s the problem–what do you do if the managers/bureaucrats and society do not care for any of the above? Halffman and Radder call for “resistance” and “shaking off our fear”, yet what they offer sounds often like desperate measures: 1. leaving the university, 2. legal action, 3. “Muddling through” and even “work-to-rule,” 4. sabotage, 5. collective refusal, 6. trade unions, 7. mass demonstration, 8. establish contra-indictors as counter-measures (and disseminate knowledge about our real working conditions), 9. striking, 10. occupying the university, 11. parliamentary and political action. Working, as I do, in a ‘Facultat’ (or school) were 9 and 10 are recurrent but totally useless events, I can only proclaim my scepticism. Also, in view of the fact that more than 50% of our staff are temporary workers and those of us who are tenured are gripped by our… throats by a system that has frozen our salaries and only offers tiny inducements by passing assessment exercises (or the very unlikely chance of promotion to full professor). Actually, it occurs to me that the full professors, the ‘catedráticos’, are the only ones in a position to lead the resistance that the “Academic Manifesto” calls for. So, if any of them is reading me…

In the meantime, here’s reality: one of my most brilliant students announced to me today his intention of moving to Denmark, where the Government funds post-grad students, including the foreign ones with a nice student’s record. When I showed my sadness that his leaving would only contribute to enhancing the current Spanish brain drain, he could only answer to me that he sees no future in Spain. So–why don’t we ask the Danes?

Resistance may not be totally futile but when have the sheep ever banded to eat the Wolf? I think of Naomi Wolf’s (oops!) description of the ‘shock and awe’ doctrine to keep whole populations subjected to the current appalling political and economic regime, and I think this is it–we’re too shocked by and in awe of the Wolf.

Anyway, thanks Willem Halffman and Hans Radder for the effort and, above all, the call to amass and use courage.

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A PECULIAR CHALLENGE: MAKING SENSE OF LOCAL MASCULINITY…

I was approached a while ago by a Danish colleague who explained to me that she would bring to Barcelona a group of undergrad American students, as part of their Study Abroad programme. She asked me for help regarding gender issues in Spain, as her students will be dealing with these during their stay in Barcelona (she contacted me as a member of the research group in Masculinities Studies I belong to).

To my horror and consternation, though, the Danish website describing my city and the tour intended for these students was full of appalling clichés, running from Hemingway (in Barcelona??) to bull fighting (forbidden by Catalan law…), the whole stereotypical rigmarole. Quite indignant, I volunteered to lecture the students on condition that the offensive text be replaced. I’m meeting them next week–and I’m using the post today to start drafting my presentation… (the clichés are still online… I wonder whether their rephrasing depends on what I’ll say).

I need to teach these young American students in which precise way Spanish masculinity differs from old-style ‘machismo,’ whether Catalan masculinity is different in any way from that of other areas of Spain, the role that men play in current debates on gender equality all over Spain and, finally, whether our reputation for being a women-friendly state (remember Zapatero’s Government?) is still extant. A tall order indeed… It is very difficult, believe me, to know where to begin. I have asked the American students to come to my lecture having previously made a list of features defining American masculinity. A challenge, I know!, for both of us.

I’ll start with possibly the easiest part: clearly, Zapatero’s Government was more favourable to women than the current Rajoy Government. It’s not just a matter of how many women Ministers Zapatero appointed (50%, which prompted male chauvinist Berlusconi to joke this was a ‘pink’ Government), but of a general attitude towards women’s rights. Just this week, several prominent members of Partido Popular, some in the Government, including the current Health Minister, have insisted that abortion is not a right and have announced that they intend to remove any references to that word in the new legislation on this issue, so crucial to women.

Soraya Sáez de Santamaría and María Teresa Fernández de la Vega may have both occupied the position of Vice-Prime Minister, but I cannot imagine two more different women. This does not mean that we need to get suddenly nostalgic of Zapatero’s Government as not that much was done for women, and much more could have been done for gender equality in general. Some of the steps taken, for instance the legislation to diminish the burden of caring for dependants in the home by women, were not solid enough and have been swept under the carpet with the excuse of the 2008 crisis. We all certainly have much to do in that sense.

