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The Masculine Mode Author(s): Peter Schwenger Reviewed work(s): Source: Critical In q uir y, Vol.

The Masculine Mode Author(s): Peter Schwenger Reviewed work(s):

Source: Critical Inquiry, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Summer, 1979), pp. 621-633 Published by: The University of Chicago Press

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The Masculine


Peter Schwenger

"If we insist on discovering something we can clearly label as a 'feminine mode,' then we are honor-bound, also, to delineate its counterpart, the 'masculine mode.' "This statement by Annette Kolodny does not affirm that such a counterpart exists;' Kolodny instead is making a point about the difficulty of determining common traits of writing by women. To suggest a similar assessment of writing by men is to remind us that the

rich variety of writing by either sex resists any attempt at limiting its nature by sexual characteristics alone. Yet in the remainder of her essay,

Kolodny investigates certain traits of perception and style which, if not definitive of writing by women, are recurrently found in it; and she

argues convincingly

for the value of such investigations.

Why, then, shouldn't there be a similar value in investigating


possible nature of a masculine mode? With us already is the social con-

text out of which such an investigation would naturally arise; and it is similar to that which saw the rise of women's studies about ten years ago.

As a men's movement

are being published which

and newsletters proliferate; conferences

begins to evolve, an

increasing number of books

masculinity; magazines

analyze the nature of

are organized.2 Like the wom-

1. Annette Kolodny, "Some Notes on Defining a 'Feminist Literary Criticism,' " Criti-

cal Inquiry 2 (Autumn 1975): 78.

2. Recently published books on the subject include the following: The Forty-nine Per-

cent Majority, ed. Deborah S. David and Robert Brannon (Reading, Mass., 1976); Warren

Farrell, TheLiberatedMan

1974); A Book of Men, ed. Ross Firestone

(New York, 1974); Marc Fasteau, The Male Machine (New York,

(New York, 1976); and Men and Masculinity, ed.

Cliffs, N.J., 1974). The leading magazine of the


Joseph Pleck and Jack Sawyer (Englewood

is Brother, published in Berkeley.

C 1979 bn The

Ln\ ersit

(• Chicago. 0093-1896/79/0504-0003$01.65


622 Peter Schwenger

The Masculine Mode

en's movement, which provided both its model and its initial impetus,

the men's movement is prone to dissension from within, misunderstand-

ing and ridicule from without. Its course, however, is not likely to


lel that of the women's movement simply because the masculine role

which it scrutinizes has configurations

most obvious point of difference

lacks the

concrete rallying point of economic discrimination; it must necessarily address itself to the subtler psychological dynamics of the male role. It is here that literature, for several reasons, is liable to be called upon: litera-

ture provides experiences which, though artificial, may be the common property of millions; it contains insights which, though unsystematized, are still valid; it provides words for perceptions which, until named, may not even be recognized. The danger here is that books may be viewed merely as casebooks, a

Of and Good Guys. It

cannot be stressed too often that if these studies accept the literary na- ture of the works with which they deal, they must concern themselves with the relation between perceptions (sexual, perhaps, in ways that may not be generally recognized) and words. Yet even if this is the most fruitful approach to the study of a masculine mode in literature, it is not fruitful for the work of every male author. A writer's sexuality may underlie his work, but it may underlie it at such a basic level as to illuminate nothing about the work's uniqueness and special richness. Using sexual generalities to link one writer with another reduces each to a low common denominator indeed. Again, with writers of both sexes, we should take into account their tendencies to work against the sexual grain. We know that an author may neutralize himself so that he be-

happy hunting ground for Men We Disapprove

which are peculiar to itself. The

is that the men's movement

comes, in Joyce's words, "invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent,


paring his fingernails." Or the author may be protean, adopting culine and feminine modes according to the characters whose vision he adopts. Such an author gives free play to what both Virginia Woolf and Coleridge called the "androgynous mind." If there is a masculine mode, then, it is clear that it is not simply made up of all male writers. It is better to limit the mode to writers who, rather than neutralize, contradict, or simply ignore their male sexuality, take it as their explicit subject. In this way we may consider with more certainty and subtlety the relation of this conscious preoccupation and the words used to describe it.

