Printer Friendly

Manhood cleaved: doubling down in Dublin town.




GENDER IDENTITY and its formation have, since the early 1990s, become dominant critical and theoretical problems in Irish Studies. Joseph Valente's new book, The Myth of Manliness, explores the vital importance of masculinity for our understanding of these problems, especially in a nationalist framework. He begins by arguing that manliness is neither an ontological nor an ethical category, but an ideological one: "an instrument ... not of masculine rule but of masculine hegemony" (2). While manliness understood in terms of hegemonic power is necessarily linked to masculinity as a gender position, the difference between them constitutes the social reality of manliness. Valente refers to this difference as a discordia concours, a "compacted dialectic" in which an aggressive masculinity is transformed into "a vigilant, rational self-control ... strong passions strongly checked" (3). This discordia concours defines manhood as a "double inscription": a descriptive ontological category, an irreducible ethnos (white, English, imperial) that constitutes "the essential predicate for possessing in full the rights and privileges of democratic citizenship," and a prescriptive ethical category, a theoretically universal ethos that enables "a certain mode of self-fashioning" and a set of personal and social values, chief of which are rationality, self-control and inner strength (9-10). In the dialectical logic of the self-same, the prescriptive category is ratified in advance by the descriptive one and both are bound up in a single estate, in which what is natural to a man becomes indistinguishable from what is learned and applied in the field of ethical action.

For the colonial subject, however, this double inscription is felt as an "insoluble double-bind" (10). The failure to check strong passions results, from an imperial point of view, in either an unmanly feminization or a stridently aggressive "simianization." For Valente, the "metrocolonial" Irish-subjacent to the English in race, language, culture and geography--"occupied, and even constituted, a decisive negative border to the Imaginary self-portrait of English manhood" (11). The failure of the ideal of manliness is not, however, a function of individual character but of the diseordia concours itself, specifically the "constitutive confusion of ethnos and ethos in which "England's ethnic advantages in claiming manliness cast the Irish inability to do so as an ethical demerit" (14). Thus "Celtic unmanliness" underwrites a social structure of subordination and subaltemity that provides both a pretext for colonial violence and a context for heroic action on the part of the English. In fact, the double-bind folds and doubles yet again, for the same assurance that gives English law a chance to hone its sword against a barbarian threat also gives that law a chance to protect a feminized Ireland from itself.

A double bind in which the Irish were bound, within the confines of empire, to the ethos of manliness yet debarred from its "natural" condition as an ethnic prerogative, led to a condition of psychomachia that prevailed throughout the history of Irish nationalism and anti-colonial resistance and marked Irish men as unmanly and subordinate to the English. Ironically, the "ruling passion" that had to be checked was precisely a passion for "ethnonational self-determination" (23), which could be attained only by hypermasculine means. Both practical and symbolic action was forestalled by a"generalized misrecognition," the mark not of a particular level of failure or excess but of a structural causality in which discursive and material forces combined to form a seamless and inexorable hegemony over gender identity.

Charles Stewart Parnell, the nineteenth-century leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party was, for Valente, a paragon of manliness; he illustrated the structural logic of a gender category that organized "the basic elements of character, private and public, individual and collective" (28). His "impenetrable reserve" (43) and stiff-backed demeanor, his tendentious silences and understated command had an overwhelmingly visceral effect on both the Irish and English alike. What mattered most was not the "romantic elements of an heroic personality" or the cogency of political policy, but the "manner of their ... double articulation" as "ideological form" and their coordination "by the discursive grid of manliness" (30-1). Unlike earlier political figures like the Liberator, Daniel O'Connell, Parnell could satisfy British expectations of a manly ethnos and ethos, and thus serve effectively as both a role model and an allegorical model. "We seized upon the idea of the man," his lieutenant, Tim Healy said, "his superb silences, his historic name, his determination, his self-control, his aloofness--we seized that as the canvas of a great national hero" (qtd. 33-4).

