Great and Elusive Men
by Meredith Hight
I was browsing at the Diesel Bookstore in Los Angeles when I came across a copy of The Great Man by Kate Christensen. It won the PEN/Faulkner award, thus enticing me further. But then I flipped the book over and sighed. The blurb on the back read: “Oscar Feldman, the renowned figurative painter, has passed away. As his obituary notes, Oscar is survived by his wife, Abigail, and their son, Ethan, and his sister, the well-known abstract painter Maxine Feldman. What the obituary does not note, however is that Oscar is also survived by his longtime mistress, Teddy St. Cloud, and their daughters.”
Here we go again, I thought: another story about some “great man” who is brilliant, talented, and successful yet constitutionally incapable of being committed to a woman, to a family, or even to friends. He’s deeply intellectual, he’s troubled, and he’s painfully aware of his own shortcomings. This awareness, however, does not keep him from coming up short, time and time again. He can’t help it. He’s just not capable of commitment. Or he just can’t seem to express his emotions. This makes the women in his life completely bananas and they often spend a lifetime just trying to “figure him out.”
I speak of the Great, Elusive Male.
Just like Big in Sex and the City. (Get ready, the sequel will almost certainly involve Big somehow, someway questioning his relationship with Carrie. The story depends on it.) Then there’s Steve Martin, the wealthy executive in Shopgirl. Oh, how he cared for Claire Danes and oh, how unable he was to be in a relationship with her.
In Elegy Ben Kingsley is an esteemed professor, widely respected for his views. But he just can’t seem to love anyone, not even Penelope Cruz, until (spoiler alert) her very life is compromised. There was, for a short time, Aaron Rose on Gossip Girl. And how I could I forget Hugh Grant in Bridget Jones’ Diary, widely known to be modeled after Pride and Prejudice, indicating the longevity of the Great, Elusive Male prototype? And I could go on.
Of course, Great Elusive Males are not always merely the invention of artists, depicted in pages and on screen. The artists themselves are often Great, Elusive Males. As Daphne Merkin recently wrote in profile of V.S. Naipaul for Elle, “behind every great man peeks a long-suffering wife or abused mistress, and sometimes both at once…the list of writers who have killed their wives softly whilst producing their art includes Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle, and Leo Tolstoy.”
Let’s talk about some others. I decided to finally check out some of Charles Bukowski’s work, after coming across his poetry inscribed onto a public restroom in Venice Beach. Yes, that’s right. But after reading Hot Water Music, a book of short stories that are essentially tales of individual sexual conquests, I am convinced that he is a just a womanizer who can write really well about womanizing. Also, he appears to have some kind of egg fetish.
Unfortunately, with age comes the realization that a proclivity for womanizing and misogyny exists among many male writers/artists. A coworker and I were recently discussing The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera of course, and she mentioned re-reading it recently and realizing that he is a total misogynist. Unfortunately, I think this is true, and something I did not quite catch on to when I was 21 and reading it for the first time.
I did not seriously object to the predominance of the Great, Elusive Male, however, until I realized that the Great, Elusive Male is in fact, not much of a man at all. And that is because the measure of a man lies not just in what material or creative success he achieves. The true measure of a man lies in how he treats all those in his life, from friends to family to yes, the women.
This struck me while attending the funeral of a friend and former colleague, who is survived by a beloved wife, five children, eighteen grandchildren and nine great grandchildren. Between the family, friends and colleagues, we barely all fit into the small, faded white church. I knew the service would be packed, because my friend was the kind of person who was a friend to anyone who crossed his path. He would always, sincerely, ask you how you were doing —never in that polite, “How are you? (Oh, please do not say anything other than “fine”) kind of way. He would always offer a warm hello, a kind word, and a helping hand, to all of us at the office.
And even though we worked for the same company for a number of years, all things considered, I wouldn’t say I really knew my friend all that well. But that’s the thing about men like him. You don’t have to know them that well to know their character.
I just didn’t have to know him that well, to know he was a good man. And sitting in the crowded church that day, it struck me that it is the good men, who quietly and honorably live their lives, that deserve more of our accolades. It is the good men who stand by you and support you. It is the good men who work hard and try to do the right thing. It is the good men who care about those in their lives, and and make sure they know it, in the smallest of ways. Sometimes, it’s better to be good than to be ‘great’.
P.S. I read The Great Man, anyways, suspecting that the title may be an ironic part of the story. I was right. Read it.
P.P.S. I used to have a thing for Great Elusive Males in training. You know, the younger version. Not anymore.
“It’s Not Supposed To Be That Way” – Phosphorescent (mp3)
“I Gotta Get Drunk” – Phosphorescent (mp3)
“The Party’s Over” – Phosphorescent (mp3)
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Her vagina hangs like the sleeve of a wizard.
Things to be amused by.
Would be master of all forms.