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Castration: An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood

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Overview

Castration is a lively history of the meaning, function, and act of castration from its place in the early church to its secular reinvention in the Renaissance as a spiritualized form of masculinity to its 20th-century position at the core of psychoanalysis.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Early in this absorbing treatise on the changing nature of manhood in Western culture, English professor Taylor remarks, "This is a specter that has haunted men for centuries: the fear that manhood will become, or has already become, obsolete, superfluous, ridiculous, at best quaint, at worst disgusting." Nowhere, he contends, is this specter more obvious than in the cringing reaction most men have to the word "castration." In this book, Taylor uses an imaginative analysis of the history and purposes of castration to examine the cultural construct of masculinity--specifically in relation to reproduction. Equally comfortable discussing the implications of pop singer Tori Amos's lyrics as he is reinterpreting the antisexual writings of church fathers Justin Martyr, Clement and Tertullian or Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Taylor gracefully guides the reader through carefully constructed arguments that go so far as to declare that, in some times and cultures, being a eunuch is a social advantage. In a feat of bravura literary criticism, he uses a detailed explication of Thomas Middleton's obscure but important 1624 play A Game of Chess (a metaphysical commentary on the Reformation) as the centerpiece of his many-pronged cultural investigation--a move that is both audacious and illuminating. But while Taylor's expertise as a Renaissance scholar shines here, he shrewdly and subtly links the play's concerns to such varied historical events as the history of psychoanalysis and sexual racism toward blacks and Jews. Though of primary interest to literary scholars and historians of sexuality, this work will also reward sophisticated general readers with its wit (including a cover depicting the upper torso and wincing head of a Greek male statue) and insight. (Nov. 30) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In ancient times, eunuchs were used as bedchamber attendants, as suggested by the Greek origin of the word (eunouchos, eun, "bed," + ouchos, a variant of chein, "to keep"). But throughout history in diverse cultures they have had numerous important and complicated roles as disparate as that of the "sacred kingships" of Ancient Egypt, the religious hijras in India, and the celebrated castrati of Italian opera. Weaving together politics, law, medicine, music, anthropology, theology, literary and social history, and art, Scholz (Universities of Lodz and Bonn) offers a remarkable chronicle of the torment and passions of these individuals and their relationships with androgyny, homosexuality, transvestitism, and transsexuality. Translated from the German by Broadwin and Frisch, the latter of whom offers a brief epilog, this valuable title offers illustrations from a wide variety of sources. In his idiosyncratic investigation of the topic, Taylor (English, Univ. of Alabama) uses his own personal ruminations as well as the texts of three competing views of castration held by the Christian theologian Saint Augustine, the Humanist playwright Thomas Middleton (specifically, his allegorical 1624 play, A Game at Chess), and the modern Jewish psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. Taylor's self-indulgent, wide-ranging, and verbose prose, replete with self-conscious cleverness, is alternately pompous and colloquial in this frustrating polemic: "It probably seems perverse to label something as `natural' as reproductive sex perverse." Over 50 pages of notes add to the pretentiousness of this disappointing title. In markedly different ways, these two titles seek to draw attention to the historical importance of eunuchs, with surprising implications for today. Of the two, Scholz's is recommended for large academic and public libraries, while Taylor's is only for the most comprehensive special collections on male sexuality.--James E. Van Buskirk, San Francisco P.L. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Though for the past century castration has signaled a loss of manhood, says Taylor (English and Renaissance studies, U. of Alabama), for most of western history it was a mark of power and divinity. He traces the meaning, function, and act from the words of Jesus in Matthew and early Christianity to its secular reinvention in the Renaissance and its 20th-century position at the core of psychoanalysis. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
A literary critic turns his deconstructionist scalpel on castration. On the basis of Freud, a few passages from the New Testament, and a play by the Renaissance dramatist Thomas Middleton, Taylor (Cultural Selection, 1996) attempts to fashion a history of male genital removal. Castration, as the author points out, refers only to the removal of the testicles, not the penis. (Eunuchs who face the knife after puberty are sexually capable but sterile.) Our modern confusion about the matter reflects a historical shift, in which the locus of virility moved from the scrotum (source of reproduction) to the penis (source of pleasure). This explains, among other things, why Michelangelo's David has such a small member—his virility was thought to lie in his prodigious gonads. The early Christians, we are told, had good reason to favor castration: Jesus was born "unnaturally" and had no children, after all, and he expected his followers to rise above carnal reproduction as well. The connection between the Renaissance and the Roman Empire is never made completely clear, but the author manages to conclude from his patchy historical survey that eunuchs not only represent the future of mankind—they function as avatars of a kind of "liberation biology." This thesis isn't the only thing that will cause groans. Tired postmodern clichés abound, including forced pop-culture references (a quote from teenybopper Christina Aguilera), unnecessary personal details (the author gleefully reveals that he is among the genitally altered), and a penchant for obscure texts (Middleton is put on par with Shakespeare). Bad variations on an interesting theme.Wiser, William THE TWILIGHT YEARS: Parisin the 1930s Carroll & Graf (304 pp.) Nov. 2000
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780415927857
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis
  • Publication date: 10/28/2000
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 7.82 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

