Book Review: The American Fraternity, An Illustrated Ritual Manual
By Matt Fink
Have you heard of Diane Fossey? She was a pioneering primatologist who spent years studying packs of silver-backed Rwanda’s gorillas, savage jungle societies dominated by lumbering, violent humanoids liable to haul off on anybody whose actions didn’t in some way respect and pay tribute to their alpha status. A tragic figure, she was martyred at the pitiless hands of poachers.
Fossey’s seminal work has good company in that of Andrew Moisey, a photographer who gained unfettered access to an American fraternity for the purposes of documenting their daily lives.
We can only hope that the result of Moisey’s research, the bluntly-titled The American Fraternity, doesn’t result in the author sharing Fossey’s fate; the vanity - or simple cavalierness - that led to the un-named university granting such access is not at all rewarded in the book, achieving as it does a devastating irony via the juxtaposition of text sourced from an actual fraternity hand-book - which conjures a vaulting, semi-mystical picture of the organization’s adherents and rituals - with the everyday reality of fraternal life, anything but romantic seen through Moisey’s lens. The results are damning, but hilarious.
Even more damning, though, when set against the atavism depicted via photos and various other material, are the lists of prominent ex-Greeks: senators, presidents, bishops (whose list faces a photo of two frat pledges, clad only in boxers, grasping their protruding testicles in such a way that they resemble octopus heads).
While Moisey achieves his aim through a kind of rhetorical Aikido - by which his opponent’s own momentum defeats himself - two essays which close the book make all that was hitherto implied quite explicit.
Good thing these pieces were placed at the end, too, or else the leather-bound book’s poker-faced conceit - that of being an actual fraternity manual - would have been fatally compromised. (The copyright and dedication pages are likewise found at the polar opposite from their standard location, and no mention of an author or publisher graces its shiny black cover.) The most affecting of the two essays is by Cynthia Robinson, professor of Art History at Cornell University. She describes her time at an unnamed Southern university as a soldier might a war: trauma tinted with nostalgia.
Professor Robinson’s account, above all, gives a whole new dimension of pathos to the images of women - fragile oryx among a pride of short-maned lions - attending wild frat parties: “They are there in order to reassure themselves that they are desirable…nothing is enough without male approval.”
It’s tempting to extend that thirst for approval to the whole strange Greek institution in America, which to a non-affiliate like myself - and, perhaps, to Andrew Moisey himself - seems utterly alien: an elaborate masculine burlesque designed not for the entertainment (or so they thought) of others, but for the sexual, psychological, social and economic advancement of its own performers. It’s a sacramental dance codifying their future relationship with the world - which, to judge by how business and politics in this country are in the main conducted, is acted out daily on a national stage.