‘THE MANLY IDEAL’
Histories of this kind are still too new to be wholly uncontroversial, but a useful starting point is George Mosse’s synoptic study of masculinity and modernity The Image of Man (1996), one of the last works written by a pioneer in the field. Mosse presents a broad brush survey that charts the rise and gradual erosion of what he variously calls ‘the dominant masculine stereotype’, ‘normative masculinity’, or, more simply, ‘the manly ideal’, a highly charged bundle of ideas that he traces back to the late – eighteenth century. At the centre of this ideal lay a renewed emphasis upon the perfectibility of the male body, which became an outward sign of a man’s moral superiority and inner strength of character. The body was to be a locus of self-discipline and restraint, able so to concentrate its energies that any obstacle could be surmounted, any hint of emotional weakness could be held in check.
This masculine ideal was intimately connected to the growth of a commercial and industrial bourgeoisie throughout western Europe but, far from being a wishful self-portrait of one particular social class, it was a complex amalgam of beliefs and practices drawn from many sources, some old, some new. One key element was the eighteenth-century revival of interest in the ancient Greek ideal of male beauty associated with the writings of the archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717—68) who promoted the model of the young Greek athlete as the embodiment of what he called ‘noble simplicity and quiet grandeur’ (quoted in Mosse 1996: 29). Winckelmann’s striking phrase brings out not only the fusion of the moral and the visual that was so important to the manly ideal, but the carefully qualified sense of dignity and pomp conveyed here also suggests its political potential as an inspirational image that might be taken to symbolize the nation, alongside the national anthem and the national flag. Among those deeply indebted to Winckelmann’s work was the republican artist Jacques Louis David (1748—1825) whose neo-classical canvasses depicted the French revolutionaries as ‘Greeks and Romans re-born’, men whose stirring deeds were ‘just as worthy of the painter’s attention as the episodes of Greek and Roman history’ (Gombrich 1978: 382).
Winckelmann’s concept of beauty, which involved his praising the qualities of ‘balance, proportion, and moderation’, was sometimes criticized as forbiddingly abstract, too removed from real life (Mosse 1996: 33). But it did offer a kind of standard that ordinary bourgeois citizens might try to emulate, implying that the male body could be purified or purged of its imperfections. There was of course a long tradition of thought which claimed that an individual’s moral well-being depended upon his physical fitness — we find this idea in Emile (1762), Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s influential treatise on education, for example — and the early years of the nineteenth century saw the spread of popular gymnastics, particularly in Prussia where regimes of vigorous exercise were seen as a means of achieving German unity. According to Friedrich Ludwig Jahn’s 1816 handbook Deutsche Turnkunst (‘German Gymnastics’) the aim of these disciplined exertions was to produce men that were ‘chaste, pure, capable, fearless, truthful and ready to bear arms’ (quoted in Mosse 1996: 43).
This ideal of masculinity therefore requires intense effort: a man must struggle against himself, even conceiving of his own body as a sort of enemy, and also against others. The differences between men and women had to be sharply emphasized and feminine traits had to be kept firmly in their proper place: in men they were a sign of weakness. Mosse argues that the manly ideal was partly defined by what it excluded, those unsightly features and pathological behaviours that indicated everything an authentic masculinity was not supposed to be. More than mere bad examples to be shunned and avoided at all costs, these negative images took the form of dangerous ‘countertypes’ that were thought to pose a real threat to the healthy body and ought therefore to be vigorously resisted. These ranged from cultural outsiders like the Jews or gypsies to those in the grip of practices that seemed much closer to home such as masturbation or sodomy. The eighteenth-century synonym for onanism or masturbation was ‘self-pollution’, a term which captures the inherently auto-destructive quality associated with this ‘solitary vice’, one widely believed to lead to enfeeble – ment, insanity, and even death if it was not ruthlessly stamped out.
Mosse argues that the manly ideal shows remarkable resilience throughout the modern era and suggests that it does not begin to break down until the 1950s. In its idealized form, masculinity undergoes many local revisions and permutations but nevertheless many of the same features seem to occur again and again, as if the image were a necessary fiction in constant need of refurbishment or updating. This comes through in Junger’s reflections on the terrible aftermath of the battle of the Somme in The Storm of Steel where, side by side with a picture of the devastation of the landscape — a ‘fantastic desert’ of shell-holes ‘strewn with bully-tins, broken weapons, fragments of uniform, and dud shells, with one or two dead bodies on its edge’ — we witness the emergence of a new man, ‘more mysterious and hardy and callous than in any previous battle’. For Junger this figure signalled the death of chivalry and the old Europe:
After this battle the German soldier wore the steel helmet, and in his features there were chiselled the lines of an energy stretched to the utmost pitch, lines that future generations will perhaps find as fascinating and imposing as those of many heads of classical or Renaissance times.
