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Sometimes it’s Hard to be a Man

Terence Killeen

The Myth of Manliness in Irish National Culture 1880-1922, by Joseph Valente, University of Illinois Press, 304 pp, $50, ISBN: 978-0252035715

As I was finishing the perusal of this book, and pondering this review, an event occurred in the world of public discourse with an unexpected bearing on the text. A prominent member of the Gaelic Athletic Association (a body which features quite strongly in this work) proposed that the disciplinary system of “yellow cards and red cards” for misdemeanours on the field of play be done away with. An even more prominent member, the manager of the Kilkenny hurling team, gave some support to the proposal. The idea’s principal advocate declared that the cards system was “totally at variance with the ethos, physicality and manliness of the game of hurling”.

While Joseph Valente does declare in his preface that the concept of “manliness” remains a potent and malign force in the “neo-imperialist” dimensions of today’s world, I don’t think he had in mind that it would manifest itself in the present day in quite so antique a guise. (It should be added that some of the subsequent debate around the proposal did manifest a certain embarrassment at the return of this hoary spectre.) For this idea bears many of the hallmarks of the concept of “manliness” expounded so admirably in this volume. A striking aspect is that the cards system is being blamed, as a foreign importation from Association Football, for in some way corrupting or nullifying the true, chivalrous nature of the Gael. If, as Valente argues, manliness in this sense is essentially a colonial formation, then its unexpected re-emergence in the here and now would bear ample testimony to the persistence of such ideological projections well beyond their actual historical conjuncture, as well, of course, as adding a further layer of irony to a notion that presents itself as a blow for the self-recovery of the severely besieged true-Gael.

The underlying thesis of this book can be enunciated as follows. Manliness (and henceforward the word should be understood to carry with it invisible quotation marks at all times) was essentially a product of the British public school system at the height of the country’s imperial power. In a fairly standard Foucauldian mode, the author sees it as an ideological construct, a way of inculcating a form of social control among a certain coterie of middle class Englishmen. (One area that this book could have addressed is the question of class: did manliness apply to the same extent, and in the same way, to working class men? One suspects not, but no evidence either way is adduced in this work.)

Crucial to the concept are not just such qualities as courage, daring, physicality, but also restraint, gallantry, chivalry – the famous “stiff upper lip”. Great store was set, in the public school ethos, by the possession of “animal spirits” but these “animal spirits” had to be contained, delimited and disciplined, by considerations of morality, spirituality, propriety and social duty, among other factors. (There is a strong echo here of Foucault’s account, in The History of Sexuality, of the role of the Roman paterfamilias, and that is not surprising, given the importance of classical traditions in the formation of the English public school ethos.)

What the author calls, in the book’s most fundamental argument (also the title and content of his introduction), “the double bind of Irish manhood” arises from the fact that the Irish, due to their metrocolonial status, (at once members but also subjects of the British metropolitan culture), fell victim twice over to the highly fragile, highly ambiguous nature of the concept of manliness. On the one hand, if they gave vent to their “intrinsic animal spirits” (an ideological construct in itself) they fell short of the ideal of manliness, they had reduced themselves to a sub-human existence, incapable of absorbing the benefits of enlightened colonisation. They had become manly in the wrong way, manly to the point of brutishness. (Obviously, manifestations such as the all too well known Punch cartoons, the alleged propensity for fighting and for drinking are relevant here, not to mention political and agrarian outrages.) On the other hand, if they kept these tendencies in check, if they refused to yield to such temptations, they could overreach the ideal of manliness: there was a severe risk that they would begin to conform to the other idea of the Celt: Matthew Arnold’s depiction of them as passive, ineffectual dreamers, with only a slight relationship, if any, to the real world; in other words, they would become feminised. This was a peculiar but potent dilemma: manliness became a kind of tight-rope, or, perhaps more appropriately, a knife-edge, which it was all too easy for the colonial subject to fall from.

(Valente characterises this integral discrepancy as a discordia concors, or rather, he doesn’t: he refers to it throughout as discordia concours. Throughout the book, non-English language words and phrases are scattered about with equal enthusiasm and error: it comes as no surprise that when, at the very end, he comes to Yeats’s sprezzatura, that gets mangled as well. The book combines immense theoretical sophistication with a very engaging directness: I am quite sure that nobody has ever suggested before that when Cuchulain and Ferdia meet at the ford, they engage in a form of “trash talking” – Valente is completely aware of the humour of the formula, incidentally.)

