text by GLENN O’BRIEN
art from SANTE D’ORAZIO
We are living in a world of inverted values. Youth is today accorded the respect and admiration that was once given to age, and elders are despised or dismissed as irrelevent. They are not in keeping with fashion or with modernism, in that they are not new and hence better than anything ever seen before. And so everywhere aging adults desperately resort to undignified strategies of being perceived as younger than they are. Oh, the legions of mutton dressed as lamb! Women who can afford to are having their faces painstakingly rebuilt to resemble those of their youth, while men are exhorted to dye their hair and beards, and to take pills to produce erections that may last up to six hours. Whereas once youths did what they could to appear older and more mature, taking joy in putting on the long pants of manhood and treasuring those first few wisps of beard, today mature adults shave their public hair in imitation of pre-pubescents, and costume themselves in the clothing of adolescent rebellion associated with that contradiction in terms, youth culture.
Youth culture doesn’t exist. But a youth cult does exist, and the youth market certainly exists big time and it serves not only the young but perhaps even moreso those who would be young — forever. The idealization and idolization of youth serves two purposes — it pits the young and old against one another in a parody of class struggle in which natural qualities such as enthusiasm and grumpiness are couched in political rhetoric so as to distract the genuine classes from awareness of their condition.
As for youth itself, there’s no future in it. Age is a much better bet, mainly because it is inevitable. But it also comes with many rewards which have been deeply discounted by the marketing people, such as experience, serenity, wisdom, and not, incidentally, wealth.
Youth culture, (sic), generally goes along a theme like: live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse. Creating cults of self-destruction is a way to cull the herd of its most potentially troublesome alphas. We encourage them to self-immolate by means of hotrods to hell, extreme sports, and glamorized narcotics. Whereas once it was the weaker examples of youth, the weak and sickly who were disposed of, by banishment or exposure, the consumer society now shows a preference for that sort.
Perhaps this mechanism of destruction of the robust youth has been emphasized recently because potentially restive and revolutionary youth were traditionally disposed of by means of wars. However, this is no longer a reliable technique. The American Civil War caused 625,000 American deaths; the First World War 116,516; the Second World War 405,399; Korea and Vietnam a bit over 50,000 each. The Iraq war, in its eighth year, has accounted for 4,400 deaths (though nearly 32,000 wounded). The Afghanistan war, now in its ninth year, has caused only 1,196 American fatalities. Obviously new means of culling the warrior stock must be found.
Sex, drugs, and rock and roll are proven methods of disposing of surplus rebels. Consider the examples of youth culture stars such as Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and Tupac Shakur. While all were considered difficult and rebellious in life, all are, in death, perfect stars, generating enormous profits without presenting any management difficulties. They’ve attained eternal youth. They will never age beyond their peak of beauty. And, being dead, they are supremely manageable. During his lifetime Jimi Hendrix released three studio albums and two live albums. After his death nine studio albums and 17 live albums have been released. Tupac’s posthumous output already matches his lifetime output.
As long as the young can be alienated from the old, as long as women and men can be set at one another’s throats, it is unlikely that anyone will pay attention to the more essential issues of social justice, such as the vast disparities between the rich and poor. This is not to say that women or youth are always treated properly, but that the gender struggle and the age struggle are largely distractions from the socioeconomic struggles which have mattered historically.
What is needed, therefore, are role models for rebel warrior elders. The Gray Panthers, an activist organization for social justice founded by senior citizens in 1970, is a good role model.
What is needed is a reintegration of society top to bottom, and as a first step I suggest that men start acting like men. The contemporary casual dress movement in business is another faux leveling maneuver designed to disguise hierarchy and de-emphasize the traditional role of seniority. It says it is better to wear the costume of a boy than the costume of a man. After all, the boy is strong, more energetic, more beautiful, and he has more of a future, so let’s try to pass for boys!
Nyet! It’s time to bring back the suit, the tie and the hat as emblems of manhood, a manhood that youth graduates to through tribal rites of passage. This is an important element in warrior societies, and it would help erase the decadent youth arrogance of pop culture. I suggest that a form of bar mitzvah should be adopted by everyone, as youth should be rewarded and recognized for officially reaching manhood, perhaps being ritually presented a suit with long trousers, a fedora, and a wristwatch.