At the same time that he fulfilled the iconic demands of imperial manliness, Parnell also tempered or held in reserve the violence of his followers. His success in checking insurrectionary passion cannot be attributed entirely (or even primarily) to his bodily comportment but rather to a "logic of sublimation" according to which his supporters were "called upon to supply a show of unbridled (mob) passion so that he might furnish the spectacle of impeccable (national) self-control" (43). Such tactics as boycotting and parliamentary obstruction emerged at the fulcrum of a performativity that expressed the very structural dynamic of manliness that made the performance possible. The public checking of the hardline, physical-force Fenians came to be the most famous and most persuasive instance of Parnell's manliness. If insurrectionary violence was put at his disposal in order for it to be checked, as Valente argues, then it is easy to make the case that such violence was a part of the man himself. This could only increase his credibility among his supporters, including the hardliners who might doubt his masculinity, and urge upon his English interlocutors both a sense of caution and admiration. However, after surviving challenges brought by his sister Anna's Ladies Land League and the Richard Piggott affair, the O' Shea divorce trail, in which he was identified as correspondent, "roundly feminized" him. His personal failings were swiftly and unerringly identified with his political aspirations in a way that interlinked his "sexual irmnorality, his political deception, and his uxorious enthrallment as symptoms of his unmanly character" (54-5). Not surprisingly, the Church and the Liberal Party distanced themselves from a figure whose iconic ability to check political violence was destroyed by his personal inability to hold himself in check.


Despite his fate, his "afterlives" can be discerned in political, cultural and literary spheres, most prominently among the "Irish philo-athleticists" of the Gaelic Athletic Association, which assimilated an essentially English form of manliness while at the same time "dissimulat[ing] its origins." Throughout Irish cultural life, an ethos of physical culture "tacitly posit[ed] the impacted dialectic of manliness as the normative course of collective bildung" that also served as the "final sublimation" of revolutionary violence (65[degrees]67). This dynamic will sound familiar to readers of Seamus Deane, Luke Gibbons and David Lloyd, who find in Irish nationalism tout court a tendency to emulate, more or less unconsciously, English models. As Valente shows, "muscular Sinn Fein," with its ideal of "robust physical culture" (71), all-too-readily calls to mind "muscular Christianity" and the manly self-fashioning advocated by Englishmen like Charles Kingsley. What kept this emulation from becoming fatally corrosive was the idea of Parnell who mediated the gender dynamic. His political practice may have been tainted by scandal, but his symbolic capital was secured by successors who sought to emulate "his impersonation of national indomitability" (72). In a word, his successors retained the structural logic of manliness, while steering clear of its material political effects.

The same dynamic can be seen in the Revivalist work of Lady Gregory, though in the decidedly minor key of a "conservative, gentrifled nationalism," which "never entirely loses [Parnell's] revolutionary eclat" (74). Gregory preserves the manly estate for a threatened Ascendancy caste by deftly detaching Parnell's "romantic cachet" from the "material aspirations of Parnellism" and then "cunningly set[ing] the two in political opposition to one another" (82). She is thus able to modulate and moderate her own sympathies for Irish rebels and, in plays like The Deliverer, to distance herself from political nationalism in order to perform a "cultural anatomy" of it. Her conception of nationhood and her curious "cultural Fenianism" are, in the end, not only "incommensurable" with the "goal of political independence, but hostile to it and preemptive of it" (86-87).

