ADOLESCENCE IN RETROSPECTION
Movies, men and myths
The very idea of myth, a story exemplifying aspects of the belief system of a time and place, commonly evokes a sense of the past, most often a dead and alien past; it is often accompanied by a sense of the primitive. Myths are offered us as part of the archeology of peoples distant in time and culture, occasionally to be elevated to relevance to literature, history, and philosophy in much the same way as primitive artifacts are often elevated to the special realm of art; an archeology of cultures most typically not burdened with the concepts of archeology, art, or myth. Appearing in the guise of cultural crustacean, myth is often a text that reveals something about “them” and “their ways” and is applicable to our own situation only by the sophisticated application of metaphor and metonymy; much, for example, as Oedipus Rex becomes a metaphor for the psychic experiences of the contemporary versions of the human.
Under the best of circumstances, our knowledge of the conditions surrounding the production of myths remains far greater than our knowledge of the conditions surrounding the consumption of myths. It is hard to imagine what pleasures were realized, what emotions were amplified or elevated, what tensions were exploited, or what conflicts, if any, resolved for members of their initial audiences. Yet without this appreciation much of the significance of the mythic is lost to us, for myths are not merely a form of instruction in a social order’s paradigmatic identities and the attendant dramas of their paradigmatic interrelationships, more critically they are an enactment of such identities and interrelationships.1
The inaccessibility of these vital intrapsychic components as they occurred in the distant past must be accepted as a given despite the consoling promises of psychohistorians, who often fail to understand that the residues left by the intrapsychic tend to be provocatively suggestive rather than articulate. However, as we approach the contemporary moment—where the functions of the myth remain as profound as ever, though its appearances and uses may be more complex—consideration of the intrapsychic response can neither be ignored nor taken for granted. Indeed, it is the probable lack of an isomorphic relationship between cultural convention and intrapsychic response that makes “a theory of the audience” a significant if still neglected issue in the fields of cultural criticism, a neglect that is difficult to defend when our concerns are with current
or near current cultural forms. Under such conditions, we have not only the observations of the text but also the experience of the text, if only we are prepared to read that and ourselves as well (Barthes 1973).
The significance of the intrapsychic conflict takes on a critical aspect in modern conventions of the dramatic, a form that Freud (1906) saw as focusing on a conflict within the hero, a conflict of contradictory wishes, of which the hero may not be fully conscious. The pertinent insight offered by Freud with reference to this form of the psychological drama is that such dramatic representations become an effective basis for identification of the moving emotions only when to some degree the audience shares elements of the same unconscious conflicts, elements of the same psychopathology.
It is with this perspective in mind that I want to examine aspects of films treating the American West as a dramatic rendering of culturally shared psychopathologies. In more concrete terms, I propose to examine a wellknown Western film as a re-enactment and re-experiencing of the “normal” pathologies attending the American male adolescence and its continuing residues in the lives of American men. I shall examine the use of the mythologized West as an expression of aspects of the character of the American man that are often not directly acknowledged or given expression in contexts closer to our everyday realities.
The specific “case” for analysis is John Ford’s 1962 film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a film that ranks high in the amount of critical attention it has received—a curious fact, given how very conventional it initially appears. It might almost be described as regressive. Visually it is not particularly exciting; it was filmed entirely in the studio and on the “back lot”. The appeals of the film are almost entirely thematic rather than visual. Even its major surface text appears regressive as it takes us back to a familiar plot: the taming of the frontier or, if you will, the entry of the lusty frontier (the realm of societal adolescence) into a more respectable, if unexciting, maturity.2
The more subtle thematic attraction of Liberty Valance is essentially its enactment of the most common, culturally promoted inner conflicts experienced by men in many social contexts. This archetypicality is reinforced by the fact that it is acted by three actors who in their film careers have come themselves to epitomize the archetypal characters required by that thematic structure. The three are so closely associated with the qualities of their specific roles in this movie that, with the exception of Lee Marvin in the role of Liberty Valance, we can use their more familiar public names.
