Looking at Men through Literature

Literary analyses show how the problematisation of masculinity is closely connected with the idealisation of women in the works of important European modernists. There are no ideal models of masculinity in these texts. The creation of difference between men is also essential in male hegemonic practices. The definitions of manly and unmanly prove to be continuously floating and changing. The notion knapsu, meaning womanish, which the author Mikael Niemi ponders over in his book Popular Music, is the actual definition of the limit for male actions and behaviour.

There are continuous discussions within the field of literary analysis on the relation between aesthetics and ethics, between art and meaning. Is literature above all an aesthetic work, or a work producing meaning? Should the analysis of literature value and appreciate its rhythm, form, rhetoric, musicality, beauty, or should it emphasize the interpretation of the contents of the text, its discourse of history, psychology, theology, pain and hope? Theodor Adorno was perhaps the first who clearly warned against focussing on meaning in his work Aesthetic Theory (1969). Adorno made it clear that hermeneutics, the practice of interpreting meaning, would always misunderstand a work of art. Interpretation would always end up as misinterpretation. This is simply because the hermeneutic reader will never totally understand the work, unless its aesthetic dimension is emphasized first and foremost.

The rhetoric dimensions

For a researcher in the field of literature (or of film or art, for that matter) who is also a gender researcher, this is a great dilemma. For a gender researcher, Adorno’s aesthetic theory is impossible to use as a theoretic point of departure, since one must behave as a hermeneutic reader in order to be able to understand what gender represents in a given literary work. At the same time, one’s interpretative mode is often so influenced by gender political concerns that one runs the risk of totally overlooking the fact that the literary work always has been and always will be an aesthetic piece of work. Without understanding the rhetoric dimensions of the text, one absolutely risks totally misinterpreting the work. Unfortunately, gender studies within comparative literature are full of examples of this. Somebody thinks they have found the truth about man or woman, without realising that it is precisely this truth that the work is attempting to deconstruct by the use of metaphors, images, metonymy, irony and paradoxes. One believes one has found the medicine, but it turns out to be the poison.

Literature is like nature. There are no absolutes, only sliding transitions and potential paradoxes. In his exploration of the Greek notion farmakon, Jacques Derrida has shown most radically how a concept can contain two totally opposing meanings. Farmakon can mean both “cure” and “poison”. The life-giving equals the deadly. In this way, language can always dupe us and evade meaning. Therefore literary analysis, like literature, is always an exploration of the relation between human beings, language and the world. Language will always mediate people and the world, and it is language that we as readers of literature have access to.

Similarly, nearly all research within the social sciences and humanities is research into the way language gives us access to an understanding of human nature and the world. At the same time, it must not be forgotten that literary research is part of the human sciences, that is, research into human beings. In combination with gender studies, it becomes research into gendered human beings, but gendered human beings as linguistic beings. With the dilemma in literary analysis on the relation between the aesthetic and the ethical in my back-pocket, and Derrida’s problematisation of linguistic concepts as potential bearers of their own opposite (medicine can be poison), I, as gender researcher, may be able to make a contribution to the debate by saying something about the problems of interpretation within gender research.

Forms of masculinity

One way of doing this is to show that men and women not necessarily are contradictory signs. When, for example, a male artist writes about the feminine, he is perhaps telling us more about the masculine. Because of its close relation to gender politics, gender studies constantly runs the risk of generalising and simplifying scientific results. It is easy to regard a woman as a woman and man as a man without considering ways in which the borders between what is male and female are actually blurred, or how the relation between being powerful and powerless is seldom stable. In my work on central male Norwegian authors during the latter half of the 19th century, I find that a critique of patriarchal masculinity is an essential element of their literary texts. Writers such as Henrik Ibsen, Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, Arne Garborg, Alexander Kielland and Jonas Lie consistently offer a problematisation of the existing forms of masculinity in a way that makes it difficult to imagine how the history of female emancipation can be written without these authors being part of it. This problematisation is partly seen in the way traditionally male, rational linguistic and narrative structures start to crumble so that these can no longer be seen to deliver meaning, and partly by producing texts that at the level of signification tell stories about women who want to break free, whilst men stagnate and fall.

