Masculinity and Nothingness
You become a man instead of being born one.
“Because we have for millennia made moral, aesthetic, religious demands on the world, looked upon it with blind desire, passion or fear, and abandoned ourselves to the bad habits of illogical thinking, this world has gradually become so marvellously variegated, frightful, meaningful, soulful, it has acquired colour - but we have been the colourists.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, all too Human
You are condemned to be a man. Not because we live amidst a so-called masculinity crisis where young men are purposeless and lost—these are secondary concerns. Instead, it’s because you’re thrown into this world with circumstances you never chose: you’re born into a specific time, family, culture, gender and body that you never asked for; you have no idea why you are here but still expected to follow arbitrary customs, social conventions with ties of kinship, duty and so on. As the song Riders on the Storm goes: “Into this world, we’re thrown. Like a dog without a bone.” If you momentarily pause and think of the uncanny nature of existence and your position in an ostensibly meaningless universe where you nevertheless seek meaning, you discover life is downright absurd. Accordingly, grasping this absurdity is the starting point to realising that masculinity, as defined by society, does not exist. Therefore, what Simone de Beauvoir said about women also applies to men (albeit differently): “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” (The Second Sex, P. 330) Irrespective of your biological sex, what you think of as a “real man”, that is, how you should conduct yourself both socially and privately, is a sociohistorical construct where you become a man instead of being born one. Since man lacks any masculine essence, you are free. And man’s freedom amongst his thrownness is the actual crisis.
To understand thrownness (a concept introduced by Martin Heidegger as Geworfenheit), let’s exemplify using the body, which inescapably constitutes one’s being. As Jean-Paul Sartre argued, you’re a transcendent consciousness that allows you to transcend the subjective body and experience freedom: a tearing away from oneself (arrachement à soi). So perhaps you’ve had the bizarre experience one goes through in life apropos one’s body: you may stand naked in front of a mirror and see that you—whatever you or I mean; Heidegger calls it a Dasein (Da-sein: there-being): “Dasein’s being is always at issue for it in its very being as having to ‘take a stand’ upon that issue by living its life in one way or another.” (The Cambridge Heidegger Lexicon, P. 204)—have a body that seems alien, which you may not even like, and yet you as a self cannot be in this world without it; in fact, it’s impossible to imagine what it’s like to live without a body. For a moment, leave aside the vain attributes (e.g. fatness or scrawniness, stretch marks, pimples, etc.) and look at your body phenomenologically as part of “things themselves”, meaning back to the ways that things of the world are actually given in experience. Then you’ll realise (as elucidated by Maurice Merleau-Ponty) the body is something that’s a factical part of you: it’s endowed to you automatically as a brute fact of your existence. Although at first glance, your body looks like any other object in the world, if you keep staring at that mirror, you’ll realise this body of yours isn’t merely a set of your properties and mechanisms; rather, it’s what allows you to exist. In fact, when you act in the world by going for a walk, let’s say, and duck a protruding tree branch, you never experience the body as a thing you utilise to duck that branch; instead, as you’re engaged in the act, the body disappears, and your intentionality not to let that branch touch you constitutes your experience—paradoxically, the disappearance of the body is what allows your intent to actualise. The body also allows you to make sense of the world and how the broader ecological context you’re immersed within is structured, like in our example: that of an unpredictable environment where tree branches are jutting out. One ought to realise that the body isn’t a mere vessel to carry our conscious experience around the world, but rather it’s a part of us innately. Of course, such a prosaic experience doesn’t necessarily lead to the aforementioned incongruity of the body feeling alien, as your body seems to be doing what it’s supposed to do by following your commands, so to speak. Nonetheless, it’s indicative of how you’re thrown into your body and that it isn’t something you can dispose of by uploading your consciousness to a computer or some such nonsense.
However, something saliently particular to the body you’ll see on that mirror is your penis: the phallic, fleshy, hairy bulge between your legs that St. Augustine says God gave us as punishment for Original sin because, as most men know, it doesn’t work when you want it to (think of a one-night stand) and works when you don’t want it to (think of a random erection in public). Your penis is the quintessential indicator of the bizarreness of life as it shows the antagonism between your freedom as a conscious and transcendent human being while also having your existence physically embodied with biological drives such as an unfettered libido, in our case. When wanting to duck that branch, your body follows your intentionality but rarely does a man control his sexual drives or lack thereof; as Haruki Murakami writes, the penis is a strange organ that “has a mind of its own and thinks thoughts not shared by my brain.” (Kafka on the Shore, P. 147) And Augustine knows this best because he really couldn’t keep it in his pants back in the 4th century. So your penis is illustrative of the real masculinity crisis because it shows the paradox of existence.