Peter Schwenger,

assistant professor

of English at Mount St. Vin-

a book, Phallic Cri-

cent University in

tiques, which examines the relation between masculinity and literary


Halifax, is currently completing

Critical Inquiry



Is there really such a thing as a masculine style of writing? What are

its characteristics and why just these characteristics? Can we distinguish the masculine style from the explicit masculine content? The writers I will examine in this context are necessarily a selection from the number of those who might be included. They are all twentieth-century authors.


in the preceding century that


suggests in A Room of One's Own, it is because of the

as Woolf

of the women's movement

"virility has now become self-conscious."3 At any rate there seems to be little explicit questioning of the male role, in literature or outside of it,

until our own century.

images of maleness; often they set out

writers only question the received

to validate those images or, through such images, to validate themselves.

Their explorations of maleness are not abstract but intensely individual.

They are not straightforward but riddled with contradictions and paradoxes. As a result, it is difficult to extract didactic points from their

works. Always knowledge is rooted in experience and inseparable from it. The masculine mode is above all an attempt to render a certain male-

ness of experience.

I do not mean to suggest, however, that these



of experience,

at a primary level, must mean the

infusion of a particular sense of the body into the attitudes and encoun-

ters of a life. I am not saying biology is destiny but rather, in James Dickey's words, that "the body is nothing less or more than the sense of

being of a particular creature at a particular time and place. Everything he perceives and thinks depends upon his bodily state."4 More than

emaciation, sickliness, or robustness, or any of the infinite varia-



the perception

other aspects of the body, the effect of this underlying fact may be

rendered transparent, as it were, by simple habituation. If this is true in


Being Ill." Illness, for Woolf, is an instance of the body intensely assert-

ing its power over human perception-a

largely disregarded by writers. In English literature the body is either a

transparent vessel for conversations and thoughts or is viewed from the outside, as an object. Seldom has a writer attempted to render the unique relations we really have with our own bodies. To oneself, as the


object nor subject. True, one's

body may be objectified: I may inspect my

hand in the same disinterested way that I observe the grain of the table

on which it lies. But this perception is only partial and momentary. Still

more difficult is the attempt to view the body as completely subjective, to

deny its vulnerability

of physical type, the underlying fact of one's sexuality must affect

not only of oneself but of the world. Yet, as with most


life, it is even more true in literature, as Woolf asserts in her

power which is always there but

have pointed out, one's own body is wholly neither

as an object in the world. Ultimately all the

3. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One'sOwn (1928; New York, 1963), p. 105.

4. James Dickey, Sorties (New York, 1971), p. 59.

624 Peter Schwenger

The Masculine Mode

paradoxes and complexities of being-in-the-world center on the body; but such complexities have generally been sidestepped by writers. They prefer instead to render the complexities of the soul, which, as Descartes once remarked, is easier to know than the body. In the masculine mode,

though, the body's paradoxes operate with unusual force. Some social or psychological expectation in the male seems to push him, insofar as he accedes to it, toward the idea of his body as en-soi, partaking of the solidity and confidence of pure object. Yet the will to become such an object is itself an act of the pour-soi, the force that is conscious of itself and strives for itself. An extreme illustration of this paradox is found in Yukio Mishima's works. In Confessionsof a Mask Mishima tells us of his intense attraction, as a schoolboy, to the body of Omi, an older boy. He resists at that time every indication that Omi is other than pure object. The express desire to be Omi-that is, to be an object-is at the source of both his life's complexities and his death. Mishima's strenuous training of his body

toward perfect

abstract, something

could achieve

perfect, non-individual harmony," Mishima tells us in Sun

and Steel, "then it would be possible to shut individuality up for ever in close confinement."5 In all his years of physical training, Mishima at- tained a precious few moments of release from that self-awareness which was antithetical to his idea of the male. But of course the very moment at which he knew himself to be released was also a moment of self- awareness. Such Gordian complexities, in the end, could only be re- solved by the point of a dagger; and on 25 November 1970, Mishima committed hara-kiri. The moment of sudden death baffles all expecta- tion before the event and allows no reflection after it. That moment was

for Mishima the union of subject and object, of the knower and the known, in an ultimate gesture of virility. Mishima's statement that he sought "a language of the body" in-

dicates the close relationship between his pursuit of virility and his art as a writer." At first, it is true, Mishima considered that the function of

to that of words; and he was attracted by

physical development

is really a pursuit of something

which he hopes to realize in himself. "If the body

muscles was precisely opposite

muscularity he saw as

words, the more they encouraged

tions which Mishima sought to escape in the pursuit

tion. Yet as Mishima's body freed itself from


order to change

words with the body (and not merely pursue the body with words)." That

learning "how to pursue

back upon words in

words and gained its own

of his great abstrac-

to the same

degree that he was repulsed by the words which

white ants, eating away at reality. The more "literary" these

and glorified the individual percep-

he was increasingly able to turn that power

their nature.