Idealisation of the feminine

Ibsen, Bjørnson, Garborg, Kielland and Lie are among the first modern European authors. The later, central modernists display this problematisation even more clearly, as in for example James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Samuel Beckett. In his excellent study of the relation between masculinity and modernism, Gerald Izenberg discusses three other important European modernists: Thomas Mann, Frank Wedekind and Wassily Kandinsky. In Modernism and Masculinity (2000), he tries to show how the problematisation of masculinity is closely connected with the idealisation of women in the works of these modernists. Or to put it another way, how the idealisation of women is linked to the problematisation of masculinity.

Let me use a bit of space on Gerald Izenberg’s reflections on how the relation between femininity and masculinity appeared in the works of such central modernists as Mann, Wedekind and Kandinsky. All three artists operated not only with idealised notions of the feminine as guidelines for their creative and artistic lives, but they also critiqued and deconstructed contemporary forms of masculinity through art and literature.

In Wedekind’s drama, we find a mix of sound female sexuality and femme fatale – the characteristic man-eating woman of the period. This double portrait illustrates women who are both sounder and truer than men, and women who possess a far greater power through their seductive sexuality than men’s hypocritical and morally ambiguous, lecherous lack of integrity. We find no ideal models of masculinity in Wedekind’s texts. All men are part of an authoritarian and rational bourgeois middle class, desperate emasculated men, melancholy artists or brutalised misogynists.

In his critique of the emerging, modern, market-oriented liberalism and male-governed world, Wedekind thus does not find any masculine ideals to which he could attach his creativity. And it is precisely in this absence that the feminine is idealised.

Thomas Mann and Wassily Kandinsky use completely different forms of an entirely different nature when positing the eternal feminine as the divine object of their desires. In the works of the self-denying Thomas Mann, this eternal feminine is hardly to be found in real women of flesh and blood, but rather in the creative power which he finds either in the female spirit or in the feminine passive longing and the female virtues that are enshrined in divine love.

This ambiguity is obvious also in Kandinsky, where creativity is identical with the feminine principle, which he, however, is able to fully encounter only in his abstract paintings, and not in living women.

Neither Mann nor Kandinsky attributes the bourgeois-realistic male culture with any potential for creating something new. It is the break from this culture that makes these artists turn to the idealised woman as the locus of opportunity in their revolutionary modernist art.

Gerald Izenberg’s arguments convincingly show how the idealisation of the feminine by these artists and their identification of the feminine as the source of creativity and the transcendental, is connected with the crisis in masculinity – both for them personally and in the culture at large. The idealisation of the feminine is thus fully comprehensible and is made visible not only as a temporary choice, but almost as an integral element in masculine self-denial, and ultimately as the only means of regaining a masculine self.

Differences between men

My point is that gender is not necessarily a decisive factor in somebody being a feminist or not. Besides, what is read as a male fantasy about femininity could also be seen as a story about the crisis of masculinity. The seeming medicine is carrier of the poison, and the poison can be the medicine. Thus literature tells us that each attempt to maintain clear borders between man and woman, between the feminine and the masculine must be a hermeneutic masterpiece. The interpretation will unavoidably turn into a misinterpretation.

It is, however, not only the boundary between what we call woman and what we call man that is difficult to maintain. The relation and conditions between the genders is one thing, the relation between the participants in each of the gender categories is another. Western women’s studies has taken somewhat too light an attitude to the conflicts and differences between women, a fact which has been criticised by non-Western feminists for a long time. Within men’s studies it was necessary to start by establishing the differences and conflicts between men, in order to dissolve the one-dimensional understanding of masculinity. Through close readings of male texts from the 18th and 19th centuries, the Nordic research project Menn og modernitet (Men and Modernity ) has shown that this creation of difference between men has been essential in male hegemonic practices. The struggle has, to a large extent, been about the relation between the manly and the unmanly, a field in which definitions prove to be continuously floating and changing. You can never be absolutely certain whether you are sufficiently masculine, or are about to fall into the dangerous category of unmanliness.

