Masculinity and Desire in Nicole Krauss’ To Be a Man

If there is a theme throughout Nicole Krauss’ short-story collection, To Be a Man, it is related to the title. The collection is named after its last story, in which, it is asked, amid ‘generational confusion’, how a boy becomes a man? Implicit in this question is the idea that manhood must be earned, through an ordeal or rite of passage. According to the story’s narrator, in Israel, ‘being a soldier was the passage you had to go through, whether you liked it or not, on the way to becoming a man, though no one could say exactly when along that passage it happened that you stopped being a boy’. This is our first link between masculinity and violence. Masculinity is never taken for granted, it can always be taken away. This is the burden of masculinity. There is no feminine equivalent to emasculation; women and children are valued as is; men, on the other hand, must justify their existence. As Camille Paglia puts it in Sexual Personae, ‘No woman has to prove herself a woman in the grim way a man has to prove himself a man’.

If you put the emphasis on ‘Man’, To Be a Man sounds instructional; as in, To Be a Man you must… But Krauss’ collection does not always put the emphasis on ‘Man’. The title can also be read wistfully: as in, a woman that longs “To Be a Man”. The collection is populated with female characters acting in traditionally masculine ways. In the first story, ‘Switzerland’, the teenaged Soraya, is depicted as having strong animus attributes. She is assertive, courageous, reckless, ruthless, rational. She is described as ‘unyielding’ and unassailable, radiating an ‘exquisite’ sense of ‘authority’. She is, in other words, Paglia’s androgynous femme fatale: ‘Her cool unreachability beckons, fascinates, and destroys […] she has an amoral affectlessness, a serene indifference to the suffering of others, which she invites and dispassionately observes as tests of her power’. Compare this with a description of Soraya:

But it was also because of the coolness with which Soraya told her stories. She had about her a kind of unassailability. And yet I suppose she felt the need to test whatever it was at her core that had come to her, like all natural gifts, without effort, and what might happen if it failed her (Switzerland)

The narrator rightly regards Soraya with awe: ‘I never really doubted her strength. Never doubted that she was in control and doing what she wanted’. According to her own experience, the ‘power to attract men, when it comes, arrives with a terrifying vulnerability’. She idealises Soraya because Soraya is the embodiment of ‘the refusal to comply with the vulnerabilities one is born into’. Rather than behave chaste and demure, she remorselessly drops lovers and has an affair with a married man.

Krauss conveys Soraya’s strong inner animus through her behaviour, but also through what Camille Paglia would call her ‘aggression of the eye’. When the eye is ‘directed’, ‘fixed’, and ‘inflamed’, it is a phallic substitute: ‘probing, penetrating, riveting’. Male desire, she reminds us, is visual; based in ‘hunting and scanning’, with an element of ‘search-and-destroy’. Eye-contact thus constitutes ‘a sensory assault’. When the narrator looks inside Soraya’s eyes they are illuminated with a flame, but she is not sure, even thirty years later, if what she saw was ‘perversity, or recklessness, or fear, or its opposite: the unyielding nature of her will’. The answer is probably: all of the above.

The narrator finds this same ‘nature’, many years later, in her second daughter:

She’s only twelve, and still small, but already men look at her when she walks in the street or rides the subway. And she doesn’t hunch, or put up her hood, or hide away behind her headphones the way her friends do. She stands erect and still like a queen, which only makes her more an object of their fascination

Like Soraya, the girl has a ‘proudness about her that refuses to grow small’ and a ‘curiosity in her own power, its reach and its limits’. This terrifies her mother, who nonetheless admits, ‘maybe the truth is that when I am not afraid for her, I envy her’. Not only does this little girl possess the ‘aggressive eye’, she uses it to challenge the ‘burning’ male gaze: ‘One day I saw it: how she looked back at the man in the business suit who stood across the subway car from her, burning a hole through her with his eyes. Her stare was a challenge’.