It is also time that the marketing schemes, which now pose as bohemia, be realigned along traditional and non-commercial lines. It is significant that the rock and rollers who were the shock troops of youth culture in the sixties are still active and have yet to be supplanted by actual youth. Figures like Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones are important in that they demonstrate that the shamanistic calling is not exclusive to the young. But to pull out of our current cultural entropy it will be necessary to establish a true bohemian culture, young and old, that is not dominated by market forces.
I’m thinking of Allen Ginsberg going to see Ezra Pound in 1966, or the mentorship of young poets by Kenneth Rexroth, Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley. True poets and artists don’t feel that they have to defeat their predecessors or replace them, as the post-punk ethos would demand, but to find common cause with, and to build on the efforts of, those who came before them.
The Che Guevara beards that are in fashion now seem to be a good omen. They accept man as man, a manly man. Somehow this trend, which we see on every street, has not caught on in the fashion magazines where the latest model man seems to be the classical beardless ephebe, the sissy. The sissy has proven himself to be a great fashion enthusiast and seems unlikely to join the revolutionary vanguard.
If you don’t believe me, page through men’s fashion magazines and you’ll see a bold inversion displayed even in the advertising: wimps, simps, nerds, dweebs, sissies, nancy boys, and mincing weenies. They’re here, they’re queer, and they’re in fashion. Because they are permanent boys who have abjured manhood for life on the edge of gender. I think flamboyant fagginess is poised for a big comeback. I see it all over in the fall collections. It’s in the droopy gamine sleeves of Dior Homme, in the toy-boy short shorts of Miu Miu, in the jammy-patterned suits of Comme des Garçons, in the Chloé-girl-boy hats of Lanvin, in the tin-soldier coats of Burberry Prorsum, in the poshboy plush of YSL, in the manskirts and mom’s mink of Gaultier, in the Aryan waifishness of Jil Sander, in the needle-track covering opera gloves of Duckie Brown, in the fantastical rent-boy Chinese opera shamanism of John Galliano, in the Harry Potterness of Marc by Marc Jacobs, the aggressive nerdiness of Marni, to the alternative universe of Thom Browne with its AC/DC short suits, mink stoles, highwater pants, shrunken jackets, and in Leigh Bowery ski masks. The boys are back! They decided to stay boys in a sartorial neverland.
Fashion is for followers, and the man of fashion is now a boy, a Peter Pan who will never grow up more than is absolutely necessary. The male in fashion is not your father, but he is very much his mother’s son. He is a good boy, a good companion to women, and a fine, tractable employee. Perhaps that, after all, is what this is about. The employee. We learned back in the 19th century that children could do quite well at factory work; apparently they are still doing quite well in parts of Asia. The boy-man is also well suited to the tasks of the drone. His notorious independence means that he is unlikely to be supporting a family. And should he settle down it will likely be a dink situation (double income, no kids.)
Don’t kid yourself, kids: ultimately the cult of youth is about shelf life. As Wyndham Lewis wrote in the Introduction to his prophetic 1932 book, The Doom of Youth: “The steam-roller of Big Business having gone over the democratic mass pretty thoroughly and achieving a mechanical ‘levelling’ (a uniform flatness never dreamed of before), no exceptional qualities are an advertisement at all for Mr. Everyman. No. The democratic average has nothing to gain by being ‘clever’: and the most conspicuous bravery, if not rewarded by death by shell fire upon the field of battle, is apt to lead to a much bemedalled beggar’s tin-mug for coppers, and a fine view of the backsides of the prosperous passers-by from a position in the gutter. But age is for the average man about the only value (in workshop, office or factory) that survives, in a world from which all personal ambition has been banished, and in which there will soon be, in any fair sized country, five or six million out of work. As a humble cog in the machinery of Big Business, your only value is that you are fresh — and of course, as a consequence, cheap.”