The importance of not being unmanly

One of the latest Nordic best-sellers focuses precisely on this set of problems. Besides perfectly crazy drinking bouts and sauna evenings in the Finnish-speaking areas in the Tornedalen, a community in northern Sweden, Mikael Niemi’s fantastic novel Popular Music (Eng. 2003, orig. Populärmusik från Vittula 2000) also contains reflections on the narrow paths one must tread in order not to risk being unmanly. The notion knapsu, which Niemi ponders over in his book, is the actual definition of the limit for male actions and behaviour. In the local Finnish dialect, knapsu means womanish, and, as Niemi writes: “You could say that in Tornedalen the male role boils down to just one thing: not being knapsu.”

In the old days, it was relatively easy for men to avoid being knapsu. They felled trees, hunted elk, floated timber and took part in fights on dance floors, while women changed curtains, knitted, milked by hand, watered the houseplants and carried out similarly obvious feminine tasks. But when welfare and modernity arrived, things were no longer so simple. Engines were clearly masculine, but what about the sewing machine and the electric mixer? Is it possible for a man to vacuum-clean his car without being knapsu? Modern activities made it even more difficult: What about eating reduced-fat margarine or using hair gel or sticking plasters? Wearing goggles when swimming? Putting dog poo in a plastic bag? All this made it far more difficult to be a man in the Tornedalen community. Niemi can therefore divide the Tornedalen men into three categories. The first are the real macho men, silent ones who carry a knife in their belts. Their opposite, the unmanly men, useless in the forest, or when out hunting, often ended up as healers or naturopaths. And then there was the third group, the majority in the middle, where single acts might determine whether you suddenly end up being knapsu: for example wearing a red woollen cap. The boy who did that had to go on the rampage and fight for weeks afterwards in order to get rid of the knapsu label affixed to him. It was possible to free oneself from the unmanly stigma by behaving in a violent and macho-like manner.

A risky manoeuvre

The life values of men have been characterised by a strict code as to what a man should be like, and by the thought that each breach of this code of behaviour is a risky manoeuvre which might lead the man into an existence in the marshy territory of unmanliness. Behind the persistent assertion of “the real man”, there always lurks the tacitly acknowledged possibility of accusations of unmanliness: either by virtue of taking too much alcohol (or too little), having too much femininity, being too cowardly, or too fat, having too many feelings, or displaying other bodily or personal features that might marginalise men. The delineation of the border between the manly and the unmanly is unclear. Sometimes the struggle to assert what is masculine is persistent and diligent; sometimes whether you end up as manly or unmanly is determined merely by coincidence. Thus the concept of masculinity can be seen as a farmakon. It can be difficult to be sure whether you are good or bad, the cure or the poison. Chance or bad luck might decide whether you are one day characterised as a hero or knapsu.

Niemi allows us to watch the struggle around masculinity at a distance and laugh at it. Thus literature provides us with a language and a set of images that enable an understanding both of the fanaticism of gender relations and the complex phenomenology of gender.

By: Jørgen Lorentzen


Adorno,Theodor (1984): Aesthetic theory. Translated by C. Lenhardt. London: Routledge.

Izenberg, Gerald (2000): Modernism & Masculinity. Mann, Wedekind, Kandinsky through World War I. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lorentzen, Jørgen (1998): Mannlighetens muligheter. Oslo: Aschehoug forlag.

Lorentzen, Jørgen (2004): Maskulinitet. Blikk på mannen gjennom litteratur og film. Oslo: Spartacus forlag.

Niemi, Mikae (2001): Populærmusikk fra Vittula. Oversatt av Erik Krogstad. Oslo: Pax forlag.

First published in NIKK magasin 3 2004 © NIKK

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