Monday, September 19, 2011

Entry 174 9.20.11

Entry 174, September 20th, 2011, 5:31am (GMT +2)

A passage from "The Songlines," by Bruce Chatwin. He's detailing a Bororo manhood ritual in Niger.

"In the iner court were the young men, who for the past four years had been obliged to parade about in female dress. We heard a volley of whooping cries: then, to the rattle of drums, in walked the two boys plastered with Marie's make-up . . .

. . .another young Bororo came out carrying a choice of three "Herculean" clubs, each freshly cut from the bole of an acacia. He offered the beauty (one of the boys) his choice of weapon.

Removing his sunglasses, the beauty pointed languidly to the biggest, popped something in his mouth, and waved to his friends on the rooftop. They howled their approval and raised their plastic boaters at spearpoint.

The master of ceremonies picked up the beauty's choice and, with the solemnity of a waiter serving a Chateau Lafite, presented it to the tough one (the other boy).

The beauty then took up his position at the centre of the circle and, holding his sunglasses above his head, started warbling a chant in falsetto. The friend, meanwhile, swinging the club in both hands, piroutted around the rim of the circle.

The drummer stepped up the tempo. The beauty sang as though his lungs would burst; and the tough one, whirling faster and faster, closed in. At last, with a bone-crunching thud, he whammed the club down on his friend's ribcage and the friend let out a triumphant 'Yaou . . . o . . . o . . . o . . . o . . . !' -- but did not flinch.

'What was he singing?' I asked the ancein combattant (old man sitting next to Chatwin).

'I can kill a lion,' he said, '. . . I have got the biggest cock . . . I can satisfy a thousand women . . .'

'Of course,' I said.

Having repeated the same performance twice more, it was the beauty's turn to club the tough one. When that was over, the two of them -- best friends and blood-brothers for life -- went sauntering around the spectators, who reached their hands forward and stuck banknotes on to their face-paint . . .

. . . It was almost dark when, from the inner court, there came more blood-curdling cries. Another rattle of drums, and all six boys marched in, hard and glistening, in black leather kilts, their hats stuck with ostrich feathers, swaying in their shoulders, swinging their swords -- as they moved in to mix with the girls.

'They are men,' said the ancein combattant.

I looked down, in the half-light, at the mass of blue and black figures, like the waves at night with a whitecap or two, and silver jewelry glinting like flecks of phosphorescence."


First of all, fantastic writing. I included the last paragraph just because I like it.

But there is an issue here that I've been thinking about. Chatwin's description of the manhood ceremony of the Bororo invites comparison with our own manhood ceremonies.

"What manhood ceremonies?" you might ask. "Americans don't have any ceremonies." I disagree.

The Bororo youths' song sums up the qualities of manhood in quite succinct fashion. "I can kill a lion, I can satisfy a hundred women, etc." These are our instinctive drives -- to fight (for protection and for sustenance) and to procreate. Becoming a man means embracing these instincts and demonstrating prowess.

Go to any college town in America and you will see clubs and bars full of young men attempting to participate in their own manhood rituals. Think about it -- what do guys do in clubs? They try to get laid, and they fight. They fight each other because no more dangerous predators are present (a whole different discussion that Chatwin pursues with varying degrees of scientific rigor and will likely be the subject of tomorrow's post) and to show prowess in front of the women present. They hone their social skills to demonstrate superior status in the tribe and make themselves more desirable mates. The successful ones wear eye-catching clothing, just as the two Bororo boys Chatwin saw were the best dressed of the six (hemp necklaces and upside down visors have become our ostrich feathers and leather kilts).

But here's the curious thing. Amongst the Bororo, the transition to manhood is done in full view of the tribe. The boys are urged on by the onlookers . . . but in our society, it is hidden away. We become men in dark clubs with no windows. The transition takes place under an alocohlic haze that simultaneously deadens our memories, impairs our judgement, and postpones the time when we have to deal with inhibitions. We are not taught by our community's elders how to be men -- we're thrown into the process alone and expected to know how to do it right.

Why is it that the transition to manhood is something to be hidden away in our culture? Why are the instinctive drives we feel as men downplayed and discouraged? I'm not saying that we should all be aggressive and selfish -- that's not what manhood is either -- but we're taught to be "nice guys" and that's not what the world needs.

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