Neil Roberts

Roberts, Neil,

"One Man's Eyes: Arenas"

ed: Carter, Paul, Age Monthly Review, Article, March 1990. pp. 5 – 7

Neil Roberts

One: Barber Shop, Toronto

The barbershop is an arena of men that will soon be an anachronism. Invested with secrecy and ritual, shared confidences, a patient companionship and the rare instance of men touching men without competition, they are doomed to disappear into the changing patterns of goods and services.

I am of a generation that for many years associated the barber with another lost parental battle, and in more recent times, baldness, in part hereditary and in part self-imposed, has kept me away. But even baldness has its degrees, and travelling in Canada, I ostensibly needed a haircut. My barber, Luigi, was short and precisely manicured. Despite 26 years in Toronto, he still spoke thick English. He understood my particularity, the concise limits of my degree, and so he approached his task with meticulous care. He cut my hair with the clippers, corrected minute unevenness with the scissors, shaved my neck, even trimmed the outlaw hairs off the tops of my ears.

A barber’s shave is a ritual invested with psychological violence, from the many sequences in films and stories, from the sensation of skin stretched taut over a bare neck, from the images triggered in memory by the glint of the straight edged razor. Yet it is also the caress of the father, the intimate touch of a man, when our rituals are generally so devoid of tenderness.

The shave that Luigi gave me that day was more painful than I’d imagined and infinitely more caring. Four times he lathered my face and reshaved me to achieve the smoothness he sought, pinching skin to stretch it taut, cradling my chin in his soft hands, inspecting my face so close I could feel his breath on me at times. He washed me. He treated me gently. He rubbed alcohol onto my skin, kneading my raw and tingling flesh to ease the shock. He addressed the minute details of his focus, to his satisfaction. He dusted me with the softest white brush.

I felt such a rush of emotion for this man, this old man who had held my face in his hands and touched me s kindly. He understood, I think, and when I asked him for a photograph, he combed his own hair, meticulously, and stood proudly.

Two: Grandview Speedway, Pennsylvania

As long as I have been entering service station workshops and car repair joints, I have seen these posters. A car, a prestigious, sleek, powerful car, and a woman’s body, naked or semi-naked, in contact with the car. Invariably, the car, or the auto-service being offered, are the subject of the advertisement, and the obvious hook is sex, some equation between car/man/power played out through the agent of woman’s body for men’s consumption. It has been a particularly conspicuous and consistent form of pornography, sanctified by its occurrence only in the privileged domain of male labor (although the powers often seemed to be placed on the fringe of the workshop, physically beyond the customer’s right to offence but unavoidably visible. This always seemed to me some form of taunt at public morals). I remember graphic examples – an overhead photograph of the woman’s legs, spread and naked underneath a car; the legs and buttocks of a woman being devoured by the open bonnet and mechanical entrails of a car/monster.

Comparatively, the “Miss Valvoline” poster that I noticed at the entrance to the Grandview Speedway in Pennsylvania seemed mild. A tall, scantily clad (but at least, clad) woman, leaning aginst an almost wet, stylish car. The test said simply “Miss Valvoline” (Valvoline is a brand of engine oil in America). It was only when I was waiting inside the gate that I noticed another poster pinned to a wall in an out-of-the-way corner, and at a table set in front of the poster, Miss Valvoline herself, in almost-costumed, autographing posters purchased for a surprisingly cheap $3. It was startling. I had never seen a person, flesh and blood, ascribed to these bodies, never needed to contemplate the real texture of skin (powdered pale), the actual smile (fixed in time), the dimension to the image.

And it was almost as though men generally were not responding – the customers were tentative and hesitant, almost deferential, about fronting their pin-up object. I don’t believe that this occurred because of any respect for, or acknowledgment of, the relationship that exists between image and imagined, between real and fiction, but rather because the success of this form of ownership depends on a certain distance between object and viewer (be it a psychological or a physical distance). The reality of her presence broke the code of objectification, and momentarily invested her image with properties the owners of such an image preferred not to acquire. She seemed especially vulnerable in her undress, with her skinny flesh exposed among a mass of overweight, clothed men, her whiteness raw against the dirt.

It was only at intermission that distance, and the aggression of ownership, was restored. Miss Valvoline was made to stand in the seat of an open-topped car, to be driven twice around the track, waving into the stands as a prelude to the final race. Her fixed smile, tight at the corners, the bluish tint of her skin under the powerful floodlights, the cage that stood between her and the crowd (there for protection against the stock cars, but now a device that separated her actual flesh from her received image), the cries and taunts of the men in the stands: now she was what they required – a thing in the field of view, not real, their to own.

