Issue 3.2 (2017)
Preface by Guest Editors Dr Dewi Evans and Dr Het Phillips
What a piece of work is a man?
—William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Popularly perceived as the masterpiece of a playwright himself held up (not least by England’s heritage industry) as the greatest writer in English, Hamlet has long secured a place in popular culture as a work that exemplifies literature’s apparent ability to grapple with universal vicissitudes of human existence. Hamlet is a play preoccupied with ontology – with modes of being, or existing, or not existing – with, as the famous soliloquy has it, the decision to be or not to be underscoring the painful experience of being-in-the-world. The decision ‘not to be’ offers a transcendence simultaneously terrifying and ‘devoutly to be wished’, especially when measured against a physical existence fraught with all kinds of unbearable contingencies. Not least of these contingencies is embodiment itself: the most fundamental fact of terrestrial existence.
Yet, embodiment is not a universal phenomena – and the play acknowledges that the ideas about embodiment put forth in its best-known and widely-quoted soliloquies are in fact meditations on masculine embodiment. Indeed, in the immediate context of Shakespeare’s revenge tragedy, Hamlet’s soliloquy is a meditation on the bodily nature of masculine duty coupling as it does the notion of physical existence with identity, and identity with action. The play dramatises how action is so often the domain in which masculinity is tested. Hamlet’s doubts about whether to enact, physically, the role which has been prescribed for him form the action of the play, which turns on the young prince’s hesitations about how best to maintain the integrity of his family line through physical action in the present. It is a crisis that ultimately leads him to question the conditions of physicality itself, and masculine physicality in particular. Hamlet (both the play and the character) mockingly eulogises the male body as an incredible ‘piece of work’, both as a physical object and as a vessel for a mind capable of sublime intellectual endeavour – and it is explicitly the male body that is evoked, the female being categorised discretely later in the speech, before being summarily dismissed as an afterthought (‘no, nor women neither’). The ideal is of physical perfection: so ‘admirable’ in ‘action’, ‘form’ and ‘faculties’ that it resembles God and His angels. Ultimately, however, Hamlet rejects this ideal as a mere construction which hides the material truth: that the male body is a collection of unexceptional matter — ‘quintessence of dust’ already on its way to that ‘sleep of death’ — that has had ideal greatness thrust upon it. If, in his Act III soliloquy, Hamlet wonders ‘what dreams may come’ after we have ‘shuffled off’ the ‘mortal coil’ of physical existence, the earlier speech about the male body as a ‘piece of work’ raises a number of uncomfortable questions about the ‘dreams’ that govern the existence of the body in its living state. What limitations, whether physical or discursive, cultural or political, govern the body as it exists in the world? And who, collectively or individually, ‘dreams’ them into being?
It has become a truism to state that masculinity is always in crisis, and a common reaction to reiterate that gendered identities are always constructed, always imminent: more the product of, rather than material for, either artistic or literary representation, or even empirical study. Such stuff, indeed, as dreams are made on. Debates about how the male subject is identified, or how they should behave, are frequently mapped onto the body, often in a manner that is not immediately visible or coherent. Such a mapping becomes visible only insofar as it emblematizes the gendered constructions already available for interpreting the body and lending it meaning at any given historical moment. The contributors to this issue of HARTS & Minds were invited to explore the range of discourses and representational practices that have helped to construct the male body as an object freighted with ideological and social significance. How do we represent male bodies as male, and what opportunities and limitations does that create? What managing, not only of masculinity, but of gendered, sexual, racial and other categories of being, do representations of the male body allow, construct, and promote? As with Hamlet, they address the ways in which different societies have formulated an idea of embodied masculinity based on a formative relationship between what the male body is and what the male body does. A common theme that emerges in these pieces is the way in which embodied masculinities are less a matter of biological determinism and more a product of discourses and practices that frame the male body in thought and action. Rather than existing before and beyond representation, these are constructed: produced, experienced, felt and enacted.
In her examination of Lucan’s unfinished poem, Civil War, for example, Hannah Marie Chidwick considers the author’s use of two contrasting Latin terms for man — vir (man/hero) and homo (man/human) — arguing that the poem subverts, at a linguistic level, the notion that a soldier’s body constitutes an embodiment of specifically manly virtue, and of a martial ideal that is inherently masculine. Although her focus is a close analysis of Lucan’s classical text, Chidwick suggests that to read the poem in this way offers possibilities for thinking more broadly about the fragility of martial masculinity – in not only Roman but contemporary cultures too. Indeed, Erik Vlaeminck’s article, focussing on the martial body in popular Russian narratives in the wake of the ongoing Russian-Ukraine conflict (2014 -- present), demonstrates that such an interrogation is especially timely in a climate where the valorisation of a violent form of embodied masculinity, linked to conservative ideals of patriotism and national identity, appears once again to be in the ascendant. Noting a correlation of former gang membership with membership of salsa dance companies in twenty-first-century Columbia, Camilo Sol Inti Soler Caicedo, like Chidwick and Vlaeminck, explores the praxis associated with violent forms of physical masculine identity, arguing that the violence of the male dancers’ former means of subsistence is sublimated and ritualised in the energetic display of the salsa.
