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 flat-chested, and postponing menstruation indefinitely.
Jokes were made about her odd appearance, but society showed little disposition to investigate the matter more closely or to give it a name. Neither did she, for whom this change (if one may judge from the memoirs written years later) suggested an end of innocence, a kind of fall or even violation, as though some male presence had, by magic, been let into her. “I remained sad, terror stricken! Something instinctive disclosed itself in me, seeming to forbid me entrance into sanctuary of virginity” is her recollection of the thoughts that beset her at age eighteen, as she was preparing to enter a normal school and earn a teacher’s certificate under the Filles de la Sagesse. She read Ovid’s Metamorphoses with trepidation.
Her shame did not prevent Alexina from having physical intimacies, first at the normal school, then at a boarding school in Oléron, the daughter of whose headmistress became her regular bedmate. What these intimacies may have been is not easy to surmise, however, from the body of clinical description that grew around her case, since one report declares her to have been capable of playing either part in coitus though verifying a previous report that her erectile organ, characterized now as a small, imperforate penis, now as a monstrously enlarged clitoris, was held back on the underside by a preputial web that left free only the glans—glans so to speak.
Externally more a woman, internally more a man, she is certain to have had testicles enclosed by voluminous folds of skin resembling labia majora and could ejaculate sterile sperm through ducts that opened at the orifice of a vagina which was itself a dead-end two-and-one-half inches long. “At night, her dreams were sometimes accompanied by indefinable sensations; she felt wet, and in the morning she found grayish and starchy stains on her linen,” wrote Dr. Chesnet of La Rochelle. If emission ever occurred during sex-play, and there is reason to believe it did, no hint of it exists in the memoirs, Tardieu having apparently cut from them all such explicit detail.
Alexina’s first attempts to unburden herself of her guilty secret and secure an explanation were ruined by confidants who felt that the enigma should be kept hidden lest scandal result. A missionary monk, to whom she confessed while on leave from the boarding school where she taught, advised her to become a nun rather than do what she was, so he said, “entitled” to do—“call yourself a man in society.” When, soon afterward, excruciating pain (caused, it was later thought, by an undescended testicle trapped in the abdominal ring) drove her to summon a village doctor, the latter performed an examination during which Alexina heard him utter grunts of incredulity, then spoke at length with the headmistress, who may have colluded in his decision to bury the matter.
Not until 1860 did Alexina receive the answer she had, half despite herself, been seeking all along. It came from the highest prelate accessible, Monsignor J.F. Landriot, bishop of La Rochelle (later archbishop of Reims), after full confession had been made at the priedieu reserved for penitents. Alexina submitted of her own free will to an examination by Landriot’s personal physician, Dr. Chesnet, and in due course a legal procedure began that would, after further interrogations and probings of the genitalia, see her civil status rectified. “This inevitable outcome, which I had foreseen, had even desired, terrified me now like a revolting enormity,” she confessed several years later, by which time she had come to be known as Abel Barbin.
Being translated from the provinces to Paris in male form is the stuff Emma Bovary’s dreams were made of. For Alexina, male incarnation proved calamitous. With the help of a prefect, to whom Monsignor Landriot applied episcopal pressure, she found employment at a railroad company in the capital, which, under Baron Haussmann, was also undergoing metamorphosis. While Paris brought relief from the gossipmongering that had made La Rochelle and environs uninhabitable, it offered nothing like the clandestine affections of convent life. From invidious fame she fell into loveless anonymity, and the dozen or so pages about her Paris years—the most poignant pages she wrote—describe urban loneliness in a way that anticipates that masterpiece of the genre, Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Indeed, hunger became quite literally her predicament when, having lost her job with the railroad company, she sought another as a lady’s valet, unavailingly.
Home was the rue de l’Ecole-de-Médecine in the Latin Quarter, where she occupied a wretched garret room just large enough to contain a bed, a chair, a table, and a charcoal stove. Apparently no one visited this cell, and it is likely that her absence from the world outside it would have gone quite unnoticed in February, 1868, but for the concierge who saw her every day as she went forth to work or wander. In that month and year her corpse was discovered, along with a suicide note explaining how the suffering that obsessed her had grown unendurable. She had asphyxiated herself. Her papers brought to light the fact that she had recently been hired as a waiter’s assistant on the steamship Europe, bound for America, and, like the hero of Hamsun’s Hunger, saw no alternative but to ship out.
