Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Today's Savage Academic Book Review

Clive James in the April 29 TLS, reviewing a collective French volume about virility:
This book is a lead mine of information. There could have been gold in it, but perhaps yellow luster was thought to be less impressive than grey heft. . . . Virile itself in its heaps of strenuously acquired science-sounding vocabulary, it shows what can be done when three sufficiently influential European editors marshal the expertise of a phalanx of sufficiently dedicated European sociologists in order to invest a sufficiently important theme with an extra gravitas it doesn't really need. The result is like the European Union: one searches for the benefits while keeping an eye on the exits.

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All too early in the book, on the point of whether masculinity is acquired or intrinsic, Simone de Beauvoir is quoted. The quotation is familiar, but stands out among the circum-ambient solemnity with a startling freshness, which is a bad sign, because any context where Beauvoir sets the standard for vivid utterance, it is being set low. "A man," says Beavoir, "is not born a man, he becomes a man." She sounds more scientific than the social scientist who quotes her. . . . But the book, could it speak in a single voice – most of the time, alas, it does, if only in the sense that so many modern academics in the soft sciences sound the same – might reply that sexuality is not merely a matter of gender, or that gender is not merely a matter of anatomy, and that these things are modalities, with virility yet another modality. As always in any such book, if you hear the word "modality" you can count on hearing it again soon.

.  .  .

Here there is a benumbing proof that pseudo-scientific jargon might not be the worst thing that can happen to expository prose; plain language can be worse still. Guillaume's chunky image having set the mark, the medieval conception of the virile man is evoked through his hand and arm:

It is the hand of this man that handles all the harnesses, that organises the carts. It is the hand of this man that holds the hoe, the scythe, the sickle, the hatchet, the flail, the sledgehammer, the rod, or the piece of wood thrown to knock down the acorns from the oak to feed the pigs. All these movements bring into play the power of the body. The tools are often simply the prolongation or the extension of the strength of the arm.

You have to love the precise evocation of that piece of wood: no wonder the French produced Flaubert. But although the book's authorship seems dedicated to establishing that it can be mercilessly boring whether its modality of tone is plain or technical, tedium is not the main problem. The reader can overcome that with cognac. There is no antidote, however, for a gift of raising a point only to examine the wrong side of it.


leif said...

ouch. seen through this lens, it appears the invective was well-aimed.

John said...

I should probably note that James has serious criticisms of this book, especially because he thinks it does not deal in any way with the actual complexity of male-female relations. Virility in the west has a lot to do with bedding women -- at least in one modality -- and James thinks the authors devote too much attention to the role of masculine power in this and not enough to how it actually happens. James points out that men who could have all the sex they wanted without being nice to anyone keep forming long-term, devoted relationships with women. Viz., Louis XV and his official mistress, Madame de Pompadour. He also notes that while some men who bedded lots of women were forceful and domineering, others (Casanova, Talleyrand) were charming; this latter type often remained friends with some of their female lovers for decades. So he finds the notion of virility advanced in the book to be shallow and simple-minded.