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American Literary History 17.4 (2005) 753-764
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What Men Like in Men
Leland S. Person
The typical man is curiously deficient in a capacity for self-analysis. He seldom devotes any serious thought to the origin of his opinions, the determining factor in his judgments, the ultimate source of his desires, or the hidden mainspring of his motives.
There were male customers, married heterosexual men, who sometimes dreamed of making love to women who possessed penises, not male penises, but thin, tapering feminized stalks, like the stamens of flowers, clitorises that had elongated tremendously from abundant desire. There were gay customers who dreamed of boys who were almost female, smooth-skinned, hairless. There were lesbian customers who dreamed of women with penises, not male penises but womanly erections, possessing a sensitivity and aliveness no dildo ever had. There is no way to tell what percentage of the population dreams such dreams of sexual transmogrification.
A hundred years apart, bracketing the twentieth century, Rafford Pyke's essay on men's taste in men and Jeffrey Eugenides's brilliant novel about hermaphroditism offer a convenient springboard for assaying these recent efforts to "self-analyze" men and their desires. They also reflect the evolution of gender and sexuality as objects of study—from tentative self-analysis of male characteristics to a veritable explosion of gender and sexual identities. The male customers who visit Octopussy's Garden in Middlesex may not know the "ultimate source" of their desires any better than Pyke's men, but they enjoy the luxury of an almost paralyzing array of objects at which they might direct them. Object relations, even phantasmagoric ones, [End Page 753] have some reconstructive effect on the male subjectivities that sponsor them. Under Michel Foucault's influence, in Playboys in Paradise: Masculinity, Youth and Leisure-Style in Modern America (2001), Bill Osgerby argues that masculinity is "not reduced to a unitary or coherent set of prescriptive ideals, but is conceived as a multiplicity of inconsistent and contradictory identity positions" (8). Such a social-constructivist ideology has dominated literary criticism for a couple of decades, and these five books certainly demonstrate that manhood can be plotted along a "range of competing articulations" (Osgerby 8). From playboys to rapists, from closeted male writers to office-bound compulsory heterosexists, the male subjectivities represented in the five books under review here form an interesting spectrum. At the same time, none of these studies by itself has much range in its conception of male subjectivity. Each focuses on one particular construct of male subjectivity, however conflicted it may be.
Osgerby, for example, traces the lineage of the "playboy" back through the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, Hugh Hefner's Playboy empire finally fleshes out and capitalizes on the archetype: a "style-conscious and desiring masculine subject—a masculine identity premised on youthful consumption, display and hedonistic leisure" (Osgerby 200). Styles change, and the playboy is all about changing styles, but playboy subjectivity, at least as Osgerby describes it, remains relatively stable. Osgerby ties the playboy's emergence to the economic and social changes that followed the Civil War—the decline in male self-employment and the rise of corporate bureaucracies and office work. Graham Thompson cites the same phenomenon in Male Sexuality under Surveillance: The Office in American Literature (2001). Where Osgerby emphasizes the heterocentric effects of this change in men's work, Thompson focuses on the homosocial and homosexual implications. Both critics, however, explore the new tensions for...