Marvin, as we have seen him so often, is an expression of what can be termed “narcissistic grandiosity”—wholly the idealization of personal ambitions, the dark side of over-masculinized individualism. Liberty Valance reflects a reluctance to surrender male adolescent values to the practical demands of an everyday world. John Wayne (Tom Doniphin), in contrast, serves as the personification of “narcissistic honor”—a precarious balancing of personal ambition and social ideals that increasingly narrows options for behavior. He apparently has begun to mature along with the frontier as marked by a desire to marry, however inarticulately expressed, while at the same time manifestly having difficulty abandoning the “heroic” postures so antagonistic to the life of domesticity. Lastly, Jimmy Stewart (Ransome Stoddard) serves as the typification of “social honor”— our best sense of what we ought to desire, an “oughtness” virtually in complete control of behavior, an inevitable relabeling that transforms many of the most craven betrayals of the adolescent nerd into the sacrificing heroism of the conforming adult.3
A critical aspect of male adolescent development is the tendency for the conflicting dimensions of the self to be drawn to and acted out in the newly opened frontiers of the erotic. The erotic is presented to most adolescents as the “badlands of desire”. For many young men, the intensive and prolonged use of masturbation provides an imaginary erotic landscape within which conflicts between rage (sadomasochism), honor (the tentative promise of an acceptable explanation), and the acceptance of social reality’s conventions can be tested totally within the domain of the self.
The basic plot is relatively simple and can be summarized very quickly. Stewart comes to the frontier bringing the law and the dominance of the community. His first encounter is with Valance, in an almost dream-like sequence, during a holdup of a stagecoach outside Shinbone. It is as if Valance immediately recognizes Stewart as his special nemesis; it is as if they had met before. Valance attacks Stewart ferociously, and strips him of what is most essential to his identity—his books (the law) and his ability to protect women. Finding Stewart unconscious, it is Wayne who brings him to the community (Shinbone) and to Hallie (played by Vera Miles) for nursing.
Hallie is at this point assumed by all to be Wayne’s woman, the woman for whom he is about to abandon his frontier (adolescent or pre-adult) ways, symbolized by his building of a house/home for her. In a sense, it may be an ambivalent Wayne who unconsciously summons Stewart to the unsettled community, as in Freudian imagery ego summons forth the power of superego in order to manage the threats posed by the forces of the id. Hallie nurses Stewart back to health. Seen almost exclusively in the kitchen of her restaurant, where she exercises control over her immigrant parents, she is the consummate oedipal solution, with demonstrable capacities for being both a wife and a mother, though ultimately she will prove to be only one of these.
The difference between the three in their use of women is significant. For Valance women represent two aspects of interpersonal relations. On the one hand, they symbolize the order and discipline that comes with homesteading and, for that very reason, are the enemy of the persistent adolescent homosociality of the frontier. On the other hand, women are temporary sex objects serving to confirm his masculinity directly, as well as being the occasion for demonstrating dominance over other men. Valance’s sexual style approximates one that Freud (1905) saw as characterizing the worlds of antiquity where major significance attached to the drive, with little significance given to the object. Valance has little direct interaction with Hallie. Little is necessary; in only one encounter, he need only leer at Hallie to remind us of what uses he would make of her but f or the presence of the others.
Wayne requires her for the fulfillment of the classic patriarchal pattern; he requires her as property—it is hard to say whether he is building a house for her or pursuing her because he has begun to invest in a house. She would replace Pompey, the Tonto-like former black slave, as trusted companion and domestic. The homoerotic potential of adolescence will give way to a homosocially infused heterosexuality, a sexuality focused on women in ways that can only be appreciated by other men. She will be the vehicle of his final confirmation of true patriarchal status: entry into fatherhood. (In this context, it is interesting that though she finally marries Stewart, it is clear that it has been and will remain a childless marriage.)
Lastly, for Stewart, she is the partner necessary to complete the requirements of community, family, and career expectations. He will teach her to read, an act that Wayne bitterly resents. It is as if Wayne intuitively understands that, once exposed to the possibility of achieving even marginal subjectivity, she can never happily be his final and permanent adornment.
A unique aspect of this otherwise stereotyped scenario is that it is perhaps the only time in his career in film when John Wayne will grossly violate the Code of the West, the unwritten code of narcissistic honor: he will virtually shoot someone in the back by shooting Valance while Valance is preoccupied with “gunning down” Stewart, whom he has finally provoked into a classic “showdown”.
The unbalanced showdown between Liberty and Stewart is provoked by Liberty’s violent assault on the figure who serves as Stewart’s oedipal father, a previously weak, alcoholic newspaper editor. The accessibility of the Freudian retelling of the Oedipal Myth has produced a curious simplification of interpretations of representations of the father. More common than patricide is the elimination of the father as either an obstacle or threat by structuring a role reversal wherein the son becomes the rescuer and rehabilitator of the father— themes reoccurring in such recent films as Back to the Future, Peggy-Sue Gets Married, and Terminator. Perhaps, in a mark of the distance we have traveled since Sophocles, it is as protector and avenger of the father figure that the son, Stewart, leaves the kitchen, still wearing the apron that signified his previous yet to be certified masculinity, and takes possession of the gun.