Gary Taylor is Professor of English and Director of the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies at the University of Alabama. His books include Cultural Selection: Why Some Achievements Stand the Test of Time and Others Don't and Reinventing Shakespeare: A Cultural History from the Restoration to the Present. He is the general editor of the Oxford Shakespeare.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One


What Does Manhood Mean?


It is somewhat difficult, I must confess,
to talk of eunuchs, without saying
something that may shock the
modesty of the fair sex.
—Charles Ancillon, 1707


"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 a millennium—equates a sterilized man with a castrated animal. In place of the intrusive and deliberately shocking "boyfriend," the noun we expect is "dog" or "cat." A household pet, loved, groomed, even spoiled, but also tamed, dependent, domesticated. Likewise, although the notorious refrain of a 1999 hit single by Christina Aguilera—


I'm a genie in a bottle
gotta rub me the right way


—never implies that the female singer wants to be fixed up with someone who's been "fixed," it does demand of a lover what it doesn't take a fully equipped man to supply. You don't need testicles to rub your woman the right way.

    Of course, mainstream popular music generally does its best to suppress or ignore this awkward fact. In interviews, Aguilera tried to pretend that "rub me" just meant "treat me," without any specific physical referent at all. Genital stimulation by a man, manually, was admitted as a possibility, only in order to be explicitly banished—and lesbian lovemaking never dared to cross the MTV threshold. Long before Aguilera, the PointerSistershad yearned for "a lover with a slow hand," but although such hands come in both male and female flavors the song insisted on "a man." Likewise, in their 1992 mock-gospel "Sex Is Strong So Believe in It," the hiphop group Snap brags, "I'm clever with my tongue," but any cunnilingual ambiguity is immediately foreclosed by the deep male voice singing the lyrics.

    What is implicit in the Pointer Sisters, or Snap, or the singsong heteroteen Christina, the thirty-something bisexual Tori Amos shakes in your face.


                            if you want inside her
                                                     well,
boy you better make her raspberry swirl


    That "boy" is as taunting as it used to be when employed as a racial epithet, but the target is no longer racial. White men are boys, too; every man is just a boy; the only man here is the female writer/singer ("I'm her man"). In a VH1 interview, she looks straight at the camera and tells her male rivals that this song is "going to kick your ass." Tori Amos challenges any male, any "boy," to compete with her for the female sex object they both desire. Hey, it doesn't take testicles, or a penis, to swirl a woman's "raspberry." And when it gets down to hand-to-hand erotic combat, who could compete with an oral and digital virtuoso like Tori Amos? "Things are getting des-desperate"—she rocks, backed by her male band, hammering her grand piano, or sitting between piano and electric harpsichord, facing the audience, legs apart, simultaneously fingering both instruments—"when all the boys can't be men." (This is a preacher's daughter from North Carolina.) Describing her performances, a male graduate student concluded, "She's a bit too much woman for me." Yessir. Which is why, although Tori Amos is arguably the sexiest woman on the planet, most of the fans who show up to see her in the flesh ("star-fuckers," as she puts it) are female. Men, in general, don't have the balls.

    "What does woman want?" Sigmund Freud wondered.

    (Well, obviously, dummy, it varies from woman to woman, and within the same woman from hour to hour, just as with men; but if we are going to generalize about "woman" not as multinational CEO or soccer mom but about "woman" qua ovulating human in sexual mode, then:)

    What does woman want?

    A eunuch.


Not the way you think, not the way Freud meant. Women do not want to "castrate" men, in the classic psychoanalytic sense; in my experience most of them do not want to be men, and in my experience most of them do not hate men, either. (Ex-wives excepted.) And although a tongue or a finger can give the clitoris a mighty fine time, most women still seek men as sexual partners, presumably because their biological wiring inclines them to accept Germaine Greer's assessment that "a clitoral orgasm with a full cunt is nicer than a clitoral orgasm with an empty one."