The narrator envies Soraya and her brazen daughter because their intensity is ‘derived from an inner source’. It emanates from the masculine animus (the same applies to men with a strong inner anima). This is why androgynes tend to seem more self-complete; they do not require external validation or support. The vulnerability that most women experience as a result of predatory men and their own physical inferiority forces them to seek out a powerful companion — usually with the intent to direct or control them. It is like Freud’s ego analogy: the ego is the rider, the id is the horse (i.e. the psyche’s primitive, animalistic instincts); the rider is attached to the horse and draws power from it while trying to control it. Similarly, I have heard multiple women say they would like to “climb inside their partner and be them” (to literally be a man). This strain of thinking might explain why so many girls go through a horse-obsession stage; it is an early version of this drive to attach and control powerful forces. In the story, ‘Future Emergencies’, a young woman falls for an older, more accomplished man, and revels in his relative power: ‘He struck me as strong and utterly remarkable, a man against whose finished form I could lean to feel the pleasure of a permanent shape’. She feels as though he is ‘standing between [her] and some distant harm […] that his presence is what shields [her]from it’. In ‘To Be a Man’, the aspect of animality and control is more explicit:

If someone asked her in that moment — the waiter, for example, going past with his tray held high — whether she liked being made to feel physically small next to a man, she would have had to answer yes. Yes, but with an asterisk! *Physically small but spiritually powerful. In other words, she liked him to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing until she said he could be a wolf, and then he should be pure wolf with no trace of the sheep for the duration of time they would spend fucking in her bed, after which he should go back to being someone who wouldn’t in a million years think of grabbing her throat when he wanted something. Was this a problem? And one more thing: from time to time he should be very slow and gentle when he went about blowing her house down

Vulnerability and strength, tenderness and aggression. The ambivalence of desire is often mistakenly split into two distinct aspects: the masculine and the feminine. Masculine desire is seen as a bloodlust pursuit. In Freud’s ‘Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality’, he argues that, ‘[m]ost men’s sexuality reveals a certain quantity of aggression’ and notes that ’the combination of this aggression with the sexual drive is [believed to be] a leftover from cannibalistic pleasures, associated with the apparatus involved in overpowering’. Meanwhile, feminine desire is thought of as thanatotic, resembling something like surrender. In reality, tenderness and aggression exists on both ends of the spectrum. As Georges Bataille writes in Death and Sensuality, ‘the domain of eroticism is the domain of violence’. There is an unavoidable sadomasochistic element to desire. Masculine does not necessarily mean sadistic and feminine does not necessarily mean masochistic. The link between libido and aggression transcends gender. Both sexes produce testosterone (albeit to differing degrees) which is known to increase both libido and aggression. If you’ve ever seen a female cat in heat, there is this same ambivalent mixture of surrender and aggression. She will yowl and roll on the floor to attract tomcats, and then inexplicably swipe at them as they approach. In the story ‘Switzerland’, men are still the primary aggressors:

one time, as I stood looking into the window of a chocolate shop, a European man in a beautiful suit came up behind me. He leaned in, his face touching my hair, and in faintly accented English, whispered, “I could break you in two with one hand.” Then he continued on his way, very calmly, as if he were a boat sailing on still water. I ran all the way to the tram stop, where I stood gasping for breath until the tram arrived

But there are also examples of erotic feminine aggression:

It was the first time I’d kissed a boy, and when he pushed his tongue into my mouth, the feeling it ignited was both tender and violent. I dug my nails into his back, and he kissed me harder, we writhed together on the bench like the couples I’d sometimes watched from afar

Elsewhere in the collection, a female character playfully challenges male aggression with a belligerence often associated with masculinity: ‘she wished to imply that whatever was explosive in him was also explosive in her, that there might be a parity there, and maybe more than a parity: that the scales of explosiveness, of a form of strength, might even tip in her favor’.

The best example of this ‘tipping scale’, comes at the moment of climax. In the story ‘End Days’, the narrator recalls her ex’s face during orgasm: ‘By now some other girl must have seen that expression, the one that looked like both pleasure and pain’. Pain during sex is usually associated with women. Anatomically, the sex act is a desecration; the violent defilement of the feminine temenos. As Paglia notes, apropos of Freud’s theory of the primal scene, the child overhearing their parents having sex thinks the male is wounding the female and that the ‘woman’s cries of pleasure are cries of pain’. However, at the moment of climax, the roles are reversed:

woman’s strange sexual cries come directly from the chthonian. She is a Maenad about to rend her victim. Sex is an uncanny moment of ritual and incantation, in which we hear woman’s barbaric ululation of triumph of the will. One domination dissolves into another. The dominated becomes the dominator (Paglia)

There is a ‘latent vampirism in female physiology’; a far cry from the cliched passivity attributed to women. Post-coitus, men are dilapidated and drained, their energy siphoned off in a semi-deliberate exchange of power. As the narrator of ‘End Days’ puts it, in a clearly vampiric encounter, ‘there, in the narrow twin bed, she gave to him what she wanted to give, and took from him what she needed and when the splitting pain shot through her, she bit into his shoulder to stifle her cry, and had no words for the blessing’.