(Junger 1929: 109)
The reference to the classical body is unmistakable. Junger is describing a watershed in European experience and yet he still regards ‘honour and gallantry’ as crucial if an officer is to be ‘the master of the hour’. In Junger the manly ideal takes its most heroic form, an indication perhaps of how difficult it was for modern masculinity completely to break with the socially redundant codes of chivalry, as though warriors or knights had not been transformed into courtiers long ago. ‘What is more sublime,’ he asks ‘than to face death at the head of a hundred men?’ Junger can imagine nothing nobler and insists that only weaklings would settle for less. The brave leader ‘will never find obedience
fail him, for courage runs through the ranks like wine’ (Junger
We will return to the question of heroism in a moment. But what of those men who did not think like Junger? How does one live without the classical body — indeed, couldn’t it be said that the history of modern warfare is precisely what makes that ideal redundant? For a partial answer we can contrast The Storm of Steel with another book published in the same year, Erich Maria Remarque’s pacificist novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1993 ) which provides a view of the German Army from the rank and file. Although Remarque’s book owes more to stories told to him by other soldiers than to any of his own experiences of the war, many of the scenes and situations described in All Quiet on the Western Front show an unmistakable resemblance to those recalled by Junger: the ‘torn, blasted earth’ of the battleground littered with ‘convulsed and dead soldiers’ under a ‘greasy sun’ (Remarque 1993: 79), for example, or the soldier’s sense of the Western Front as ‘a mysterious whirlpool’ pulling him ‘slowly, irresistibly, inescapably into itself’ (41). For both writers the battle zone seems to have a life of its own, like some vast lumbering machine or an enormous alien forcefield against which the individual can easily dwindle into nothing. In each case the narrator recounts his struggle to survive and to find meaning in a world poised at the zero degree of existence.
But in Remarque’s novel honour is no longer available to the modern soldier; no glory attaches to his military exploits and, contra Mosse, there are few traces of ‘the manly qualities of endurance and calmness in battle’ (see Mosse 1996: 108). For a brief moment very early on in the book we are given a poignant glimpse of an ancient past in a near magical description of a supply platoon at night in which ‘the guns and the wagons’ seem to ‘float past the dim background of the moonlit landscape’ and ‘the riders in their steel helmets resemble knights of a forgotten time’. It is a sight that is ‘strangely beautiful and arresting’, yet the next instant the men are cursing as they stumble around unanticipated shell – holes, falling face-first into the rolls of barbed wire carried by the men in front (43).
Where Junger sought to cultivate an almost spiritual sense of dedication, steeling the body with the unyielding discipline of the mind, Paul, the narrator of All Quiet on the Western Front, learns to live inside his body more intensely, shedding the false sentiments inculcated at home and in school. There is a kind of double disillusionment. The harshness of military training quickly quashes any last vestige of idealism — ‘we learned that a bright button is weightier than four volumes of Schopenhauer’ — and then ‘the classical conception of the Fatherland held by our teachers’ begins to wither away as the new recruits realize that they are merely being drilled into obedient cannon-fodder. Bursting with enthusiasm, they had enlisted to fight for their country only to discover that they were being prepared ‘for heroism as though we were circus-ponies’ (20—1).