Where this strange ideological construction left Irish women is a complex question. Importantly, manliness, despite the name, is not gender specific; it refers to a set of personal qualities, not physical attributes as such. As such, women could certainly aspire to it, but they too could fall foul just as easily of the double bind outlined above.

Mrs Kearney in Joyce’s story “A Mother” (not cited by Valente) could be seen as an exemplar of this dilemma: as Anne Fogarty has argued, she behaves like a man in a man’s world, standing up for her rights etc, but it misfires, because there is another ideal, that of “the lady”, which is also used as a yardstick for women, and this rival discourse is instantly applied to her behaviour. So, if anything, the bind is worse for women, because rival and fundamentally incompatible discourses are being applied to them, making them even less secure than men.

The construct of manliness, Valente argues, is internally divided, split from its inception; but there are also other ideological constructs around that apply competing pressures on the colonial subject. Ultimately, I think, the author would argue (though this is regrettably not explicit) that the bind applies equally, perhaps with even more force, to women, though, as becomes clear later in the work, there are marked differences between their roles and functions in Revivalist culture and those of men.

In expounding this thesis, both in the introduction and in the first two chapters, “The Manliness of Parnell” and “Afterlives of Parnell”, Valente, now Professor of English at the State University of New York at Buffalo, takes a fascinating, broad-brush approach to many aspects of Irish culture. He deals at some length, for instance, with the aforementioned Gaelic Athletic Association, suggesting that the ideals of manliness absorbed from colonial discourse were put to work in the formation of the association, and that by its very nature – physical force accompanied by a culture of restraint – this body proved a vital force in the formation of what he calls a “soft hegemony” that helped to enable the ultimate triumph of nationalism.

The one quibble I would have with this account of the GAA’s development is that Valente may overstress the imposition from above of this particular formation: in other words, that he underestimates the degree to which indigenous sports were a genuinely popular passion, which did not need to be imposed in any way. It is true that the introduction of the word “Gaelic” signified a distinct ideological slant into this formation – and, as noted above, we have just witnessed a recent manifestation of this imposed ideological content – but it remains the case that the GAA embodied and tapped into a genuinely demotic ethos at its creation. Proof of this is provided by the association’s rude good health today, in marked contrast to certain other revivalist formations – the Irish language, the Abbey Theatre – which are in anything but rude good health, surviving mainly as museum pieces.

Following this exposition, the rest of the book deals with the working out of this double bind in Irish culture and history in the period covered by the title. (“Culture”, by the way, is a slight misnomer here: the only cultural products covered are literature and drama; it is highly likely that art, at least, would have something to offer in this connection – for example artistic renderings of Cuchulainn or the Fianna – but such manifestations are not included here.) The first chapter, however, deals with the indispensable “constitutive exception” to the double bind of Irish manhood, the figure whose difference makes the whole schema possible: Charles Stewart Parnell.

In many ways, Parnell epitomised the colonial idea of manliness, to the point where, as Valente notes, some of his British opponents doubted if he was Irish at all. Crucially, his famously restrained demeanour came across, not as passivity, but rather as a case of strong emotions kept resolutely in check. Valente is not the first to note that this personal impression which Parnell made corresponded exactly to the unique political conjuncture over which he presided: much of the success of his tactics was due to the subtext of explosive populist violence which might lurk beneath the correct parliamentary procedures he ostensibly espoused. So just as beneath his frozen exterior it was understood that hidden fires raged, so beneath the form of parliamentary tactics might lurk the hidden fires of physical force nationalism.

So much about Parnell was mysterious, unexpressed, that it became very easy, after his fall, to see him as a kind of empty signifier: whatever he might have stood for mattered much less than his aura, his mystique. And the story, the myth of his fall could and did eclipse the story of his actions and achievements before it. (It is fascinating to imagine how he would have fared as prime minister of a Home Rule Ireland, had it come to pass.) He became, very clearly, a mythic figure, to the extent that, as Valente shows, it was possible for Lady Gregory, in her Ascendancy mode, to uphold and extol him as an exemplary image of aristocratic imperturbability and calm, completely transforming his politics in the process. His overturning as head of the Irish Party became, bizarrely, a metaphor in Gregory’s work for the usurping of the Ascendancy by nationalism.

With Gregory, we come to the book’s working out of its thesis about manliness in some highly original studies of the literature of the Irish Revival. Valente convincingly uses the example of Gregory to demonstrate what he calls the effective asymmetry of cultural and political nationalism: the two were pursuing what were in many ways fundamentally different agendas. (Again, Valente is not the first to make this point; Len Platt comes to mind as another exponent of an essentially similar thesis.)

