- Tim Armstrong (Editor)
American Bodies: Cultural Histories of the Physique. New York University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Daniel Coleman (Author)
Masculine Migrations: Reading the Postcolonial Male in New Canadian Narratives. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Angus McLaren (Author)
The Trials of Masculinity: Policing Sexual Boundaries, 1870-1930. University of Chicago Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Terry Goldie
In some Australian Aboriginal cultures, like many others which might be called "traditional," there is an absolute division between men and women in many matters. In the spiritual realm, there are knowledges so absolutely gendered that no one of the opposite sex can have the slightest inkling. Contemporary Australian English refers to this as "women’s business" and "men’s business." Liberal intellectuals accept this barrier as part of the value of Aboriginal cultures. There is little discussion of how alien it is from western gender claims, where many of us try to liberate knowledges from gender, even irritatingly recalcitrant matters such as menstruation and pregnancy. Our gender divisions are attributed to the persistence of male hegemony. And yet the attractions of tradition go beyond patriarchal nostalgia.
There are many ways in which masculinity studies is caught in this bind between the assumed evils of patriarchy and the lure of tradition, even in examinations of modern cultures. While the proponents of "maleness" tend to be kin to Robert Bly’s mythopoeic drum-beaters, most of those who study masculinity in the academy are male feminists and not a few are gay (including the present reviewer). Studying the problems produced by masculinity, for both men and women, comes easy to us, but asserting the value of maleness much less so.
Two of these books demonstrate this dichotomy while a third only glimpses it. American Bodies, a collection of articles by participants in a British American Studies conference, looks at many aspects of the bodies of both sexes, usually in the tone of removed observation common to masculinity studies rather than the overt feminism that is still part of most work on women. As is often the case with such conference proceedings, many pieces cover familiar territory while the more innovative are limited in argument. "Wearing their Hearts on their Sleeves," by Simon P. Newman, considers tattoos on American seamen of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but offers only vague suggestions about what the tattoos might signify.
Daniel Coleman and Angus McLaren have more to say. McLaren’s The Trials of Masculinity is a social history created from legal records. The original impetus for such work is no doubt Michel Foucault, but I first encountered it in this form in Judith Allen’s Sex and Secrets: Crimes Involving Australian Women Since 1880 (1990). There are many similarities between Allen’s and McLaren’s work, not the least of which is the conflict between the claim that most aspects of behaviour are socially constructed and the underlying assumption that male behaviour is inevitably dysfunctional.
McLaren notes that the late nineteenth century saw the absence of "real men" as a major problem. People feared the effeminate male but also the cad. The one, through homosexuality or transvestitism, demonstrated feminine weakness. The other did what a real man would never do, which is abuse the weakness of the female (as opposed to participating in the quite acceptable general oppression of women). On the other hand, criminal acts which were seen as excessive versions of reasonable masculinity, such as murdering a man who had stolen a wife, were usually deemed understandable.
McLaren’s precise analysis holds him in good stead. When in the last section he turns to "medical discourses" he shows that he has learned his Foucault lessons well and ranges through the important studies of sexuality in the late nineteenth century to demonstrate its applicability and its influence. He shows the uneasy balancing acts, of the sexologists on the one side, many of whom would have been judged by society to be perverts if their personal proclivities had been known, and of the enforcers of hegemonic society on the other, the courts and the journalists, who yearned to show how their actions and statements conformed to the latest scientific studies.
McLaren’s study is well worth reading but he slips too easily over the vast geographical differences between his various cases, as suburban London provides the material for a discussion of men fooled by a false matrimonial agency and rural British Columbia is the setting for his examination of murder. Equally problematic is his time frame. His key case of transvestitism is from a trial in 1931, although his conclusion makes a strong claim for the First World War as the watershed for changes in views of masculinity. On the other hand, his focus on criminal trials sometimes makes him miss alternative sources of insight. He is interested in Oscar Wilde as a defendant but he mentions Wilde’s Portrait of Dorian Gray only briefly. Yet Portrait is a particularly interesting text in terms of McLaren’s argument as it explicitly links effeminacy and the cad. The plot shows the foppish homosocial man as exactly the type to mistreat weak females.
Coleman’s Masculine Migrations is the best of this group. Fittingly, as the one literary study, it is the most pleasurable to read. Coleman introduces with ease a number of theoretical models as he examines six Canadian works of fiction. Still, while his readings of works by Austin Clarke, Dany Laferrière, Neil Bissoondath, Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry and Ven Begamudré are apt, none will surprise most readers. However, Coleman also includes autobiographical reflections about being a married heterosexual white male who grew up in Ethiopia as the child of Canadian missionaries. The links between his readings and his personal life are honest, sometimes very much at his own expense, and they are excellent examples of the associations we all have while reading but so seldom articulate, especially in print. While I was reading the criticism with a certain sense of duty, I was looking forward to the next autobiographical section, not least to see the insightful links to the novels.
As a teacher of postcolonial studies, I often find graduate students overwhelmed by white privilege. I have already offered Coleman’s work to two of them as a way of dealing with this problem. Still, while Coleman confronts his silver spoon he remains constrained by his apologies for it. This suits the reminiscences but limits his analysis. For example, he seems easily to accept the Oedipus complex as a model for the western heterosexual male but rejects it for everyone else. Well, no. There are many of the former who are far less Oedipal than Freud imagines and many studies which show us outsiders to be profoundly Oedipal in many ways. We are still waiting for the straight white male, the primary beneficiary of men’s business, who can look beyond the good side or the bad. The wealth of men’s business is a coin with many edges.
- Crossing Borderlines by Dieter Riemenschneider
Books reviewed: Hybridity and Postcolonialism: Twentieth-Century Indian Literature by Monika Fludernik and Across the Lines: Intertextuality and Transcultural Communication in the New Literatures in English by Wolfgang Kloos
- The Point of the Story by Gloria Nne Onyeoziri
Books reviewed: Aphorism in the Francophone Novel of the Twentieth Century by Mark Bell
- Culinary Memoirs by Nathalie Cooke
Books reviewed: Butter Cream: A Year in a Montreal Pastry School by Denise Roig and Culinary Landmarks: A Bibliography of Canadian Cookbooks, 1825-1949 by Elizabeth Driver
- New Postcolonialisms by Diana Brydon
Books reviewed: Postcolonizing the Commonwealth: Studies in Literature and Culture by Rowland Smith, States of Exception: Everyday Life and Postcolonial Identity by Keya Ganguly, and Tropicopolitans: Colonialism and Agency, 1688-1804 by Srinivas Aravamudan
- Arctic and Human Remains by Renée Hulan
Books reviewed: Lobsticks and Stone Cairns: Human Landmarks in the Arctic by Richard C. Davis, A Long Way from Home: The Tuberculosis Epidemic among the Inuit by Pat Sandiford Grygier, and Confessions of an Igloo Dweller by James Houston
MLA: Goldie, Terry. Men's Business. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #177 (Summer 2003), (Duncan, Wiebe, Jameson, Thérault, Martel). (pg. 123 - 125)
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