I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

The Myth of Manliness in Irish National Culture, 1880 – 1922


University of Illinois Press




Of course, it goes without saying that manliness in Victorian Britain was ardently believed to be peculiar to Englishness, a joint benison of an Anglo-Saxon and an Anglican-Protestant heritage. Values that English spokesmen ascribed to their Teutonic origins (pluck, realism, stoic calm) and to their Protestant traditions (individuality, independence, rationality) were regularly taken to underpin or derive from the signature manliness of the race. Politically, Anglo-Saxon man­liness was advanced as both explanation and warrant for the liberties England enjoyed and for the dominion they exercised abroad. In The Races of Man anato­mist Robert Knox pronounced the Saxon “nature’s democrat—the respecter of law when the law is made by himself.” And it was in this manly English power for self-rule that Anglo-Saxonist historians and ethnologists discovered, in the legal sense of the term, an English right to rule others, based on their inferred capacity to do so disinterestedly: “There is no disputing strength,” J. A. Froude wrote, “nor happily is there need to dispute, for the strength which gives a right to freedom, implies the presence of those qualities which ensure that it will be rightly used.” This sort of naked identification of manly might and English right was by no means uncommon. Apologists for the different manifestations of manliness—moral, sporting, chivalric, sturdy—typically held their respec­tive character regimes to enhance the virtues native to the English people and necessary to their exercise of power, both military and civilizing, throughout the world. Building on this argument, the boy magazines of the late nineteenth century promoted the inveterate pluck of the British “lad” as not only enabling but also justifying colonial ventures, that is, as indicating the special English suitability “for taking up the white man’s burden.”

But while such noisy ideological manipulation has held the attention of most contemporary critics of empire, the properly hegemonic labor of manliness wasperformed in the silent logic of its articulation, beginning with the systematic play of its de- and prescriptive aspects, its dual function as symbolic capital and symbolic mandate. As symbolic capital, the descriptive category of manhood designated and enriched or bypassed and impoverished individual or corporate subjects on politically contingent grounds, thereby introducing into the texture of gender identity apparently extrinsic factors like class or racial origin. Thus, true manhood could and did take shape as the ontological essence of a very limited and specialized type of subject, the metropolitan gentleman, whose de­fining virtues could be indexed, but never proven or achieved, through exemplary displays of conventionally virile qualities. In this vein, manhood presupposed a subject fully empowered to dispose of himself and recognized as such, a subject possessed of the traditionally male-identified endowments of autonomy and self-command. For this normative subject, the metropolitan gentleman, the enactment of lawful self-discipline was received in the larger social arena as a supreme expression of masculine aggression, strength, and fortitude. It bespoke a social cachet and authority too assured to be flaunted, a possession of the phal­lus in appropriately veiled terms. As Thomas Hughes put it in The Manliness of Christ, “Self-restraint is the highest form of self-assertion.” Working under these cultural assumptions, every act of obedience stood to be recuperated as self-government, every act of obeisance as self-control, every act of compromise as fidelity to a higher principle or more reasonable judgement. Consequently, the state of manliness could and did effectively pose as the essential predicate for possessing in full the rights and privileges of democratic citizenship. Further, as the condition of personal independence, manliness could and did emerge as a leading trope of national self-determination. Whereas in the political code of the time the retiring ideal woman bore the dubious prerogative of protection, hence of being a protectorate, individual and collective manliness equaled fit­ness for freedom.

In figuring such a socially approved “fitness for freedom,” manliness repre­sented not just an exclusive mode of symbolic capital but also a universal sym­bolic mandate. Its prescriptive summons to a certain mode of self-fashioning, the attendant rewards it offered for success, these embraced all aspirants to liberal, democratic rights and responsibilities, thereby extending the dynamics of gender hierarchy into wide-ranging contests over class enfranchisement and colonial rule. Indeed, the authority of this honorific category was so comprehensive in this regard that it passed directly into the political lexicon of the time; advo­cating the claims of any group to greater political stature became synonymous with summoning, expressing, or defending their manhood.

But a crucial part of the political efficacy of manliness was that while it pre­sented itself as a broadly available prospect, it remained a stubbornly restricted prerogative. Precisely because it could not, as Rosen argues, be demonstrated by conduct or demeanor alone, the ethical prescriptions it enjoined (rationality, self­possession, fortitude) could be recognizably fulfilled only by subjects answering to the statutory description it encoded (metropolitan, bourgeois, male). And because manliness presupposed such an already enfranchised subject, its role as compulsory ideal presented the subdominant subject or group with a nearly insoluble double bind, which intruded on the internal logic of the construct itself. Whereas the dialectical play in manhoods relation to masculinity mani­fested itself as bildung for the elite metropolitan—the training and development of inborn possibilities—the same play manifested itself as spaltung for the racial or colonial subaltern, a performative contradiction in which the assertion or enactment of one forfeited or belied the other. For these racial and colonial sub­alterns, the exercise of self-restraint and self-discipline, within the terms of the existing sociopolitical regime, could not be easily distinguished from passivity, docility, acquiescence, or weakness, all of which signaled the absence or loss of the stalwart masculinity necessary to justify any bid for liberation. Instead of an achieved expression of masculine value, a subalterns conformity to the ethos of manliness would likely be read as a testament to his colonial emasculation. He could hardly lay viable claim to self-mastery in lawfully abiding the mastery of an alien power. On the other side, the forms available to the subaltern subject or group for the direct assertion of masculinity per se, whether as violent force or aggressive virility, tended to violate the self-disciplinary canons of bourgeois manliness, its call to energetic self-restraint. Such transgression of a compulsory ideal synonymous with the fitness for freedom gave hostages to the apologists for imperial rule, evincing the subaltern’s incapacity for self-government. In either case, through lawful acquiescence or lawless, even violent opposition, the subaltern can only seek what George Mosse calls the “quiet grandeur” of the manly estate by proving himself fundamentally unworthy thereof.

Tellingly, the respective positions of the metropolitan gentleman and the colo­nial subaltern vis-a-vis the honorific estate of manliness replicated the respective positions of male and female within the patriarchal sex/gender system. In other words, there obtains a structural unmanning of the subdominant subject that is a prior condition of the more familiar imperialist discourses of feminization. For the caste of metropolitan gentleman, the de- and prescriptive functions align themselves conjunctively, so that their possession of its dignified moral status and the accompanying symbolic capital might paradoxically seem natural yet earned. Thus, the cultural stipulation of metropolitan bourgeois manliness served to invest the attributes, attitudes, and exploits of the pertinent subject-class with an aura of manly attainment, so that these attitudes, attributes, and exploits could, in turn, vindicate the initial cultural stipulation. For subdominant castes of subject, conversely, the de- and prescriptive functions of manhood were arranged disjunctively (the burden of the feminine, as we have seen), so that the acquisition of its dignified moral status and accompanying symbolic…