University College Cork
Edited by Michaela Schrage-Früh and Tony Tracy
New York & London: Routledge, 2022. 252 pp.
Michaela Schrage-Früh and Tony Tracy’s edited collection of essays does not cover an uncharted territory that introduces the reader to new texts and analytical language, nor does it navigate a field that is so finely focused that it will have a limited readership. Concepts of gerontophobia, ageism, identity politics, hegemonic masculinities, patrilineal hegemony, et al. appear frequently in analytical and deconstructive discourses that have addressed “texts” from every cultural arena. Similarly, studies of characterisations and thematic pursuits that overlap with gerontological approaches are not unheard of.
Therefore, this kind of research project must steer a fine line between keeping its thematic interventions fresh and innovative, and acknowledging the relationships being proposed between these novel inroads and established frameworks. In this respect, editors of any collection have a more onerous task than the author of a monograph. The latter can spend a considerable time outlining in a lengthy introduction what the methodological scope and analytical range of the study will be: the former must unite a series of much shorter chapter introductions – each with its own purpose and perspective – and consolidate the various works into a coherent whole. In this respect, Schrage-Früh and Tracy do an admirable job. The introduction contextualises the collection within an academic arena that has paid only limited attention to textual representations of old age and processes of ageing. When these attributes are gendered, with specific focus on masculinity, the male experience and patriarchal characterisations and circumstances, the field shrinks considerably.
Mária Kurdi analyses theatrical representations of husbands and fathers in the dramatic work of Synge and Deevy. In a convincing way, Kurdi juxtaposes a postcolonial symbolic use of the type against and within a historical timeline that interweaves female equivalents with their male counterparts to explore recurring motifs in the latter characterisations. Giovanna Tallone proposes a revisionist reading of Friel’s The Enemy Within by applying gerontology to emphasise the socially constructed aspect of the identity, refreshingly using the framed dramatic space as one that expands possibilities for the scrutiny of the character’s design through intertextuality, symbolism, and the theatrical leitmotif. Tallow sets up an interesting dialectic between the attributes of ageing and masculinity, to explore how each quality might reveal hidden or performative elements in the other. For Ciara Murphy a dialectical interpretation of theatrical representations of the ageing male and social change is used to make metaphorical connections that foreground moments of crisis. The trope of Mother Ireland is mobilised to explain how ageing masculinities have been used to connect symbolically a problematic patriarchal identity, involving interrogations relating to positions of power, potency and powerlessness, with a nation undergoing various crises. The emphasis on the contemporary moment invites interesting questions about earlier times in the nation’s development.
Heike Hartung’s chapter bridges the transition from dramatic to poetic representations (marking its judicious positioning within the collection), by evaluating a general shift from physical embodiment (of the experience and identity) of ageing to one that is constructed in a biologically gendered way in language. Like the preceding chapter, it focuses some of its attention on notions of crisis, and its relationship to, or relevance for, Irish modernity. The analysis of Beckett’s writing here is innovative and fascinating. As it explores (predominantly) Echo’s Bones, and its richly layered intertextual games, it argues that old age is rarely configured without a compressed conceptualisation of flux between varying ontological positions. Following this piece, Anne Karhio looks at themes of mid-life crisis and ageing in the work of Muldoon and Durcan and sets up the challenges of confronting both pathologies with an implicit etymological emphasis on the word “crisis” that marks it as a moment of decision, turning and judgement. These concepts are juxtaposed comparatively with examples from the poets’ works that are characterised by moments when momentum, progression and development stall or break down completely. Karhio shows that the gendered notion of “mid-life crisis” is inherently socially constructed, and usefully points to an epistemological shift from its more feminist-inclined origins to a point at which it has been conveniently possessed by male cultural performers. In the next chapter Katarzyna Ostalska considers how notions of ageing masculinities can be connected to, or might be evaluated against, backdrops of extratextual (wider) ontological concerns: socially, economically and ecologically. With concentration on work by Heaney, Mahon, Carson and McCarthy these concerns are “related to the contemporary model of self-aware masculine consideration” (93). Ostalska convincingly proposes that the psychological and (to some extent) corporeal location of the ageing masculine becomes an arena for experiencing and, it is fairly suggested, manifesting and expressing wider sociological, national and global concerns.