John Wayne’s betrayal of the Code of the West not only rids the community of the threat of Valance, it creates Wayne’s fatal anomie by destroying his claim for narcissistic honor, a claim for personal honor that could only have substance when set off against the still more dangerously grandiose and increasingly inappropriate challenges of a Valance. Wayne’s killing of Valance is simultaneously a homicide and a suicide. Unprotected from his own narcissistic rage, Wayne will burn his own house and with it all claims for post-oedipal happiness. Wayne’s uncelebrated death occasions the retelling of the saga and by doing so he returns to unburden Stewart of his (and our) guilt at having achieved full maturity by a narcissistic lapse—allowing the beating of the newspaper editor/ father figure moving him to adopt the gun. Such a lapse is shared by many at the level of fantasy, and still leaves a residual and sometimes eruptive taste for desires better left to fantasy.
Stewart initially experiences the shooting of Liberty Valance as his own achievement, and, as a result, becomes a winner—getting Hallie, community recognition, statehood for the previously dependent territory, and, becoming a Senator, is allowed to go off to Washington, the home of the Great White Father. At the same time, however, he is exiled from the desires and fantasies of childhood and adolescence by his very success in the affairs of adults.
The possibility of conflicts between the self as a history of desires and the requirements of civilization with its varied anticipations of maturity is hardly unique to adolescence. Adolescence may properly dominate discourse on the state of the management of such conflicts because for most it is the earliest stage of the life cycle when there is pressure to experience such conflicts as conflict and to urgently resolve or stabilize those conflicts. Such conflicts, it must be noted, need not be located in some Hobbesian conflict between nature and nurture, but can be conceptualized more interestingly as the result of the conflicts of culture with itself. Against the conventional image of human beings, particularly men, as creatures of nature struggling to find contentment within the constraints and civilities of community and family life, Stewart offers us the image of men who are essentially timid creatures whose most successful uses of violence take the form of symbolic violence—which is what his confrontation with Valance was.
Socialization is the learning of the rules of social life, much as we learn the rules of a series of games—rules and meanings of conduct for which nature in most cases does extraordinarily little to prepare us. It involves the training for games where the criteria for success or failure are largely in the hands of others and where the tokens of success are dramatically valorized precisely because they are tokens of success (Simon and Gagnon 1975). At the threshold of adolescence, much of what is the individual is the consequence of a history of training in such rules of the game, a history of performance, as well as the beginnings of commitment to and experience with many of the current tokens of success. That such games are really more than just games is most often a sustaining ideology for those who have learned the art of winning, the art of appearing to have won, or, failing all else, the art of appearing not to have lost.
This training becomes critical for the adolescent. One reason is clearly the increasing pressures to be (or appear to be) morally responsible to others, the community, and to the self. The latter requires responsibility for what is the least existential and least immediately recognizable form of the self: the self preparing for its own future. Moreover, the requirement is that the adolescent become morally responsible but in ways that are, at the same time, “realistic” and “practical”. This potential contradiction between the moral and the realistic becomes the seedbed where the second dimension, narcissistic honor, emerges. Honor can only appear where there is a potential conflict between alternative forms of desire.
Liberty Valance is cruel, sadistic, vicious, the last legacy of childhood: grandiosity wondrously unfettered by the slightest empathic awareness of the consequences for such seemingly abstract realities as the family, community, civilization, or the future. This is perhaps why vengeance may be the first form of justice in which we become schooled and why, in the childhood of most American men, Liberty Valance may have organized our fantasies as often as he haunted our nightmares. Liberty Valance’s villainy (if that is what it is) rests largely upon his demand that the games that constitute social life be organized around those rules of behavior that provide a context within which he is sure of winning. In most other versions of the game, particularly those representing the most conventional expectations for adolescent development, he is condemned to being a loser.