If the first two chapters of the Myth of Manliness establish Parnell as the armature of a structural logic of gender articulation, the three that follow illustrate how this logic is made manifest in a wide variety of literary texts. In chapter three, Valente focuses on Revivalist revisions of the Sovereignty myth, in which the central female character is desexualized, thereby transferring "primary moral authority for the ritual transformation to the male protagonist" who is indemnified against the stigma of "racial feminization" but who also runs the risk of "Oedipal identification with the conqueror" (97-98). Restorative sexuality, which in ancient times characterized the Sovereignty figure, is displaced by blood sacrifice, sexual renunciation and a borrowed Arthurian chivalry that elevates the manly ideal and opens the possibility for a perfection that comports uneasily with the "principled defeatism" that all too easily results from sacrifice and renunciation. Thus the trope of the lost cause is resignified in W.B. Yeats and Gregory's Cathleen Ni Houlihan as a "surplus value" attached to an "invented tradition," a form of"spiritual uplift" that counters Arnoldian feminizations with a"sublimated vision of masculine vigor" (101-02). Pearse's treatment of the Sovereignty myth differs primarily in its deployment of Catholic iconography, in which a spiritualized heroism invokes Christ as a "chivalric exemplar," in a move that Valente calls "doubling down" (105). But the spiritualization of manliness along Christian and chivalric lines provides little purchase for a material anti-colonial politics. And just as manliness has as its obverse hypermasculinity, so we find behind the Revivalist Sovereignty story a form of colonial hypergallantry. A play like Cathleen Ni Houlihan "manages to convert caste self-assertion into patriarchal consensus" by aligning the "virtual Irish nation" with the symbolic woman and the "fragmented colonial actuality" with the literal woman; the former triumphs over the latter, thus insuring the manly character of the Sovereignty's symbolic power (111).

We see the same dynamic in the "Sovereignty spoofs" that critique both the symbolization of woman in the myth and the incursion into that myth of a manly ideal underwritten by a borrowed chivalric code. John M. Synge's The Shadow of the Glen, for example, "delineates... the Revivalist double bind of Irish womanhood," but does so in such a way as to trace it to a "doubly articulated Irish paternalism" (123), a paternalism that relies, as did the political and chivalric discourse of the era, on British cultural standards. But whereas Lady Gregory sought a form of nationalism free of the dispossessive force that threatened her own caste status, Synge dramatizes a "radical utopianism" (127) that leaves the audience, quite literally, with no standpoint; while refusing to align Woman with Nation, he also cannot help but implicate Irish women in an iconography descended from British imperial patriarchy and the privileged discordia coneours of the manly estate. James Stephens's novel The Charwoman's Daughter does something similar by seeming to follow "approved Revivalist lines" but in reality undermining the standards of manliness, in no small measure by underscoring the derivation from those standards of the "debased" gender condition of "Seoininism" (130), the practice of "aping" English behavior that Douglas Hyde had warned against in "The Necessity for De-Anglicizing Ireland." And while the hero of the piece may be defeated, his is not a "sanctified failure" of the sort found in Pearse, but rather a "pure valoriz[ation] of defeat"--the defeat of defeat itself in a process of "self-contestation" (136-37) that resignifies passion as a profoundly positive and productive cultural trait.

Just as the Sovereignty story was rewritten by Revivalists who sought to denaturalize the women at its heart in the name of a paternalism that feared female sexuality, so the Cuchulain story was revised in a way that transformed his fantastic hypermasculinity into a more palatable chivalric manliness. At one time a champion who wrestled with his king in the name of his own fierce and singular pride, Cuchulain became for the Revivalists "a warrior celebrated for sublimating his individual valor and rapacity to the defense of the social order" (142). In their different ways, Lady Gregory, Standish O'Grady, Eleanor Hull and others bowdlerized the old legends in order to create a "morally disciplined warrior" (149). As Valente points out, the elimination or smoothing over of Cuchulain's "unmanly" behavior (for example, in the Fer Diad 1 episode of the ?"din B6 Cuailnge), which , some scholars believe illustrates accurately the ethos of ancient Irish warrior culture, results in a "recognizable, which is to say Arthurian, paradigm of knightly solicitude and veneration of women" (154). The figure of Cuchulain comes to serve, ideologically and structurally, the same function as the Sovereignty figure, but at the end of the day, it is Cuchulain who "stalk[s] through the post office" (Yeats, "The Statues," 1. 26), while the Sovereignty remains, womanly and "venerated," robbed of the sexuality that must, like the unchecked passions of the rebel, be sublimated into something that it is not. In the figure of Cuchulain, the "compacted dialectic" completes its symbolic work of annihilating the negative factor of Irish resistance, leaving not a remainder, which might serve as a reminder of unchecked passion and glory, but a hole or lack toward which Irish men and women blindly fling the partial objects of their endless desire for Bildung, for wholeness of being.

