Permissible Feeling: Men Mourning Mothers, 1904 - 1949
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The emotional history of men represents a frontier in masculinity studies that often promises to give authentic feeling back to men, and to give men who feel back to women. So-called vulnerable feelings such as grief sustain these hopes for male self-awareness and transformation above all. In such narratives, however, male grief remains mostly aspirational, stuck in the process of recovering or opening up, thus deferring the work of mourning beyond the reach of readily claimed experiences of manhood. I hope to unsettle this narrative by exploring one permissive and quite animated site of male grief: men mourning mothers in the early twentieth century. Such a study in modernism is long overdue considering how this period produced numerous images of toughened masculinity and pointed to their invariably performative nature. My first chapter explores how Freud’s reading of mourning solidifies this dualism by conceiving of the affect of grief as an always surprising response to the pain of loss, to a wound that exists outside the self strictly speaking but materializes in mind and body. Grief represents lingering extensions of the self that tell the history of its desire and socialization. One place where these desires are regularly contested and adapted in representations of men’s emotional lives is in memories about lost or dead mothers. Most often, mothers in men’s writings about grief work serve as permissible locations of emotional injury in languages about otherwise hardened, unfeeling masculinity. The chapters below consider how British and Irish modernists explore specific iterations of masculinity by grieving mothers in the context of colonialism, nationalism, and totalitarianism. I argue that narratives about men mourning mothers participate in fashioning key discourses of masculinity during modernism. Many of the writers I consider resist accepting the loss of a mother as a sign of accomplished male autonomy. Instead, they unpack customary consolations for surviving mothers, and open spaces to take a critical look at the social and political conditions that authored such losses. In the process, they enrich our understanding of how emotion and grief function in men’s ideas about masculinity during the modernist period.