Considering that, unlike objects, e.g., trees, chairs, iPhones, etc., that are being-in-itself (en soi)—a mode of existence that’s static, unconscious and simply is—you are infinite freedom; a being-for-itself (pour soi) that is a conscious being aware of their own consciousness but is also incomplete, ambiguous and nondetermined. This lacking of a predetermined essence forces man to create himself out of nothingness. And man is nothing when the nothingness is primarily realised to us through negation, that is, when a person’s absence is acutely apprehended:
“The most vivid example he [Sartre] provides to illustrate this pre-reflective negation is the apprehension of Pierre’s absence from a café. Sartre describes Pierre’s absence as pervading the whole café. The café is cast in the metaphorical ‘shade’ of Pierre not being there at the time he had been expected. This experience depends on human expectations, of course. But Sartre argues that if, by contrast, we imagine or reflect that someone else is not present (say the Duke of Wellington, an elephant, etc.), these abstract negative facts are not existentially given in the same manner as our pre-reflective encounter with Pierre’s absence. They are not given as an ‘objective fact’, as a ‘component of the real’.”
Phenomenologically speaking, the nothingness of Pierre is a reality. In your experience, his palpable lack is salient above everything else in this hypothetical cafe; therefore, it gives non-being an ontological place. Everything that’s already at-being in the cafe, from the other patrons, baristas, waiters, the furniture, etc., ceases to exist, and your attention goes solely to the absence of Pierre. This pre-reflective negative apprehension penetrates you, where you don’t directly intend not to see Pierre, but rather you traumatically encounter the non-being of Pierre or, as Sartre writes, “Pierre absent haunts this cafe.” (Being and Nothingness, P. 10). In that sense, the fact of your “pre-reflective negation” apropos Pierre also applies to you because, let’s say, if Pierre showed up and you were absent, then he would encounter your non-being because you’re a Dasien, much like him. So what makes your being stand out is not any grounded positive affirmation (i.e., reputation, personality, psychological type and so on) but everything you’re NOT. The ambiguity of your existence—you are what you’re not, and you’re not what you are—is the Sartrean nothingness; it imbues the tension between your being-in-itself and being-for-itself, that is, between you being a biological, psychological and sociohistorical creature and your self-perception as negating those observable (or descriptive) properties of your being in support of an aspirational or ideal view of yourself that’s learning, growing, philosophising, etc. In that vein, your starting point to being YOU is by declaring, “I am NOT that thing!” Which perhaps is why your starting point to being a man is by declaring, “I REJECT masculinity.”
For that reason, your nothingness CONDEMNS you to be free! Because if you’re nothing, you only exist in this world qua infinite possibilities presenting themselves to you, similar to standing on the edge of a cliff and knowing very well you have the freedom to jump; nonetheless, you MUST choose from these possibilities every conscious moment of your life. Therefore, you’re constantly recreating yourself through action by projecting yourself onto the world, which is a task that leaves one perturbed—Kierkegaard describes this angst as “the dizziness of freedom.”
Your masculinity has no essential reality; it doesn’t objectively exist, and the existence of a man precedes the essence of his masculinity. That said, your body, particularly the penis, is still a reminder that while you’re completely aware of your freedom, you’re nonetheless thrown into a life of finitude that constraints this freedom of your consciousness—though you’re not trapped in it, thinking so is a pusillanimous response to life; as Paul Tillich writes, “Man is essentially ‘finite freedom’; freedom not in the sense of indeterminacy but in the sense of being able to determine himself through decisions in the centre of his being. Man, as finite freedom, is free within the contingencies of his finitude.” (The Courage to Be, P. 52) The contradiction between freedom and thrownness is irreconcilable, nor is it a mere duality one can be indifferent towards but a fact of life to struggle with (violently); no synthesis between these conflicting truths leads to sublimated wholeness or some higher comforting truth; instead, the truth lies in the sheer antagonism itself. And It’s this violent friction that leads to what Gabriel Marcel calls the Homo viator - “the traveller” where man is never a destination, but he is an unresolved, contradictory and itinerant being: “We can never own anything, and we never truly settle anywhere, even if we stay in one place all our lives.” (At the Existentialist Café, P. 303) Being thrown into the aforementioned paradox puts us in the unknown and, sometimes, even the uncanny. Or, specifically for Marcel, it leads to the mystery of existence; one will never make sense of this mystery, yet it ought to be faced valiantly. It isn’t a mere speculative problem that’s solvable a-personally at a distance. But it becomes a mystery only because, above all, we’re involved in the mystery as it’s particular to us and cannot be tackled by “anybody at all”, but rather it reveals itself for “nobody but me.”
