‘Whiplash’ and What The Federalist Got Wrong About Masculinity 

Writing last week at The Federalist, John Daniel Davidson argues that many conservatives have gone astray in their concept of masculinity. “For some conservatives,” Davidson observes, “the conversation about masculinity has gone completely off the rails. It has devolved into a mere tough-guy pose. You see it in the tendency of certain high-profile conservative thinkers to deride all classical liberals and libertarians as effete and unmasculine.”

Davidson then posits:

manliness is not a style or a pose or an adornment. It is a way of being, of living according to the principle that you are responsible for the welfare of others, and should sacrifice yourself for their sake. What does that mean in practice? It means stepping in to help those in need, whether it’s a woman being harassed or a stranger whose car has broken down. It means risking your own safety to protect someone being attacked, instead of just filming the attack on your phone and posting it online like a beta.

Nothing to argue with there. Good for Davidson for calling out some of the more boorish masculinity boosters on the Right.

Yet Davidson’s argument has a blind spot. Men are supposed to provide and protect those who are in need and weaker, yes. But a man does not feel fulfilled in this life until he has made an attempt to pursue his destiny, or divine drama. That destiny can mean a family and children. It can also mean searching for God in the Himalayas (see “The Razor’s Edge”), going into politics, or becoming a jazz musician. 

Famed Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung argued that despite family, fame, politics or riches, a man would not feel fulfilled until he had played his role in a larger divine drama: “That gives peace, when people feel they are living the symbolic life, that they are actors in the divine drama. That gives the only meaning to human life; everything else is banal . . . A career, producing of children, all are maya [illusions] compared with that one thing, that your life is meaningful.” 

Jung’s line is quoted by psychologist James Hollis in Under Saturn’s Shadow: The Wounding and Healing of Men. Hollis examines how, before the modern age, rites of initiation for adolescent boys were a crucial part of tribal and community life. These were often violent ordeals. The Mandan Sioux Indians would drive a skewer into the pectoral muscles of the initiate and raise him by ropes until he fainted. A tribe in the South Pacific had boys jump off of a huge wooden edifice. In Ethiopia young men have to prove their worth by jumping over cows.

To our modern sensibilities these ordeals might seem odd and even sadistic, but in premodern cultures they served an important purpose. Rituals of initiation formally signaled that a young man was becoming an adult, but more importantly—as Hollis notes, quoting Jung—they showed that a boy had entered not only into manhood, but into a larger cosmic drama. 

Without enduring a formidable rite of passage, no matter how comfortable the home hearth, many men will never be satisfied. This is probably why many of us know male friends who’ve sacrificed everything for their wives and children yet seem desperately unhappy.

A man’s desire to risk everything and abandon even the love of a woman and a family, and maybe even do dangerous and crazy things for greater glory, is powerfully dramatized in the great 2014 film, “Whiplash.” The movie tells the story of a young jazz musician, Andrew Neyman. Andrew (Miles Teller) is a drummer studying at an elite music conservatory. His instructor is Terence Fletcher, a man who is a combination of Simon Cowell, jazz drumming legend Buddy Rich, and Hitler. Fletcher (a mesmerizing J. K. Simmons) easily toggles from hard-driving lunatic to psychopath to jazz genius and back again. He treats his “studio band” at the school like Marine recruits, calling into question their manhood, using racial and religious slurs, and tossing chairs against the wall when he’s not happy. To Fletcher, telling someone “good job” is the same as saying they’re average, and that’s worse than death. Fletcher is no family man. Yet it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him.

What makes “Whiplash” so great is that its ultimate focus, the thing it keeps coming back to, is greatness—and the blood and sweat necessary to realize one’s destiny. There are several points in “Whiplash” when it seems as if Fletcher is about to get called out and reported for his tactics. When it finally does happen, the viewer might feel a bit of satisfaction that the crazy old man is sent packing. Fletcher has done everything in his power to drive Andrew out, including public sabotage. Yet Andrew keeps coming back long past the point when anyone else would. Andrew asks Fletcher if abuse can get so extreme that it actually prevents the next jazz great, the next Charlie Parker, from persevering. That would never happen, retorts Fletcher, because what made Charlie Parker Charlie Parker was that he did not quit. And in the final concert sequence of the film, you see the awesome result of an artist’s undying dedication.

A wise man once observed that when we say “yes” to something, we are at the same time saying “no” to five other things. “Whiplash” argues that saying no to those other things takes a great deal of courage, especially for a jazz musician. You have to say no to the girlfriend who might not get what the music means to you. You have to say no to the band members who think you don’t have it. You have to say no, most of the time, to wealth. You have to say no to the music your peers love. As a poster in Andrew’s room says, “If You Have No Talent You Wind Up in a Rock and Roll Band.” It is why in his great book Iron John: a Book about Men, Robert Bly told a story in which a boy could gain entry into a secret room only by stealing the key from under his mother’s pillow. Not asking—taking.

You also have to say no to the family members who doubt you. Saying that no provides some of the best moments in “Whiplash.” At a family dinner, Andrew’s brothers receive praise for playing football and being a representative of the Model U.N. Andrew scoffs at these achievements, and his uncle upbraids him, demanding, “What’s so great about Charlie Parker?” 

“Well,” Andrew replies, “he’s been dead 50 years and we’re still sitting around this table talking about him.” 

Andrew’s father Jim, an English teacher played by Paul Reiser, is the quintessential soft, helicopter parent of a Millennial child. Jim is passive, a little whiny, and calls a lawyer to try to get Fletcher fired. Yet in a climactic scene in the movie, Andrew literally refuses to follow his father, only allowing himself to be embraced briefly before returning to the lion’s den with his teacher.  Andrew loves his father, a kind and decent man. But he prefers to follow a warrior. Nothing will stand in the way of playing his part in the divine drama.

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