In the third chapter, “The Mother of All Sovereignty”, we deal with what is called the “sovereignty drama”, usually a piece in which a female figure, often in appearance a withered crone but in reality a beautiful queen, personifies Ireland and incites the men of the play to action on Ireland’s behalf. In these, Valente argues, a blood sacrifice becomes the approved substitute, or exchange for, sexual relations – the latter are sublated, or raised to a higher power, by the former, with the Ireland/female figure endorsing the contract. A classic example, of course, is the Gregory/Yeats Cathleen Ni Houlihan. Valente interestingly stresses that the sacrifice enacted in this play is to a cause – the rising of 1798 – that is already defunct in terms of the audience watching the drama. As he puts it in terms that cannot be bettered: “The climactic manoeuvre is perfectly calibrated to register Gregory’s characteristic sentiment that nothing sanctifies Irish physical force like the edifying inevitability of its disappointment.”

In Pearse’s The Singer a double renunciation is involved: it is easy for MacDara to forgo the love of Sighle since he is not very attracted to her anyway, but a more difficult renunciation is to deprive himself of the sight of “the white limbs of some beautiful child” (yes, really). So arduous is this sacrifice that it can be achieved only by strongly sexualising, and simultaneously Christianising, his ultimate surrender to the cause of Ireland: MacDara goes forth to battle, stripping the clothes off him as he goes, and envisions himself “hung naked” before the enemy soldiers. Further comment seems superfluous.

Turning, with some relief, to Synge’s The Shadow of the Glen, Valente refreshingly takes issue with “the fine-grained historicism” that, as he says, is now such a prevalent mode in Irish studies. He insists instead on the necessity to take into account matters of genre when comparing two such plays as The Shadow with Cathleen ni Houlihan, which are often connected in critical discourse – a strange affinity between them is frequently intuited. A complex argument – for this is by far the most complex work with which Valente has yet engaged in this book – ensues. One theory that Valente wants to scotch is the idea that Nora Burke’s ultimate rejection by both Dan Burke and Michael Dara is the mark of a rejection of “a traditional way of life” itself, of the rise of bourgeois nationalism: in other words, that this rejection is a version of Yeats’s “now money’s rant is on” and that Nora’s plight betokens the loss of an earlier world of “wildness”.

For Valente, this is too comfortable a conclusion: in a move that I find admirable and compelling, he argues that Synge finally affords audiences “no stand to take that is answerable to the exigencies [the play] sets forth”. Here he has brilliantly pinpointed the sense of bafflement that Synge’s finest plays frequently engender in audiences: not that the piece has not been fully understood, but rather that there is no secure, clear attitude to take to it that will “answer to its exigencies”. There will be more about Synge subsequently.

It is good to see James Stephens’s The Charwoman’s Daughter receive sustained attention; it is also good to see mention of Augustine Martin, one of the work’s rare champions. Valente is particularly interested in the class register of this work: he links it to the sovereignty drama but emphasises that it is both urban and decidedly working class – the classical sovereignty drama almost invariably features noble peasants who receive a visitation from a disguised aristocratic Mother Ireland figure. Without disowning the myth of nationalism, The Charwoman’s Daughter transposes it into a different key, emphasising the elements of fantasy contained therein (the heroine is, of course, called Mary Makebelieve) but also issuing a prescient warning on the dangers of being trapped in a discourse of Irish freedom that can itself be far more constraining than liberating.

The next chapter moves in an interesting arc from Cuchulain to The Playboy of the Western World. On the subject of Cuchulain, Valente takes some issue with Declan Kiberd’s view (in Irish Classics) that the Red Branch hero posed a problem for the Revival because he seemed such a British public schoolboy figure, not sufficiently distinctively Irish in his ethos and attitudes. Valente’s more nuanced reading suggests that the Cuchulain of the sagas in fact bore little relation to such an ideal and had to be recast in the Revival in the image of a British public schoolboy because that was the ideal of manliness that the Revivalists had themselves absorbed from the coloniser. Therefore the Cuchulain of the sagas had to be “bowdlerised and embellished”, as he puts it, in order to make him fit into what was in many ways an alien notion. This is a very persuasive reading. In this connection, there is an entertaining excursion on the Fianna Éireann, which again, Valente shows, was another derived colonial formation, Baden-Powell with an Irish accent.