Honor also appears as a compelling theme for Liberty Valance, but it is a conception of honor totally subordinated to the defense of his basic grandiosity, a grandiosity often driven to burning rage, appeased only by sadism, and consoled only by vengeance. He is so pure an expression of grandiosity that very little can be effected by compromise and probably less by the promise of future rewards. For Liberty the game must be rigged because the only alternative to winning is death. In contrast, the commitment to honor (as the effective basis for selfacceptance) by the other two characters—John Wayne personifying “narcissistic honor" and James Stewart personifying “social honor"—indicates that they share a common aspect of honor that requires them to play out the game even when they know that it is stacked against them. It is precisely this quality that makes both, each in his own way, the “friend" of the social order in much the same way that Liberty Valance is its enemy. For them losing is both plausible, i. e. consistent with character, and honorable, i. e. a testimony of virtue, and as a result they are under no pressure to question or leave the larger game itself even when they lose.
In Liberty Valance we can see many of the aspects of self that must be repressed or disguised in order to be a winner by conventional standards. His ability to act impulsively upon his immediate desires, his willingness to invest otherwise trivial gestures with great significance, his willingness to run exorbitant risks for trivial gains, and, above all else, his unwillingness to surrender to the middle ground where compromise flourishes are the postures that make him the instantly recognized enemy of civilization and maturity, or, at the very least, the most common enemy of (self-)regulation and (self-)discipline.
Most young men are prepared to abandon their grandiosity, their chance to play Liberty Valance; others are eager; and still others are given little choice. This abandonment—involving repression, sublimated expression, or retreat to the sanctuary of fantasy—is rarely total, rarely immediate, and still more rarely without compromise and residual ambivalence. The mechanism most typically effecting that compromise is a flowering of concerns for honor. But it is essentially “narcissistic honor” that tends to appear first: honor that is based upon a predominance of personal bookkeeping, rather than social book-keeping. It is frequently the only basis upon which new commitments to self-regulation and self-discipline can be assimilated without experiencing an overwhelming threat to self-cohesion, without experiencing a disturbing sense of disloyalty to what one has been and has dreamed of becoming.4
The behavior of both Valance and Wayne is significantly referential to honor. For Valance, however, honor is totally at the disposal of his own grandiosity, while for Wayne it is clearly the most effective available constraint on grandiosity, a commitment to constraint that will have a developmental logic of its own. The distinction should closely parallel Kohut’s distinctions between the negative and positive forms of narcissism (Kohut 1978a). John Wayne, in both Liberty Valance and his general persona, epitomizes this quality of narcissistic honor. It is for the most part an inarticulate honor, one that, while expressed through public acts, can be made meaningful only through being made referential to the actor and his or her purposes, i. e. where the actor provides the interpretive context for the act. Thus, both Liberty Valance and Wayne share an equal commitment to “the law of the gun”, differing only in their application of that law. In contrast, social honor, personified by Stewart, is typically an act of conscience, never more unambiguous than when it risks being misunderstood.
The fact that the townspeople of Shinbone, where the action of the film occurs, initially show no great enthusiasm for the social values voiced by Stewart does not make his commitment to honor less social in nature. He epitomizes social honor because his behavior is organized not around the reality of any specific community, but by his commitment to an abstract idea of community life. Stewart can remain secure in his honor because it is within the jurisdiction of an objectified ideal, a realm where the act provides the interpretive context for the actor.
This film, then, can be seen as a parable, where the story of how a community achieves legitimacy provides the imagery for reawakening the psychological archeology of the American male, providing an opportunity to re-experience the vicissitudes attending the journey from the impulsive grandiosity of childhood to an acceptance of the somber and restrained joys of maturity. For many men this kind of scenario is attractive because it re-creates for them not merely the chronology of their negotiated self but also the emotional richness of that negotiation. That the conclusion is known in advance does not discourage us; indeed, that may be a requirement of being allowed to recapture the emotions of almost all parties to the negotiated self without calling into question the wisdom of that negotiation.
Our identifications, as Freud (1908) understood, are rarely exhausted by an exclusive attachment to a single character, but may be distributed among all the significant players: a diffusion of identifications and empathic projections. Men come to the film not merely to survive as Jimmy Stewart nor merely to have themselves mourned as John Wayne, but also to live, however briefly, with Liberty Valance—to live with him and to be reassured that he was properly killed and that the costs involved were worth it.
There is a particular episode that highlights just this. It is Saturday night in Shinbone and all the players are in town. Hallie’s restaurant is full. Valance and some of his cronies enter. He approaches a table where three cowboys are about to start their dinner. He looks down at them and says, “These steaks look done just right for us. You cowboys are in no hurry to eat, are you?” They mumble an obsequious agreement and back off. At that moment it is the rarest of men who is not Liberty Valance. To enter a room and have men of unqualified masculinity make way for you as an involuntary gesture of respect has to be among the most universal of male fantasies.
