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The Unkindest Cut

It is a truth generally acknowledged about sacred books that they are liable to contain utterances which cause difficulties to believers and bafflement, or merriment, to the profane. One of the more difficult texts in the New Testament is the saying of Jesus recorded at Matthew 19:12. He has just laid down a firm line on divorce: to put away, i.e., divorce, a wife, except for fornication, and then to marry again is adultery; and if anyone else marries such a divorced woman, he is guilty of adultery, too. The disciples, dismayed, say, in that case, “it is not good to marry.”

But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given.
For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.

From an early period, the meaning of this text was disputed. Many took it as an incitement to self-castration, and some of them, like the theologian Origen, really carried the action out. Others preferred to interpret it in an allegorical sense: the elect are those who can resist desire—and in fact those who resolved the problem of lust by physically putting themselves out of its way were not really chaste at all. That became the accepted view of the churches.1

The impulse to self-castration was a recurrent phenomenon in pagan religion. In the classical world it was practiced by the followers of the Great Mother, the Galli, who unmanned themselves with a sharp stone, and begged through the streets; but only aliens did this, and real Greeks and Romans looked on them with disapproval, even disgust, not unmixed with prurient curiosity. We meet the Galli, for instance, in Apuleius’ novel The Golden Ass, where they are charlatans and debauchees; and the poet Catullus has given us a bizarre but powerful and fascinating psychological study of the condition in his sixty-third poem, Attis, which reenacts the experience of Attis, the young male partner of the goddess Cybele, who castrated himself on the slopes of Mount Ida, and who can in consequence never go back to ordinary Greek life. “May your madness be far from me,” the poet concludes his poem, “drive others crazy, drive others insane.”

But the other, more literal, interpretation of Matthew 19:12 never died out. It still has not. Gary Taylor is, in Castration: An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood, emphatic on the point:

What would Jesus have you do?
Die childless.
Castrate yourself.

Although a professor of English, he denies himself the pleasure of quoting the famous lines with which the curmudgeonly British poet Philip Larkin ends the poem which opens “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”:

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Philip Larkin, it emerges, was more Christ-like than we had thought.

In the modern world one of the most remarkable examples of the influence of this Gospel text was the Russian sect of the Skoptsy, the subject of Laura Engelstein’s scholarly and unsensational book, Castration and the Heavenly Kingdom. Despite every discouragement, spontaneous and official, including banishment to Siberia, this sect of self-castrators found recruits for some 150 years and survived into the twentieth century. There were even instances of the mutilation of women, in an attempt to abolish the signs of male and female; amputation of the nipples seems to have taken place. Those who underwent this process claimed to have “achieved victory over nature,” to have conquered the animal instinct once for all and sacrificed themselves to God. Their reward was to come after death: “The Skopets is a corpse among the living, a living being among the corpses.”

A surprising amount is known about the sect. Ms. Engelstein presents us with some remarkable pictures, including photographs, of clothed males, who present the plump and epicene appearance typical of eunuchs throughout the ages, and a couple of undressed males and females, which made the reviewer feel decidedly queasy. The tsarist authorities justified persecution on grounds both religious (“a thorough perversion not only of Orthodoxy but of Christianity as such”) and civil (“the state cannot tolerate associations that achieve their goals by immoral methods incompatible with the social order”).

In our own day it appears that some of the cult of followers who perished at Jonestown had been castrated. The time is ripe, it seems, for books on this most painful subject. It was soon noticed by our distant ancestors, when they began to herd animals, that by gelding it was possible to render the males plumper, more submissive, and less troublesome. The inference about our own species must have been drawn pretty quickly. Early men lived close to animals and were in no doubt that they and we are made up of the same sort of organs, and that we all live, die, and procreate in very similar fashions. The mysterious power of sexuality inhered in some way in the genital organs; in many cultures we find that sacrificial animals are castrated at the same time as they are killed. The authors of all the books under review, I observe, could have learned a lot about the topic, both in factual information and in the theory, from the remarkable book Homo Necans (“Man the Killer”) by the learned Swiss historian Walter Burkert.2 Castration was inflicted on enemies slain in war, or, sometimes, on survivors; periodically we receive terrible evidence that, when fighting is at its most ferocious, it still happens, as it did recently in Bosnia. And, finally, there are those who make eunuchs of themselves. The history of religion, not least the history of Christianity, produces them again and again.

Piotr O. Scholz, of the Universities of Lodz and Bonn, has written an informative and chatty, though not always strictly accurate, general account of the subject, Eunuchs and Castrati. The book jacket promises that

readers will become acquainted with various forms of sexuality, such as androgyny, transvestism, transsexualism, and homosexuality.

