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.

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 …

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