    No, when I say that woman-qua-sexual-being wants a eunuch for a lover, I mean eunuch absolutely precisely: She wants a sterile human being with a penis. A sterile human being with a penis needn't be "impotent" in either a sexual or a social sense. Indeed, the boyfriend of my opening anecdote, the one who had been "fixed," was neither sexually dysfunctional nor socially disempowered; otherwise, he would never have been trumpeted in competitive party-talk. Few women would envy another woman for having an impotent boyfriend. But in New York in the late twentieth century, a young professional woman could count on other young professional women to envy her for having a sterile boyfriend. The logic of this party exchange presumes that desire is mimetic, that women want "what other women challenge and possess." At the junction of millennia, what some other women have is a eunuch in the bedroom. 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.

    Why sterile? Because one orgasm per baby is not a pleasure/reproduction ratio that appeals even to women who do want children—and an increasing minority of women don't want children at all. (And for the planet's sake we should all get down on our knees and thank them for their voluntarily vacant wombs.) Do you think it's an accident that the campaign for birth control was fought by women?—publicly by propagandists like Marie Stopes and Margaret Sanger, privately by innumerable wives in boudoir bickering with their husbands. Most of the time, most women want sex without reproductive consequences. Pregnancies disrupt a woman's life far more than they disrupt a man's. Historically, and still, most contraceptives are unreliable, and/or intrusive, and/or a woman's burden and responsibility. So, from a sexual woman's point of view, most or all of the time, "nothing could be finer than a baby-free vagina."

    All that has always been true. What has changed is the sexual balance of power, expressed in Christina's lyric imperative ("gotta rub me") and in Tori's taunting threat ("boy you better make her raspberry swirl"). These women are demanding. Why shouldn't they be? In the aftermath of what I will call in this book "the fall of the scrotum"—an event far more momentous than the fall of the Berlin Wall—the whole logic of sexual relations is changing. The old psychosociosexual system was geared to reproduction, to the union of testicles and ovaries; the goal of intercourse was a shared product, a child with two parents, and a woman could earn respect and affection and even a measure of power for her fertility. Fertility no longer yields such reliable dividends. In 1990, for the first time, American households without children outnumbered households with them; 20 percent of the baby boomer generation remains childless; by 2010, the number of married couples without children is expected to increase by another 50 percent. What most men want, nowadays anyway, most of the time, is their own personal sexual pleasure. And if that is what a man expects, then a woman has every right to expect the same. If not a child for both, then pleasure for both. If the old alliance of testicles and ovaries no longer holds, then the clitoris demands equal rights with the penis.

    These clitoral women can afford to be demanding because they are protected by the law, by their own educations, by their economic independence (in some countries, at least). So Alanis Morissette can scorn a man who imagines he will play literal "meal ticket" to her "puppet," who "took me out to wine dine 69 me but didn't hear a damn word I said"; such men are anachronisms, they never expected a doll to become "a zillionaire," they weren't prepared for a mere girl, "a child," to "come back with my army and this ammunition on my back." Indeed, in her second album, anyone who dines with Morissette had better appreciate that she "could buy and sell this" restaurant. By 1999 she was literally playing God.

    As long as men monopolized the meal tickets, they were pretty much guaranteed admission to the bedroom. No matter how ugly, boring, crass, or cruel, a man could count on getting his piece of the great pussy pie—because every woman needed a man to support her, and there were only so many men to go around. But, as the Elizabethans loved to say, "It is not now as when Andrea lived." Today, most American women can buy their own meals; more and more can buy their own bedrooms, and the homes to go with them, too. Such women can shop for men. And when a woman is doing the sexual shopping, a man had better package himself well, or he ain't gonna get bought.

    Or stay bought. A lot of men, lately, get returned to the store. For instance, among the healthy divorce statistics in the last year of the millennium is the case of a well-educated, good-looking, ambitious young woman in Texas who left her husband. He was your classic corporate asshole who made more money than she did and kept nagging her to give up her piddling academic career. Within months of the divorce she got a tenure-track job and a "boy toy" (her phrase), a graduate student several years younger than herself. She now finds herself just staring at his body as he discourses about his latest cogitations; on one of these occasions, he stopped in mid-sentence and said, "You haven't heard a word I said, have you?" I don't think he realized he was quoting Alanis Morissette.