Such expressions as “indefinable sensation,” “vague sadness,” “inexpressible uneasiness,” “strange perplexity” float through the autobiography like veils worn by a stripper who never strips, obscuring that to which attention is constantly drawn, or evoking an inner sanctum impossible to enter yet impossible to escape. So close does the atmosphere become that one is thankful for the glimpses it occasionally affords of an outside world in its social circumstance and local color. We learn something about ecclesiastical politics on the small-town level, about the education given well-born girls in mid-nineteenth-century France, about the xenophobia of rural society, which guarded its own open secrets from without by imposing a kind of despotic hospitality on the aberrant inmate. In a flash of description we see adolescent girls frolicking on the beach at Oléron and students flirting with one another at a restaurant in the Latin Quarter, before Alexina’s haze descends again.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the memoirs is the question they raise about why, at age twenty-five, she produced them. It would seem that authorship was never more imperatively than in her case an act of self-commemoration. Words denoting emptiness appear again and again in the narrative. Of her failure to reach puberty, for example, she wrote that “science was unable to find an explanation for a certain absence (her italics) and quite naturally attributed to it the kind of languor in which I was wasting away.” With every separation there yawned before her an “abyss” or a “void,” the thought of which came to haunt her even—especially—when, during her affair at the boarding school in Oléron, love was making her heart swell. Against this fear that she stood on fictitious ground and could at any time fall out of the world, Alexina brought to bear a retentiveness of memory upon which she depended for dear life. “The adored memory of her sustained me, gave me the strength to live,” she exclaimed, or, again, “Two years have passed since that day. But I see him again still, whole in my heart.”
The power to call up images whole thus went some way toward making good the defect she felt within herself, and it is significant that while other girls learned such handicrafts as they would need in married life, she, who had no aptitude for them, read history. Bereft of a woman’s future, she exercised her mind on the past, ordering events that far surpassed the provincial cul-de-sac in which fate had tucked her away. Then, exiled from her province, she became a historian of herself as Alexina, reviving not only the woman undone by law, but the pleasures that the civil registry ghost once experienced. She would die, and leave Alexina behind. Her memoirs would be her posterity.
How could she fail, moreover, to seek consolation in her stigma? To dignify her wretchedness with the idea that being a freak of nature—an “outlaw”—had borne fruit in occult knowledge which she alone might impart? Literary eminences such as Dumas fils, whose plays often featured a “reasoner” urbanely conversant with feminine mysteries, she dismissed as incompetent. “Looking down from the height of my proud independence, I establish myself as a judge,” she declared from her Parisian garret. “The real experience that I have acquired regarding the heart of a woman places me far above certain famous critics whose estimations, I must say, have struck me more than once by their falsity.” When, on other occasions, it seemed impossible for her as a writer to fathom the meaning of it all, she imagined herself dead and, half-mockingly (but only half in that positivist age), a trophy for scientists who would hover over her naked body, study it, convert it into knowledge, and give her a posthumous raison d’être.
A few doctors will make a little stir around my corpse; they will shatter all the extinct mechanisms of its impulses, will draw new information from it, will analyze all the mysterious sufferings that were heaped up on a single human being. O princes of science, enlightened chemists…analyze then, if that is possible, all the sorrows that have burned, devoured this heart down to its last fibers.
Foucault’s own quarrel is with such medical and psychiatric analysts and their descendants, and the preface he has written advances an argument on which he dwells at greater length in the chapter of History of Sexuality entitled “Scientia Sexualis.” In his view, such people are the cops of a moral regime that elicits sexual secrets through techniques belonging to the confessorial tradition and does so in the belief that a person’s sexual secrets harbor his or her real identity. “Sex is truth,” then, but what reinforces this modern Western myth is the assumption that everyone has a “true sex.” The doctors who dissected Alexina with a view to finding her true sex upheld an Order that cannot accommodate mixtures, that consigns what does not suit its norm to the realm of phantasmagoria.
The hermaphrodite thus emerges from Foucault’s text a heroine, if not indeed a patron saint representing all those “virile women” and “passive men” who find themselves martyred by society’s nomenclature. The fact that Alexina was biologically rather than metaphorically hermaphroditic enables Foucault to turn the tables, to bring off a campy inversion: he pictures the bisexual body as a receptacle for heterosexual abstractions. In a better world, Alexina would not have felt compelled to leave what Foucault calls the “happy limbo of nonidentity” that made it possible to have a place. Her departure from boarding school life, her subsequent name change and entrance into the metropolis, make up, as he seems to see it, a parable of authoritarian meddling with the thing-in-itself.
October 9, 1980