In fact, the soldiers’ experiences turn them into animals of a very different stamp. They become ‘wild beasts’, ‘because that is the only thing which brings us through safely’: in battle, if one wants ‘to live at any price’, this ‘is a sheer necessity’ (78, 94). The need to survive teaches these men ‘the indifference of wild creatures’, transforming them ‘into unthinking animals in order to give [them] the weapon of instinct’, for had they relied upon ‘clear, conscious thought’ the shock of fully understanding the grim reality of war would have driven them to the point of mental breakdown (178). This state of bestiality moves through several distinct registers. In one characterization, it involves stripping away the folly and irrelevance of modern culture in order to recognize the animal nature that is the true essence of humankind. On other occasions, such as close proximity to battle, man’s animality is conceived as a wilful slide into ‘degeneration’, voluntarily embracing the condition of so-called primitive peoples like the ‘Bushmen’, abandoning the entire process of social development that is supposed to separate tribal societies from twentieth-century Europeans (179). Or again, soldiering on may be depicted as a brutalized deepening of the unconscious, a retreat from the rational mind by forcing the ‘terror of the front’ to ‘sink down in us like a stone’ through an elaborate effort of repression (94—5). The same stark bestial reality afflicts the enemy too and one of the most striking features of Remarque’s book is how little national differences really matter. Even in defeat, animal imagery comes to the fore: Russian prisoners-of-war, ‘big fellows with beards’ seem to resemble ‘meek, scolded, St. Bernard dogs’
Underlying each of these ideas of the ‘human animal’ is a view of the male body as ‘grotesque’: uncontrolled, appetitive, vulgar, dirty and inconvenient, a body that smells and bleeds and laughs and screams, especially when it is not supposed to. It stands, of course, in stark contrast to the virtues of the classical body, beautifully proportioned, nobly disposed, and perfectly ordered, whether represented by Winckelmann’s Greek revivalism or Junger’s military discipline. In All Quiet on the Western Front, however, bodily functions are ever-present: soldiers wet their beds, curse and grind their teeth, and their bodies gurgle horribly as the life oozes slowly from them. We learn of the pleasures of sitting on the portable latrines in the middle of a field of poppies, reading, smoking and playing cards. And that a ‘sharpened spade’ makes a better weapon than a bayonet, because it can easily be removed from the opponent’s body without having ‘to kick hard on the other fellow’s belly to pull it out again’ (72).
The grotesque body foregrounds ‘the gaping mouth, the protuberant belly and buttocks, the feet and the genitals’ (Stallybrass and White 1986: 22). ‘The soldier is on friendlier terms than other men with his stomach and intestines’, observes Paul, and he also notices that ‘three-quarters of [a soldier’s] vocabulary is derived from these regions’, giving ‘an intimate flavour to expressions of his greatest joy as well as of his deepest indignation’ (Remarque 1993: 11). Everything in war has a visceral, earthy quality about it and the messiness of daily life can be a source of pleasure as well as anxiety. From Remarque’s depiction of the Western Front it is clear that Napoleon was only half-right when he said that an army marches on its stomach: here it thinks with its belly too.
The opposition between the classical and the grotesque body was initially theorized by the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1895—1975) in his magisterial study Rabelais and His World (1965) which reads the Renaissance writer’s huge sprawling text Gargantua and Pantagruel as an attempt to dismantle the stifling orthodoxies inherited from the Middle Ages. According to Bakhtin, Rabelais’ assault on the high seriousness of medieval scholasticism uses a bawdy and exaggerated treatment of the human body as an occasion for humour and parody. ‘Laughter degrades and materializes’, says Bakhtin; it deflates the empty pretensions of the spiritual and the transcendental and brings them down to earth (Bakhtin 1968: 20). Rabelais’ style can be termed ‘grotesque realism’ or ‘grotesque fantasy’ since it describes excessive and outrageous events with an extraordinary visual exactness. This is as true of the tumultuous battle scenes in the book as it is of the story of Gargantua’s birth following his mother’s attack of diarrhoea after eating too much tripe.
While Remarque’s novel is a far cry from this kind of overripe comedy, it does take the indignities and satisfactions experienced by the male body as the butt of much bitter humour and even aggression. The grotesque masculinity of Paul and his comrades is partly defined by their irreverance, which often erupts into insubordination. Officers who are perceived as vindictive or unjust are likely to be subjected to humiliating reprisals, as in the case of Corporal Himmelstoss, ‘the strictest disciplinarian in the camp’ (Remarque 1993: 21). Ambushed on his way back from the pub, Himmelstoss is tied up and horsewhipped until his ‘striped. . . backside gleamed in the moonlight’ as he scampers off ‘on all fours’ (38). What makes All Quiet on the Western Front a pacifist text is not any outright condemnation of violence per se, for the stories of revenge or retaliation that it tells positively revel in cruelty and pain. Instead, it is as if the men’s aggression must first be redirected against the enemy within their own ranks in order that the book’s critique of the institution of war can be underwritten by an appeal to a common humanity. The realization that ‘you [the enemy] are a man like me’ depends upon a prior displacement of hostility, upon someone, somewhere bearing the burden of difference and hatred, upon guilt and blame being re-assigned in order to secure the creation of innocence (147).