    Early feminist theorists—particularly Lacanian feminist film critics—spoke of "the male gaze" as though only men had optical equipment. Women have eyes, too, and in cultures where they are allowed and empowered to use them, gals can survey the goods on display, just as guys do. Men now find themselves, increasingly, the objectified object of the appraising female gaze. Teenage males already know this. My three sons and their friends tell me all about it. They've heard girls in the high school cafeteria rating various guys on their butts, pecs, hair, clothes, moves. Among adults, as more women enter the workplace, more men have to regard the office as a fashion runway, where how they strut their stuff will determine whether they take off (sexually or professionally). Men constitute an increasing fraction of the patients who entrust their fates and faces to the cosmetic surgery industry. In some recent Hollywood films, naked male chests and naked male buttocks are more lovingly foregrounded than their female counterparts. The meat market is now a free market.

    And eunuchs are a hot commodity. Not just because they are sterile. In 1972, in The Persian Boy, Mary Renault made a sensitive eunuch the protagonist of a historical fiction (still in print) that became a cult classic; in 1982, the hero of Cry to Heaven—by another popular novelist, Anne Rice—was a castrated bisexual; a gorgeous hetero castrato dominates the eye-catching ear-thrilling award-winning film Farinelli (1994). During the eighties, led by Calvin Klein, the advertising industry began to market male beauty with images drawn from America's gay subculture. Those images are, as often as not, languidly beautiful, silken, androgynous. Insofar as they define a new male ideal, they do so in terms that, like the eunuch, deliberately blur gender boundaries. Straight mainstream men pierce their ears; some even wear nail polish (two body modifications hysterically reviled in earlier periods). Even among athletes, jungle-thick chest hair has become unfashionable. Stud lifeguards secretly rub baby oil on their thighs to keep the skin soft. An emotional openness once gendered feminine is demanded of husbands and boyfriends—who are trashed if they fail the sensitivity test. Increasingly, the male of the female erotic gaze resembles a eunuch: a beautiful hairless permanent boy. Lots of women prefer the adolescent vulnerability of Leonardo DiCaprio or Brad Pitt to a testosterone-fest like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

    So do many men. Because, of course, the erotic gaze need not be heterosexual. The centuries-slow ebb of the reproductive imperative has licensed a panoply of heteromarital "perversions" once condemned by church and state: vaginal intercourse during pregnancy, vaginal intercourse during menstruation, the rhythm method, various prosthetic forms of birth control (like the vasectomy by which a boyfriend is "fixed"). All these practices seek, and validate, sterile sex, and do so in a manner specifically heterosexual. But other practices that guarantee sex without pregnancy—mutual manual masturbation, fellatio, cunnilingus, anal intercourse—are not anatomically restricted to couples composed of one he and one she; they can be performed, just as easily and just as pleasingly, by he-pairs or she-pairs. A lot of the sexual activities enacted, on any given night, by couples we call "heterosexual" are also being performed that night by couples we call "homosexual." (They might be better described, using a less loaded term common in scientific descriptions of other species, as "isosexual"). Whole genres of "straight" porn specialize in these nonvaginal variations, and every new sex survey demonstrates the spread of such pleasures, the delta of Venus widening outward toward the open sea of unboundaried eroticism. Indeed, the most famous, best-documented, and historically significant sexual activities of the 1990s—the carnal encounters of Bill Clinton with Monica Lewinsky—never included vaginal congress. To the extent that such nonreproductive sex acts become commonplace, legitimate, even normative, the boundaries between heterosexuality and isosexuality shift, wobble, evaporate. The AIDS epidemic has only intensified this meltdown: By making dangerous the very exchange of bodily fluids upon which reproduction depends, it has increased the demand for semen-free sex. Likewise, by hyping the hymen, fundamentalist chastity movements in effect license everything that leaves it intact. Hence the rise of the "virgin slut" (male or female), who will try anything except vaginal intercourse. What was once the only sinless form of sex has become the only sexual sin.

    Nonreproductive genital stimulation is older than our species; other primates practice it. But Michel Foucault seems right to detect a critical transformation, since the Renaissance, in the social character of such practices. By the middle of the eighteenth century, male sodomites ("unsexed male-misses") were being reviled in terms that no longer distinguished between penetrator and penetratee. What was once a miscellany of condemned practices had begun to become an identifiable "species" of person, an identity, one created not by involuntary physical marking (like the eunuch) but by cultural self-signing ("their manners, airs, lisp, skuttle, and, in general, all their little modes of affectation"). Although not literally castrated, the isosexual nevertheless practices, by choice, systematically, what the ancien régime of reproduction would categorize as "unsexed" sex.