Throughout the political field, especially in Constance Markievicz's Na Fianna Eireannan, the Irish Volunteer movement, the figure of Cuchulain mediated a new relation between "manly rigor and masculine force" in which the two were integrated as the ground of "manly discipline" (167). On the stage of the Abbey Theatre, however, this heroic paradigm is deconstructed. Yeats's On Baile's Strand dramatizes the ambivalent sacrifice of "the individual body" that leaves Cuchulain unable to prevent the tragic slaughter of his own son but that simultaneously "maps the upholding of social norms or conventions onto a chivalric mode of fealty" (177-8). Synge's The Playboy of the Western Worm accomplishes the same maneuver in the vertiginous transformations undergone by Christy Mahon, who is by turns hypermasculine and hypergallant, a comic embodiment of a familiar gendered ambivalence. One of the salient distinctions between the two plays is the extent to which Synge draws in and implicates the community at large in a process of reheroization that simultaneously calls violent masculinity into question and recalls it as the necessary precondition of the chivalry that displaces it. "It is only with the collaborative transformation of Christy into an Oedipal killer," Valente argues, "that the affirmative analogues to Ireland's iconic warrior are posed" (183). The saving irony of Christy's disjunctive manhood--signified by a "rampant, unrestrained animality"--is that his failure (like the lodger's in Stephens's novel) is valuable in and 0fitself: as the "emblem of manliness undone," he comes to resemble more closely than others the original Cuchulain. The form of revivalist misrecognition on offer here--in which Christy's heroism is "saved by being lost, and then revived as a sentimentalized memory" (184-85)---asserts the possibility of a heroic identity, but only at the price of heroism itself.

Joyce, as we have come to expect, both "subverts the hegemonic metropolitan assumption" that gender roles are natural or universal, while at the same time interrogating "the nationalist faith in Irish manliness as a panacea for achieving social and political economy" (188). A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man aligns the protagonist's Bildung with the tragic fall of Parnell; but what so terrifies Stephen Dedalus, in Valente's reading, is not the specter of a fallen Parnell ;o much as the enactment of the gendered touble bind that makes manhood a disjunctive experience. Even as his father asserts the masculinity of the Irish, he betrays his own "gentlemanly standing" by an unmanly display of violent rhetoric which leaves him sobbing "loudly and bitterly" (Portrait 34). Valente's reading of the Dubliners story "Counterparts" reinforces not only the double-bind, but the way that it passes from father to son on a crest of self-subverting violence. Nowhere is it more clear that what Parnell could master, the common man--the Farrington's of this world--cannot, simply because such men have introjected the very problem at hand, for "metrocolonial subjectivity incurred the conversion of imposed subordination into internal heteronomy" (195). This kind of dehiscence, the horror of finding the utterly alien at work in one's own being, cannot be overcome--indeed, it can lead only to a psychomachia and misrecognition. If Christy Mahon and Yeats's Cuchulain represent the small measure of play in the double bind, in which one can perform a kind of immanent critique of the manly estate, Farrington, like so many other Gaelo-Catholic Dubliners, surrenders any claim to manliness, even the parodic or self-critical purchase afforded by Revivalist reinscriptions of the heroic ideal.