At that moment Stewart appears as a waiter, that is, in what is clearly a feminine role. The timing is perfect; many men will react with the uneasiness that often accompanies our identification with Valance, particularly when his acts of narcissistic grandiosity are performed without provocation and with undisguised malice. Too often we have been or feared being his victim. Stewart’s entrance in a feminine posture moves us from villainy to the more familiar postures of the victim. Swiftly we are allowed to atone masochistically f or our identification with aggression by risking a humiliation that almost all of us must have often feared and many have experi enced at one time or another. Stewart is tripped by Valance; he falls to the floor and the steak he is carrying is sent flying across the room. The threat (and experience of the threat) of humiliation becomes real. This is observed not only by Hallie and her parents, but also by the alcoholic newspaper editor and John Wayne, who observe this from a shared table where they posture a relaxed masculinity, the oedipal father and the preferred son as instantly recognized by almost every son who was or dreamed of being the preferred son.
And yet we will survive this, not only because we know how this must ultimately end, but because Wayne, the image of almost all the men we’ve admired, will protect us, but without the sissifying required by Hallie’s maternal protection. And he will do so in a way that thoroughly protects his own masculinity—earning our admiration and, finally, our identification as we have the rare opportunity of being a protective best buddy to ourselves. He will do this carefully, without admitting to sentimentality by claiming a personal piece of the action. “That’s my steak,” he says, pointing to the steak on the floor.
This time it is Liberty himself who will be threatened with humiliation and we can rejoice in that. Wayne will require that Valance stoop to pick up the steak. However, Valance will be spared the actual humiliation by Stewart, who grabs the steak off the floor and shouts, “Here is the piece of meat you’re prepared to kill each other for! Is everybody crazy around here?”
What a round of emotions. We are provided with an extraordinarily rapid shifting of identities and emotions without the slightest disturbance to the rigid structure of pieties that so coercively orchestrates the scene. Nowhere in the film is the contrast between the requirements of the two kinds of honor drawn more effectively. Both Liberty Valance and Wayne enter a game where the rules are fixed, a game that only acknowledges individuals and sees them all as equal, regardless of all manner of otherwise pertinent differences. Wayne and Valance engage in a few swift movements, each of which is blocked with equal swiftness, like long-time players of checkers. And the game must be played by the operative rules until the drawing of guns or a display of submission.
In this case, however, the game and its assumptions are called into question by Stewart. These differences in style of response come very close to paralleling the distinctions observed by Gilligan (1982) in styles of moral reasoning that tend to differentiate women and men. Women, she notes, are more likely to give greater priority in moral reasoning to intentions and consequences, while men are more likely to define morality in terms of the establishment of, and conformity to, given rules. In this, Liberty Valance and John Wayne stand together; for them, Stewart’s social honor is a form of capitulation to the world of women, a world from which they have long been exiled, a world whose very essences constitute the negative pole of many of their most important claims upon an identity.
Wayne’s anger in the episodes following the shooting of Valance is understandable. Part of it has to do with the realization of his loss of Hallie to Stewart. As suggested earlier, the shooting of Valance is both homicide and suicide. Wayne has lost both honor and potency. Following the shooting of Valance, Wayne enters Hallie’s kitchen to find her attending Stewart’s wound. Little has to be said. Wayne cannot admit to having been the one who did the shooting nor call into question the honor and admiration that Stewart has undeservedly won. Neither winning nor losing, he has become irrelevant.
Immediately following his surrender of claims to Hallie, Wayne encounters Liberty Valance’s two sidekicks. Their behavior by the once operative rules provides more than ample justification for the drawing of guns, but instead Wayne disarms them and hands them over to the once ridiculously unheroic town marshal. Justice is now the property of no person, but belongs to the community. Wayne then leaves the bar-room; his disgust for the surviving residues of Valance is small compared to his disgust with himself. He has surrendered his guns and with them the rules that give narrative plausibility to his behavior and the illusion of cohesiveness to his identity. Narcissistic honor is dependent on being f ramed by the threat of narcissistic rage.
At the very beginning of the film, before the telling of the “real” story, Stewart, in viewing Wayne laid out in a coffin, asks that his boots, spurs, and guns be buried with him. The guns are clearly an act of restitution, one made when it is too late to be anything but safe. The now aged, former town marshal indicates that there were none; Wayne, he notes, hadn’t worn guns for years. The surrender of the guns does in fact become a dangerous surrender of a sense of self. Perhaps far more anxiety-generating than Freud’s imagery of fear of literal castration is the fear of symbolic castration implicit in the loss of critical metaphors of identity—our guns, jobs and wisdom that only men can possess, the right of men to appear responsible for women. The gesture of restitution attempts to protect us from the fear of losing what we might never have had or never have been. By this point in the film, the title has ceased to be wholly a hero’s accolade and becomes something of an indictment.
