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Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France.

The years between 1860 and 1914 saw a resurgence in France of the formerly aristocratic ritual of the duel. Robert A. Nye argues that the explanation for this development is to be found in the adoption by the bourgeoisie of the discourse of honor, whose rhetoric and ritual flourished as a result in nineteenth-century France. This male code of honor, a synthesis of bourgeois values and of the code of honor of the nobility of the ancien regime, regulated both the public and private lives of French upper-class bourgeois men and played a major role in defining what it meant to be a man. The goal of Nye's work is to show how this code of honor evolved over the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth, reinforced by developments in French medicine, psychiatry, and law.

The code of honor, argues Nye, formed a conceptual bridge between the private and public worlds. It provided a consistent and uniform way to judge both sexual hygiene and social propriety and defined masculinity in both spheres. For honor was male: the only honor possible for a woman, her chastity, in fact belonged to a male relative, whether her father or her husband. Nye demonstrates how the adoption begun in the ancien regime--of the aristocratic code of honor and its associated ideology of sex and sexual behavior reinforced the strategies necessary for a bourgeois patriarch to direct his family in its pilgrimage toward wealth and prestige. The legislative developments of the revolutionary era institutionalized the ideology of the bourgeois family and its inheritance strategies, positing men and women as wholly opposite yet complementary beings. Subsequent 'discoveries' in nineteenth-century medicine and psychiatry, which affirmed the primacy of sex in human identity and defined boundaries of normal sexual behavior and of sexual perversions, reinforced this bourgeois ideology. Coupled with concerns over France's purported degeneration, these developments in science fueled anxiety over the quality and reliability of the masculinity displayed by French men. In fact, female sexuality was taken as unproblematic; men, whose sexual energy was potentially sapped by intellectual pursuits, were seen as the weak link in the procreative chain. Nye's work is at its best as he demonstrates how the health of individual bodies--expressed in particular through their sexuality--was taken as a metaphor for and an indicator of the vitality of the nation. The intertwining of these various social and cultural themes produced unusual pressure on French men to conform to the ideologies of masculinity expressed in the code of honor.

Honor was also expressed in the public domain, in bourgeois sociability and the duel. These were integrated parts of a single rule-based continuum of honorable politesse, Nye argues, with the duel, the quintessential ritual of honor, functioning as a last resort enforcement. The longest chapter in the book is devoted to a fascinating discussion of the duel itself, as it was practiced in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Nye depicts a society where journalists, politicians, jealous husbands, and sundry other honorable hotheads insult and injure each other, and, weak libel and slander laws aiding, resolve their disputes with the point of an epee. Nye mentions, and may in fact underestimate, the power of the close relationship between military values and honor. He suggests that the democratization of military service introduced the culture of the sword--symbol both of military prowess and of the duel as honor's enforcement--to a substantial portion of the bourgeois male population. The mutually reinforcing ideologies of honor and militarism flourished in the period between the French defeat in 1870 and World War I, That dueling declined sharply after the latter conflict is certainly no coincidence; after the sheer brutality of the war, the manufactured danger of the duel would seem ludicrous, Nye argues. The duel could not survive the blow militarism had sustained. Nye concludes his work with an examination of courage, the ultimate honorable sentiment, bringing together the various threads he has spun throughout the book.

The pulling together of themes which Nye offers in the conclusion is welcome, though somewhat inadequate. For of course his work is not without its flaws, primary among which is an unfortunate lack of unity. Supporting a strong and sustained argument in a book that includes both Foucault-inspired discussions of issues of sexual identity to anecdotal accounts of famous duels requires that both theory and anecdote be purposeful, relating to the thesis. Unfortunately, in this case the diversity of styles undermines the focus of the book. In particular, the two sections discussing the private and public expressions of honor seem disconnected from each other--echoing the separation between the public and private spheres--and determining how a particular bit of evidence relates to the argument demands at times some ingenuity on the part of the reader.

The book also suffers from a rather imprecise use of the term 'bourgeois.' Whereas Nye problematizes and questions gender classifications, he uses categories of class as if they were given and unproblematic. Moreover, it is perhaps inevitable that employing such a nebulous category as 'bourgeois' as a primary analytic tool will lead to overgeneralization and imprecision in the argument. Nye's French bourgeois are primarily urban--specifically, Parisian--members of the upper strata of the bourgeoisie. The extent to which the code of honor penetrated the rest of the bourgeoisie, from rural petits-bourgeois to non-Parisian industrialists, deserves further study. This said, these defects, while important, detract little from the value of the book.

Indeed, in spite of its flaws, Nye's work is a fascinating study based on solid archival research and a thorough grasp of the literature. The author weaves together many seemingly disparate threads, providing a multifaceted portrait of masculinity in modern France. This provocative and often amusing book is a valuable addition to the growing field of male gender history.

Jonathan Hurshman University of Michigan
COPYRIGHT 1994 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Hurshman, Jonathan
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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