Turning then to the Cuchulain-oriented literature of the Revival, Valente focuses on two plays, one of which has an explicit, and the other an implicit, link to the myth of the Red Branch hero: Yeats’s On Baile’s Strand and The Playboy of the Western World. Without going into all the complexities of Valente’s reading of the former, perhaps his main point is that the play stages a conflict that is internal to the Revival and to the course of Irish history generally: Concubhar represents not an alien voice, as is sometimes suggested, but rather the inevitable outcome of the progress of Irish nationalism. In a sense, Concubhar is the “manly” one in this encounter – the one who is upholding feudal, courtly principles – while Cuchulain reverts to a tragic, but tragically inevitable, “wildness”.

In this reading, the play is anti-Revivalist: the Revival, as Yeats has begun to see, will inevitably lead to the world of Concubhar and of bourgeois nationalism, because it was “always already” compromised from its inception by the metrocolonial values it was designed to counteract. One could well ask what other outcome was even remotely possible – but is that not the very definition of tragedy, which this play certainly is?

Valente concurs with most critics in seeing The Playboy as mock-heroic. But given the play’s dizzying, quicksilver reversals, its lack of any fixed position on which it might ever come to rest, it is hard to be sure what brand of heroism is being mocked (for heroism is a large and loose category). His answer is that what is being staged here (“mocked” is not quite the right word) is revival, both with a capital and a lower-case “R”. Christy Mahon, and indeed his father, go through multiple deaths and revivals but what matters most to Valente is the attitude of the Mayo villagers to them.

He explicitly compares the villagers’ attitude to Christy with that of the Revival to its own chosen heroes: for the Revival, too, they had to be ultimately rejected and cast out because their inherent “wildness” could not quite be erased; they could not be “manly” in quite the right way. This is a fascinating meta-take on an already massively intricate and involved work: it adds another dimension in a reading whose overtones of self-referentiality may not be to everyone’s taste and which may not add greatly to the experience of the play in the theatre but which certainly alters the dynamics of Synge’s role in the whole Revivalist nexus.

The last full-scale chapter (followed by a rather strange epilogue on Yeats) is devoted to James Joyce, the writer with whom Valente has been most identified prior to this far more wide-ranging work. After a brief consideration of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where naturally Parnell features quite strongly, Valente devotes much space to Dubliners, and especially, and unsurprisingly, to the story “Counterparts”, which can certainly be read as a series of tests of varieties of manliness. Valente expertly traces – here he is on home ground – firstly, the various binds in which Farrington implicates himself. Particularly valuable is Valente’s comment that for Farrington “self-possessed manliness entails a sacrifice of that virility on which it was supposedly based, while the expression of that embodied virility could come only at the cost of manly self-possession.” This defines exactly the double bind on which Valente’s entire argument is based.

A striking feature of the description of Farrington in the story is the emphasis on his large body; this is mentioned several times. His tormentor, Alleyne, by contrast, is small and physically insignificant, and the difference between them is frequently stressed. Yet Farrington’s large frame is no use to him: it becomes another prison in which he is encaged. The possibility of an occupation in which Farrington’s size and strength would be an asset – that of labourer, for instance – never even arises, and this is testimony to the enclosed nature, in class terms, of the book itself. Size indeed does not matter; in fact it becomes a hindrance, if anything, in this stifled world. And eventually, of course, Farrington passes on all the contradictions and binds of which he is the object to his son, thus ensuring the perpetuation of the syndrome which underlies his predicament.

When it comes to Ulysses, Valente concentrates, of course, on the “Cyclops” episode, that much-studied slice of the text. So intense is the focus on this episode, indeed, that it sometimes seems to be taken as encompassing the book itself, an approach which can seriously unbalance the work’s internal coherence. Valente’s principal and very worthwhile contribution here is to highlight the hidden complicity between Bloom and his principal antagonist, the Citizen, while also valuably stressing the role of the other men in the pub as providing a spectrum of attitudes between those poles. This is not a case of “doing Bloom down” and correspondingly elevating the Citizen, as in some recent critiques, but rather of noticing that each engages in forms of racially based critiques of the other – each is to a greater or lesser extent subjected to a similarly inflected colonialist discourse.

Nevertheless, it is also true that Bloom does come to incarnate, for the pub patrons, all the aspects of themselves that they wish to disown and cast out: passivity, femininity, etc. As Valente puts it in a formula which in many ways encapsulates much of his basic thesis on double binds in Irish culture: Bloom emerges as “quintessentially Irish in the social construction of his Jewishness”. He is no less Irish for being seen as alien, and Valente’s stress on this contradiction in its own way undoes some of the very racial stereotyping he has been discussing.