The speedway itself seemed intensified after intermission. Parading Miss Valvoline was a part of the theatrical strategy, taunting and goading an already deafened overwrought crowd. The finale of the night’s competition, of which so many of the men watching had seemed to consider themselves an integral part, and in which their allegiance to a particular competitor was like a bond of blood expressed in pointless screams and wasted gestures, became the focus of the rising energy.

The track was elaborately repaired and dressed, cars and drivers paraded, announcers hoarsened themselves. In a final thundering assault, in a spray of mud and gravel to briefly weld spectator with man/machine competitor, in an almost incidental victory, the game was played out one last time.

In the rush of people to leave the stadium, and so sensibly to avoid the worst of this late-night traffic jam, was the evidence of a mutual contract fulfilled, a contract between a spectacle, and the senses of men.

Three: Fourth of July, New York City

If 4 July (American Independence Day) has any contemporary meaning for most of Manhattan’s inhabitants, beyond a public holiday and a degree of nationalistic fervor, such meaning, perhaps unconsciously, remains based in conflict, in the sense of battle. Perhaps the cultural aggression of a passionate War of Independence still echoes in the trade of illegal fireworks that turn downtown into the closest possible peacetime simulation of a war zone.

For weeks beforehand, Chinese and Italian youths sell fireworks from the trunks of cars or discreet garbage bags on downtown corner lots, calling “fireworks, fire-works” late into the night to attract customers. Their goods range from the decorative to the dangerous – the former illustrated by colourful cardboard cars driven forwards by small catherine wheels on each corner, the latter by the dreaded, most-illegal, M-80s were responsible for at least five reported mutilations this year, including a bizarre incident in which one victim blew three fingers off his hand, one which literally poked his own eye out. Thrown near a parked car, a singe M-80 will invariably set off the piercing anti-theft alarms.

I spent 4 July wandering the streets, dodging whistling rockets and random M-80s, engrossed by the all-pervading aggression, the menness of it all. The New York chapter of the Hell’s Angels own a black of the Lower East Side, and their traditional street party contained all the icons of a staunchly defended masculine sub-culture – Harley Davidsons lined the street, a band of dinosaurs played Steppenwolf covers and smashed vodka bottles from the back of a semi-trailer, thin women in minimal dress ran errands between groups of bikers, or paraded the foreground of the band’s arena. A bonfire in the middle of the street exploded continuously with fireworks swept up off the road, a constant cacophony punctuated by M-80s thrown around and into the crowd. Everyone was filthy with sweat and soot and shredded paper. Like the Grandview Speedway, it was an atmosphere charged with common traits among men, yet rarely so concentratedly felt.

In the dying hours of the night, I watched the fireworks sellers in Little Italy occupy an intersection and explode their remaining goods. Chinese groups, then Italian, then Chinese again, forced the hundred or so spectators to protect their physically endangered eardrums from a stream of explosions that had already buried the road under 15 centimetres of shrapnel and paper. It was almost inevitable that actual violence would erupt, and when some ousider transgressed some neighborhood law, he was hounded around the intersection like a rabbit pursued by dogs, repeatedly beaten and kicked, escaping briefly to be caught and beaten again. Only the intervention of some others from the neighborhood prevented his being pulped, and he was allowed to be carried away by his companions. It was the verge of mob violence. I left, sickened with adrenalin and disgust.

Much later, emerging on to the streets once more, I saw a quiet coda to Independence Day. Rain, and the city, had swept the night’s debris away and all was relatively deserted. Across the road, I watched two policemen put on rubber gloves and try to cajole a man from his burrow deep in a pile of black garbage bags. He struggled to get upright, and the police resisted contact, gloves not-withstanding. He was a bearded emaciated young man, filthy and utterly naked.

Four: Plaza de Toros Monumental, Barcelona

There seem to be two edges to the excitement experience by spectators at a bullfight. The first is the thrill and appreciation of a skilled dance between man and bull. This seems to happen only on rare occasions. The second is the remote possibility that someone will be killed or maimed, that a moment of random violence will occur in what everyone knows to be, but is reluctant to acknowledge as, an approved entertainment.

