- 29 Nov 10
Creeping middle age sees our columnist reassessing his attitude towards marriage and family
I’m spending the day in our family home, minding my 90-year-old dad and my one-yearold nephew. Some quality male bonding going on here.
We had a loss in our family last week, my beloved uncle died, and so as I find myself in the grip of an existential phase. It’s not a crisis, that makes it sound too dramatic. Indeed, it has more the quality of a period where time stands still, and the silence is so deep all you hear is the blood pumping through your body.
I’ve never been more aware of the “middle” in middle age; I’m on a tightrope across a grand canyon, and I can see behind me and ahead of me at the same time. As clear as day, Shakespeare’s seven ages of man are in sharp focus. If I’m lucky, I won’t fall off, and I’ll reach the other end. If my nephew is lucky, he’ll inherit the longevity that seems to be our family’s genetic gift, and he too will walk the long line to the end. And what a line – from 1920 to, perhaps, the 22nd Century.
There’s something about being a single, childless, gay middle-aged man, however, that makes the air a little thinner on this tightrope, the chasm beneath seem a lot further down. Although, I try not to look down too often. The generational safety-net, having kids who will be there to look after you when you need them, that most people my age have, isn’t there. Most of my life I’ve not been aware of this. Indeed would have scoffed at the idea that this was part of my life’s plan, as a younger man. And yet now, it seems the most natural thing in the world to try and do whatever my parents need doing; it doesn’t feel like an obligation, just something that fits into the natural order of things – of which I had hitherto been unaware. Sure hasn’t the whole point of being queer been to challenge and disrupt traditional concepts of relationships and family? And, if that hasn’t been the point all along, then what the hell is?
There’s some evidence that gives a reason why, genetically, there are so many gay men continually appearing in every generation, when it doesn’t make sense in what we commonly suppose are strictly Darwinian terms. We don’t procreate, as a rule, (not for the want of how’s-your-father) and yet we keep on appearing, little cuckoos in the nest. Bless. Someone came up with the notion that a family that has a “gay gene”, resulting in more gay men being born in it down the generations, does better than otherwise similar families, because the children in each generation have gay uncles. (url.ie/84u8) (Very little research has been done on a “lesbian gene” - scientists are a sadly predictable lot). The idea being, roughly, in caveman terms, that the men go out and hunt and forage, the women stay at home cooking and minding the children, and the gayers add a helping hand at home, assist with the childcare, offer security against marauding hordes, and paint pretty pictures on the cave walls. (OK, I made that last bit up. But it’s not so preposterous a notion to imagine that the “ancestors” of Michelangelo were Neanderthal interior decorators.)
Sexual selection in evolutionary terms is split into two forms. The first is among species where the females are passive, and the males fight among each other, the strongest claims his prize, the female, and so his genes survive. The second is when females are not passive, and choose their partners. A peacock’s tail feather, (which famously made Darwin complain that the sight of one made him feel sick, so provocative was it to his early theories) is a symbol of the latter. A species whose habitat is safe from predators tends to develop along these lines, when brute force is no longer a prerequisite for survival, and more civilized, aesthetic qualities can emerge. Because it is a risk to sacrifice strength as a genetic imperative, it makes the species very vulnerable to a change in circumstances; a new predator can wipe them out if they’ve “forgotten” how to fight on their evolutionary journey. Anyone who has seen footage of the extraordinary bowers that male Birds of Paradise build to tempt their mates can only marvel at this phenomenon in its most rarified form; the males are exquisite dandies, because that is what the females value.
We have to assume that homo sapiens has made the transition from the first kind of sexual selection to the second (and that in itself is a risky assumption, for even now, in many cultures, women are chattels and rarely get to choose. But the days in which men literally fight each other to win a maiden’s hand are long gone.) If we assume that women are now firmly in the driving seat when it comes to (Western, middle class) human evolution, then it is interesting, as Richard Dawkins recently pointed out in a documentary, that the qualities they value in a potential partner and father of their children are kindness, gentleness, and thoughtfulness, and not virility, courage, or strength.
The metrosexual male, when seen in this light, seemingly makes perfect sense. And yet the self-conscious narcissistic quality that is the mark of the metrosexual – the peacock preener - perhaps points to the pain of having to sacrifice something in order to find a partner; something ineffably but distinctly masculine.
As society gradually inches itself to becoming more urban and middle-class, and women increasingly find themselves in a position to worry less about prioritizing physical strength as an essential quality in their men, the old-school “man’s man” finds himself left behind. For most people, I imagine, this is something to be welcomed. And yet I have the distinct feeling that this evolutionary step is causing a lot of unhappiness – women with higher standards often find themselves alone, eternally disappointed that the unreconstructed testosterone-pumped men they meet are not up to scratch. Many men find themselves growing old by themselves. As I’ve written before, being alone suits women better than men – women are far more resourceful than men when it comes to keeping socially active, maintaining family support networks, and avoiding loneliness. Single men, as President McAleese has noticed, often end up simply dropping off the radar, as they get older. I find myself very interested in those men, the older I get, no matter if, from a woman’s perspective, they may have been lying cheating bastards.
I have no idea what this all means in terms of the genetic/evolutionary purpose of gay men, why we’re here. Being an uncle, of course, is an extraordinary gift, one which I value enormously. But in terms of relationships, in these terms, I have the qualities that New Woman wants, and yet I’m perverse enough not to be interested in Her. It’s a conundrum that I don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of.
Socrates had this advice to his students: “By all means marry. If you get a good wife you will become happy, and if you get a bad one you will become a philosopher”.
And if you don’t get a wife?