This is a sketch of the Symbolic Order of Life and Manhood. It is a schema for structuring the understanding of reality that is applied, to varying degrees, by many past and present people of any gender. I do not claim or believe that it is universal – I am not versed well enough in anthropology to make any such claim anyway – but I do believe that it is ubiquitous in most of today’s societies, particularly the ones that wield power on a global scale.
The circle of manhood is at the center of the circle of life, which is bound by death. Life is survival: the taking, killing, and devouring of other things to prolong one’s own existence. Our instinct tells us this is good and necessary. Any doubts we might have about the rightness of this process will weaken our resolve and must be controlled and repressed. A man’s life is about control, and hence, power. The power to take what we need and what we want from the circle of life, and make it our own to do with as we please. This is what gives us pleasure. Every time we succeed at taking something is a confirmation of our position within the circle of manhood. A man is defined by his ability to control and not be controlled. A man that allows himself to be controlled or even influenced too much is at the outskirts of the circle of manhood at best, and beyond it at worst: at the level of women, babes, and animals.
When a man becomes a man, he is drawn into the circle of manhood by other men. No more does he belong to the outer circle that is the realm of children, women, and other possessions. He is now a man among men, who compete, cooperate, and together sustain the circle of manhood by drawing in men, and casting out non-men.
The self is what is alive, that which must survive in order to live as a man lives. That which is other, that which is separate from the self, may be controlled, manipulated, consumed, or cast away, provided one has the power to do so. Every act of control, every assertion of power over others, puts a man closer to the summit of the mountain of manhood, further away from its circumference, and hence from the boundaries of the circle of life, beyond which lies death. Death is the antithesis of life: death is the ultimate uncontrollable force, over which a man holds no power, for direct power can only be wielded in life. Not content in the face of this insurmountable force, a man chases ways to stave off death as long as possible, and various forms of immortality.
Man is the taker and the maker. He manipulates other things and beings to shape the world in his own image. He sows the seeds of the future. He imposes order upon chaos.
Women are the fertile ground that lies in wait for the man’s plow and seed, eager to bring forth new life. Girls are almost women. Barren women do not exist; they are nothing.
But women are an enigma. Their wombs bring forth life where before there was none, and hence they are at the very boundary between life and death. In some mysterious way, then, they hold a power over life and death that men do not. This makes it imperative for men control the process of life-bearing as closely as possible. By controlling women, their position as bridges between life and death is, indirectly, also controlled. This is the best men can do at keeping death in its proper place, at the edges of life, away from the circle of manhood.
For this reason, the separation between men and women is vital, and must be solid. While there is a soft border between boyhood and manhood that must at some point be penetrated, the border between manhood and womanhood is hard as a stone wall. Men are born boys, on the men’s side of the boundary, and they grow up to be men. If a man is unmanly, he is cast over the wall, for he is not a man.
Anyone who challenges the boundary between manhood and womanhood, who threatens to gnaw at the foundations of the wall, must be controlled, or – if they cannot be controlled – erased. Chiefly, this concerns people who say they are neither women nor men, or those who climb over the wall or want to tear it down. When this happens, the wall must be fortified, the assailants chained down or eliminated.
Men chase immortality mainly in one way, which is the perpetuation of the collection of things they amassed during life, after they die. For this reason, men seek heirs, sons who will inherit the things their father gathered during his life, and add to that their own conquests. In this way, the evidence of their deeds lives on beyond their time. Also for this reason, control over women is vital, for they are the means of reproduction. They must be available to bear sons, who are the key link in the chain: possessions of their father, yet eventually possessors themselves. And of course, a man must be certain that a woman bears his sons, and not another’s, or there is a risk that his chain will be broken.
In addition to this, a man seeks a more abstract inheritance: the memory of his deeds, which live on, not just among his children, but among his peers. Amassing memorable glory and manhood means being remembered beyond one’s lifetime, so that one can be a man, even in death.
At the center of the symbolic order is the abhorrence of death. It threatens to undo all that a man strives to achieve. The symbolic order is the armor and the shield a man deploys to keep death at bay, as well as and for as long as humanly possible.
If this seems like a caricature, bear in mind the following: this is a sketch, and caricatures are often sketches, too. No one person will live by the symbolic order sketched here to the letter, for it does not exist as such. I argue, however, that many people’s worldviews are informed by parts of what is sketched here.
Perhaps obviously, there are many other possible alternative worldviews, better ones and worse ones. I do believe in the worth of utopian and dystopian thought experiments. But sometimes one must try to look the present in the face, which I have tried to do here, in a circumspect way, by sketching the Symbolic Order of Life and Manhood.
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