I do not know how to translate Miguel Lorente’s wonderful slogan to encourage men to fight patriarchal violence: “No basta con arrimar el hombro, hay que arrimar a los hombres.” Lorente, a forensics specialist familiar with the bodily harm endured by women in the hands of patriarchal abusers, is the author of Mi marido me pega lo normal (2001). He has also been the Government’s Delegate (2008-11) in charge of running the anti-violence programmes devised by the Socialist Ministry for Equality. The title of his volume defines, I believe, the enormous change in the matter of couple-related violence seen in recent decades in Spain. This kind of violence, as the shocking title expresses, was assumed to be a normal part of marriage, both by men and women. The fact that it is no longer so is what, paradoxically, gives us the impression that there is more violence, when, actually, this is decreasing. Its relatively new visibility is, I believe, a sign of the diminishing tolerance. Again, this does not mean that all men are doing their bit explicitly against anti-patriarchal violence. And, yes, yes, we need to deal with the matter of men’s victimization by their female and male partners, even if this is only 10% of the total couple-related abuse.

I think that in order to understand how deeply Spanish masculinity has changed one only needs to see the grandfathers pushing baby prams in the parks or picking up young children from school (they’re not as many as the grandmothers, I know, but they are many, nonetheless). My own father, who is not quite that kind of grandfather, tried to justify men’s avoidance of children both in private and public when he was himself a young father (mid-1960s to late 1970s) on the grounds that “we were not allowed” to behave as fathers do today. I was puzzled by how his words suggest the existence of a repressive external authority, when actually it was, rather, a matter of personal choice (he could have for instance picked up my younger brother, born in the mid-1970s, from school without facing patronising looks but he chose never to bother). Spanish men, who took a gigantic step towards their own patriarchal liberation when they fought together to end compulsory military service (1996), have often discovered in their personal lives that it is in their own hands to change things. For their own benefit but also for women’s.

I am thinking of accompanying my talk with iconic Spanish male figures, both in fiction and the media, yet it is complicated who to choose. Is there a man who represents Spanish masculinity best today? What does Pablo Iglesias’ famous ponytail say about men in Spain today? Is our most successful actor, Antonio Banderas, the ideal Spanish man? I wonder… As for Catalunya, I need to explain that the process for independence is now stalled by the squabbling for prominence between alpha males Oriol Junqueras (a man who does not care what he looks like) and Artur Mas (a man of carefully styled looks). Their confrontation says much about our local masculinity, torn between the need to play victim of the patriarchal Spanish other and, thus, unable to build a serious Catalan leadership. In Polònia, the political satirical show that always gets it right, Catalan men are represented by a new hero, Super Seny (Super Sensible), characterized by his inability to make any decision as he is always torn between the possible consequences… And I keep thinking of Joel Joan, who in his delicious TV series El crac (2015) chose to poke fun at his own iconic value as the poster boy for Catalan independentism by presenting the character also named ‘Joel Joan’ as the worst bundle of lies and cowardice you can imagine… I think the word I am looking for is self-deprecating.

Of course, if I tell my American visitors and Danish colleague that, as a recent survey suggests, bull-fighter Francisco Rivera is the most desired man in Spain (it’s hard to imagine a similar category in Catalonia right now), then I’m lost… as this will only reinforce the clichés I’m trying to fight. Happy were the 1980s when Miguel Bosé, then young and handsome, was the most desired man in Spain–and because of his ambiguity and not despite it. The fact that his own coming out of the closet and his, relatively recent, paternity of four children have not diminished his acceptance as an artist is perhaps a clear sign of how far Spain has progressed. I wonder, though, on what common grounds a man like him and, say, former President José María Aznar, could meet… and what this says about men in Spain today.

I’ll keep on thinking…

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BETWEEN LIFE AND FICTION: MALE SUICIDE

British cinemas are warning sensitive spectators about the first ‘conte cruel’ in Damián Szifrón’s highly acclaimed film Relatos Salvajes (2014). The story certainly has eerie coincidences with Andreas Lubitz’s tragic murder-suicide of last week. Yet, Szifrón’s very Argentinean take on the matter of a pilot’s terminal depression is humorous rather than tragic. The tale is dominated by improbability (the pilot’s method to select his passage) and by Szifrón’s mockery of the psychiatrist’s efforts to stop the pilot. As he bangs on a door also firmly blocked against intruders, he manages to increase rather than decrease the pilot’s destructive determination. The final oedipal image is an indictment both against family life and against the failure of psychology and psychiatry to contain a man’s pain. As it happened in Lubitz’s case, with nothing at all to laugh about.

I am writing these days an article about a novel dealing with the real-life suicide of a man, British director James Whale. The novel is Father of Frankenstein (1995) by Christopher Bram, adapted for the screen by Richard Condon as Gods and Monsters (1998). I argued in the abstract submitted that this ageing man’s decision to kill himself is an act of masculine empowerment: Whale, 68, suffered a series on minor strokes which were diagnosed as the onset of an immediate psychological and physical decay. Rather than face this, Whale decided to drown himself in the pool of his wealthy California home (he could not swim, the pool was built for a young lover). The whole novel is addressed to proving that gay men like Whale are also manly; this is why Bram fancies that Whale befriends in the last two weeks of his life a prejudiced, homophobic young man, Clayton, who little by little realises the ‘old fruit’ is a man in full. I was asked on what grounds I claimed that Whale’s suicide was a specifically masculine act of empowerment and not an act any human being could commit; also, how his being gay connected with my claims. The Alps tragedy happened in the middle of my considering all this for the article.

