"The Rites of Man" — a continued reading from Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man by Sam Keen

-- “Modern Day Job” by John Larsen

Act I: Separation. The cultural task of turning a boy into a man begins by the disruption of the primal bond between mother and son. In infancy he and she have been one flesh. But at some point, usually near the onset of puberty, the boy child will be rudely stolen from the encompassing maternal arms, ready or not, and thrust into the virile society of men. In many tribes, the men kidnap the boys and take them to live in the men's clubhouse where they are subject to hazing, discipline, and teachings of the elders. “Modern Day Job” by John Larsen

Some form of painful ordeal inevitably accompanies and dramatizes the separation from the world of WOMAN. The list of minor and major tortures imposed upon initiates reads like a page from the fantasy life of de Sade and includes: lip piercing, scarification, filing or knocking out of teeth, scourgings, finger sacrifices, removal of a testicle, bitings, burnings, eating of disgusting foods, being tied on an ant hill, subincision of the penis, solitary confinement, exile in the wilderness for long periods, sleeping naked on winter nights, etc. Often a boy was sent out into the forest to kill a dangerous animal or an enemy to prove his courage. Among the Plains Indians,«fasting, vigils, and sometimes psychedelic drugs were used to induce an altered state of consciousness and a personal vision.

As a general rule, the more a tribe or nation practices warfare the harsher its rites of initiation for boys. In such cultures, the main purpose of the initiation rites for males is to turn civilian boys into military men. The life of a man is the life of a warrior. To be a man one must be able to bear suffering without complaint, to kill, to die. Some tribes, in their effort to create manly virtues, amputate the nipples, since only women should have breasts. The neophyte warrior learns to disdain woman's ways, to reject the sensuous knowledge of the body he learned kinesthetically from his mother, and to deny all that is "feminine" and soft in himself.

Why this connection between masculinity and pain? We can see the logic that underlies such ordeals if we look closely at the typical "primitive" ritual of circumcision. For reasons that are deeply unconscious—or mythic—the male elders of the tribe ordain that boys must bear a scar throughout life to remind them that they are required to sacrifice their bodies to the will of the tribe. To be a man is to leave behind the world of women-nature-flesh-sensuality-pleasure and submit one's will and body to the world of men-culture-power-duty. The implicit message given to a boy when he is circumcised, whether the ritual is performed when he is seven days old or at puberty, is that your body henceforth belongs to the tribe and not merely to yourself.

If we are to understand the male psyche, decipher the baffling male obsession with violence, break the unconscious sadomasochistic game that binds men and women together in erotic combat, and end the habit of war, we must understand the original wound, the scar, around which masculine character has traditionally been constructed.

The rite of circumcision is widely though not universally practiced, but it is the best symbol of the process by which boys are turned into men. That so primitive and brutal a rite continues to be practiced nearly automatically in modern times when most medical evidence indicates that it is unnecessary, painful, and dangerous suggests that circumcision remains a mythic act whose real significance is stubbornly buried in the unconscious. That men and women who supposedly love their sons refuse to examine and stop this barbaric practice strongly suggests that something powerfully strange is going on here that is obscured by a conspiracy of silence. We do not want to look at the cruelty that is systematically inflicted on men or the wound that is deemed a necessary price of manhood.

Imagine, if you dare, that you are small enough to rest complete within your mother's arms, so sensitive that every nerve ending of your flesh reaches out to the unknown world, eager as lips to receive the bounties of the breast. Then, suddenly, you are seized by male giants, taken from your mother's arms (but with her consent), and held down by force. The tender skin covering your penis is cut off (whether by a stone knife or surgical blade is a matter of small difference). Feel the violation of your flesh, your being. (Do not allow yourself the comforting lie that circumcision isn't that painful, the wound heals quickly, and the pain is soon forgotten.) What indelible message about the meaning of manhood would be carved on your body, encoded within the scar tissue of your symbolic wound?

It is possible to interpret the cruelty involved in rites of passage as expressing the unconscious resentment of the fathers against the sons. But more likely the pain inflicted served as a sacrament—an outward and visible sign of an inward change that transforms boys into men. To create a social body requires a sacrifice of our individual desires. The pain of the ordeal, the hazings, and the insults were designed to break down individuality and replace personal identity with the imprint of the tribe. From the beginnings of recorded human history to the present day the most important tacit instruction boys receive about manhood is: Masculinity requires a wounding of the body, a sacrifice of the natural endowment of sensuality and sexuality. A man is fashioned by a process of subtraction, decision, abstraction, being severed from the "natural" world of WOMAN. We gain manhood by the willingness to bear the mutilation imposed on us by the ruling elders.

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