It was this second edge that also generated the sense of lust at the Grandview Speedway, the veiled hope that something serious could go wrong with the pattern of things that would bring the crowd expectantly to its feet during the frequent collisions. The spectacle of man/machine or man/beast combat hinges on a subconscious acknowledgment of the final vulnerability of flesh, the possibility, however remote, of impending mortality. Man’s need to flirt with death is in contradiction with the rigid permanence of the culture we have fashioned, but it is generally, and becoming more so, a flirtation by spectacle alone.

The primal mythology of the bullfight is so potent that the event needs only infrequent occurrences of actual danger to retain its edge. The semblance of a duel is transparent. Logically, the bull will be slaughtered. Its strength and its size are its only dubious advantages against the nimble-footed, agile matadors (for some reason, I had expected boots, and was surprised by pink socks and ballet slippers). And the bull has many, not one, adversaries. He is first befuddled by a game of cat-and-mouse with three of the matador’s assistants, who dart out from behind their cover with pink capes and scamper away again when noticed. A pair of mounted picadors will draw the first burgundy blood, using short pointed lances that they drive with brute force into the bull’s neck as it tries to toss their padded horses, thus tiring the powerful back muscles. Three banderilleros then plant colourful barbed darts into his back and neck, and finally the matador will play the often-exhausted animal before attempting an instant kill with a single sword plunged between the shoulders and straight into the heart. In practice, a clean kill is unlikely, and often the stricken bull is finished with a short knife twisted between the horns.

The bullfight that I witnessed in Barcelona was unexceptional, although I was surprised by the presence of two groups of nuns, all white and black in the hot sun, in the stands this Sunday afternoon. The images were engrossing: the black hide of the bull staining a glossy, deep purple/red right down to his hoof; the sand of the arena stained with the spilled blood and with sweeping red brushmarks as each carcase was dragged away by three horses in elaborate harness; the delicate fall of the swishing pink and yellow capes; the vertical lines of the matador, broad, gilded shoulders and thin, taut loins echoing the dark, horizontal from of the bull; little existed, though, beyond the frame.

The death, the torment, pain, were so veiled by image that they became ghosts of sensations, without smell, without substance. At the final thrust of a perfectly aimed sword, when the last matador of the day managed to get it right, it was as though even this massive beast had ceased to have substance, to believe in his own matter, and the metre-long blade disappeared as fast into the place where flesh and muscle should have been as a hot needle into butter. I still can’t quite reconcile the dying bull collapsing forward in slow motion, and the ornate hilt of the sword buried hard against the bloodied black hide. Bred on Hollywood, I distrust spectacle.

Five: Men without toilets

“Abel, in whose death the church fathers saw the martyrdom of Christ prefigured, was a keeper of sheep. Cain was a settled farmer. Abel was the favorite of God, because Sahweh himself was a ‘God of the Way’…Yet Cain, who would build the first city, was promised dominion over him…The names of the brothers are a matched pair of opposites. Abel comes from the Hebrew ‘hebel’, meaning ‘breath’ or ‘vapor’: anything that lives and moves and is transient, including his own life. The root of Cain appears to be the verb ‘hanah’: to ‘acquire’, ‘get’, ‘own property’ and so ‘rule or ‘subjugate’.”

Chatwin’s notes in The Songlines raise the issue of a fundamental duality in men, a duality between nomads and farmers. He traces such a duality back to the mythology of Cain and Abel, brothers of opposite inclinations. It seems true that, in Western civilisation at least, men have historically devoted primary energy to the act of staying put. We explore to claim. We fight wars of poverty and of ownership (of religious faith, of land, of political power). We own history, and build the permanence of monuments and mausoleums to protect us from the wanderings of time. We engage in a battle with the elements, harness the wind, for fear of recklessness.

Yet, what of the dispossessed, the homeless men of New York City that I saw this summer (the homeless are not exclusively men, but they are predominantly so). They are not prisoners, because prisoners have a place. They are not nomads, because nomads have choice. They are the evidence of a system under pressure, of structures collapsing under their own weight, and the ubiquitous streams of piss with which they mark the city become for me not only the sign of men without homes (without toilets) but also a rancid oil wrung from unwitting seed.

Indian seekers drink their own morning piss, so as to retain/refine their now pure wastes. The outcasts of New York, also-victims of the crimes of men, hold no such pretensions about their body’s products. They piss on the hot metal surfaces of the city that leaves them out, squeezed dry by denial and loss of property.

The acrid vapors that fill the cast-iron nooks and crannies by day, and the trickles on metal that appear in my black-and-white slides each night like blood from a more visible crime, this evidence of the distillation of men: these signs are signs enough of the collapsing consequences of “farming”.