He speaks of

5. Yukio Mishima, Sun and Steel, trans. John Bester (New York, 1970), p. 17.

Critical Inquiry



is to say, the body is no longer merely a subject described by the writer's

words; it "pursues" those words with the demand that the writer's style conform to the body's own qualities. Mishima describes his style as "something appropriate to my muscles."7 All excess ornament is stripped away; the pace of his writing is imperturbable, with no variations in speed; it has "the tension of the all-night watch," a watch that guards

against imagination and sensibility. Mishima's style, he says, "was on the

verge of non-communication;

when the body, whose nature is


Mishima's description of his ideal style is in accordance with a com- mon notion of "strong and silent" masculinity. Also in accordance with

this notion is the style of Ernest Hemingway, a conspicuously masculine writer. His writing, too, is "on the verge of non-communication" by virtue of a deliberate distancing from the sense of self-awareness. A


changes in his own emotions with as much detachment as he observes the

weather or the lay of the land, and with somewhat less detail. This

spareness has its own power, of course, in that it encourages the reader

to flesh out the emotions using as clues the relatively minute variations in

an otherwise noncommittal surface. Hemingway's discovery was that

"you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted

people feel something more than they understood.'"8 This discovery was

a refinement after the fact, though: even in his high school days

Hemingway was writing a hard-bitten prose. The

be his early concern with masculine reserve, in life as well as in art.

Nowhere does this concern emerge more fully than in the strongly au-

tobiographical Nick Adams stories, which are in so many ways about growing up male. The central theme of masculine reserve is established

in "Indian Camp," the first in order of composition as well as the first in

the chronology

version of this story, an introductory

Nick on a hunting

their expectations that "you don't want to ever be

woods" with Nick's newly discovered

Nick accompanies his father, a doctor, when he is taken to an Indian

woman who has been in labour for two days. With perfect

doctor does what must be done-we are only informed later that this was


cesarean operation "Her screams are not

important," them because they are not important." At this

the bunk above, rolls over against the wall and is later discovered to have

it was a style that did not accept but re-

jected." Nothing

less can be expected

wordless, becomes the model for words.

narrator like Jake Barnes of The Sun Also Rises observes


and make

origin of his style may

of Nick Adams. Hemingway omitted, in the published

section which places the


trip with his father and uncle and which contrasts


fear of death. In "Indian

in the





with a penknife

and no anaesthetic.

his father

says to Nick. "I don't hear

the woman's husband, in

7. Ibid., pp. 49, 46.

626 Peter Schwenger

The Masculine Mode

slit his throat in despair. Nick's loyalty to his father is unshaken. The equation then is clear: those who feel emotion die; those who reject it are practical men. Thus when the story concludes with Nick feeling "quite sure that he would never die," this comes not from some redeeming epiphany nor from childish faith-for that faith has already been bro- ken. Rather it is in the nature of a willed assertion, a choice. The young Nick guards against his emotions as he would guard against death. Tied up and threatened in "The Killers," for instance, he first tries to "swag- ger it off." Faced by the spectacle of Ole Andreson impassively waiting for death, Nick confesses his feelings to George:

"I can't stand to think about him

waiting it. It's too damned awful."

in the room and

knowing he's going to get

"Well," said


"you better not think about it."

This practical advice ends the story, slamming the door on any further flow of feeling. In "A Way You'll Never Be" Nick recalls the moment he learned that he can die, when he finds himself observed with the same unfeeling practicality by "the man with the beard who looked at him over the sights of the rifle, quite calmly before squeezing off." Now, although he "noticed everything in such detail to keep it all straight so he would know just where he was," feeling pours forth regardless in a monologue that is a mad parody of dispassionate observation and practicality. Re- serve is reinstated, uneasily, in "Big Two-Hearted River," the best- known example of Hemingway's ability to convey feeling by omitting it. Hemingway called this a story "about coming back from the war but there was no mention of the war in it."9We nevertheless sense the thing left out, partly through passing hints and half-buried symbolical ele- ments. The effect of the war on Nick is primarily conveyed by the vary- ing rhythms in which Hemingway renders the masculine rituals of prac- ticality. Serene, luminous, almost liturgical at one moment, sentences become staccato, nervous, and obsessive the next. These changes repre- sent the shifting front of a continuing battle against the death that is

implicit in feeling. Nick Adams must fight his battle in this way if he is to


man of

lent toward the practicality that cleanses-or

however, can afford to be somewhat more ambiva-


merely empties-a

his own feelings. "The Three-Day Blow" satirically attacks the male

fetish for practicality by anatomizing a conversation between two men consciously devoid of emotion. Such an instance makes us aware that Hemingway's habit of dispassionate observation could extend far


If Mishima and Hemingway are reserved in style, they are less re-

to include itself as object.

