Literary criticism often lacks modern cultural relevance. This is what makes Lewis C. Seifert’s book on masculinity, Manning the Margins: Masculinity and Writing in Seventeenth-Century France, so refreshing. Through extensive examinations of classic French texts, this work investigates two elements of seventeenth-century French society that also happen to be among the most important issues facing the world today: homosexuality and gender discrimination. In present day society where gay rights are fiercely promoted but nonetheless largely ignored by many lawmakers, Seifert’s study is timely in its emphasis on the arbitrariness of modern sexual categorization.
Moreover, this book cleverly approaches the topics of homosexuality and gender from a new perspective: instead of focusing on the elements involved in the subversion of one particular subaltern group (like feminist criticism which focuses on gender inequality from women’s standpoint), Seifert compares early modern ideals of manliness to the notion of effeminacy in order to reveal a complex history of non-normative masculinity. Seifert’s book brings to light many intricacies of the historical creation of the modern concepts of sexuality and gender and underscores the ways in which these ideas were arbitrarily shaped by writings from and about the past.
Primarily grounding his work in French literature from the mid to late seventeenth century and the early eighteenth century, Seifert studies masculinity within the contexts of civility and sexuality. His aim is to reveal a more nuanced image of seventeenth-century France than the ones previously provided that characterize the period as one of “extreme masculine dominance” (3). To do this, Seifert approaches the topic of masculinity via Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of “masculine domination” and Norbert Elias’s notion of the “civilizing process”: on the one hand, masculinity is viewed through the lens of a dialectic of dominance and domination. On the other hand, masculinity is regarded as the internalization of externally imposed civil principles. The book’s central argument does not necessarily move in a linear fashion as its two sections deal with separate issues within the subject of masculinity. Chapters one through four, which constitute the first part of the book, combine to show the difference between two major concepts of the ideal socialized man: one that instrumentalizes women and emphasizes the [End Page 1014] avoidance of effeminacy and one that grants women full power over men’s actions and eliminates any threat of effeminacy. The second part of the book, which includes chapters five and six, takes a new turn to focus on the male body, sex acts between men, and the ways in which men who engage in these acts are perceived in society. Seifert ultimately shows that any definition of masculinity is both contingent upon the norms and customs of the society to which a man belongs but also comprised of certain aspects that remain constant throughout history. Ultimately, this literary study aims to “chart one course for moving beyond the binary understanding of gender” (17).
Seifert begins his first chapter by citing Norbert Elias’s “civilizing process” as the idea that most clearly theorizes, in modern terms, the concept of honnêteté—a set of practices that constitute an ideal model of social behavior in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France. Honnêteté is defined here by Seifert via Elias as: “the codification and internalization of constraints on behavior that give rise to the concepts of civility and civilization” (21). But Seifert is also careful to emphasize that a concrete definition of honnêteté is difficult to pin down because it is a constantly “shifting set of principles” (21). Seifert explores the ways in which honnête masculinity is presented in a number of texts by Antoine Gombaud, Chevalier de Méré, who Seifert considers to be the foremost authority on honnêteté in seventeenth-century France. Seifert’s approach is to consider honnêteté first as a discourse and second as gendered. He argues that the concept of honnêteté as it is presented in Méré’s texts reinforces masculine privilege but is also unstable because...