Academic journal article Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality

Inspire, Expire: Masculinity, Mortality and Meaning in Tim Winton's Breath

Academic journal article Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality

Inspire, Expire: Masculinity, Mortality and Meaning in Tim Winton's Breath

Article excerpt

Tim Winton's latest novel and winner of the Miles Franklin award Breath (2009) is investigated here within a framework of theistic existentialism alongside a critique of masculinities in the Australian context. This novel presents a particular take on hegemonic masculinity and this dovetails neatly, I argue, with a continuum of spiritual consciousness and responsiveness drawn up by Danish creative writer and theological maverick, Soren Kierkegaard (1811-1855).

Representations of the spiritual in Winton's body of work have become increasingly eclectic and existentialist as he seeks to undermine "that pompousness that comes with the church becoming a multinational firm" (quoted in Hawley, 1991, p. 15). Here I will demonstrate a correlation between the lives of the characters in Breath and characteristics of people at Kierkegaard's three realms of existence: The Aesthetic, The Ethical and the Religious, otherwise known as Stages on Life's Way (1845). Kierkegaard's model seems fitting for Winton's work, in its inherent hope and possibility that characters will move along the continuum away from the Aesthetic realm.

The characters in Breath are, as with all Winton's characters, difficult to define in any one category of Stages on Life's Way. But they are, at any point, capable of transcendence, and a graduation from one stage to the next, or even of the incremental stages within stages that give all people the opportunity to be slightly better than they were yesterday. As this article will assert, the novel draws (some facets of) traditional masculine frameworks as (possible) impediments to transcendence, and more 'enlightened' masculine paradigms as being (possibly) conducive to it. Inevitably, some people/characters are lost along the way, never able to reconcile their sense of personhood and perceived imperatives of their gender with their spiritual potential.

Existentialism in its theistic form is characterized by manifestations of human despair (both conscious and unconscious) and the double bind in which such despair places humanity. Sitting comfortably alongside the Kierkegaardian personalized man--God relational is the claim of existentialist theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) that the question of God arises out of an individual's awareness of his own finitude; some awareness of the infinite, otherwise called the ultimate or the absolute, is necessary for a personal appropriation to occur. Of course, 'false' ultimates present themselves in everyday life as alternatives to the true ultimate (read: God) in the form of success, affluence, status, nationalism, and so on, and this, Tillich asserts, is a form of idolatry.

Framework for Analysis

An extrapolation of the Kierkegaardian three-tiered (and hierarchical) doctrine follows.

The Aesthetic is the furthest stage from Kierkegaard's ideal and is that state wherein an individual lives a life purely for its acquisitive purposes with no aspiration towards a spiritual dimension. Necessarily in this state, a person is in the grip of "unconscious despair," unaware of the void in which he/she exists. Many individuals (and, as literary representations, characters in both Kierkegaard's and Winton's fiction) never graduate out of this state of being and live in temporality (that is, for the moment or for the life of the physical body), and can actually appear to live satisfactorily within this finite framework, making few conscious choices, rather being swept along by life in an attitude of detachment (Kierkegaard, 1992, p. 29).

The Ethical for Kierkegaard is a natural progression out of the Aesthetic for people/characters who have (usually) experienced a turning point or epiphany of sorts, becoming aware of the finitude of earthly life and the ultimate meaninglessness of same, and who thus enter a state of "conscious despair." That is, they are cognisant of an instinct that there is something missing and of the necessity of rectifying this in some way. …

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