- Manning the Margins: Masculinity & Writing in Seventeenth-Century France
In the first book-length study of masculinity in seventeenth-century France, Lewis Seifert illustrates the deep uncertainties that obtained in the understandings of this gender. While many previous works have shown how and why women and/or femininity posed threats to early modern patriarchal regimes, these studies (including my own) have tended to take male social and sexual privilege for granted, as if it was a uniform category against which women and notions of femininity stood out in relief. We have not, with rare exceptions, considered how men themselves negotiated patriarchal ideals of masculinity in early modern France. This is an oversight that Manning the Margins corrects. Engaging with the growing field of masculinity studies, Seifert has written a landmark book that will change the shape of seventeenth-century French studies for years to come.
Seifert’s illuminating point of departure is that masculinity is “always potentially at risk of being destabilized precisely because it occupies the dominant position within the sex/gender system” (2). To assert dominance is to be vulnerable to the possibility of its loss. In order to safeguard their power over women, then, men must continually reaffirm their dominance not only over women but also over other men. This theoretical premise is indebted to Pierre Bourdieu’s Masculine Domination.1 “In this model,” Seifert explains, “the binary of the dominant and the dominated functions on both the level of the social, through interpersonal relations, and the level of the individual, through the gendered habitus, the largely unconscious dispositions acquired through experience in social interactions. . . . The masculine habitus . . . strives for a relation of domination within social interaction, which is by definition a site of struggle. Consequently, some men are successful, while others are not” (5).
Seifert uses Bourdieu, along with other theorists such as Michel Foucault and David Halperin, as the framework for analyzing the relational power dynamics of masculinity in three principal discourses in seventeenth-century France: civility, sexuality, and the gendered body. Basing his interpretations on primary works, anchored by historical research, and in close dialogue with the relevant criticism, Seifert divides his study into two parts. The first part focuses on civility and its definitions of masculinity, including, among others, articulations of the honnête homme (the sophisticated, urbane, ethical man) and galanterie (the salon’s heterosocial interactional mode patterned on courtly love). Seifert also elucidates how the specter of effeminacy hovered over men in court and salon and had to be combated. For instance, while [End Page 574] galanterie advocated men’s submission to women, men such as Vincent de Voiture, Paul Pellisson, and Jean-François Sarasin used such docility as a pose not only to assert dominance over women but also to compete with other men to prove their virility—thus fending off the threat of effeminacy. The second part emphasizes same-sex sexuality and the “transgendered” body. Seifert examines writings of sodomy, including works by François Le Mêtel de Boisrobert and Théophile de Viau, to show how writings about sodomy intersected with ideas about friendship, authorship, and celebrity. In his last chapter, Seifert studies the works of François-Timoléon de Choisy, who portrayed him/herself as a cross-dresser.
Choisy will be familiar to many readers because of his transvestism. Indeed, his novel about two transvestites who fall in love, The Story of the Marquise-Marquis de Banneville (1695–96), is a recent feature in the Texts and Translations series of the Modern Language Association (2004). Seifert’s exceptional analysis of Choisy’s novel and autobiographical fragments will be an invaluable resource both to anyone teaching or writing about the Marquise/Marquis de Banneville and to those working on transgender issues. As Seifert rehearses, recent scholarship on Choisy has interpreted his transvestism either within a psychoanalytic framework as a pathology or in the context of theories about gender as (drag) performance. By contrast, Seifert argues that Choisy’s depictions of transvestism reveal “a broad range...