Of course it is not the cog men who are buying those nancy-boy suits. These are the men of fashion, the youth-sensitive gays and the metrosexuals, who have taken on the secondary characteristics of homosexuals, and in general these are men who can and will desperately attempt to prolong their youth well beyond the range of their less well-off peers. They will not only have their appearance radically altered by specialists, they can sport the fashions of the age-snob and affect a rock and roll sensibility to accompany it. If they can no longer be young themselves, then they can advocate for youth, for wildness, primitivism, and high energy. The alternative, of course, is to embrace age and to oppose both fashion and the tastes of society, which is no easy task. But the man who is well past youth and any hope of presenting himself as a facsimile thereof, can take some comfort in the fact that he is not alone. The now ironically termed Baby Boomers are a huge bloc of unfashionable age, divided between those who would be as young as possible by any means necessary and those who find some reward in accepting their natural state.
And then there are those who seek the best of both worlds by intimately aligning themselves with youth. Last week I was attending an art exhibition when a friendly German dealer took me aside to discuss his wares. In the course of the conversation he asked me if my wife was my daughter. “Yes,” I said, “but we sleep together.”
Germans tend to be hard to ruffle but he began to blink rapidly, decided to change the subject, and gestured toward a large rotating angular mirror. “It makes you dizzy, no?” he said. “No,” I replied. “Maybe because of my astronaut training.”
My wife is 20 years my junior. My first wife was only three months younger than me, and my second wife was seven years younger. I married young accidentally, and during the first marriage I was aware that my ideal mate was, for the moment, under the age of consent. All I could do was wait. Men are emotionally younger than women. I think it was Nietzsche who said that the average 48-year-old woman is more mature than any man.
When my nine-year-old talks about his future wife I always tell him, “She hasn’t been born yet.” This is an ancient and natural state of affairs and so I find it strange that anyone would suspect my wife of being my daughter. It is certainly possible for me to have a daughter her age, and if I did, I might have recruited among her friends. You may think that strange, but consider the fact that nature empowers men to reproduce until far later in life than women.
Another consequence of this natural gender disparity is that younger men can take some comfort in the fact that in the long run some rejections may be avenged. Maybe she won’t sleep with you now, but trust me, the day will come.
They say these days that 60 is the new 40. This is not true in the Midwest, but generally men are more youthful today in their sixth decade. In part this is due to better medical care, diet, and exercise, but it is also out of terror in the face of the youth culture that they themselved spearheaded decades ago.
The secret of prolonged youth, of course, is to “lively up yourself and don’t be no drag,” as Bob Marley put it. And a famous Yeats poem reads: “An aged man is but a paltry thing,
a tattered coat upon a stick, unless soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing for every tatter in its mortal dress.” Clapping and singing are good. As are dancing and sports. I don’t wholeheartedly recommend basketball for guys over 40. All of my friends of that demographic who play hoops have had knee operations, but there’s no shame in golf and croquet, the most vicious of games, which makes up in cruelty what it lacks in exertion.
Scientists note that seniors who play bridge and do crossword puzzles are less likely to suffer from dementia, but whether this is because they play or that they play because they don’t have incipient dementia, who knows? But either way, it’s good to keep yourself sharp enough to tear opponents to shreds, at least verbally.
Today an astonishing number of men seek to conceal their age by dyeing their hair. Midway through life’s journey I found myself with the long hair of my youth again, and I thought it wasn’t working with the gray so I tried dye. It worked well but one day I bought the wrong color. It came out way too dark and my friends laughed at me for 72 hours straight. I cut my hair, went natural and never looked back. Eventually every dyer is going to look too old for his hair and suddenly find himself ridiculous. It’s better to have a face that’s too young for the gray you sport. You can’t suddenly transition from dyed jet black to white unless you shave your head, and even then your psyche and reputation will be dislocated.
Andy Warhol’s adoption of the silver wig in his late 30s or early 40s was brilliant. He realized that white hair combined with a youthful face takes one out of the realm of chronological age into a realm of mythical age. Warhol also lied about his age but never spectacularly. He would simply make himself out a few years older or a few years younger than he was, not aiming to create a specific idea of his age, but rather a lack of surety. Since the sources would always be contradictory there would be no fact. If you are listed on social networks, why not give several different dates of birth. Not only will you have more than one choice of age, you can celebrate multiple birthdays.
