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  • High Anxiety
  • Kevin Kopelson
Natalya Lusty and Julian Murphet, eds. Modernism and Masculinity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. xi + 260 pp. £55.00 $90.00

THE COLLECTION Modernism and Masculinity, edited by Natalya Lusty and Julian Murphet, contains thirteen essays divided into four sections: Fields of Production, Masculinity in Crisis, New Men, and Masculine Form. The essayists, including Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Jessica Burstein, Peter Nicholls, Thomas Strychacz, and both Lusty and Murphet, attend to masculinity—within high modernist literature [End Page 448] for the most part but also within such avant-garde movements as Futurism and Vorticism—as, to quote the introduction written by Lusty alone, “an unstable horizon of gendered ideologies, subjectivities and representational practices” (my emphasis). This allows for compelling and at times innovative work on men such as James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Henry Roth, Georges Bataille, Theodor Adorno, Paul Robeson, and Derek Walcott, as well as on women such as Djuna Barnes. Most of the essays, moreover, are both theoretically informed (by poststructuralism) and thoroughly grounded in history; two of them (“‘That Man in My Mouth’” by Melissa Jane Hardie, which is on Barnes, Eliot, and others; and, on Walcott alone, “The Figure of Crusoe” by David Marriott) are, alas, mostly theoretical and also overinvested in wordplay. Hardie, for instance, writes: “A conversation between men becomes the site for a form of textual finesse through inversion, one whose tropes may be read as figures for editorial intervention” (my emphasis). Marriott features, unnecessarily, some very early and—to me—almost incomprehensible work by Walter Benjamin on Trauerspiel. I would therefore recommend the collection—apart from those two essays—to any graduate student, faculty member, or independent scholar working in the fields of gender studies, sexuality studies, and/or modernist studies.

Interestingly, no one other than Lusty in this collection thinks—metaphorically—of masculinity, or for that matter of femininity, as being at any sort of “horizon,” unstable or otherwise. And even Lusty, in “Surrealist Masculinities,” seems to forget—or perhaps fails to anticipate—having mentioned in the introduction any such unreachable albeit imaginable place. Instead, she now writes repeatedly of masculinity—within Surrealism—as having involved, for at least the nongay men of that movement, no end of “anxiety.” She writes, for instance: “The discussion of female orgasm [by André Breton and others under his thumb] reinforces a normative discourse on the obscurity of female orgasm as well as well [sic] as a pervasive anxiety around women’s potential duplicity in the sexual act.” Such “anxiety,” in fact, is a common thread throughout most of the essays (more on “threads” in just a bit). James Donald, while writing brilliantly on Robeson, mentions one particular “anxiety” that supposedly “defined” modern masculinity: “the bifurcation of the acting male Self, which was once understood in terms of thymos [Plato’s term for “gumption,” more or less], from a judging male Self, paralysed by its mistrust of unconscious motives, mortgaged to received and normative ideologies, and haunted by the loss of the illusion of freedom.” Strychacz alone, it seems, would like [End Page 449] to snap that thread—or at least to isolate it within the textile of modernist studies and then see what the thing is made of. In other, non-metaphorical words: he’d historicize the thing. Writing on D. H. Lawrence, Strychacz says that “the assumption that male modernists were impelled by anxiety over the threatened loss of their social power and cultural prerogatives”—which he calls “the anxiety hypothesis”—may well be an “anxious defense [on the part of scholars today] of the ability to determine gender categories at a historical moment … when an emphasis on gender as performance is beginning to upset faith in such determinations.” (More on “gender as performance” in just a bit.) But aside from Donald’s “bifurcation” and from Lusty’s own suggestion that Breton, for one, must have repressed this unpleasant feeling (she writes that Breton’s “dogmatic arbitration” of the female-orgasm discussion “discloses a repressed anxiety about the role and representation of sexuality in the movement rather than an openness to the spirit of objective research” [my emphasis]), it is almost never theorized, via poststructuralism or otherwise. (“Disavowal...


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pp. 448-452
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