Masculinity at Balliol

I shall read some Menander. To be honest, I didn’t think I’d be very interested in a talk about Ancient Greek comedy, but in conferences the papers come in bundles of three, so I was there for the one on male behaviour patterns in the plays of Menander, and found myself genuinely interested. The Masculinity and the Other conference at Balliol College Oxford was like that. The papers covered an immense range, and you couldn’t help but pick up a wide-ranging liberal education.

There were sociologists, historians, literary types, queer theorists, and blokes who like reading comics, each with a special angle on masculinity. I was relieved not to find too much fussing about definitions, though some people seemed a bit fraught about whether they should be talking about masculinity or masculinities. What came across mostly was an intense interest about how people behave, and how they have thought about gender roles over the centuries.

The first paper I heard was of immediate interest to me. Eitan Bar-Josef was talking about Vivian Gilbert, a Great War memoirist that I’ve never read. Gilbert’s book begins with a romantic crusading fiction, and then describes (probably unreliably) how he as a soldier lived up to that fiction. So the book went straight onto my reading list. (There could be half a chapter of thesis in that one!)

I’m thinking a lot about Kipling at the moment, and Pauline Chakmakjian’s paper on the Freemasons made some things in the Masonry stories clear for me. (I think she probably told us as much about the institution as we could have learnt without actually rolling up our trouser legs.) Quintin Colville’s paper on how boys were trained for the Royal Navy also shed a lot of light on the ethos that Kipling shared with the military. Julia Banister gave a really good talk on AdmiralByng (who was shot as a punishment for deciding not to engage the enemy) and contemporary representations of hims as effeminate. At question time I’d have liked to raise a Great War parallel case, but I was unable to remember the circumstances except very vaguely, so I’d just have sounded vapid if I’d brought the matter up. I’ve found the reference now – It’s The Times, Aug.6th, 1915.

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Experience of a conference can’t help being personal. With three strands going for most sessions, many people would have heard an entirely different set of papers from mine. I missed out on sport, fatherhood, and gender-bending, for example. And of course, one’s responses to papers may be different from those of others. There was a rather disapproving account of male representation in English children’s annuals. Many of the audience clearly reacted with horror to the blatant stereotyping. I mostly remembered how much I’d enjoyed some of those annuals when I was young…There was more general enthusiasm for the reprehensible in a terrific session on American tough-guy literature, with three really lively investigations into the pulps and the comics. Bill Osgerby showed a truly wonderful collection of magazine covers.

The session I enjoyed most, though, was on Aesthetic Masculinities. This included three very interesting papers on Victorian homosexuality, overlapping but each presenting a different angle. The fourth paper of that session was on Thomas Carlyle. I couldn’t help wondering what the Sage of Chelsea would have thought of the aesthetes he’d been bundled with on this occasion; I recalled one of my favourite Beerbohm cartoons, Blue China, in which Carlyle is listening with sadness and incomprehension to perky little Whistler preaching the gospel of art for Art’s sake.

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The papers on Pater and J.A.Symonds both described conflicts between their subjects and Jowett, the formidable Master of the college whose hospitality we were enjoying. They came up against Jowett’s firm decision that male love in Plato was definitely non-physical, and could not be used to justify modern hanky-panky. This gives a new resonance to the Balliol rhyme:

First come I. My name is Jowett.
There’s no knowledge but I know it
I am the Master of this College,
What I don’t know isn’t knowledge.

According to yesterday’s speakers, it wasn’t just intellectual knowledge whose permissible limits he defined , but carnal knowledge too. (A while back I read an anecdote about Jowett, that he ordered an atheist undergraduate to discover a conviction in a personal God before five o’clock, or be expelled. Can that possibly be true?)

I went to this conference as a mere spectator, not as a speaker. This was excellent insofar as I got a crash course in masculinity studies, but I wish now that I had offered a paper (I could have given an acceptable one, I think, based on my ideas about atrocity stories as regulators of masculinity during the Great War.) It would have been good to test my ideas on people who’ve thought a lot more about masculinity than I have.

I decided not to because I’m actually going to be giving papers at two other conferences over the next two weeks – the Kipling conference at Canterbury and the Victorian Memories one at Birmingham ( talking about a different aspect of Kipling). I hope those two events will be as lively as this one.

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