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.
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)
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 memberhis 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 mankindthey 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