    By the late twentieth century, such castrated sensualities had come to seem, to some, not deviant but foundational. Eve Sedgwick reconceptualizes heterosexuality as a subsidiary formation, governed by the dominant homosocial and homoerotic relationships between men; Marjorie Garber, endorsing Freud's description of the "polymorphous perversity" of the infant, insists upon "the universal bisexuality of human beings"; Lee Edelman criticizes Freud's interpretation of a crucial episode in the Wolf Man case (where the child had seen the father penetrating the mother from behind, and therefore perhaps anally), but he accepts Freud's assertion that a child sees the mother as a castrated man, and thereby concludes that the "primal scene" establishes and presupposes "the imaginative priority of a sort of proto-homosexuality," with heterosexuality a "later" "compromise." Like Foucault's own History of Sexuality, these theories, all published in the last fifteen years of the millennium, challenge the "natural" primacy of male-female intercourse: Heterosexuality becomes just one late and suspect item on the bedroom menu. Whether or not this new queer essentialism is any more accurate, as a description of the world, than the heteronorm it aspires to displace, the mere promulgation of such theories among intellectual elites indicates how low the scrotum has fallen. In the new sex order, not only do full testicles confer no evident erotic advantage; they have actually become a suspect handicap. A castrated male, or another woman, may make a woman's raspberry swirl more ecstatically.

    This is a specter that has haunted men for centuries: the fear that manhood will become, or has already become, obsolete, superfluous, ridiculous, at best quaint, at worst disgusting. Nowadays, you can buy a vibrating dildo (discreetly labeled a "muscle massager") in a novelty shop in your local mall. After the invention of the portable electric penis—even before the coming of the clone—who needs men anymore?

    American males who insist on calling themselves "real men" acknowledge and defy this threat. Susan Faludi, reporting on self-help meetings for wife beaters, summarizes their worldview in one sentence: "Men cannot be men, only eunuchs, if they are not in control." Real men, an embattled minority, emphatically distinguish themselves from the millions of fake men or half-men who have been "castrated" by so-called feminazis. Tori Amos epitomizes the women such men revile: powerful, talented, pansexual, unsubmissive—and is probably most famous for an autobiographical song about being raped ("me and a gun and a man on my back"). Rape, of course, like domestic violence, is a form of terrorism, intended to empower the perpetrator and humiliate the victim. Some men feel so unmanned by women like Tori Amos that they can only preserve their fragile masculinity by means of a prosthetic penis-pistol. But by singing her rape song, the invaded survivor refuses to shut up, refuses to be permanently terrorized; she unrapes herself, and others. The rapist can prevent such a reversal only by killing his victim. But he can't kill all the women on the planet, after all, and nothing short of gynocide could free him from his impotence. If women survive and refuse to be silenced, then the rapist's artifically inflated manhood lasts only as long as it takes to inject his pathetic milliliter of sperm into an unwelcoming orifice. If that's masculinity, then vibrators are a definite improvement.

    But why should men be threatened by plastic penises? As Germaine Greer insisted, "A man is more than a dildo." Every man is more than his genitalia. Most animals retract the penis into the body when it isn't in use; they become, as it were, part-time eunuchs. Unfortunately, we haven't learned to do that yet. But when a man is not actually having sex, psychologically and socially he should (and can) tuck his unemployed cock in his pocket, reverting to the status of a neuter human, relating to other neuter humans in sexually neutral terms. When he wants to be sexual, of course, he can take it back out. But, even then, it serves its sexual function whether it's loaded with spermatozoa or not. And it's never the only tool in his box. A eunuch has, in addition to that sterile dildo-dick, two hands and a mouth, muscles and skin, eyes, tears, laughter, a voice, a mind. The measure of sexual manhood is the ability to deploy those varied assets to make yourself more attractive than a vibrator, more attractive than all the other erotic options available to any desirable sexual partner. A penis-being who has freed himself from the biological demands of his testicles, who no longer limits his sexual identity or imagination to sperm delivery, can create and sustain spirals of excitement, vortices of reciprocal engagement. That is not impotence, but power.

    In declaring this, I mark myself as one of those fake men so despised by the real ones. Few readers will be surprised to discover that I am the "boyfriend" fixed in my opening anecdote. In 1980, after the birth of my second child, I got a vasectomy. Since then I have adopted two more children, but I have stopped siring offspring of my own. I have not stopped having sex. But to me it seemed then, and still seems now, immoral to overreproduce; other methods of birth control interfere with sexual spontaneity and pleasure or require much more intrusive and dangerous interventions in the female reproductive system. So, two decades ago, I let a surgeon take a knife to my testicles, in order to ensure that I could no longer impregnate anyone. For two decades, I have lived the life of a eunuch, an artificially sterile male. I am today a happily manufactured man. Contented castrated.