Statistics indicate that, roughly speaking, in most countries more men than women commit suicide: of all suicides 70% to 80% correspond to men (the only exception? Afghanistan, where women lead this sad rating). Some specialists claim that the same number of men as of women consider committing suicide; among those who do try killing themselves, however, women are far less effective than men. There are no clear reasons for this, though I’ll speculate that women are worse at using violence, even against themselves. Also, that men connect suicide with courage and possibly feel ashamed at the possibility of appearing to have acted in a cowardly way if they fail to do themselves in.

In support of my argument, I’ll cite Iain Bank’s last novel, The Quarry (2013). Banks was writing the story of cantankerous Guy, a man terminally ill with cancer, when he was himself diagnosed with the same disease. One early morning Guy suddenly disappears; his son Kit and friend Hol find him on a bridge above the motorway: “(…)‘I still couldn’t jump, in the end (…) More of a coward than I thought. (…) Thought I could at least control something, take fucking charge of something, impose my own fucking schedule on what was happening to me, rather than just being… prey to it’” (368). Banks himself did not commit suicide, nor did Terry Pratchett, who passed recently. Pratchett’s family had to twit that he had died of natural causes, given the very vocal attitude he had kept in favour of assisted voluntary suicide; Pratchett had even collaborated in the documentary Choosing to Die (2012), which shows the suicide of Peter Smedley, a 71-year-old man suffering from motor neurone disease (aided by Swiss pro-choice Dignitas).

Men, most research suggests, tend to commit suicide because they bottle up their feelings are unable to ask for help when depressed. The case of the German pilot, who did ask for help and was technically on medical leave, possibly even under medication prescribed by his psychiatrist, shows that this claim needs to be disputed. I agree that men tend to keep their feelings to themselves more than women do, and that acknowledging that they feel depressed may in many cases be incompatible with their own sense of self-confident masculinity. In Bram’s novel, and in real life, James Whale did not tell anyone about why he wanted to die; Father of Frankenstein actually shows the very narrow limits of the friendship he establishes with this other man, Clayton, whom he sees just as a tool. Whale fancies that this man is his Frankenstein’s monster returned; his violence will kill him and there will be no need for Whale to commit suicide. This is not, though, what happens. Yet, just suppose that Whale had asked for help: he would have been told that degenerative illness must be endured and told to bear it with anti-depressants.

Carmen Tejedor, a Spanish psychiatrist who implemented a very successful anti-suicide programme at Barcelona’s Hospital Clinic, claims that there is not such thing as a ‘rational suicide,’ as Whale’s appears to have been, since “95% of all suicidal individuals present clear symptoms of being mentally disturbed.” The other 5%, those diagnosed with a terminal bodily illness as Whale was, are “balance suicides;” these appear to be rational but the individuals involved actually suffer from “more or less covert depression” (http://lescontres.blogspot.com/2009/06/carmen-tejedor-psiquiatra-dirige-el.html). This, of course, is totally at odds with the philosophy behind SOARS, the British Society for Old Age Rational Suicide established, by Michael Irwin in 2009, with the intention that rational suicide might become one day a human right.

I realise that I chose to write about Father of Frankenstein because I am totally in favour of assisted voluntary suicide, that is to say, of the individual’s right to choose how to die. I also think we need to carefully distinguish depression induced by a biochemical imbalance, which is an illness, from sadness and unhappiness caused by events in one’s life, which is a condition. Take Lubitz again: if he suffered from the first kind of depression, he should not have been allowed to fly a plane ever; if, however, he was suffering from a physical complaint that would make him lose his flying licence, and thus his dream job as a pilot, then he needed help to understand that he could still lead a fulfilling life rather than anti-depressants. As for Whale and anyone else like him, male or female, the only dignified solution is helping them to commit suicide in better circumstances than doing yourself violent bodily harm.

And men, listen: feeling sad and unhappy is part of being human. Do ask for help, do help each other, share feelings, share problems, share stories… If male suicide, as the British say, is the ‘silent plague’ killing too many of you, then speak out about what is troubling you. There is dignity in doing this, even in dying if that’s your choice. There is no dignity at all in victimizing yourself pointlessly and, indeed, in victimizing others even more pointlessly.

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