It must be added, however, that this chapter on Joyce, and the subsequent epilogue, on Yeats, are the only parts of the book where one experiences a certain disappointment. Restricting the discussion of manliness to just one episode of Ulysses is obviously very limiting – it omits, for instance, the clearly crucial Nighttown episode – and it may also be that Valente’s categories, which work so well in general, are somewhat too rigid to give much purchase on the production of the two greatest writers of the Revival.

The book concludes, as mentioned, with an epilogue on Yeats (one might feel he deserved somewhat more than an epilogue, in this context). Valente picks up, very strikingly, on the peroration of Yeats’s speech in the “Debate” that followed The Playboy riots (reprinted in Explorations). Here he declares, almost as if he knew that Valente’s book would one day be written: “Manhood is all, and the root of manhood is courage and courtesy.” As Valente says, this statement signifies Yeats’s increasing adherence from then on to an aristocratic, lofty conception of Irishness, and the beginning of his disillusionment with the Irish “folk” which he had previously held in such high esteem.

Yeats then sets up exemplars of the kind of manliness he has in mind, one being Gregory (as mentioned, gender is no bar to the possession of qualities such as courage and courtesy), and another the very Charles Stewart Parnell with which this study began. The brevity of this epilogue, though, does not permit him to examine the shocks to this ideological construct meted out to Yeats, first by 1916 and its aftermath, and then, even more emphatically, by the Civil War – events which plunged him back into the nightmare of history, the blood-dimmed tide, and led thereby to some of his greatest poetry. All in all, interesting as this epilogue is, I do not feel it advances the understanding of Yeats much beyond that expounded by Seamus Deane, in particular.

This book forms part, whether intentionally or not, of a more general questioning of the Revival and its ideology which has been going on for some time: the work of Len Platt, not cited by Valente, goes in a very similar direction, though starting from a very different premise. Hitherto, Valente was principally known as a Lacanian critic of constructions of gender in Irish literature, for example in scrutinising elements of “homosexual panic” in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

This book, if it does not seem too old hat to say so, is rather a deconstructive exercise: the concept of manliness becomes a lever, a tool, whereby the whole edifice of Revivalist ideology – and indeed nationalist discourse in this period more generally – is dismantled, shown to be highly complicit in the very entity it seeks to oppose. Thus the Declan Kiberd depiction, in particular, of the entire Revivalist enterprise as one long, coherent and ultimately successful endeavour to “invent Ireland”, to carve out the lineaments of a new country and a new destiny, is called seriously into question. A long quotation from Valente is needed here:

Combining signifiers for ‘back’ and ‘birth’, the alternative name for the Irish Revival, the Irish or Celtic Renaissance, better encapsulates the Janus-faced itinerary of the movement. The enterprise of retrieving an authentic Irish past was undertaken less on nostalgic or antiquarian grounds than in the hope of leveraging the recoveries to advance the fortunes of the Irish people – socioeconomic, political, and cultural – in the present and immediate future. The doubleness of this gesture is well captured in Terry Eagleton’s phrase ‘the archaic avant garde’. Incidental to this formal doubleness is a substantive contradiction, which flowed directly from the recent history of subdominance wherein the Revival had incubated. The means and objectives summarised in the phrase ‘advancing the fortunes’ took their definition not from the aboriginal culture to be recovered – which was more likely to be reimagined to suit this purpose – but from a colonial experience that after the Union increasingly counterbalanced, even amalgamated, resistance with assimilation. The pre-eminent movement of cultural nationalism in Irish history could not but refract a metrocolonialism that was a condition of its very existence.

So there is no purity, no myth of origin that would deliver us an undefiled origin for the Irish Revival or the revival of Irish nationalism. Critics of a different cast from Valente would, I think, readily accept that the alleged return to Celtic origins etc was an invention; the very title of Kiberd’s best-known book says as much.

Where Valente goes a step further, though, is in insisting on the deeply compromised – colonially compromised – nature of the Revival and of the revivalists in their very essence. This may be a matter that only the historians, or maybe the literary historians, could ever definitively resolve, and even then it will be difficult. In the meantime, Valente has advanced a powerful, intricate argument that all those interested in these matters will have to take into account.

“What’s left us then?”, as Stephen asks himself in the classroom episode of Ulysses. What’s left us is the literary products of that Revival, taking the term in its broadest sense. The best of these products, as Valente shows, themselves frequently offer a critique of their own founding myth or myths; but that is supremely what literature does. It was not all in vain.

Terence Killeen is Research Scholar at the James Joyce Centre, Dublin