Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Orientation and Supplementation: Locating the "Hermaphrodite" in the Encyclopédie

Academic journal article Goethe Yearbook

Orientation and Supplementation: Locating the "Hermaphrodite" in the Encyclopédie

Article excerpt

When Calliope Stephanides, the adolescent intersex protagonist of Jeffrey Eugenides's novel Middlesex (2002), visits the New York Public Library in search of information about her physical condition, she is struck by the sheer size of the dictionary located at the center of the library's reading room:

I had never seen such a big dictionary before. The Webster's at the New York Public Library stood in the same relation to other dictionaries of my acquaintance as the Empire State Building did to other buildings. It was an ancient, medieval-looking thing, bound in brown leather that brought to mind a falconer's gauntlet. The pages were gilded like the Bible's.1

The dictionary's monumental size and its patina mark its authority. Its gilded pages eventually lead Calliope to the entry for "hermaphrodite," the term used for the intersex condition in medical writing until the mid-twentieth century and still pervasive in popular discourse today.2 The Webster's entry allows Calliope to make sense of her doctor's medical jargon and his plan to perform surgery on her nonnormative genitals. Calliope's observation that " [h]ere was a book that contained the collected knowledge of the past" (431) highlights the central role played by reference works in the curation and dissemination of knowledge. Reference works fully assumed this privileged position during the Enlightenment, with the publication of the Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (175172). The Webster's towering presence in twenty-first-century America mirrors the status of the monumental collection of knowledge spearheaded by Denis Diderot and Jean d'Alembert in the mid-eighteenth century. Because French was the lingua franca of the intellectual sphere, the Encyclopédie's impact was not limited to France but extended to all of Europe, including German-speaking lands, which provided readers as well as authors. Like the Webster's, the Encyclopédie and its sequel, the Supplément à l'Encyclopédie (1776-77), both contain an entry on the hermaphrodite. The complexity of the three-page Encyclopédie article and the existence of an even longer follow-up entry in the Supplément exemplify both the Enlightenment ideal to solve all mysteries and the struggle with this same ideal. At the same time that these reference works strive for objectivity and uniformity, they are shaped by the various contributors' perceptions of the world. Defining the hermaphrodite is a hermeneutical endeavor that illustrates the tensions underlying the entire encyclopedic project.

The complex task of definition results from the fact that the hermaphrodite possesses one of those bodies that, as Sara Ahmed argues in Queer Phenomenology, do not easily or comfortably extend into space. The hermaphrodite's body is queer in the sense that it hurts itself against bodies that consolidate a heteronormative straight line. Ahmed's observation that "bodies become orientated by how they take up time and space" applies to eighteenth-century encyclopedic geography.5 The definition of the hermaphroditic body cannot be contained within the rigid confines of the encyclopedic entry; it constantly questions the entry's boundaries and thereby performs a disorientating move. The hermaphrodite undermines the goals of the encyclopedic effort by destabilizing seemingly definitive definitions that are outdated as soon as they are ushered into print. The hermaphrodite's physical hybridity queers the Enlightenment ideal of elucidating the dark recesses of all natural phenomena, including the human body. As Alice Dreger argues, "the discovery of a hermaphroditic' body raises doubts not just about the particular body in question, but about all bodies" and, by extension, about the body of knowledge produced in a particular time period.-* In her pioneering study, Dreger outlines the cultural history of intersexuality, beginning in the late nineteenth century, which she calls the Age of Gonads. …

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