Academic journal article Style

The Mirror of Hermaphroditus

Academic journal article Style

The Mirror of Hermaphroditus

Article excerpt

In Francis Beaumont's Ovidian epyllion Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, there is a linguistic, as opposed to an anatomical, formation of the hermaphrodite. In Beaumont, the crossing of images of red and white, of intertwining "Ivy" and "Iv'ry" and "one" and "none," the crossed expectations of the female in pursuit and the male in flight, and the rhetorical reversal performed by chiasmus-all prescribe the anatomical mixing that consummates the tale. Hermaphroditic sexual union is antithetical: neither one nor none, neither male nor female, both ecstatic liquid mingling and cursed dissolution.

Among a number one is reckon'd none.

--Shakespeare, Sonnet 136

And her sexual organ, which is not one organ, is counted as none.

--Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One

God knows where it leads you to believe there is One--it can even lead you so far as to believe that there is The, a belief which is fallacious.

--Jacques Lacan, Feminine Sexuality

In his introduction to the autobiography of the nineteenth-century hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin, Michel Foucault, as I have suggested elsewhere, addresses the question of the truth of sexuality, especially the truth as sought and defined by the legal and medical-psychiatric authorities of the period (Stone). The scientific establishment insisted that every human subject must be biologically grounded in one and only one sex. So how to deal with the hermaphrodite like Herculine Barbin or the fictional hermaphrodites that crowd Balzac's fiction? The hermaphrodite upset the insistence of the medico-juridical discourse that there was an essential relation between sex and truth: one sex and just one truth. Hermaphrodites were thus always dismissed as "pseudo-hermaphrodites," beneath whose false or duplicitous claims to sexual doubleness lurked the monosexual truth discoverable only by licensed "experts." My purpose in what follows is to look at the discourse of sexuality in English adaptations and translations of the myth of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus from the Metamorphoses of Ovid--a discourse that lends itself well to both Renaissance and early modern concerns (1)--in order to argue for the "pseudo" status of all univocal claims to sexual truth, for the doubleness that shadows and informs the ideology of sexual oneness, and above all for the way that the deployment of fictional letters can be said to figure and to constitute sexual difference.

Much work has been done recently in the field of Renaissance studies arguing that gender is a linguistic construction. Stephen Greenblatt argues that the anatomical difference between the sexes is inscribed by the difference of a single letter (see also Parker; Stone). He illustrates sexual ambiguity in Twelfth Night by adducing the historical case study of Marie le Marcis, a seventeenth-century French hermaphrodite with a retractable penis, who dressed as a woman. When he fell in love with Jeane le Febvre and declared his intention to marry her, a scandal ensued and the couple was prosecuted for sodomy. Finally Jacques Duval, a doctor learned in hermaphroditism and gynecology, was able to make the penis perform under the friction of his manual examination. The law courts allowed Marie to change his name to Marin, provided that he continued to wear women's clothing for several more years. Greenblatt uses the image of the reversible glove in Feste's remarks to illustrate the nominalist position that the differ ence of a single letter may uniquely determine the disputed sex of the hermaphrodite: "The brief, almost schematic enactment of verbal friction leads to a perception of the suppleness of language, particularly its capacity to be inverted, a capacity imaged by the chev'ril glove. It is as if the cause of Marin le Marcis's sexual arousal and transformation were now attributed to the ease--the simple change of one letter--that turns Marie into Marin: 'Her name's a word, and to dally with that word might make my sister wanton"' (90). …

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