The prose is at times breathless. In one rambling paragraph we start out with shamanic rituals and sweep on through “hermaphroditism became a popular subject in classical and Baroque art… the sexual libido of antiquity…Leonardo da Vinci’s latent homosexuality…the archetypal image of Janus, represented as a head looking in opposite directions…androgyny [which he sees as a blending of characteristics, not simply as a physical phenomenon] became a favorite metaphor for alchemy,” concluding that

androgyny represents a mystical manifestation of the existence of god, whereas hermaphroditism may be regarded as nothing more than the fantasy of a perverted sexuality.

Scholz has nothing to say about the gelding of animals, and his surprisingly gentle pages do not like to dwell on hostility or on violence toward enemies. That is a pity. His first chapter is entitled, all too exquisitely, “Sexuality and Emasculation: The Longing for Paradise.” That means that a great part of the picture is airbrushed out. What does interest him is the aspect of castration which is more or less ethereal. By abolishing sex and reproduction, one might seem to abolish aging and even time itself, and the presence of eunuchs at courts is to be explained by reference to sacral kingship:

The “sacred kings” would tolerate only those in their immediate presence whom they deemed their peers or knew to be passive, neutered creatures modeled on angels who were but manifestations of the workings of divine power.

There may be something in that, but I fear there are earthier, and simpler, explanations. Eunuchs guaranteed that the harem of the boss was for his enjoyment alone; and their isolated position, without marriage or children and exposed to the scornful dislike that seems to have been their normal lot throughout history, tended to guarantee their loyalty to him. They had no other ties and no other connections than those with their master.

As for the more puzzling phenomenon of self-castration, it was so attractive to early Christians that it had to be forbidden in 325 CE by the Council of Nicaea; and it was so ancient that in the classical period the ecstatic priests of the goddess Cybele, the Great Mother, who performed the act, did it with a stone knife, a survival from a distant past. Scholz ascribes the practice to a desire, not irrational, to escape from change and death into perfection. Perhaps it was. It may also have been at least as much the expression of a desire to escape into a status between worlds, outside conventional ways of living, akin to such other impulses as self-laceration, self-starvation, body piercing, and dropping out into poverty and homelessness. We have still with us many people to whom such drastic choices make an appeal.

Scholz does, however, bring out, in a whirlwind survey of the subject, the fact that repeatedly in history eunuchs have held positions of power and authority, from China, by way of the Persian Empire, to Byzantium and Ottoman Turkey. The eunuch Ts’ao T’eng was the most powerful person in China in the second century CE; one of the most successful generals of the Emperor Justinian was the eunuch Narses, the ally of Belisarius; important Chinese admirals and explorers were eunuchs in the fifteenth century CE. Islam forbade castration, but from an early period eunuchs were imported in large numbers, and “after the time of the Abbasids, the world of Islam was pervaded with eunuchism.” The story ends with several more recent developments, among them the castrato singers, virtually all Italian, whose voices enraptured Europe up to the nineteenth century. I read without surprise that there is currently a demand that the Pope issue an apol-ogy on behalf of the Church for having employed castrati to sing in the Sistine Chapel for so long (the last castrato retired as late as 1913).3 Then there are modern India’s Hijras—emasculated men who perform as entertainers at weddings and celebrations of the birth of a male child; and Scholz also mentions transsexual operations. (There is at least one Web site with much information about the subject: www.eunuch.org.)

Much more startling is the book by Professor Gary Taylor, of the University of Alabama. It combines two very dissimilar discussions: an account of Thomas Middleton’s play A Game at Chess, published in 1625, and what amounts to an apologia for castration in the modern world. Of Middleton, best known probably as the author of the powerful play The Changeling, Taylor declares that “he is, in my own estimation, at least the second greatest dramatist in English”—a statement that comes, it should be noted, from one of the two editors of the new Oxford Shakespeare. A Game at Chess, a rather obscure and difficult play, is intimately tied to events in the political world of the 1620s. Various persons of the time are represented as chess characters—the Black Knight stands for Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador, and so on. Taylor declares the play to be “as central to theories of castration as Oedipus the Tyrant has been for theories of incest.” It is, in fact, “for the history of castration the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone.” And that, in turn, is important, because “castration is bigger than Christianity, of course”—(Of course, murmurs the reader). Thus it is that we need to “revise, not only our models of psychosexual hierarchies, but our history of literary hierarchies, too.”