"Counterparts" ironically underscores the conjoining of masculinity and manliness by dramatizing its impossibility. All Farrington can do is mimic unreflectively the manly composure of his employer, Alleyne--a mimicry that gets him nowhere, that in fact alienates him from himself and the masculine prowess he so proudly assumes is his hallmark but which proves instead to be his downfall. Farrington exercises his being in a parade virile that he does not realize is a sham, for he takes his playing at being "cool" as the real thing. It is arguable that his boon companions in the pub see through his performance, but accepting Farrington on his own terms is not the point of the "treating" that contextualizes this test of manhood, a "native" practice that Valente styles as a "potlatch form of endurance drinking" (214). In the very assertion of his masculinity, he squanders the fight to lay claim to it. There is no way out for Farrington, and Joyce is especially cruel in depicting the relentless double bind in which he finds himself. Bested by the Englishman Weathers in a test of strength, Farrington reinforces both the colonial ideology supporting manliness and his own incommensurate relation to the manhood for which he strives but fails to achieve. His drunken self-pity and the violence he visits upon his own child mirrors in a way that is both repulsive and dramatically satisfying the discursive violence that flushes the young Stephen Dedalus's "terrorstricken face" (Portrait 34).

The "Cyclops" episode of Ulysses illustrates how this double bind, which leaves Irish men with little choice between defaulting to feminization or simianization, is complicated by a further double bind, or "second-order aporia," in which these men try to vindicate themselves by "stigmatizing the racial 'others' in their midst" (220). Leopold Bloom's reaction to the "hypermasculine bravado" exhibited by the men in Barney Kiernan's pub emerges not so much from a condition of emasculation than from a diminution of his masculine reserves, a "hypomasculine attitude of circumspection" (222). What appears, in an English gentleman (or in Parnell), as an admirable self-restraint is a deficiency in the metrocolonial subject Unlike Farrington, whose hypermasculine an d aggressive manner is celebrated among his compeers, Bloom behaves like a gentleman among a similar group and is roundly castigated. As both men demonstrate, metrocolonial manhood is an impossible estate--one is damned either way--and because this estate cannot aspire to the level of the heroic, tragic or epic, it remains farcical in every instance. The sectarian. ethnic, racial and class divisions that leave Farrington and Bloom on the far side of respectable manhood are not epiphenomenal or isolated incidents but the structural effects of colonialism and the double-bind of colonial manhood. In a further twist of the screw, the Citizen's truculent "troglodytism," which ought to signal a violent hypermasculinity, appears as a form of "feminine heteronomy"; if one feels one must display the phallus, as Lacan reminds us, then it is likely to be a show rather than the real thing, for in this kind of performance, the phallus cannot but be displayed as a "myth or fraud" (230). The "negative racial transference" that aligns the "symposiasts" by turns with Bloom and the Citizen enables a stultifying "denegation," a Freudian concept that describes an "unconscious affirmation in the form of a categorical denial" (233). It is the inevitable upshot of a metrocolonial gender system in which men are offered only negative positions in which they become little more than dialectical sitting ducks. Bloom, however, plays a crucially ambivalent role amid this parade negativa as a scapegoat whose own negation is curiously positivized--that is, his otherness as a Jew comes to figure what is quintessentially Irish; by performing the function of an expulsion, he defines the very nature of the border from which he is expelled. If "Cyclops" narrates the "labyrinthine vicissitudes of Irish self-othering," Bloom emerges as both the Minotaur and the hero who slays him, but in any case trapped in the violence of his own self-fashioning.

Valente concludes with a brief consideration of Yeats's adoption of Castiglione's courtier ideal, with which he hoped to give "the code of courtly manliness an Anglo-Irish impress" in large measure by holding it up for comparison with the "'mob' mentality of the 'new' largely native middle class" (240). The return to Parnell in Yeats's late verse underscores the persistence of a gender double bind that Parnell himself manfully avoided but that in the end unmanned him completely; it also points up the poverty of the manly estate for the Anglo-Irishry. But more important, Parnell survives as the "elite (and saving) remnant"--the rem(a)inder that both testifies to the "impacted dialectic" of gender in Ireland and resists it by becoming, in verse and memory, a kernel that irritates perpetually the soil into which it has fallen and out of which it will arise again, in coming times.

--Arizona State University
COPYRIGHT 2012 Irish Studies Program
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:The Myth of Manliness in Irish National Culture, 1880-1922
Author:Castle, Gregory
Publication:Irish Literary Supplement
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
Previous Article:Early Irish fiction.
Next Article:Edicts and spires.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters