Yesterday I happened upon a YouTube video of the inimitable Danny Kaye in the role of Captain Hook, singing of pirate philosophy in the TV production of Peter Pan with Mia Farrow in the title role and score by Anthony Newley (1975). Hook, who personifies a kind of anti-chivalry, is the nemesis of Peter Pan, the perpetual boy who refuses to become a man. Peter Pan, though he represents an opposite extreme from Hook, cannot be considered chivalrous either. Neither Hook nor Pan are real men. Captain Hook has indulged his brutality and Peter Pan his puerile fantasies.
I have been reflecting a great deal lately on the virtues of prowess and courtesy. One of the classic summaries of chivalric virtues is a fivefold division: fidelity, honesty, courtesy, prowess and largess. In my opinion perhaps the most common extremes to which men go in terms of masculinity runs along the line that extends between prowess and courtesy.
Prowess is not only courage, but also the magnificence by which a man invests himself into a great work without counting the cost. Prowess makes a man truly prepared for battle; however, where it is not balanced against courtesy, men simply become brutal and are committed to win “by hook or by crook,” as the pirate says:
Hit him with a hammer when his noggin is turned.
Kick his teeth in.
This is the philosophy I have learned.
And never be concerned about how you win.
Just delight that you’re winning at all.
Always fight somebody frail and small.
At first you charm or flatter him
And gently chitter-chatter him,
Then suddenly you batter him on the chin
And simply shatter him;
It doesn’t matter how you win.
On the other hand, courtesy is a high-minded regard for the person, no matter who he or she is. It is the unbending standard of fair play, by which we rule every engagement of love or war, and everything in between. It is not merely manners, but includes them, for it begins in the mind and heart and flows from there into a man’s every word and deed. However, if it is not balanced against prowess it becomes misguided compassion or self-serving suavité.
And it is precisely for this reason that, while Captain Hook personifies prowess gone awry, Peter Pan does not represent a kind of misplaced compassion. No, the intransigent boy is too narcissistic to be guilty of maternal sentimentality. On the contrary, when Wendy wants to take the boys of Neverland to her home in London, Peter obstinately refuses to go with them and gives everyone a self-justifying lecture:
I’ve got no time for growing up.
When you’ve got time don’t waste it.
Taste it, each and any way you chose.
Use each lovely moment.
Youth is too good to lose.
Raise your voice and make your choice.
If you’ve got youth, rejoice!
Peter Pan is a cocky adolescent with a self-serving idealism. If there is misplaced compassion here, it is directed entirely inward, where Peter lives. Neverland is a state of mind, where one indulges the fantasy of being the center of the universe. Neverland is ever the land of our age.
Even the presence of evil in Neverland only serves to focus Pan’s ego on himself. One wonders if Captain Hook is a dragon of Pan’s own making, the archetypical villain devised for the adventures of Neverland, much like the villains created by college-age zealots who since the sixties have prided themselves on being radical when, in fact, their rebellion is so much a pose, like the fashions that go along with “activism,” such as perennially in-style Che T-shirt.
Isn’t that the lie of so much activist pacifism? In reality it’s just another form of fascism, where men are threatened—not with guns but with adjectives like “lowbrow” and “narrow-minded,” and are silenced—not by force but by public opinion.
The perennial teenager desires neither war nor peace. He wants tolerance at all costs, especially of everything he believes in and desires. He shouts down opposition in the name of tolerance as long as it is politically correct to do so. Opponents of same-sex marriage, for instance, are said to be bigots and have to pay for answering honestly a direct question put to them.
Peter Pan adventures are controlled scenarios, where the only possible peril is a threat to the ego. Hence, so many controversies today are conflated well beyond their concrete significance because of injured teenage sensibilities.
We live in an age of manufactured outrage. Teenage snottiness is often self-righteous anger against the curtailing of one’s narcissism in the name of personal rights, as when activists engage in civil disobedience, provoke law enforcement officers and then are outraged when they get arrested.
In our entertainment culture, where we are encouraged to indulge our puerile fantasies, danger is experienced vicariously through video game avatars and special effects enhanced movie characters. People become dull to the real peril waiting for them at the dinner table and are incapable of addressing the threats to their families and future, and then shake their fists at the ethereal dragons of Neverland.
And this is the real difference between the misplaced compassion of a woman and the puerile self-absorption of the perpetual teenager. A boy who refuses to become a man is neither an immature child nor a sentimental woman, but an androgynous, effete and undefined entity. It is at least significant, then, that actresses have generally been employed to play the role of Peter Pan. The look is androgynous, but worse yet, so is the spirit.
We have even coined terms to define the new hip infantilism: twixters and parasite singles. They are unable to decide whether or when they want to grow up, meanwhile they return home after college to live off mommy and daddy and entertain themselves while they contemplate whether they should get a job. Once upon a time, only one in a million, like Hugh Hefner, could afford not to grow up. Now with the hyper-management of everything by bureaucracy, we expect someone to always be coddling us.
In this moral climate, men who have never learned to fight in ordinary human conflicts have been so numbed by the artificiality of it all that they join fight clubs just to feel alive. Feminine and effeminate culture is suffocating them, and getting punched is one of the only solid realities they experience. Nevertheless, they would rather get a knee to the face than reclaim the even more solid and infinitely more dangerous realities of family life.
The opposite of wanton brutality, derailed prowess, is not always misplaced compassion. Sometimes it’s just plain old comfy narcissism, and it seems more and more the standard fare.
As winsome as Peter Pan seems, he is really a dull conformist. His philosophy is that of the world. The religion of tolerance and the idolization of irresponsible youth is the mantra that several generations now have been taught to repeat. It is custom, the tradition of our most recent fathers. Anthony Esolen marks the commandments of this now codified let-down:
Thou shalt not adore. Thou shalt not celebrate with abandon. Thou shalt not honor. Thou shalt not fight. Thou shalt not live under the law of God, but within the parameters of thy keepers.
Neverland is a cage and Peter Pan is too self-absorbed to realize it. Let’s lose it fast.