Facing everything delineated above requires courage, which a man should aspire to embody: Paul Tillich writes on courage pertaining to anxiety, stating, “Courage does not remove anxiety. Since anxiety is existential, it cannot be removed. But courage takes the anxiety of nonbeing into itself. Courage is self-affirmation ‘in spite of,’ namely in spite of nonbeing. He who acts courageously takes, in his self-affirmation, the anxiety of nonbeing upon himself.” (The Courage to Be, P. 66) Similarly, your courage shouldn’t remove the paradox and mystery of existence. But taken upon yourself, assumed fully. And then, you act “in spite of” and through it with the awareness that only you can affirm yourself; only you can act in this particular instance. Therefore, to do away with preconceived notions of masculinity is the supreme act of courage for a man.
If you haven’t experienced any of the phenomena illuminated above, you’re distracting yourself and being a coward. If you’re listening to misogynists like Andrew Tate, so-called men’s podcasts like Fresh and Fit, or even more positive figures (apparently) like Jordan Peterson, you have no existential vitality, no awareness of life and your will to live is weakened. Thereby you refuse to take responsibility to face reality and have outsourced your living to the Other; you have become a sheep refusing to think critically; you are a slave that needs a master commanding you how to live. Sartre called such instances bad faith (mauvaise foi): denying our inherent freedom. We know we’re radically free, but we repudiate the responsibility of that freedom by conforming to the Other; in our case, that’s masculinity or what a “real man” should be, similar to how a Parisian waiter plays a performative role:
“Let us consider this waiter in the cafe. His movement is quick and forward, a little too precise, a little too rapid. He comes toward the patrons with a step a little too quick. He bends forward a little too eagerly; his voice, his eyes express an interest a little too solicitous for the order of the customer. [...] All his behaviour seems to us a game. He applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a cafe. [...] There are indeed many precautions to imprison a man in what he is, as if we lived in perpetual fear that he might escape from it, that he might break away and suddenly elude his condition.” (Being and Nothingness, P. 59)
This is no different to the performative role a businessman trying to sell you “financial freedom” plays. He speaks and dresses a certain way and asks questions not to understand or engage in dialogue but to sustain his performance of being a competent and astute person. Much like the waiter, every action by the businessman is contrived. He follows a prefabricated narrative given to him by society; he’s an actor following a script, performing for the public. Of course, being a man is also a performance you put on.
That said, bad faith isn’t about lies, self-deception or inauthenticity. As intimated in this essay, you don’t have an authentic self, so there’s no use trying to be your true self, and concomitantly you cannot deceive a self that doesn’t exist. Sartre also doesn’t believe one can escape bad faith entirely because it’s omnipresent, and we all inescapably play a role; as Shakespeare writes, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” (As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7)
Does this mean you’re in a hopeless situation where you’ll always be a puppet of society? Yes. But given you’re free, in typical Camusian fashion, you can still choose to embrace the absurdity of your existence and find courage in hopelessness. While you will succumb to bad faith, you can fight your cowardly demise for eternity! You can orient yourself towards courage, taking radical responsibility and refusing to take comfort in false masculinity. You can create YOUR subjective ideal of what being a man entails that solely appeases you alone; indeed, it’s unsurprising that Sartre ends his magnum opus by writing, “Man is a useless passion.” (Ibid, P. 615) But perhaps, his life showed that he tried to make himself worthy of his condition, and so should you. But on your own account. After all, Sartre is just another dead philosopher. Whatever the case may be, this is the reality you’re born into, so do with it as you may. Frankly, I choose courage because all the ideas expounded by the phenomenologists and existentialists I tackled in this essay make life the ultimate adventure worth living for if one doesn’t shy away from them.
The themes I’ve explored in this essay certainly aren’t specific to men; if you’re human, they apply to you, bar none. However, I’ve intentionally used language that’ll direct this essay towards men who’re told they’re in a crisis in the current sociocultural and historical position. Therefore, this crisis ought to be aptly named the “human crisis”; instead of the “masculine” adjective. Although, that would generalise the situation all too much, making it an abstract theory, which the existentialists would detest. In any case, replacing the terms “man” and “masculine” with “woman” and “feminine”, respectively, wouldn’t change the underlying message of this piece.