As you move inexorably toward extinction, you will also look like less of a fool if you take care of your body, as a lean athletic body can be held on to for quite a long time if you work out. The memory is harder to exercise. This is where a few simple tricks may help to make up for, or at least cover up, the deficiencies of the memory banks. My own memory has lost step over the years, but this is compounded by the fact that the data it is expected to retain has overflowed the vessel. Living in a megalopolis such as Gotham, one becomes acquainted with a great many people. Most of them will be soon forgotten, but should they remember you, there’s the rub. You will be considered a conceited, stuck-up snob bastard instead of the semi-senile fossil from the vanished era you come from.
I am convinced that at a certain point, when one has reached the stage of acquaintance overload, it is necessary to forget someone in order to later recall someone new. This is yet another reason for the acquisition of a younger spouse or companion. Their memory chips are not yet full and they should be able to prompt you as to just who this long lost friend is who remembers your last conversation in depth. In ancient Rome those who were involved in public life often had servants with excellent memories to accompany them, whispering in their ears the names of those who approached them. (When Augustus became emperor there were 900 members of the Roman Senate.) Today the role once filled by slaves is generally filled by young personal assistants of politicians and editors of fashion magazines. It has even been suggested that certain powerful persons enter events wearing earpieces through which spotter assistants can remind them of the identity of their interlocutors.
Not having this luxury, I have adopted a strategy of simply smiling and greeting as a long-lost bosom buddy, or anyone who approaches me in a manner suggesting a prior familiarity. “Hi!” I’ll say, beaming with delight. I have found that the name issue often doesn’t come up if your first remark is “You look fantastic!” This will not only suggest prior knowledge of the stranger, but it will serve as a wonderful distraction. This strategy usually fails only when you have never actually met the person before and they were accosting you on sheer nerve, in which case it doesn’t really matter.
Should you find yourself in this situation when you’re with an escort, inform that person that if you don’t introduce them immediately, they must introduce themselves immediately, forcing the unknown person to introduce his or herself, so that your forgetfulness, or even your obliviousness, will not be discovered.
Although there are signs that youth may become bored with worshipping itself, it is still important to try to avoid being considered very old, and so while it may be foolhardy to attempt to pass oneself off as a youth, one should avoid the characteristics of the senescent. Youth admires certain radical attitudes and I have found certain things distract from the perception that you are over the hill, for example a knowledge of popular music or the possession of good marijuana. Any older person passing a sizeable spliff of quality while playing NWA’s “Fuck the Police” or Chamillionaire’s “Ridin’ Dirty” at a high volume, particularly while driving an expensive German sedan, will generally be regarded with awe by one’s juniors. But do not attempt to dress in a manner inconsistent with one’s age.
Young people also respect wealth, real estate, exceptional décor, facial hair, wine, art and other collections, criminal records, an ability at cards and games such as pool and ping pong, and the history and lore and annals of ancient bohemian cults such as the beats, punks, and hippies, as long as they are not volunteered, but are recounted at the insistence of an audience.
You can prompt such response, however, by a well-placed phrase, such as “Burroughs told mew…” or “…as Tosh said to Bunny.” Age must make youth come to it. In fact, attempts by older persons to imitate their juniors can only be regarded as pathetic. It is far better to be a precious unrestored, half-dilapidated antique than a refinished or trendily slip-covered one.
But should you find yourself mocked or chided by foolish youth you can always point out the obvious, that youth is not an exclusive club. Everyone is young, but not everyone is intelligent or talented. You won’t be young for long. I will be quoted forever.
Wyndham Lewis concluded The Doom of Youth thus: “I prophesy that two centuries hence a long and sweeping snow white beard will be an emblem of aristocratic privilege … the supreme token that the person possessing it belongs to the ruling class—that he is a member of that super-class who do not die, like dogs, after ten years of active life.
Remember, youth is a dead end.
An extract from How To Be a Man: A Guide To Style and Behavior For The Modern Gentleman by Glenn O’Brien, Rizzoli, New York, 2011.
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