While these three authors all address cultural embodiments of masculinity within the violent histories of the nations they discuss, Mia Lilly and Freya Verlander examine the position of the male body in late-nineteenth-century fantasies of the erotic and the supernatural. The focus of Lilly’s piece is Rachilde’s decadent narrative Monsieur Venus (1884), while Verlander turns her attention to Richard Marsh’s Gothic novel The Beetle (1897). Both works feature a central protagonist who exceeds neat physical categorisations within a masculine/feminine binary. By focussing on Rachilde’s depiction of the male body as a woman’s erotic fantasy of androgyny, and Marsh’s horrific presentation of the male body as giant Egyptian insect, these texts draw attention to the ways in which fantastic literature can make use of the male body. Reconfigured as a dark Gothic fantasy, the male body can become a fertile site of contestation about what ‘masculinity’ is and what kinds of physical forms could be said to ‘embody’ it.
Lili Pickett-Palmer and Inja Stanovic each turn to different branches of the arts – music and film – in order to consider how the work of male composers and actors can become synonymous with the embodied masculinities – and the masculine bodies – of the artists themselves. Stanovic presents a range of nineteenth-century writing about Chopin in order to show how popular and critical reception of the composer’s work increasingly conflated and sublimated ideas of femininity and illness, projecting them onto Chopin’s body and his body of work. A more explicit consumption of the male body by the public is identified in Buster Keaton’s silent films, which deliberately place the male performer’s own body at the centre of the viewer’s attention. Yet, as Pickett-Palmer explains in her study of Keaton’s The Playhouse (1921), the actor’s inventive use of props and physical comedy serve to undermine the ontology and autonomy of the male body in a world of machines, rendering it as unstable and uncanny as it is amusing.
In a set of three creative pieces, Jason Bircea, Michael McGill, and Nick Marshall each present an inventive and intensely personal take on the male subject’s understanding and experience of his own embodiment. Bircea’s reflective piece on the sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air considers how that show offered him the opportunity to consider the available scripts for black and brown men seeking to perform their own masculinity. Conversely, McGill’s poem, ‘For the Stars’, and Nick Marshall’s short story ‘Land of the Dead’ both feature a narrative voice whose fragile sense of its own masculine identity is bound up with an equally fragile sense of the speaker’s own corporeality and social legibility– demonstrating how corporeality itself is inherently dependant on and part of a social legibility.
In this sense Bircea, McGill, and Marshall all movingly convey at an individual, even a biographical, level, the very dilemma which the preceding articles have identified as a common theme in representations of the male body from classical times to the present. For all of these pieces reveal that to speak of ‘the’ male body is an impossibility; that masculinity is not embodied but produced by the culture by whose conventions (literary, discursive, semiotic, affective) the male subject is framed. Even when speaking of something as material, as tangible, as real as the male body, this very fact serves only to remind one that not only masculinity, but embodied identity itself is a thing elusive, imminent and fragile. While every culture produces its dominant script for what physical masculinity looks like and means, there are always variations and resistances, slippages and counternarratives to demonstrate that when it comes to embodied masculinity, there are more things in any culture than are dreamt of in pervading ‘philosophy’. [pp.2-4]
Hannah Marie-Chidwick, 'Quidquid Homo Est: Military Manliness in Lucan’s Civil War' [pp.6-18]
Erik Vlaeminck, 'Why “Little Green Men” Grow Tall: The Construction of Military Masculinity in Nationalist Narratives about the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict' [pp.19-32]
Camilo Sol Inti Soler Caicedo, 'Body Language In Gangs and Dance: The Performance of Masculinity in Colombian Salsa' [pp.323-50]
Mia Lilly, 'The Crisis of Masculinity in Rachilde’s Monsieur Vénus' [pp.51-65]
Freya Verlander, 'Beetle Skins: The Beetle and the Male Body in Richard Marsh’s The Beetle' [pp.66-82]
Inja Stanovic, 'Masculine and Feminine Compositions: Frederic Chopin and his Body (Of Work)' [pp.83-95]
Lili Pickett-Palmer, 'Masculinity and the Mechanical: Ambiguous Identities In Buster Keaton's The Playhouse' [pp.96-106]
Nick Marshall, 'Land of the Dead' [pp.107-109]
Michael McGill, 'For the Scars' [pp.110-111]
Jason Bircea, 'Give Me The Gun, Carlton: Lessons in Masculinity and Loss From The Fresh Prince' [pp.112-115]
Samantha Niederman, 'Bellows and the Body: The Real, The Ideal and the Nude' , 21 Oct 2016 - 22 Jan 2017. [pp.116-118]
Various authors for MMICS, Transnational Masculinities: A Workshop Series (2016/17) [pp.119-130]