Critical Inquiry



served in subject matter as they freely incorporate into their works many of the most intimate elements of their lives. This is going to be the case in many works of the masculine mode, since a man's relation to his own masculinity is always an intimate matter. A confessional element then must be considered and accounted for in an investigation of masculine

style. A comment by

account. Following

Sun and Steel-Leiris writes an afterword on "The Autobiographer as

Torero." There he claims that a writing style must show its greatest brilliance at exactly the point at which the writer is most threatened; and no confessional writing can afford to be without this element of danger, even death, which he calls "the bull's horn." To write about certain aspects of one's life is to change that life. The writing becomes not a passive reflection but an act in itself, full of risk and consequence. As with the sculptural flourishes of the matador's cape, the writer's cape of words coaxes a kind of death-conceals it-and at the moment of truth reveals it. A similar consciousness of confession is expressed by Peter Tar-


the purported author of the works presented in Philip Roth's My

Life as a Man. Tarnopol's biographical statement reads in part:

work similar in nature to Mishima's

Michel Leiris indicates one way of taking it into

his Manhood-a

Presently Mr. Tarnopol is


preparing to forsake theart offictionfor a

personal reasonto believethat

for all. 1

while and embark upon an


Not only would the publicationof such a

legal and ethical problems, but thereis no

his imagination at bay and

will have exorcisedhis obsessiononce and

autobiographical narrative, an endeavorwhich

bothits advisability and usefulness.

documentraise serious


rigorouslyadhering to the facts, Mr. Tarnopol

uncertain as to

of a "bull's horn" over which,

This dry prose explicates

elsewhere in the book, words glide with nervous urgency. The dangers indicated-legal, ethical, and most of all psychological-may also explain the book's structure, which is intricately refracted and reflexive. Two short stories by Tarnopol are followed by the autobiographical narrative

which reveals the "sources" of these fictionalizations and is parodically

entitled "My True Story." However,

conflict-ridden marriage-is almost impossible to find. At every turn we

are presented


interpretation, in Tarnopol's own shifting attitudes and his shifts in style.

And of course we speculate throughout on Tarnopol's relation to Roth. My Life as a Man, though, is not only about how difficult it is to render in words the truth about a past experience; it is also about how words and

the nature

the truth of his story-that of his

with different versions: in the two "Useful Fictions," in the


of various characters in those fictions, in a


Philip Roth, My Life as a Man (New York, 1974), p. 100.

628 Peter Schwenger

The Masculine Mode

the expectations they set up may affect an experience before and while it happens. And at the center of all this is a question of male identity: the desire to "get to be what is described in the literature as a man."" No Bildungsroman, though, My Life as a Man is ultimately the chronicle of how the writer, entangled in the multiple relationships between life and literature, "squandered [his] manhood."12

has been treated by Roth be-

in this book there is

of My Life as a Man, we may still sense an

influence of the "bull's horn" on language. In Portnoy'sComplaint the tang

of spoken

Portnoy discloses

itself to imply

clearly a theatrical Jewish self-laceration. Portnoy'sComplaint is also interesting because of its treatment of a subject peculiar to the masculine mode, the penis. Sine qua non of male- ness, instrument of the adolescent's awakening virility, center and sym- bol of his manhood to the adult-the penis has enormous importance in the life of the male and very little in literature. When not sublimated

entirely, the penis is portrayed only as an object viewed in a

erotic context. Lawrence's rendering of "John Thomas" is in the end not a whit more satisfactory than the flowery similes of the pornography he so loathed. Neither reveals anything of the psychological relationship between a man and his own penis. Phenomenologists, too, who have explored the perception of one's own hand and foot and eye have been oddly demure where this part is concerned. Portnoy'sComplaint at least makes a modest beginning-though not a demure one-at rendering

the male's relationship to a part which, especially at puberty, seems more obsessively virile than the whole. "Ven der putz shteht, ligt der sechel in


So far is the brilliance

nothing of the complexity

fore this, comically, in Portnoy'sComplaint.Though

The theme of

squandered manhood




to match the enormities


on the psychiatrist's couch.

that it becomes burlesque,



drerd," says Portnoy's Yiddish wisdom; the part has a propensity to conflict with the whole and to domineer over it. An apt emblem of this state is provided by Alberto Moravia in the closing lines of Io et Lui (which has been translated as The Two of Us). The weary Federico, at the end of a fruitless campaign to sublimate the dominance of his penis, returns to his patient wife, penis swollen with pride and triumph:


She looked at me,

looked down, saw "him" and then, without saying a word, put out

her hand to take hold of "him," as one

peared on the threshold in her dressing-gown.

