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  • Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France
  • Martha L. Hildreth
Robert A. Nye. Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France. Studies in the History of Sexuality. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993. ix + 316 pp. $39.95.

The historical construction of masculine identity has received little direct scholarly attention. Instead, works that treat the production and representation of femininity often posit maleness as fixed and unproblematic. Robert Nye’s work corrects this misapprehension. Arguing against assertions made by Peter Gay and Thomas Laqueur, Nye sees maleness in cultural discourse as temporal, fluctuating, and threatened. 1 He draws upon object relations theory to argue: “Because his [End Page 151] quest is premised upon an impossibly exaggerated fantasy of a powerful father or a rigid cultural standard of male ideals, a man’s sense of self will be invariably partial and provisional, subject to endless revisions and fresh efforts” (p. 12).

For the French bourgeois, this tenuous self was a central metaphor, manifested in biological ideology and in the codes and practices of dueling. Nye demonstrates that these otherwise arguably distinct topics connect in ways that well illustrate his central contention: that bourgeois masculinity is built upon synergistic ideals of sexuality and honor.

Fin-de-siècle French culture provides excellent material for this new area of discussion. Perhaps nowhere else in Western discourse has so much been at stake in preserving sexual dimorphism: “French culture has developed a particular bias in favor of biological sex as a primordial category of being that has persisted into the contemporary era” (p. 5). Nye shows how dimorphism is insinuated into French embryology, physiology, and neurology. The strict biological separateness of the sexes—their essence in difference—was understood to be absolutely determinate in reproductive success. Moreover, sexual difference was the father’s bequest: it was deemed the sperm’s role to make embryos male or female. Only virile fathers were thought capable of producing fully differentiated offspring when their agile sperm penetrated a properly passive and receptive egg (p. 88).

As Nye describes it, French neo-Lamarckian biology held “that heredity was a force of reproduction based on the strength and distribution of energy in an organism’s economy; likewise, in degeneration theory, insufficient energy was both a cause and a consequence of syndromes of biological decline” (p. 84). By the 1890s, Mendelian inheritance theory embraced the view of August Weismann that there was an absolute separation between the nature of the “germ cells” and the “soma cells.” But this theory, adopted elsewhere, did not take hold in France. Thus French medical science promoted a theory of sexual reproduction that was part of a larger cultural obsession with heredity and degeneracy. 2 Energy distribution, in French physiology, created further dangers to the reproductive success of the bourgeois. Theories of energy/depletion (new versions of ancient vitalism) envisioned strength and vitality as available to any organism in only limited quantities. Overexertion of any kind, but especially sexual, was seen as a real danger to males, who were thus advised to ration their sperm. Men were cautioned too that women, by their very essence, were incompletely energized and sought to possess male energy through the absorption of sperm. Thus the imperative that females be chaste takes on medical meaning.

French medical and literary discourse of the era is saturated with nightmare crowds of oversexed satyrs and libertines, and sexually depleted, undifferentiated, hermaphrodites, “inverts,” and perverts. The existence of these terrors—condemned to the status of biological oddity—illustrates the deep sense in which the ideals of “masculine,” “feminine,” and “degenerate” were culturally overloaded. So powerful were these normative sexual categories that, while elsewhere [End Page 152] in western Europe Freudian explanations for homosexuality were leading to more social tolerance, France rejected both the homosexual and his/her psychological apologists. As alarming as the homosexual was the specter of the sexually insatiable and predatory libertine whose abnormal sexual demands might permanently steal bourgeois virility. Thus the bourgeois was everywhere threatened. Not only did hereditary flaws from his ancestors create the possibility of tainted sperm, but diminished organic strength or illicit intercourse could also despoil his offspring. Moreover, he could not hide his...

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