I remember reading when I was younger a biography of the artist Jean Cocteau, how on his first plane trip he remarked how wonderful man was, enraptured by the technological marvel that was carrying him across the sky. Of course, by “man” he likely meant “humanity.” Years later I note how I have spent much of my time gazing on man’s works: his buildings, his art, his machinery. I can look at dock cranes or the engine of a vintage Bentley for hours. But unlike Cocteau, my awe is inspired in part because although I recognize the beauty of these things, I know that it is not man who is responsible, but men.
My favorite building is the Roman Pantheon. It contains the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome which inscribes a perfect sphere 142 feet high. It has stood without collapsing for almost one thousand, nine hundred years. There is only one reason this building still stands aside from the engineering genius that built it: it’s indescribable beauty. As the barbarians sacked Rome they destroyed temples, villas, art. They burned it all or pulled it to the ground. But when they saw the Pantheon they were stopped dead in their tracks. They couldn’t bare to touch it. I recounted this tale to a younger man I knew, a rather self-conscious metrosexual who had actually seen and stood within the dome. He said that he had felt nothing. The Pantheon was nothing special.
What was it that those violent, masculine “barbarians” could see that my friend could not? I don’t have a complete answer for this, yet. Like so many young men I’ve known he was preoccupied with chivalry. He was heavily whipped and complained bitterly that his girlfriend had no understanding of him and no real interest. I wanted to shake him and tell him that with his beauty and strength the world was his. All he had to do was reach out and take it. But I doubt he ever will. Feminized, as at the Pantheon he looks at himself and does not see.
Men do not see the world like women do. The gaze of men projects outward into it; they see it, they take what they need from it, and they remake it anew. The gaze of women falls inward. The world becomes them, it exists for them. And thus, women do not build; they consume. It is not the vicissitudes of society or the education system that makes women like this. It is their nature. And, I hazard a guess that few others have made, that because of the consumptive nature of women and of men’s desire to give them every comfort and convenience that we are eating ourselves alive.
I wonder, if the genius of men were fully recognized where would we be now? The ancient Greeks developed the steam engine some two thousand years ago but saw it as no more than an amusing toy. Another kind of engine, a mechanical computer called a difference engine, was conceived by Charles Babbage nearly two hundred years ago, but a lack of vision in the general public meant Babbage could never acquire the funds to build it.
Those societies, the ancient Greek and the Victorian, are perceived by history to be patriarchal and every advantage given to the men who lived in them. But both societies had large populations of slaves and most men were anything but their own masters. What will we be able to do, what wonders will we be able to build, when men are finally, for the first time in human history, truly free?