Fausta's hand undid the

chain, the door opened,


and she

take hold of a don-

key's halter to make it move. Then she



her back to me,

"him"in behind her, and, with "him,"me. She went into the


"he" went behind her; I followed them both.'3


Ibid., p. 299.

12. Ibid., p. 95.


Alberto Moravia, The Two of Us, trans. Angus

Davidson (London,

1972), p. 353.

Critical Inquiry



Much more than Gogol's nose, the penis has a quality of independence from the body: it has movements and moods, it sulks, it overbears, it overpowers. So it seems natural to find Federico having conversations and arguments with "him" just as Portnoy does with "his." It seems the literary version of a normal psychological experience. It is then a shock

and a challenge for the reader to find, halfway through the novel, that the

is not normal. In

narrator, with whom the reader has been identifying,

an interview with a psychologist friend, Federico admits that he literally does hear a voice from his penis and that both the animation of this part and his hostility toward it stem from an ambivalent sexual experience with his mother. Of course Federico resents this forced admission, resists

it, and ultimately ignores it. Curiously enough, the reader ignores it too and continues to identify with the narrator as before. Only an under-

current of strangeness remains as implied comment on the normal male's relationship to his sexual organ.

What words, then, for the

penis? What style is

adequate to its na-



ture? As Federico's penis points out to him, in a memorable

the phallus is a god of dark and mysterious force. Yet the tone adopted

when speaking of it is as often as not a comic one, whether in

slang terms or, for example, in works like Robert Graves' arch poem, "Down, Wanton, Down!" Undeniably, there must be a comic aspect to something which-as Molly Bloom observes-looks at one moment like a turkey neck and gizzards and at the next like a hat rack. This comic aspect is not necessarily at odds with the idea of the penis as a dark and awesome power. Comic and terrible meet in the style, of all styles, ap-

propriate to the penis: that of the grotesque. The grotesque, of course, is

not to be summed But in listing some

how appropriate they are to this subject. The grotesque, for all its comic

element, implies an underlying

are out of control.

that is in-

human, both stupid and vital at the same


of its excesses, it deforms proportion and classical contours.

bound up with the physical; it is a force that goes

By In this re-

spect, it is allied to tures which express

uality entirely into the

nature of the whole, in the whole: de Gaulle's nose is no

longer just later drawings of him; it is an enormous,

eral follows dazedly. Similarly, Beardsley's illustrations to Lysistrata and

certain of Picasso's erotic engravings present us with a male grotesque. They express, in another medium, the same kind of extreme state ren- dered by Roth and Moravia.

up in a single definition any more than is the penis.

of the grotesque's possible characteristics, we note

terror arising from the sense that things

the grotesque


is a force behind

time. It is a force strongly

to extremes.


caricature. But whereas caricature exaggerates

individual character, the grotesque absorbs individ-

inhuman. The part which in caricature reveals the

grotesque actually usurps the position of the

an identifying mark in Levine's force which the



Such writers demonstrate

that there is room within the masculine

630 Peter Schwenger

The Masculine Mode

mode for styles entirely different from the reservedly "masculine" ones of a Mishima or a Hemingway. A style is, to a considerable degree, a strategy; thus, there are strategic reasons for some writers to approach the subject of maleness in a style apparently at complete odds with mas-

culinity. Such

ter, Marcueil, conceals his remarkable gifts beneath the life of an idle

socialite with an unprepossessingly average exterior. Only the young daughter of an American magnate suspects his true nature; and to win

her love, Marcueil, incognito, displays his physical prowess in a fantasti-

cal bicycle race and a record-breaking

herself as partner. These exploits are recounted in a style which is wholly

that of the dandy: it has his polished, overcivilized diction, his penchant for absurdity and ludicrous exaggeration, his moments of languor. The Supermale'sstyle is thus one which most people would call effeminate. More attention to the dandy as a type, however, might dispel or at least modify this notion. Recalling only Beau Brummel's fastidious concern with dress, we tend to pass over the style of that dress. Its elegance was the product of a new restraint which still dominates our notions of male clothing. A corresponding restraint of emotion may well have been the inv<