Male bonding

I Am No Longer Myself Without You: an anatomy of love

Jonathan Rutherford <em>Flamingo, 184pp, £12

In this superior, if more equivocal, contribution to the burgeoning confessional genre, Jonathan Rutherford combines confessional and cultural commentary to ask why men cannot love women more openly or honestly. The reflex action on hearing that a man is about to express his "feelings" is to duck, smile politely and hope he shuts up soon. Yet perhaps such a response reveals us to be victims of the same social conditioning that marginalises men's emotional condition as irrelevant, even laughable.

Rutherford, disputing the sense that the new laddism has rendered any discussion of men's emotional lives futile, has constructed his cogent study in six parts: "Mother", "Father", "New Men", "Romance", "Seduction" and "Love". His central thesis is that men's emotional lives are marked by absence, their experience of love so streaked with loss as to make them incapable of - or fatally imperfect at - loving. He has an obvious affinity with Freud, arguing that the contradiction at the heart of all men's relationships with women is first established by the son's relationship with his mother - the hoary conflict between desire and need very much revisited.

Growing up, Rutherford and his mother shared a "silent fatalism", she stifled by responsibilities of hearth and home, he torn between a desire for liberation and a need to be intimate with her. With her death, Rutherford and his father became not more, but less, intimate, denied as they were of their buffer zone. As a young boy, he remembers being surprised to see his father genial and sociable at work compared to the taciturn, uncommunicative figure he was at home.

Rutherford argues persuasively that men's need for women (as a kind of surrogate mother) too often turns into contempt; that they seek to find answers to their own confusion through the examples offered by their own fathers.

His own experience of fatherhood was, he points out, profoundly alienating - "a timeless and unstructured existence . . . my days shrunk to a single room and a bucketful of nappies and an unsleeping baby". He felt love's absence with his child as keenly as he had with his own parents.

The bleakness in Rutherford's memoir (much of his early adult life reads as fractured and transient) is partially offset by intermittent references to contemporary and popular culture. Much of this is laboured and overplayed. We don't need Hook, Peter Pan or the Fisher King to demonstrate "the uncertainty of fatherhood". And isn't it meaningless to write that domestic sieges and suicide pacts "reveal the precariousness of men's relationships with their families" when, in the next breath, you admit that such things are "extreme cases", signifying nothing but their aberrant status? And his analysis of the so-called "new man" amounts to little more than a po-faced rehash of decade-old marketing history.

Rutherford is at his best when writing from the heart. On romance, for example, he describes how as a child he felt like Joey, the young boy in the classic western Shane. "I also longed to be recognised and loved by a man - a man who could fulfil my desire to become myself, who would make me complete. The subject of boys' romantic daydreams are not girls, but heroes."

In this fascinating chapter on romance (it is still so unusual for a man, gay or straight, to examine the issue), Rutherford asks why men find it so difficult to enjoy expressions of love and friendship with one another, so fraught is the anxiety around homosexuality. He argues that variants of the Victorian model persist, when "love between men had to be separated from the body and sex and so had to transcend both".

Rutherford argues, again convincingly, that men use sex with women as the "votive force of masculinity", the appeal of seduction its "separation of desire from need . . . unencumbered by intimacy or commitment". But it cuts both ways: you are either the most virile of studs or the geekiest of losers (Rutherford was humiliated for being a virgin at 18). On the subject of heterosexual porn, he notes that when there are more than two men involved they use a woman not simply as a sexual object, but to forge a link between themselves.

As a solution to heterosexual men's cycle of sexual ennoblement and humiliation, Rutherford recommends taking a leaf out of the homosexual book and forming more complex commitments, whether anonymous quickies or life-long companionship with matching rainbow towels. But this is poor advice, especially when you consider that body fascism, sexual compulsion and emotional nullity are all de rigueur on much of the gay scene.

And so to love. A life-long republican, he observes with surprise how moved he was watching Princess Diana's funeral procession. "We all live in a liminal state between love and loss, between the old and the new, between desire and needs."

This may well be true but when Rutherford moves away from pallid psychobabble, he can be impressive. He concludes by conceding that, while he has found no answers, he still wishes to impart two things: first, men should stop associating love so powerfully with loss, or at least learn that loss (of self, mother) is not insurmountable; and second, that it is urgent that we discover a new "vocabulary of love, a language of exploration" - a convivial wake-up call, rather than a call to arms.

Tim Teeman is a former editor of the "Pink Paper" and a freelance journalist