    I do not intend to ignore the technical distinctions between vasectomy and other forms of castration, but for most men those distinctions don't matter. Hence their unpersuadable irrational resistance to a cheap outpatient operation that guarantees ever-ready contraception (and lets you indulge your most sensitive and eager member without having to wrap it in plastic). You aren't going to get many men to volunteer for a vasectomy if they equate it with radical genital amputation. Whatever its form, self-castration remains, for the male majority, simply incomprehensible. As the rhetoric of "real men" demonstrates, the uncastrated do not even know what to call a castrated human being. He resists definition. Is he still male? Is it still human?


That bewilderment did not originate in the 1990s; it has a long, loud, angry history. One of the first literary descriptions of the castrated—in a Mesopotamian myth between three thousand and four thousand years old—culminates in a curse.


I shall curse you with a mighty curse!
I shall decree for you a fate never to be forgotten.
The scrapings of the city's ploughs shall be your food,
The city drains your only drinking place,
The shadow of a wall your only standing place,
The threshold steps your only sitting place!
Drunkard and thirsty both shall smite your cheek!


Real men have been raging against unreal men for millennia.

    How can we possibly overcome the rage, confusion, or depression of contemporary men without understanding that history? Such emotions—like the overpowering suicidal panic that landed me in a locked psychiatric ward three years ago—originate in the perceived gap between actions and definitions. How can a man know how he should act without knowing what he should be? And how can anyone "be a man" without knowing what the word man means? To begin with, does it mean "male" or "human"? In either case, it does not seem to mean anymore what it once meant. In 1942, a character in Albert Camus' The Stranger could declare that "everyone knows what it means" to be "a man." But even in 1942, that was probably ironic: When someone asks you, "What does that mean?" you cannot logically answer, "Everyone knows," because the questioner obviously does not know. Certainly, six decades later, most men's experiences do not fit the definition of man we have inherited. Is that because something has gone wrong with the world or because something was always wrong with the word? Every man's self-assurance, his sense of ethical and practical direction, depends upon a definition, a point of orientation outside himself—whether he identifies that personal North Pole as the tradition of a people or the biology of a species or the commandment of a god. Consequently, whenever we lose our way we retrace our steps until we can realign ourselves in relation to that magnetic point of orientation.

    I have written this book in an effort to reorient myself (and other men, including my sons) by retracing the steps that have led us to this mess. Because actions depend upon definitions, this is a book about meanings. It is organized conceptually (like a dictionary, in which one definition follows another). In order to answer the question "What does it mean to be a man?" I am asking, "What does it mean to be castrated?" That may seem like an odd way to proceed, but it has a distinguished philosophical history. In one of Plato's earliest dialogues, Socrates is reported to have said, "What I mean I may explain by an illustration of what I do not mean."

    The nature and culture of maleness is, after all, a dauntingly large territory to map. Who could possibly, in one lifetime, master the whole history of every word (in every language) or every social practice (in every civilization) relevant to a definition of manhood? Obviously, I must cut the subject down to a manageable size. "Man" is a large category; "eunuch" is, by comparison, a small one. Fortunately, the small category implies the larger one. By helping us to identify what a man is not, the eunuch clarifies what a man is.

    So, what does it mean to be castrated? For one thing, it means—in our culture—not being a Christian. My voluntary vasectomy automatically excommunicated me from the Roman Catholic church in which I had been raised. Castration has in fact been deeply entangled in the central beliefs and practices of Christianity for two thousand years. And that makes sense, because any attempt to understand the relationship between God and man must assume or construct a definition of man.


What then doth all that which remained of him after his gelding signify? Whither is that referred? The meaning of that now?


Saint Augustine—the most influential of all Christian theologians—asked these outraged, uncomprehending questions almost sixteen centuries ago, in the twilight of the Roman Empire. He was describing the pagan Roman "massacre of manhood" associated with the earth goddess Cybele, the "Great Mother"; her male devotees, "unmanning of themselves," made themselves "barren by their own hands." The resulting "gelded person" (who was "left neither man nor woman") is what Augustine did not know how to name, define, or explain.