I confess that a reading of Middleton’s play did not have the same effect on me as it seems to have had on Professor Taylor. It is a literary curiosity, transparently propagandist and violently anti-Catholic. The opening scene is a dialogue between S. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and the character called Error:

Up, Error, wake!
Father of supererogation, rise!
It is Ignatius calls thee, Loyola!

In the end, despite all its fiendish ruses, the Black House, identified with the Spanish and Catholicism, loses the game, and the Whites, who are Protestant and English, triumph. Propaganda is, as so often, the enemy of poetry, and the psychology of the characters is of the most schematic kind.

It is true that the motif of castration does have a part in the action. The Black Knight’s Pawn has gelded the White Bishop’s Pawn. But the motif is very subordinate in the play, and the victim, who is barely a character in the action, hardly appears and speaks only a couple of lines. Moreover, what is said on the theme of castration is just in line with what we might expect. The act is consistently spoken of, even by the baddies of the Black House, as a monstrous one, worse than murder, beyond absolution or forgiveness. We meet a castrator who repents, but in vain. It is hard to see what special illumination this sheds on the topic; and even harder to see this strange work, so specifically tied to its place and time, as rivaling Hamlet or Othello on the modern stage.

But what of Taylor’s central theme, castration itself? His book is written in a style that alternates the polysyllabic academic manner (“The increasing secularization of European culture between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries profoundly influenced attitudes towards the penis”) with breezy colloquialism (“Hey, it doesn’t take testicles, or a penis, to swirl a woman’s ‘raspberry’”). The book is also spiced with personal observations from the life of the author. These, indeed, give the reader some help in negotiating the unfamiliar mental world of this book.

Taylor opens with a vignette:

My boyfriend’s been fixed.”
This defiant boast—spoken by a twenty-nine-year-old woman at a Christmas party in New York near the end of the millennium—equates a sterilized man with a castrated animal.

A few pages later we read, “Few readers will be surprised to discover that I am the ‘boyfriend’ fixed in my opening anecdote.” He explains: “In 1980, after the birth of my second child, I got a vasectomy. I let a surgeon take a knife to my testicles…. For two decades, I have lived the life of a eunuch…. Contented castrated.” It is a relief to read that the period is behind him when “overpowering suicidal panic…landed me in a locked psychiatric ward three years ago.”

The effects of the operation were evidently profound. “In declaring this,” he adds, “I mark myself as one of those fake men despised by the real ones.” But we are not to despair for him. It turns out that

increasingly, the most attractive and ambitious women in our culture suffer not from penis envy, not even from pregnancy envy, but from eunuch envy: They envy other women whose boyfriends are sterile.

Or, to put it another way,

Woman-qua-sexual-being wants… a sterile human being with a penis.

Or, still more cheerily,

From a sexual woman’s point of view, most or all of the time, “nothing could be finer than a baby-free vagina.”

That is to say, what with “the embittered hostility between the sexes in modern times,” which is assumed by Taylor as a fact of life—“’spermite’ and ‘eggite,’ let us call them,” he pleads, “so as to insist upon the biological rather than the social meanings”—it follows that women want pleasure but do not want children. The desire for children, which has been seen as innate, is really

not intrinsic but mimetic—not the inevitable consequence of a natural or biological female desire for motherhood, but a social desire to be what she sees, to acquire what other women already display.(… Women often decide to get pregnant after they see other women being idolized for their babies.)

Taylor leaves no doubt of his conviction that, as a less scrupulously correct writer might have put it (Taylor is very correct indeed), women are just like men at their most stereotyped, interested only in sexual pleasure. The hedonistic scene he describes is unclouded by any Darwinian doubts: Would a species so natured long survive? To at least one reader the generalization seems highly implausible, and not only for evolutionary reasons.

But in this world of sexuality and unbridled lust for pleasure the author is confident that “eunuchs are a hot commodity.” Even more reassuring, whether for author or reader, is the declaration that vasectomy “has—believe me—absolutely no effect upon a man’s sexual appetites or abilities.” It is hard to follow, even in this nightmare world, how it can also be true that “increasingly, genital amputation has become an act of rebellion by oppressed women”; though it comes as no surprise to read, two pages later, that this, too, has an autobiographical aspect:

In this sexual new world, the claim that all women secretly want to “castrate” men seems to be confirmed by actual female assaults on penises (not testicles). My own ex-wife used to stand in the kitchen…brandishing a knife and joking about using it in a way that Freud would have found satisfyingly predictable…

These are deep waters, Watson; and their murkiness is not diminished when we reflect that, according to Taylor’s own view, which is that women want the pleasure but not the pregnancy, it should presumably be not at the penis, but at the balls, that the knives (whether in joke or in earnest) should be pointing.

