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Chapter 4: self: Virtues of Character

How to Be a Man

THE COOL MAN:

For approximately 80 years, the notion of what a man should be like has been heavily influenced by the idea of ‘cool’. The cast of seductively cool figures includes:

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Humphrey Bogart

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Jean-Paul Belmondo (in A bout de souffle)

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Marcello Mastroianni (especially in La Dolce Vita)

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James Bond (particularly as played by Sean Connery)

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Bob Dylan

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Ryan Gosling

and

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Benedict Cumberbatch

The cool man doesn’t try too hard, you don’t see them floundering about in a panic – but they succeed anyway. They are physically confident, they can scale a mountain or saunter down a deserted street in the middle of the night; if they have to kill someone they will do it neatly with minimal fuss; they don’t worry, they are self-contained and sure of themselves; their trousers are always a perfect fit; they express themselves briefly – but their words are always to the point; they’re not meek in the face of authority; but they don’t crave power themselves: they are independent.

The essential characteristic of the cool man is an aura of invulnerability, well handled: without any showing off or bragging.

When the house is on fire, the cool man doesn’t scream or call the fire brigade; ‘temperature’s rising, baby’, he quips to his current girlfriend as she emerges from the shower. Then he casually puts out the blaze himself. When the waiter spills a cocktail over him, the cool man doesn’t get flustered; he removes his jacket and looks even better in his shirt. When his boss is being difficult, the cool man smiles ironically: he can walk away from the job at any moment.

This is what, as a man, one is supposed to be like. For decades some of the most astute and creative minds have devoted themselves to making this notion of masculinity attractive – it’s been portrayed as enviable, seductive to women, and well-dressed. And the image has worked: it’s what you need to be a real man.

And – perhaps daily – this model of manhood tortures us with the gap between its ideals – and our reality.

THE WARM MAN

But there’s another – more realistic and more important – vision of what a good man is like that’s (comparatively) been given very much less attention and creative encouragement. This is the very opposite of the cool man, what we call: the warm man.

The warm man does not put out many fires by himself. He hasn’t killed anyone either. He is, instead, very much alive to his own anxiety. He would drop the gun and would tell you quite candidly he had done so. What is distinctive, and admirable, is his relationship to his anxiety. He is aware of it, honest about it, funny with it – and yet not overwhelmed by it.

The warm man has a good sense of how demented and fragile we all are. So he goes out of his way to reassure, to be forgiving and to be gentle. He has tried very hard, at times, to get things to work out better for himself but it frequently hasn’t worked. The warm man has known many sorrows: he has done stupid things, he has lost people he loved, he has made daft decisions. His weaknesses have made him immensely generous to others.

When the waiter spills the cocktail, the warm hero laughs (he has spilled a few  himself) and leaves a generous tip if he can. When he forgets someone’s name (which he does quite often) the warm hero is ashamed but frank and says – sincerely – ‘I’m really sorry, and very embarrassed, but it’s slipped my mind… forgive me, help me out…’ . When they’ve messed up at work, the warm person admits it, feels sorry, openly apologises and explains as best he can what actually went wrong and how he might be put it right in future.

The essence of the warm man is vulnerability well-handled; he is conscious of his flaws and failings but uses this knowledge to become interestingly humorous and a rich source of sympathy for the secret troubles of every life he encounters.

Significantly, a list of exemplary warm men doesn’t really exist. But we’d like to start it. Here are some leading candidates for inclusion (they are, perhaps significantly, much less famous than those on the cool list):

Montaigne – in the 16th century he wrote candidly about his fears of impotence, his tendency to belch at inopportune moments, and his love for his father; he was filled with self-doubt (his favourite phrase was ‘what do I know?’) and was ashamed of, and yet honest about, his own blunders, laziness and lack of career success.

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Stendhal – the 19th century’s most articulate recorder of unhappy, unfulfilled love: he could never get together with the women he most admired; he admitted he wanted to succeed in worldly terms, though he never progressed beyond middling official jobs; he was a lovely friend who enjoyed long-confessional conversations – but often failed to complete projects.

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Cyril Connolly – an overweight, frequently self-loathing, literary figure in the London from the 1930s to the 50s. He felt a failure relative to his opportunities (his sweetest book is called Enemies of Promise); his own problems led him to be tender rather than cutting; wry rather than bitter.

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Donald Winnicott – A mid-twentieth century psychoanalyst who worked a great deal with stressed parents and anxious children – to whom he showed immense sympathy. He was slightly shy, a touch formal, rather nervy and very kind. He was easily moved by the troubles of others. He was the great champion of ‘muddling through’, getting by’ and being ‘good enough’ rather than perfect.

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Ideally, one day, it will be as desirable to be called warm as it currently is to be labelled ‘cool’; there will be lists of the 40 warmest men under 40; boys will come home from school and complain to their mothers: ‘I can’t do it, I can’t, I don’t know how to be warm’; girls at fashionable bars will take mental notes of where the warm guys are sitting; and in the secret soul of every man there will be a quiet, steady yearning to be as warm as they possibly can.

 

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