What does it mean to say that someone is a man? The simplest answer would appear anatomical - we identify someone as a man if he has testicles and a penis. True, there are all those interesting qualifications concerning certain unusual chromosomal disorders and hormonal abnormalities that can confuse the issue. Nevertheless, most people assume that the person who enters the Gents side of a public lavatory, or runs in the Olympic men's 100 metres, has the necessary genitalia.
A more than slight knowledge of the true complexity of sexuality reveals this to be quite simplistic. Will Self, in a book that is both very personal and well informed, hard-eyed and compassionate, takes the question of what it is to be a man and stalks the answer, which ultimately eludes him, by a number of striking approaches. The first is to explore the nature of himself in relation to his father - a man of whom he has "paradoxically fond memories", but who was, he concludes after a brief yet revealing analysis, "an inadequate specimen of manhood". His inadequacy is, for the most part, implied - he was indifferent to the emotional needs of his children, was unaware of the political realities of living, despite his job as a professor of political science, and failed utterly to cope with the emotional turbulence and frustrated hopes of his wife.
What Self provides is a series of neat, shrewdly observed external cameos: his father as a master of expending physical effort for maximal effect; as a player of chess, backgammon and bridge who gave no quarter for youth or inexperience; as a man eventually loathed and derided by his wife, whose basic view on the subject of masculinity, which she communicated regularly to her children, was that all men are bastards.
Self describes how he grew up with absolutely no idea of what it meant to be a man or to be masculine. Not only did his father fail him, but Self feels he failed his father. He was too wild, too immoderate, too much of a mother's son. He does not feel particular comradeship with men, yet was drawn to the conclusion that masculinity was essentially about fucking and fighting. By adulthood, he had come to the conclusion that the human male sex had become, in J G Ballard's gloomy phrase, "a rust bowl". Now he finds himself challenged to answer the question: is fucking and fighting all there is to being a man? And, if so, is it biologically or culturally determined? Do we need a radical division between the genders, or are the "gay clones, the effete young men, the butch lesbians" pointers towards a third sex?
Self's response to the challenge of perfidious masculinity is to take a close, intimate look at someone who was born with the chromosomal, hormonal and anatomical features of a woman, but who "became" a man. Stephen Whittle is a university law lecturer who is a female-to-male transsexual. In a series of interviews with Self, Whittle describes his childhood and adolescence, during which he never saw masculinity - certainly that embodied by his father - as being the slightest bit attractive; and yet, from as early as he can remember, he was convinced that he was male. He was attracted by his French teacher's beard, the male shape, being attractive as a male.
As Whittle describes it, to be male inside a female body felt like a physical illness and total anguish. The pain began to be relieved only when he read about transsexualism and knew he fitted the description. His subsequent account of his time at teacher training college, his experiments with sex, gay and straight, a period trying to see whether he was really a lesbian, and then his journey, with medical and surgical assistance, from being visibly female to male in a substantial attempt to fit outer appearance to inner conviction, casts little light on his own notions of what being a man is. However, what makes this perspective on masculinity so challenging and perplexing is that it is his first truly successful, intimate relationship with a woman, Sarah, that shifts him from being just masculine (the bits, the hair, the clothes) to being a man. And it is not so much a relationship with a woman that is significant - he does not, as yet, have a surgically constructed penis - as a relationship in which he is accepted totally, intimately and unequivocally as a man.
Whittle's is an interesting account because it is so fresh and frank, so detailed and straightforward. There is no heavy medical jargon, trendy sociology, proselytising gender politics, just an honest, simply stated account of a journey across the gender divide. It is perplexing because, despite its effort to answer the question of what it is to be a man, it fails. Yes, an intimate, self-revealing, loved and loving relationship helps establish one's sense of manness, but did it need to be with a woman? What about homo- sexual relationships, for instance? Perhaps it is in a gay male's relationship with another male that, again, being a man is defined for each participant. And what does that say of men who never develop a significant sexual relationship? Are they not men?
Whittle's own conclusion is not particularly novel, namely that gender identity is probably biologically determined, but that social and cultural influences are important in how it is viewed and expressed - hence the great variations in how men and transsexual men, too, are seen and behave across cultures. It is a conclusion certainly supported by the photographs of David Gamble. These are of coy men and strutting men, men in tuxedos and in ermine and pearls. There is Frank Bruno miserable in defeat and Stephen Hawking pensive in his wheelchair. There are Russian sailors, East End punks, Provence boules players and London nightclubbers. Most are of men who, in Self's view, are expressing their masculinity inadvertently. Some are working hard at it. Being a man is a functional state, not an essence, Self concludes. He seems to believe that Whittle identifies himself as being a "man", but does not claim to be one. I think this is confusing. It is clear that Whittle does insist he is a man with all that this means, biologically, psychologically, socially and behaviourly, and that his most intimate, unquestioning and mutal relationship with Sarah confirms this.
So round and round we go struggling to grasp the essence of being a man, but man remains not so much perfidious as perfidiously elusive.
Anthony Clare is a psychiatrist