It must be said that Taylor’s logic is often hard to follow. The words “just as” have never worked harder:

Writing also apparently originated in Uruk. Symbolic marks were impressed in wet clay with a sharp stylus—just as the symbolic mark of castration could be made in the wet clay of human flesh.


[Dreams] uncannily duplicate details of the dreamer’s own life (just as some characters in A Game at Chess mimicked living persons well known to its first audiences)…. Dreams often generate unusually strong and disturbing emotions in the dreamer (just as A Game at Chess affected its audiences).


In Middleton’s allegory too, the White House has already suffered castration—just as many whites felt humiliated and disempowered by the Civil War and Reconstruction, just as many Englishmen felt humiliated by English impotence in the Thirty Years’ War.

We remember that in fact one pawn has suffered castration, and he on the winning side; and that England stayed out of the Thirty Years’ War. Then there is Taylor’s assertion that

mutilating a codex [a book of modern form, as opposed to a scroll] resembles mutilating a human male by removal of his two symmetrical bilateral testicles.

And it follows that, when the White Queen’s Pawn is given a book and shown holding it,

what is symbolized, in the dreamwork of humanist Europe, by the small bilateral treasure that the White Queen’s Pawn holds devotedly in her hand?
The scrotum, of course.

Of course… Interesting, too, is the argument which gets us (since “race and castration do not simply coexist in A Game at Chess; Middleton cannot think one without thinking the other”) around the superficially awkward fact that in the text it is a white, not a black, piece that suffers gelding. We know better, and so

the play represents, literally, a castrated white man, but what its audience wants, and imagines, is a castrated black man.

Faulkner, Baldwin, and Eldridge Cleaver have taught us that truth, Taylor argues; although it is true that “Middleton could not know what we cannot ignore.”

In any case, says Taylor, the world is overpopulated, and we need to advance. “The human race is about to transform itself into a radical biological construct, a bioengineered new genus.” Inspired, rather like a eugenicist of the bad old days of the early twentieth century, he goes into a kind of rapture at the vision: “What if the manufactured man is an improvement?” And indeed the closing words of the book are:

Everyman will be hand-made.
Jesus was the first clone.
The eunuch was the first post-human.

It is of course we in the West who are exclusively to blame for overpopulating the world; any other view would be sadly incorrect; and so

I find myself wincing at the sight of yet another Christian couple towing its large litter of uniformed Aryan children.

One would hardly guess that the Western countries have drastically reduced their birthrate (how often, actually, does one see an “Aryan” family of this kind? and with the kids in uniform?), and that it is in the third world that population is booming.

There is much that is weird in this odd book, which closes with science-fiction fantasies of “the male-free mode of reproduction,” now apparently desired by women. Taylor writes that “to me, in our time, eunuchs are natural; binge breeding nauseates”; this surpasses in weirdness even his assertion that while “it probably seems perverse to label something as ‘natural’ as reproductive sex perverse…, Hetero-, after all, means ‘other.’ Heterosexuality, by definition, involves ‘fucking the alien’” (he sadly admits later on that “most human beings seem to prefer sex with aliens”). But the most bizarre thing of all is that Taylor has apparently not heard of contraception.

At least, he hasn’t heard that it is less drastic than castration. “In the name of Gaia, the great mother,” he is forced to conclude as he contemplates our overpeopled planet, “we will cut ourselves (or cut others).” But, we want to interrupt, it is contraception, cheap and widely available, that is sparing the author so much potential nausea as he walks about Alabama. It is contraception that is keeping down the population of Europe and North America, and that could do the same for the rest of the world. He refers to his own “sexually inexperienced 1960s Catholic teenage” youth. Can it be that his teachers succeeded unexpectedly well in keeping from him some of the forbidden facts of life? Yet most people will continue to choose that path, rather than the edge of the knife. I am not even convinced that “embittered hostility” is the inevitable present, or future, of relations between men and women. There is, if one cares to notice it, quite a lot of evidence to the contrary.

  1. 1

    A suggestive new book by Mathew Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity (University of Chicago Press, 2001) gives a nuanced and perceptive account of the attempts by the early Church to reconcile the new code of morals (celibate, pacifist, unpolitical), with the classical conception of manliness. Opposed to physical castration, the Church praised monks—the new shock troops of faith—as both spiritually castrated and heroically manly.

  2. 2

    English translation by Peter Bing (University of California Press, 1983).

  3. 3

    Armando Torno in Corriere della sera, Milan, August 6, 2001.36

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