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Review of Seifert, Lewis C. Manning the Margins: Masculinity & Writing in Seventeenth-Century France

Article Citation: 
XIV (2012): 142–144
Author: 
(Juliette Cherbuliez)
Article Text: 

Seifert, Lewis C. Manning the Margins:  Masculinity & Writing in Seventeenth-Century France Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. ISBN: 978-0-472-07058-1.  Pp. 339.  $29.95.

Culture’s most normatively empowered positions can also be its most ambiguous, unstable, and imperiled.  Such is the condition of masculinity in seventeenth-century France, according to Lewis C. Seifert’s lucid and far-ranging study of the grand siècle’s literary ideals of honnêteté, effeminacy, homosexuality, transvestism, and other seeming limit-versions of manliness.  Written with precision, clarity, and humility before a surprisingly complex subject, Manning the Margins has much to recommend it, equally for specialists as for scholars of sexuality studies or those interested more generally in the way texts mediate the cultural field.

Seifert's project is to elucidate the ways in which masculinity, despite its constitutive pretense to dominion, instead is defined dialectically—between dominance and submission—and therefore appears “variable, multiple, and contingent” (2) in its meanings and forms.  Tracing the deep threads of uncertainty that betray the precarious position of the masculine ideal, Seifert engages with historical figures (the chevalier de Méré, Vincent Voiture, Théophile de Viau), texts (plays by Molière, Scudéry's Clélie, “Histoire de la Marquise-Marquis de Banneville”), and the literary historical record.  Through this multi-faceted approach, Seifert's is part of a current strain of research striving to destabilize the view of seventeenth-century France as a homogeneous culture defined by a rigid hierarchy.  France, both before and during the reign of Louis XIV, emerges as a site of ambiguities, tensions, and evolving cultural figures.  Seifert's contribution to this body of work is unique, however, since he is offering a work of what might be called literary historical sociology.  Following distantly and somewhat critically on the heels of Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu, Seifert revises their models of, respectively, "court society" and “masculine habitus” while bringing to bear contemporary advances in North-American feminist studies on classic French culture.  In turn, masculinity studies has much to learn from this study. 

Divided into two parts, Manning The Margins explores, in the first four chapters, elite construction of masculinity, first through the figure of the honnête gentleman and then through the dynamic fortunes of salon masculinity through more specific cases.  Scholars outside our field might benefit most from this first section, with its critique of the question of "civility," a topic well-known to scholars in our field but less studied outside of it. Seifert starts with a simple enough observation:  that the honorable gentleman is a gendered construct, and that codes of civility which guide his ideal behavior and social position are also inflected by the vulnerable status of masculinity.  Recently, scholarship on civility has emphasized how, as a uniquely French phenomenon it ensured increased liberty and pleasure for both women and men (Habib, Viala).  In contrast, Seifert shows how the specter of effeminacy created constraints for both men and women.  In doing so, he both offers a subtle critique of recent European trends that seek to rehabilitate the habits of elite social practices as a model for respectful and meaningful heterosociability today.

The second section, with chapters focusing on marginal sexuality practices, also places the seventeenth century's own contestation of marginal sexualities in conversation with our own.  Here, Seifert's approach to literary history shines through on each page; the methodological combination of reading the literary texts alongside careful attention to the pock-marked and inconclusive archive for such figures as the abbé de Boisrobert, Théophile de Viau or the abbé de Choisy (and authors associated with them) is a model of patience and clarity.  This is the kind of book where a specialist reader will be engrossed by even the footnotes.  In the spirit of other recent works on masculinity and literature (LaGuardia, Reeser) in which poetry or prose is less a medium for contestation or refusal than for an exploration of the limits of one's gendered positions, Seifert's presentation of the sodomite and the cross-dresser's literary imaginings suggests a desire to write instability and dynamism.  Instead of seeing these ambivalent, nameless positions as failures or insufficiencies, Seifert makes the case for their very searching fluidity as one of the key early modern "sources of the self" (Taylor). 

Manning the Margins offers a measured and thorough critique of some long-standing concepts informing our view of the Classical Age, from civility to salon culture to the role of the marginal writer, and does so by opening up the historical and literary archive for our renewed attention.  But—perhaps equally significantly—it is also a model of literary history, where the historical archive and the search for a definitive answer about what might have been are treated as precisely, but as ambivalently, as the construction of masculinity. In this regard, the chapter on Voiture is a model of a new kind of reception history that respects literary aesthetics as well as the shifting ground of the archive itself: thus the tension between Voiture's close association with women and the later attempts to distance him from the effeminate becomes an aesthetic created by his own writing, by that of his contemporaries, but also by his nephew Pinchesne and subsequent commentators such as La Bruyère (115).  Through Voiture's shifting masculinity the grand siècle itself is shown to be a multi-layered construction. The University of Michigan Press should also be commended for producing such a beautifully edited book, with an excellent index and clear footnotes—a paratextual apparatus that, while marginal, affords a dynamic and fluid reading of Seifert's scholarship.   

Juliette Cherbuliez, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

Works Cited

Habib, Claude. Galanterie française.  Paris: Gallimard, 2006.

LaGuardia, David.  Intertextual Masculinity in French Renaissance Literature.  Aldershot and Burlington: Ashgate, 2008. 

Reeser, Todd. Moderating Masculinity in Early Modern Culture. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006.

Taylor, Charles.  Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1989.  

Viala, Alain.  La France galante.  Paris: PUF, 2008.

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