There are two obvious problems with linking masculinity and the grotesque body in this way, however well it might seem to fit the account of army life in Remarque’s novel. First, why should we assume that the grotesque body is some special preserve of men? Indeed, doesn’t the example of Gargantua’s unfortunate mother with her prolapsed bowel suggest that women are equally likely to be depicted in similar terms, just as the statue of Venus de Milo represents the classical womanly body? This is a perfectly fair point — and for an exploration of this important topic, see Mary Russo’s excellent study The Female Grotesque (1995) — but it is one that neither Bakhtin nor his disciples would wish to deny. Instead, they could plausibly argue that the classical and the grotesque body each has its own distinctively masculine and feminine variants. For every Corporal Himmelstoss in a book like All Quiet on the Western Front, there is a Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre.
However, this response leads on to the second query. Because, put like this, it sounds as if the classical and the grotesque are timeless categories — as though, for example, the image of the coarse, farting, scratching, yawning, boozing male persists unchanged from Rabelais’ Gargantua to more recent incarnations like Gary and Tony in the TV series Men Behaving Badly. Doesn’t this merely show that Paul and his fellow-soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front were correct in claiming that ultimately human beings (and men especially) are merely animals? To this objection the answer has to be: yes and no. It is undoubtedly true that there are continuities in low or rough humour over the ages and that the infirmities of the body will always be a subject of laughter and derision. But on the other hand, what is thought of as vulgar or in bad taste will very much depend upon the standards of polite society in different times and places. And, to return to the two examples that we have been discussing, there is a world of difference between Rabelais and Remarque. As we noted in passing, Rabelais’ writing involves more than making lewd jokes at the expense of the other-worldly monk or the medieval philosopher, for hand in hand with the farcical distortions of human bodily functions we find an exceptionally precise anatomical knowledge of its workings.
The point about ‘Rabelaisian laughter’, argues Bakhtin, is not only that it ‘destroys traditional connections and abolishes idealized strata; it also brings out the crude, unmediated connections between things that people otherwise seek to keep separate, in pharasaical error’ (Bakhtin 1981 : 170). The idea of the infant Gargantua finding his own way out of his mother’s womb by climbing up a hollow vein and easing himself out through her left ear is a patently ridiculous conceit, but it is rendered in scrupulous physiological detail. Set beside this meticulous order of description, Remarque’s style seems loose and impressionistic. Rabelais’ fascination with the life of the body is part of a humanist outlook that conferred the highest value upon ordinary human existence. Paradoxically, this often results in comic representations of death, of the ‘cheerfully dying man’, ‘presented in close relationship with the birth of new life and — simultaneously — with laughter’, not to mention food, drink and ‘sexual indecencies’. Despite its many bloody and chaotic episodes, Gargantua and Pantagruel is largely motivated by the desire to valorize ‘the eternal triumph’ of life over death, to insist on the human ‘responsibility to fight to the end for this life’ (Bakhtin 1981: 197—8).
One would be hard pressed to find an instance of ‘cheerful death’ in All Quiet on the Western Front. Although the role of vulgarity in Remarque’s novel is to undermine the pieties of Germany’s official culture, it provides little basis for optimism. The war has so disrupted the experience of the book’s protagonists that they are torn between the struggle to stay alive and their sense that death will bring a welcome relief from their suffering. Some of the bleakest moments in the novel record their feeling of being isolated from the sympathetic understanding of other men, cut adrift from past and future generations, from those who never knew and those who will all too quickly forget: these ‘weary, broken, burnt out, rootless’ soldiers will finally be ‘superfluous even to ourselves’ (Remarque 1993: 190). In Remarque the grotesque male body is part of a language of refusal, of resistance to the sanitized ideologies of the state; but, as the novel wears on, the body increasingly takes on another kind of grotesqueness due to its having been disfigured or dismembered. Even in hospital ‘the wounded have their shattered limbs hanging free in the air from a gallows’ or their ‘intestine wounds. . . are constantly full of excreta’ (172). To find a visual equivalent of these scenes, one would need to turn to the shattered bodies and twisted faces displayed in Otto Dix’s paintings of the Great War and its aftermath, particularly his gruesomely stylized portraits of crippled war veterans (see Armstrong 1998: 96—7).