    Gods and goddesses come and go, but the eunuch remains. The goddess Cybele, for whom men once castrated themselves, has shrunk to the status of a footnote in a college textbook. Augustine's God, by contrast, is all around us. And his preoccupation with the meaning of castration originated in a text still familiar to hundreds of millions of readers who have never heard of Cybele, or even Augustine. In the twelfth verse of the nineteenth chapter of the first book of the New Testament, the Gospel according to Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples:


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.


Augustine himself, recounting in his Confessions the story of his own journey toward God, quoted this enigmatic passage twice. In the first centuries of Christianity, the meaning of Christ's words about eunuchs fascinated and divided devotees of the new faith. The word eunuch appears more than five hundred times in the surviving works of the early Church fathers. Even now, the debates about clerical celibacy that sunder Christian denominations derive in large part from different interpretations of "made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake."

    At the beginning of the third century the first great Christian polemicist, Tertullian, citing that passage, declared that the followers of Jesus had been "trained by God" in order to "emasculate the world." Nietzsche, at the end of the nineteenth century, agreed:


The Church combats the passions with excision in every sense of the word: its practice, its "cure" is castration ... it has at all times laid the emphasis of its discipline on extirpation (of sensuality, of pride, of lust for power, of avarice, of revengefulness.)—But to attack the passions at their roots means to attack life at its roots: the practice of the Church is hostile to life.


    How often does "being a man" coincide with the imitation of Christ? Almost never, in my experience. Do I have to cut myself, literally or psychologically, to enter the kingdom of heaven? Some members of the Heaven's Gate cult did just that; police examining the bodies discovered that several of the men had been castrated. Whither is that referred? The meaning of that now?

    Castration is bigger than Christianity, of course, or any other religion. Its most famous modern theorist, Sigmund Freud, attributed to it a meaning both secular and universal—and readers who are expecting psychoanalysis to loom large in this book will not be disappointed. Freud was entirely right when he realized that castration is fundamental to what makes us human. If you think this is a book about "other people" and about the comfortably distant past, you are wrong; this is a book about all of us (male and female, castrated or not), about the human past and present, about the posthuman future.

    But castration is bigger than Freud, too. Indeed, psychoanalysis is, for me, not a solution but another problem: Why was Freud's castration theory, so obviously mistaken about both history and anatomy, nevertheless so widely accepted and influential in the twentieth century? Why, for the first time in human history, did so many people then want castration to mean that?

    And Freud is not the only person to have misinterpreted castration. The eunuch attracts myths as fruit does flies. Consequently, many of my conclusions are bound to seem counterintuitive or paradoxical. Eunuchs are in fact not impotent, but powerful; they are often sexually active, and capable of erections; castration does not so much suppress eros as redirect and in some ways liberate it; castration need have nothing to do with the penis; Jesus did not mean what all modern commentaries say he meant; texts were originally "castrated" in order to regulate religion, not obscenity; women are not castrated and do not aspire to castrate men; the relationship between castration and racism is not accidental or anecdotal or limited to the American South, but fundamental and structural; circumcision is more ancient than castration; castration is not an obsolete and degrading savagery, but a humane corollary of civilization and a first, prescient technology for transcending our genetic limitations; castration, by treating people as livestock, distinguishes humans from animals.

    The evidence for these propositions lies in the physiology of puberty and the history of agriculture, in censorship and cannibalism and cancer treatments, in Nazi eugenics and the mapping of the human genome, in Islamic harems and papal choirs, in nigger-lynching and bitch-hating and fag-bashing, in the operations performed on John Wayne Bobbitt and in the meat you buy at your local grocery store, in novels by Hemingway and Faulkner, Rabelais and the Marquis de Sade, in London plays, Italian operas, American science fictions, Latin satires, Greek historians, Dead Sea scrolls, paleolithic art. The answers, in other words, lie outside of any single academic discipline or any single Dewey decimal category, in what I call a "federal" intellectual space, linking different territories of knowledge into what sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson calls "consilience."

    Why do we need all that, just to answer one simple question? Because the eunuch defies inherited categories and cannot be defined by any inquiry that respects them. To understand castration we need to situate each conceptual site where it occurs (Christianity, for instance) in relationship to every other conceptual site where it occurs (psychoanalysis, for instance)—and to relate such diverse sites to one another, we have to construct a multidisciplinary historical topography of male sexuality. After all, since eunuchs are created by surgically altering male genitals, "What is a eunuch?" cannot be answered without asking "What is the relationship between male genitals and male identity?"