Indeed, the retelling of the story is an expiatory effort, one that essentially fails. Stewart and Hallie have returned to Shinbone from lives of success elsewhere. His career as governor, senator, and ambassador has taken them to many places and honors, with the promise of substantially much more to come— a national vice-presidency is mentioned. Yet neither appear fully realized nor in any way free from their ghosts. Hallie describes it as having been cut off from their—really her—roots. Stewart, remember, came to Shinbone rooted only in his idealizations of social honor.
Hallie has paid for this with an abandonment of claims to romantic fulfillment. Her act of attempted retribution is to place on Wayne’s coffin a cactus rose. Much earlier, Wayne had expressed his love for her with expected inarticulateness by giving her such a rose, one to be planted in the earth. At that time, Stewart, in what might have been his most explicit effort at romantic rivalry, asks whether she has ever seen a real rose. By which, of course, he means a cultivated rose, a civilized rose, one bred to fulfill the ideal conception of a rose. They have lived, as it were, a life of roses, without its replacing the more primitive cactus rose or providing what the cactus rose promised. The sense of loss, however, need not be Hallie’s alone. In a somewhat self-defeating way, John Wayne represents the capacity for romantic passion. Perhaps for both men and women, romantic passion can only feed off narcissism, dying where it becomes the fulfillment of the everyday obligations of social honor.
In old age both Hallie and Stewart appear to have taken on a kind of asexual quality. There is no mention of their having had any children. In our kind of society, commitments to parenting increasingly depend upon narcissistic responses and less and less upon commitments to social honor alone. Stewart, as the train takes them from Shinbone, says that possibly they will return to live there again, but only after he has secured passage of legislation encouraging irrigation, which promises to bring a still thwarted fertility to the surrounding deserts. Whether they return or not, which remains problematic, it is clear that the waters will have come too late for Hallie and Stewart. Both are condemned to exile.
In telling a version of the truth, Stewart has not earned his right to return to the truths of his childhood and adolescence, if in fact he can claim one. This is the meaning of the drama’s second significant act (second after the shooting of Liberty Valance). The newspaper editor, after hearing the real story of who shot Liberty Valance, to Stewart’s amazement rejects the confession—“This is the West,” he says destroying his notes, “when the legend becomes fact you print the legend.” His exile (our exile) from his own history is permanent. The bargain made with maturity is irrevocable. Or so it seemed at one time. The rewards of more mature achievement and their attendant pleasure need no longer leave us with feelings of guilt. We come to recognize that we must continue to pay for them by the continued surrender of so much of our childhood and early adolescent idealizations of the self.
Liberty Valance, like all viable mythic figures, continues to live. He continues to live if only to be repeatedly killed, as the male audience is afforded frequent opportunities to relive the experience of their own renunciations of narcissistic grandiosity. Between episodes he will be exiled to the badlands of desire where he will continue to pick at our consciousness, proposing complicity in acts always to be committed by others.
John Wayne, the personification of narcissistic honor, will continue to inform many of the emptier and more pretentious of male postures. Available for many causes, this sense of self is especially available for the moral indignation of threatened identities that almost always accompanies totalitarian causes. His major use, and why we call upon him so often, is because he serves best in those moments when the duties to which we are called don’t appear to make much sense. Social honor has to articulate its rationale; narcissistic honor, in its present, masculinized postures, need only recite and obey the rules.
However, it is the posture of social honor that remains predictive of what most men will see themselves as being most of the time. Gray and unattractive in its reality or unbelievably two-dimensional when formally celebrated, it is to be found in a vast, mid-point plane between the symbolic and the imaginary, sometimes mistakenly called the real, where most of life is lived most of the time for most of us. The burdens of social honor can be shifted from what appear sometimes as meaningless burdens to identity-confirming trials, such as the important things that “a real man” must do and the ways in which he must do them. But often this involves a projection of Liberty Valance waiting in many of the darker places and moments of everyday life to transf orm the performance of the pedestrian into the hard-won triumph of the moral spirit: that uniquely human ability to dream our discontents with civilization in ways that simultaneously enact our enduring commitment to it.