“Secret Erections and Sexual Fabrications: Old Men Crafting Manliness”
June 20, 2011 § 3 Comments
In “Secret Erections and Sexual Fabrications,” Simon Bronner revisits his 1985 work Chain Carvers: Old Men Crafting Meaning and posits an additional layer to his argument. It’s not that his initial hypothesis –namely, that traditional wood carvings provide a creative outlet for men concerned about the march of time, both in terms of physical aging and also technological progress– is wrong. Bronner maintains that woodcarving is indeed an important aspect of his collaborators’ identities, and reasserts the claim that such behaviors allow the men to express personal anxieties in a controlled, socially-appropriate setting. Specifically, they are able to give physical form to their experiences (and frustrations) in and with the objects they choose to carve — wooden chains, cages, tools, and canes being the most popular forms. “When I feel chained, I make chains,” one collaborator explains. “When I feel caged, I make cages” (280). In short, Bronner argues, carving allows old men to take control of the one area of their lives over which they feel they still have full dominion, a “typically male pattern” which Bronner describes as a “regression-progression behavioral complex.” Old men, he explains, feeling the weight of their years, reach back to the activities they learned as boys. Within this new/old realm, they are subsequently able to grow and develop into this new phase of their lives; thus regression, spurred by the desire to revisit the “good old days,” engenders emotional progress (282).
Bronner does not contest these conclusions; he does however reveal that, subsequent to the publication of Chain Carvers, he discovered the prevalence (and significance) of privatized forms of woodcutting, upon which his present study is based. In private, and almost exclusively in the company of other old men, woodcarvers would brandish explicit/ly sexual artifacts, most prominently figures of men either in coffins or barrels spring-loaded to reveal a surprise erection. “Now that’s a woody,” one of Bronner’s informants “gleefully chimed,” suggesting that woodcarvings help these men explore the relationship between sex and death (283). As Bronner explains, “the incongruity is the representation of death and its association with withdrawal and decay, yet the viewer discovers an active, if hidden, member” (285) — making this stripe of woodcarving both defiant in the face of death and accepting of the aging process. And don’t even get him started about canes, my goodness.
An especially interesting aspect of Bronner’s study is the emphasis on audience, secrecy and context. The old men who otherwise take such joy in their carvings are reluctant to share their risque work with anyone outside the initiated group — women, for example, even the men’s wives, would per Bronner’s collaborators either be offended or simply wouldn’t understand. Consequently the only “safe” place to share such creations is with other old men who get it, because they are it. There is of course risk whenever the carvings are shown for the first time — the viewer might, as one collaborator put it, “take it the wrong way” (287). But when the conditions are right, the benefits greatly outweigh the risks; exchanging a knowing chuckle with a like-minded (and bodied) equal helps create what Georg Simmel calls a “second world” in which “external realities are separated for examination” (Simmel 1950, 320, 288). In the woodcarving world as described by Bronner, “a life frame and its problems are playfully enlarged [LOL], male bonds are privileged, and unsympathetic others are excluded” (288). The joke-frame thus acknowledges and protects against a perceived threat to the woodcutter’s pride, and therefore (according to Bronner) his manhood.
tl;dr, phallic or otherwise risque carvings function as a “sign of continued hardiness” (311); by creating and commiserating over risque art objects, woodcarvers directly challenge “the equivalence of the end of sex with the end of life” (311).
Referring to George Bloom, one of Bronner’s collaborators, Bronner concludes thusly: “In his narratives and carvings, he sought other embodiments, other ways to show me he fit, as an old but productive and creative man, into a manly tradition. He had to believe that his experience should not leave him a wilted thing of the past, but an erect figure and vital presence” (311-312). In other words, I can’t do that, but I can do this.
If feeder question: Other than the dick thing, it’s a stretch…one approach might be to focus on the “second world” aspect of Bronner’s argument, which is another way of talking about constitutive humor & can easily be spun towards trollshit, since is predicted on emic/etic distinction.
If stand-alone question: Same idea, though would branch out analysis to talk about the important of context in discussions of humor generally and transgressive humor in particular. Also would emphasize the relationship between joke teller and audience, specifically referencing the woodcutters’ reluctance to being women in on the joke.