    Freud treats Kastration as a synonym for Entmannung (unmanning); for Augustine, the eunuch amputates virilitas (manhood) and no longer remains vir (a man); for both, and for our civilization as a whole, castration produces a "not-man," a marked category that assumes and requires an already existing, widely accepted, seemingly unremarkable, genitally specific definition of "man." For an anomaly cannot be understood except in relationship to the unspoken norm. The eunuch, the castrated male, has always been understood in opposition to the uncastrated male. But at the same time, the anomaly of the eunuch shadows and challenges the sexual norms of manhood. The eunuch circles the uncastrated man like a scarred satellite, eternally exiled and intimately distant, its faithful circuit illuminating and enabling us to locate that center of gravity outside itself.

    The unmanned man, the eunuch, gives us a fulcrum and a focal point (and a future). But even the history of the eunuch is a dauntingly large domain. It would be easy to get lost. To keep from getting lost, I have tried to follow an injunction articulated in a Greek treatise on eunuchs, written early in the twelfth century by a bishop in the Byzantine Christian church:


      Even if some of the laws and the canons
interdict the removing of the testicle-twins,
      home in on the mind of the inscriptions,
and the epoch of those laws examine,
      and the whole expanse of circumstance behold,
confident in the laws of rhetoric.


    Like Theophylaktos, nine centuries ago, this book tries to "home in"—the Greek word can be used for a ship coming into harbor or a servant's intimate attendance on a master—and the master/home I am seeking is the meaning of these texts, "the mind of the inscriptions." And so, although every text I quote will be translated into English, I do occasionally have to call attention to the strangenesses of languages we no longer speak, the unfamiliar letters left by alien meaning-minds.

    Meanings evolve, from one "epoch" to another, one "expanse of circumstance" to another. In the pursuit of meaning, we cannot ignore the history of words or the history of social worlds to which those words refer. Nevertheless, "the laws of rhetoric" compel me to organize these vast masses of disparate material into an intelligible narrative. And so, in order not to be overwhelmed by the number of epochs and circumstances pertinent to this abbreviated inquiry into abbreviated maleness, I will keep returning to three authors who wrote in three European languages: Latin Augustine (as a representative of the branch of Christianity dominant in Western Europe and the Americas), German Freud (as a representative of psychoanalysis), and an underappreciated playwright of the English Renaissance/Reformation, Thomas Middleton (as a representative of literature). The divine, the self, and the social. Behind these three authors, uniting these three categories, is a fourth author in a fourth language: Saint Matthew and his Greek memory of Jesus.

    Theophylaktos himself, who enjoins us to study the history of castration, was writing to defend one interpretation of it against others. Like Theophylaktos, both Augustine and Freud were polemical writers. (Polemical comes from the Greek word for "war.") That is not a coincidence. As I have argued elsewhere, human civilizations are dynamic nonlinear systems, and culture is always contested. Some feminists and pacifists might dismiss that very concept—culture as an unending series of pissing contests—as "typically male." Maybe it is. Long before the Sylvester Stallone films, my grandfather nicknamed me "Rocky" (after the then World Heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano) because, when he dandled me as an infant on his knee, I used to punch with my little fist at the massive palm of his hand. So maybe my intellect was molded by a hard-drinking truck-driving Kansan. But is a "typically male" theory of culture inappropriate to the analysis of maleness? Even if you do not accept my personal polemical theory of cultural selection, you surely have to agree that men do fight other men over the meaning of manhood. Sometimes they fight with their hands; sometimes they fight with things their hands have made. Defending their manhood, men throw at other men weapons and texts. And sometimes the losers get castrated.

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Table of Contents

What Does Manhood Mean?
1. Contest of Texts: Christianity, Freudianity, Humanism
2. Contest of Males: The Power of Eunuchs
3. Contests of Organs: Genital Plural
4. Contest of Gods: Dream Divination
5. Contest of Reproductions: The Rise of the Penis, the Fall of the Scrotum
6. Contest of Genders: Castrating Women
7. Contest of Races: Castrated White Men
8. Contest of Kinds: Confusing Categories
9. Contest of Signs: Branded and Domesticated Male Animals
10. Contest of Times: What Would Jesus Do? The Future of Man
Appendix
Thomas Middleton and A Game at Chess
Acknowledgments
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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 25, 2001

    the future of man

    what a great book! other then the constant referances to that poem, including a section in the back with a synopis of it, the writer basically is letting us know, the future is upon us. women, whether they know it or not, want eunuchs. and i think in the next ten to twenty years, the eunuch population will grow adn become more public.

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