Bullying Is Good For You or: Katabasis

Before I start talking about bullying, and explain what the title means, I must admit something about myself: I am named after a fictional character. My first name, Larsen, comes from the last name of the…antagonist (that’s the best word to use here) from Jack London’s The Sea Wolf.

the sea wolf

For those of you not aware of the plot of the book: the protagonist Humphrey Van Weyden is a prissy, sheltered rich boy with a strong sense of idealism and justice, particularly in his Rousseau-esque beliefs of inherent human goodness. While on a boat trip (this story takes place in the Gay ’90s), his ship capsizes and he is picked up by the Ghost, a seal hunting ship. This miserable little microcosm is commanded by Wolf Larsen, who press-gangs Humphrey and goes about asserting his dominance over the ship by kicking the shit out of our hero and everybody else who crosses him.

But there’s more to Larsen than just muscular barbarism: he is a genius autodidact that has, through sheer force of will, turned himself into something of a Renaissance Man, and developed his own sort of primitive Nietzschean philosophy based on his readings, a philosophy  stating that life is inherently meaningless, and that all he seeks is pleasure-however, his pleasure is one of toil, strife, and personal conquest and triumph. The bulk of the book then becomes Humphrey hardening himself in body and mind as he and Larsen’s radically different worldviews clash, with the occasional shark attack, vehicular injury, beatdown, and gunfire thrown in to break up the routine.

Upon reading this tome in my adulthood, I realize that London’s opus is not perfect: namely, the love story that arises in the last third of the book (via another, albeit female, castaway) is completely hokey, but the strength of the interaction between Van Weyden and Captain Larsen is what carries it, and makes it memorable 110 years after its original publication (and speaking as a bit of a bibliophile, I think the hokiness of the romance could easily be redeemed with a slight change to the ending, but that’s beyond the scope of this article). Certainly I share the beliefs of most readers of the novel (including Ambrose Bierce) in that Wolf is without a doubt the most memorable aspect of the book, and should be considered one of the greatest characters of American literature.

So what am I getting at? It turns out that the basic story of The Sea Wolf (a pampered male being thrust into a harsh realm of barbarism and having to turn himself into a man) has been done, and fairly often, before The Sea Wolf and several times afterwards as well. There is even a name for this genre: the katabasis (you probably could have figured out that from the title of this essay).

This Greek word literally means “going down [to the sea]”, but has grown to encompass a far greater symbolic meaning (as a parenthetical side note, Xenophon’s famous Anabasis is, in fact, a story of a literal katabasis: the 10,000 Greek mercenaries undergo a journey to the Greek colonies in Asia Minor, and thus to the Aegean coast).

The katabasis story is one of humbling, and losing one’s privileged status, only to overcome these setbacks and become a better man explicitly because of the act of triumphing over the brutality of the recent experience.

Captain’s Courageous, Fight Club, Dune (not a perfect representation of the concept, as the Atreides family is heavily trained in both martial and mental arts, but it is still a story of the wealthy and privileged being humbled and having to claw their way back up) and more show the power and the recurrence of this theme. Even Jack London’s most famous work, The Call Of The Wild is essentially a katabasis story starring a dog.

In my humble opinion, some degree of katabasis, some degree of humbling, is necessary for a man to truly know himself, and thus make himself stronger, wiser, braver and overall better. Or, to put it bluntly, a man cannot know himself without challenging himself in some way, or being challenged by somebody else.

For those of you who are dense, I am not advocating that you join a ship run by a violent Ubermensch, start a bare knuckle boxing club/anarchist commune, or assert yourself as the alpha male of a pack of sled dogs...or am I?

In all seriousness, there are less extreme, but just as fulfilling, ways to humble yourself and place yourself in a situation in which you must reassert your masculinity. And unlike the book I have been referring to, there will likely not be a formal declaration of intent to make you “go down” (or “stand upon your own legs” in the good captain’s words):

Rather, being in any competitive environment with another group of men will lead to the establishment of an informal hierarchy. And seeing as, statistically speaking, the chances are you will not be the leader of the hierarchy, you will by definition undergo some degree of humbling (and yes, I am aware that any fans of professional wrestling in my audience are probably snickering to themselves at the repeated use of the word “humbling”)

Playing recreational sports amongst friends, going to the gym and doing heavy weight lifting, joining a martial arts school and competing in full contact competition*, trying to ask out a woman that is comparatively far more attractive than you, or attempting to learn a new skill while others watch are just a few modern ways that one can be humbled. Most of them will result in humiliating failure on your first try, and all of them will result in making you a stronger man once the embarrassment stops stinging, and you’ve learned from your mistake (rest assured, it will sting, and it will hurt, emotionally and, likely, physically as well. I understand that. Just keep moving).

Unlike some people in this corner of the internet, I do not profess to being a master of the things I discuss here. But I am infinitely better than I once was, and I can safely say that my adolescent misery of being picked last for sports, getting bullied, having even my parents lose their respect for me, and striking out repeatedly with girls were, in the long run, beneficial, if only because the childish anger that resulted motivated me to get revenge on my tormentors-and of course, the best revenge is to live well.

I don’t know why I chose to conquer my demons constructively, rather than taking the easy way out and going on a shooting rampage. But I write this to show the miserable young men of the modern day that traditional masculinity (in the sense of the Tactical Virtues discussed previously) can be yours to obtain, and should be obtained-if I hadn’t reached out for it, I’d be a 300 pound unemployed virgin living with my parents. Perhaps if I was born 10 years later, and been fully inoculated by an army of frumpy bureaucrats telling me to be happy with myself the way I was, I would never have picked up a barbell or punched a bag.

The potential for humiliation is, in my opinion, the best feature of public schooling. But even if you are an adult, you can still be humbled. Reach out, try new things, fail, and be humble and resilient in your defeat. And it is only in that way that you can later win.

*I specify full contact martial arts because nothing humbles you faster than a full power uppercut to the solar plexus.

Buy a copy of The Sea Wolf here

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  • I’ve watched one kid, about 12 years old, who’s been bullied by other kids his age. Everything you state is true. He hasn’t achieved anything remarkable for his age. He’s smart, but he spends his time just playing video games. He trains in TKD, but he half-asses it and therefore doesn’t really improve. When someone bullied him at church, they immediately LEFT the church. When he was bullied in his TKD class, they immediately moved him to another martial arts school. He’s a good kid and all, but it saddens me that this behavior is being enabled by his mother (the father is apparently shut down any time he tries to toughen him up…another problem right there). A straight forward approach of pretty much calling the boy a pussy and blaming the mother will not help the situation. Do you have any suggestions for subtly inspiring the kid to toughen up and work on improving himself regardless of his mother’s coddling? Ultimately, it doesn’t affect me either way, but I believe if I can make a difference in improving the men of the future, I am obliged to try.

    • Have you tried speaking to the kid directly? Or his parents?

      On other sites (like Danger and Play, to name one example off the top of my head), it seems to be a fairly common comment that kids today have to look to the internet for advice on masculinity, because their parents don’t really help them.

      I would try speaking to him and the parents directly, and if that doesn’t work, direct him to neo-masculinity. If you do go that route, I’d start him off by reading your site and mine, but that’s just me.

      • Unfortunately, I’ve seen the direct approach crash and burn for his situation… the mother simply holds the power yet is too sensitive to handle any criticism for either her parenting or her baby boy. Perhaps trying to direct him to sites like ours is a better approach. Thanks for the insight.