Taking some of the implicit assumptions on which many of the arguments of the earlier chapters were based, Loic Wright posits the textual applications and uses of ageing masculinity as emasculating processes that (do, can, or are designed to) threaten a patriarchal hegemony. With welcome daring Wright neologises the term “patrilinear double bind” to describe a situation whereby generational continuity (of material possession and ideological influence and consequence) is potentially threatened with the ageing father’s accession to an ineffectual son, or one who is more dominant and breaks the historical chains of command and authority by virtue of recalcitrance and disobedience. Cassandra Tully uses a capital-motivated angle to consider how modes of production might be seen to relegate the sanctified position of the ageing male. Referencing the notion of “patrilinear hegemony” as some earlier essays have done, Tully uses a “corpus stylistics” methodology to study three contemporary novels using algorithms that identify recurring patterns in linguistic styles. This digital humanities focus shifts the concentration of the argument towards an evaluation of its very applicability and usefulness, and somewhat away from thematic conclusions on the literature itself, and an outstanding tautological question of the chapter might be how the analyst might choose texts in the first place. In her chapter Michaela Schrage-Früh concentrates on a sub-section of the demographic and looks at how ageing widowers are drawn in three important contemporary novels: John Banville’s The Sea; Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture; and Anne Griffin’s When All Is Said. Schrage-Früh traces how the death (diegetic or extra-diegetic) of the wives of certain characters becomes a catalytic moment or initiating incident for the bereft male’s self-assessment or re-evaluation, and explores the narrative device and formal trope by unpacking their representation. She thus reflects on how the mechanism can offer a putative (symbolic or real) reassessment of the concept of the aged and ageing male reflecting on more bruised senses of his core masculinity. Orlaith Darling’s chapter revisits many of the thematic fields and analytical angles already presented in the collection, but argues that specific attention to the short story form might offer a useful understanding of the concept of masculine ageing. Darling interestingly problematises the ways in which more affirmative representations of the ageing male might take place out of formal and structural necessity in the longer literary genres, and proposes that the brevity of the story, for one, works against the artificiality and ideologically implicated closure of the novel. This gendered authorship (in explorations by Claire Keegan, Mary Costello and Danielle McLaughlin) is never interrogated in its relation to the shorter form directly, but the circle of the argument is neatly (implicitly) closed as Darling makes associations between alternative tonal qualities inherent in the form. Claire Brannigan looks at the relationship between the process of ageing and the exilic experience and, specifically, the conditions that result from the association of both attributes as explored in MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. The embodied characterisation of the male protagonist becomes a site of conflict between a series of narrative events and their possible resolution, and also between the character’s experience of a formerly imposed and inherited version of masculinity that has been carried from another time and place into a contemporary exilic setting. According to Brannigan, MacLaverty’s literary method invites moments of introspection for the character and highlights putative discrepancies in the gendered experience of old age, and a working through trauma within a circumstance of territorial displacement. Looking at Mike McCormack’s aesthetically, thematically and formally fascinating novel Solar Bones for its innovative prose (owing to its unique structural formulation), Brenda O’Connell offers an equally unique way of considering different phases and incarnations of the male ontology. O’Connell ventures to interpret the characterisation of the protagonist narrator symbolically, however another layer of analytical depth is provided when the sociological circumstances of the represented lifespan are mapped onto the character so that both context and personality are interpreted dialectically. O’Connell’s conclusion is more affirmative and sympathetic in its reading of the ageing male than many of the other sections in this book, and its positive reading of the aged one re-evaluating his life, as it is communicated in a stream of consciousness, is enabled by an outward focused criticism of other, external masculinities of a destructive neoliberal hegemony. Self-reflection, self-evaluation and autobiographical revisionism are also core elements of Heather Ingman’s analysis of Colm Tóibín’s The Master. While memory is an instrumental aspect of the protagonist’s self-awareness, his design as an ageing writer goes further in allowing the novelist to justify different modes of reflection. With a tentative surrogate in the real-life writer Henry James, the possibilities of more affirmative personal development and a more positive outlook become inroads for Ingman’s fascinating narrative exploration. Like the preceding chapter, the close textual analysis is justified by various nuances and complexities in the plotting by Tóibín, but descriptive sections of plot are never reduced to mere synoptic accounts.
Katarzyna Kociołek considers the paintings of Irish artist Seán Keating and evaluates his frequent and overtly politicised depictions of the ageing Irish male: a tendency for which the artist has been criticised through accusations of gender bias. With a certain paradox, Keating’s work captures a timeless – permanent yet changeable – quality of Irish identity. This paradox may be, by implication, resolved by reference to Benedict Anderson’s work on the nation and the tautological approach that is also used to map a kind of national phylogeny onto a pictorial ontogeny. It makes sense, Kociołek argues, that no matter how early in its development a nation’s authority, authenticity and autonomy are imagined and imaged as an older being. The contribution by Verena Commins and Méabh Ní Fhuartháin explores representations of the older male as traditional Irish musician on screen. The authors propose that the Irish cultural space is ideally suited to counter more youth-centred and focused western musical media formats. However, this might not be an unproblematic category of representations as it perpetuates the influential position of the male musician, celebrating an authoritative cultural status in quite reactionary ways. With a close formal analysis of Noel Hill-Aisling Ghéar and Slán leis an gCeol–Farewell to Music, the writers argue that the continuity presented between the younger (virile) male protagonists and the aged counterparts ultimately authenticate and (we assume) fortify their present positions of authority. The complex hardships suffered by both men, embodied and sublimated into their music, are transformed into affirmations of their talents; processes of cultural production implicitly sustained and enabled by their gender and gendered positions. Margaret O’Neill and Áine Ní Léime offer a sociological study that evaluates and interprets older males’ responses to depictions of their counterparts. The authors focus on soap operas and documentaries and find nuanced reactions from participating audience members who show sensitivity to recurring stereotypification and images designed for commercial benefit. Discretion is also noted in the test viewers’ sensitivity to more affirmative depictions of the older generation which can be more realistic and generally have a positive disposition. Working within the context of “hegemonic masculinities” O’Neill and Ní Léime conclude that audiences are capable of discerning variations of depictions that may be broadly classifiable generically, with degrees of fidelity to lived experiences.
With such a richly diverse catalogue of theoretical angles in one collection, and a vast array of primary texts scrutinised, this reviewer would have welcomed a more extensive index section. This would have invited a far wider readership that would benefit from the rich array of ideas presented, which might otherwise be overlooked or unnoticed. Because of my personal, subject-area bias (film and screen media), I regretted that the balance (between literary and visual cultures) promised in the title of the collection, was not borne out in the thematic weighting of the chapters. Perhaps more work on the area – specifically on cinematic depictions of the older male character – is in the pipeline. I would welcome that intervention warmly.