The Heroic Hermaphrodite

Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite

introduced by Michel Foucault
Pantheon, 199 pp., $4.95 (paper)

As Michel Foucault notes in his preface to Herculine Barbin, the nineteenth century was haunted by the theme of the hermaphrodite. Among French romantic writers who sought to violate the doctrine of a rational aesthetic order by mixing up the classical genres, bisexuality became synonymous with Beauty, with Nature at its most forceful or the Divine in natural guise. What often seems to distinguish the heroes and heroines of Balzac, Gautier, and Stendhal is a physical ambivalence that renders them unfit for social life while constituting the sign of a superior destiny. They exist not to love but to exercise universal fascination, not to reproduce but to illustrate their one-and-onlyness. As Balzac put it in Béatrix:

The small of the back: therein lies the nuance that separates from their sex almost all famous women; there they bear a faint resemblance to man, for they have neither the suppleness nor the unconstraint of women whom nature has destined for motherhood.

It was, indeed, the sterility of hermaphroditism that emerged as its most prominent feature in post-romantic, or so-called “decadent,” literature, beginning with Baudelaire. Where Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin possesses boundless energy, the androgynes of finde-siècle poetry and fiction derive their raison d’être mainly from the satisfaction of shocking a bourgeoisie that honored productiveness and utility above all else.

It is ironical that when, in 1874, Dr. Auguste Tardieu published his Question médico-légale de l’identité dans ses rapports avec les vices de conformation des organes sexuels, a monograph containing the memoirs of a genuine hermaphrodite, few people outside the medical community paid it much heed. Michel Foucault found these memoirs while doing research for the volume on hermaphroditism to appear in his History of Sexuality and had them republished, along with the subject’s medical dossier. They tell a sad tale, which begins on November 8, 1838, when Adélaïde Herculine Barbin—Alexina for short—was born in Saint-Jean-d’Angély, near La Rochelle in western France. At age seven, her father having died and her mother destitute, she was put in a home for orphaned girls where one of the nuns, who valued her keen mind, arranged to have her study at a school run by the Ursuline order. There she remained, the one poor child among rich, until her First Communion in 1853.

Her account of this period, though it portrays her as afflicted with “vague sadness,” does not indicate any difference that could not have been explained by her intellectual superiority or social disadvantage. And the erotic attachment she formed to other girls, particularly to a nobleman’s daughter who would soon after die of tuberculosis, offered no special cause for alarm in the hothouse atmosphere of convent life. The suspicion that she might be intrinsically different from those she had hitherto considered her “kind” forced itself upon her only afterward, during her fifteenth and sixteenth years, when nature took a course other than the expected one, covering her upper lip and entire body with down, leaving her …

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Letters

Rx for Alexina December 18, 1980