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  • Abject Masculinity in Niels Fredrik Dahl’s Herre
  • Ellen Rees

Through an examination of Niels Fredrik Dahl’s 2009 novel Herre, this article explores some of the affective aspects of negotiating masculine identities during a period marked by a so-called crisis of masculinity. The title of Dahl’s novel refers not only to the surname of the protagonist, Bernhard Herre; “herre” also means “lord” or “master,” words associated with dominance and mastery, or what R. W. Connell famously termed “hegemonic masculinity” (2006, 77).1 The title is thus serendipitously multivalent, given that the failure to gain mastery through the performance of masculinity is a central concern of the novel. In this analysis, I follow main currents of gender studies that construe masculinity—and gender more broadly—as something performative “in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporal signs and other discursive means,” to use Judith Butler’s now-famous term (1999, 173; emphasis in the original). Dahl’s novel is remarkable both for its portrayal of the difficulty of maintaining these fabrications and for exploring the affective aftermath when they fail in the face of a monolithic notion of fixed masculinity. [End Page 266] In their introduction to the essay collection Constructing Masculinity, the editors of the volume note

that the category of “masculinity” should be seen as always ambivalent, always complicated, always dependent on the exigencies of personal and institutional power. Masculinity is realized here not as a monolithic entity, but as an interplay of emotional and intellectual factors—an interplay that directly implicates women as well as men, and is mediated by other social factors, including race, sexuality, nationality, and class.

(Berger, Wallis, and Watson 1995, 3)

Herre overtly explores the interplay of these factors within a very specific cultural and historical context, namely, the intellectual battles in the 1830s, the period leading up to the so-called National Breakthrough in Norway. Dahl presents a range of representations of how men negotiate and perform their masculinity and compete for hegemony, focusing on what might be called failed or abject masculinity in particular. At one point in Herre, the protagonist laments that his lover “vet ikke hva det er å være mann og ikke klare seg, ikke makte det, ikke tåle det” (Dahl 2009, 347) [doesn’t know what it means to be a man and not be able to make it, to handle it, to tolerate it2], which hints at the profound distress felt by a man who is unable to perform masculinity in a way that is socially accepted. As I will demonstrate below, the form of masculinity that the novel centers around might best be described as abject, in the sense described by Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection; it is a masculinity that, as Kristeva would put it, is “neither subject nor object” (1982, 1). Hegemonic masculinity is predicated upon making undesirable qualities and entities abject, banishing them from acceptable performances of masculinity and prompting society to reject them in horror, disgust, or disdain. Dahl’s novel explores the complex emotions of a protagonist who perceives himself to be abject.

I argue that Dahl’s novel explores the undesirable and abject qualities of his protagonist as a way of commenting on a contemporary crisis of masculinity, in which hegemonic masculinity is perceived to be under threat from various marginalized groups that aim to increase social power. In the early 1990s, journalist Susan Faludi identified an aggressive backlash against feminism (1991). At the same time, a similar backlash against people of color in the aftermath of decolonization [End Page 267] efforts and the Civil Rights Movement increased in intensity (Hughey 2014).3 The 1990s also incubated the “Men’s Rights” movement and its related, sometimes violent subgroups such as the “involuntarily celibate” movement known as “Incel.”4 Against this backdrop, Dahl explores the anxieties of a man of the mid-nineteenth century who is stripped of what he perceives to be his rightful hegemony as a white male representative of the bourgeoisie. In his abjection, Bernhard becomes an example of what David Tjeder refers to as...


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