The Conradian: Review

By Jesse Oak Taylor, University of Washington

Dangerous Masculinities: Conrad, Hemingway, Lawrence, by Thomas Strychacz. Gainsville: University Press of Florida, 2008. 272 pp. $59.95.

The idea that gender is performative has become a commonplace of critical discourse. Thus, the great insight of Thomas Strychacz’s Dangerous Masculinities: Conrad, Hemingway, Lawrence is not so much the contention that these three Modernist authors depict masculinity as performative, but rather its insistence on the theatrical and rhetorical nature of that performance. An explicitly theatrical conception of performance is helpful because it emphasizes audience, staging, and a self-conscious awareness of both the material and rhetorical contexts in which performance occurs, rather than simply using performativity as a kind of shorthand for the contingency of identity. This not only leads Strychacz to insightful readings of individual works, but also to a particularly helpful discussion of scholarly articulations of masculinity and the rhetorical implications of critical discourse.

Strychacz takes Captian Brierly’s suicide and replacement as captain by a “popinjay” in Lord Jim as his point of departure. His primary interest is not in the events themselves but in their narration by the grizzled mate who was “passed over” for promotion and Marlow’s subsequent narration of it to his listening audience, revealing both as “theatres of masculine self-dramatization” in which the mate’s narrative entails “a series of appeals to Captain Marlow to endorse as a sign of the mate’s inner worth the codes of manhood the mate claims as his own” (2). Marlow’s narration, meanwhile, situates the mate’s tale “within yet another (but much more successful) staging, this one a tale told to silent listeners on a porch … a tale ‘announcing’ as a true man the one man who does not seem to announce his manhood: Captain Marlow himself” (2).

Elaborating such scenes of nested staging, Straychacz turns to Brecht’s idea of the gest, which he glosses as: “a dramatic strategy whose purpose is to represent and ‘make strange’ a particular set of social conditions, and thus to reveal an otherwise covert structure of power” (3). In Conrad’s case, the covert structures of power arise from the triangulation of masculinity, race, and empire as instantiated in the performance of imperial manhood. Crucially, the gestic structure of Conrad’s work is dependent on the codes and narratives of masculine self-dramatization being legible as such. In other words, both the codes of manhood and the narratives in which they are deployed must be visible to Marlow’s listening audience for the implications of that deployment to be recognized.

This insight forms the core of Strychacz’s analysis of Conrad in his reading of Marlow’s “looking at another man’s work.” The phrase reflects not only the moment of looking (always important in Conrad), but also the staging of that looking as Marlow describes it to his listening audience. Thus, the audience sees not only the “other man’s work” and Marlow’s interest in it, but becomes aware of the process of its staging and hence recognizes its status as performance. Furthermore, such signification is never permanent, but rather “manhood has to be reconstituted as an iterated narrative” (145). However, the fact that “manhood must be signified” becomes not a lament for the lack of true or essential masculinity, but rather the basis of it (114). Marlow is the “one true man” not so much based on his adherence to the “codes” of manhood, but because of his skill at the self-dramatization of that adherence and the simultaneous interpretation and re-staging of other men’s self-dramatizations, seen not only in Jim and Kurtz but the host of minor male characters that populate his narratives.

Strychaz’s Brechtian gestic framework is a useful addition to (or perhaps qualification of) Butler’s articulation of performative gender as a copy without an original, because it implicitly restricts that performance to what occurs “on stage,” and the material and narratological dynamics that provide the conditions for that staging. This is a useful insight in relation to Conrad because of the emphasis it places on the primacy of narration, narrative interpretation, and the careful construction of the conditions in which narrative occurs.

In this context, Strychacz’s near-exclusive restriction to Marlow narratives is perhaps fitting given their overt “staging,” as yarns recounted at a particular time and place to a distinct listening audience. However, this also raises the question of how Strychacz’s analysis might be applied elsewhere in Conrad’s oeuvre. Nostromo’s manhood is certainly heavily reliant on performance in the theatrical sense, but what of sailors like Singleton or McWhirr, who “perform” their duties but seem to do so largely without narrating or staging them, or of James Wait’s refusal to “perform” at all (except perhaps in a Bartlebian performance of refusal)?

Finally, the book’s greatest contribution is arguably not the arguments it mounts about Conrad, Hemingway, or Lawrence, but about scholarship itself: “No subject is more important than, yet so under-theorized as, the relationship of scholarly work on gender issues to a professional’s “symbolic capital” or “cultural capital”: the expertise, technical know-how, disciplinary perspectives, and esoteric languages that function like monetary capital to grant professional intellectuals prestige and social status” (35). In situating the construction of masculinity by scholars within the rhetorical context of academic professionalism, Strychacz has opened an important field for intervention that is rendered all the more timely by the much discussed (if overblown) “crisis in humanities” both within the academy and society at large. Technical know-how, disciplinary perspectives, and esoteric language are increasingly tenuous markers of distinction, making it all the more urgent to stage our own interventions in ways that perform (in all senses of the term) the value of humanistic inquiry.

© 2014 Jesse Oak Taylor






last updated: Saturday, January 18, 2014 5:11 PM
website design by Linda Fenton Malloy