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  • Interrupted Masculinity in DublinersAnxiety, Shame, and Shontological Ethics
  • Susan Mooney (bio)

In Joyce's Dubliners,1 as well as in his subsequent prose works, Joyce ironically revises heroic conceptions of Irish masculinity from youth to middle and old age. Joyce's turn-of-the-century Irish men are characterized by their anxiety and interrupted or disconnected circuits of desire.2 Joyce maintains narrative structures of heroic mastery, while at the same time examining the discursive, affective, and ethical exigencies of these models.3 The title of his unpublished novel, Stephen Hero, emphasizes this split by labeling the protagonist with the proscription he fails to attain by classical standards of the heroic. Joyce portrays the men of Dubliners in intersections of affect and blunted or deferred ethical action. He distinctly rejects programmatic treatments of the Irish Gaelic hero, distancing himself from the Irish Literary Revival, while at the same time imbricating his characters in the socio-economic realities of Dublin of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The demands of performing as a gentleman, in keeping with English standards of muscular Christianity, are repeatedly shown as too steep for his middling, middle-class Irish men. Their colonial status and Catholic subservience impede fulfilling expectations of heroic manliness. Joyce creates affective situations that seem to occur outside the characters but permeate them; the affects of anxiety, embarrassment, shame—all of which are more commonly associated with the feminine register—are repeatedly explored in various nuances.4 Whereas traditional conceptions of heroic masculinity usually stress steely perseverance, laudatory stoicism, and lofty detachment, Joyce's modern Dubliners squirm and struggle with their urban relationships and circumstances. Typically, Joyce's narratives bring their male protagonists to encounters with an Other that result in affective experiences of anxiety and shame. [End Page 220]

Turn-of-the-century Dublin, with its limited employment and other socio-economic restrictions for the Catholic majority, offers little opportunity for men to embody a heroic masculinity of courage, honor, and resourcefulness; Joyce's stories critique both these socio-political circumstances and the personal, ethical responsibility of his characters. Desire has a metonymic structure; however, in the case of these Irish protagonists, desire relates to making something different of their lot in life. That objective is obscurely imagined, so that the metonymy relates to small bits of the Real, flecked with color (green eyes, steady blue eyes, a golden coin, a warm red fire). The colonial hierarchy of power is reconfigured on the local level, with Irish Catholic men experiencing fleeting moments of empowerment and long stints of disempowerment. Joyce avoids valiant fictional underdogs, such as the Irish nationalists' fantasy of the redemptive identity of the martyr.5 Instead, he presents the male protagonists of "An Encounter," "A Painful Case," "Two Gallants," and "A Little Cloud" in awkward, even shameful, moments of survival amid general and localized corruption. The stories capture the men in ethical decision-making, and in each case they emerge lacking and shamefully confronted with their lack. Their encounter with the Other does not produce dialogue or discovery. Although the men largely act in selfish ways for self-preservation, they also end up reconfirming the colonial and patriarchal authority that rules them. In this context, Joyce shows how Irish masculinity reconfirms patriarchy, even when doing so works against the subjects' interests.

ethical subjectivity and the modern irish gentleman

This study traces some moments of affect associated with men and how these affective moments become converted (or not) into ethical action. Joyce's characters align with what Gabriela Basterra has identified as "tragic subjectivity" of the ancient and modern self.6 This subjectivity mistakenly finds self-legitimizing definition in failure or victimhood, thus evading responsibility for the subject and others. This insight has crucial applications for Joyce's modernist short stories about Irish Catholic men, and, on a larger historical scale, for consideration of the impasse of Irish masculine subjectivity in the early twentieth century.

As Basterra explains, through an understanding of Immanuel Kant, Emmanuel Levinas, and Jacques Lacan, "ethical subjectivity" corresponds to a "disruption of order caused by an event." Despite the important [End Page 221] differences between these thinkers, all three evoke ethical experience as unrepresentable...