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Book Forum: Sexuality   |    
Castration: An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:691-692. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.4.691
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Columbus, Miss.

By Gary Taylor. New York, Routledge, 2000, 304 pp., $25.00.

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In Woody Allen’s triumphantly silly early movie Bananas, he is trying to pick up Louise Lasser, who has a women’s lib chip on her shoulder but explains, “Oh, the liberation of women does not mean castration for the male.” This causes Allen to wince and crumble up; just mentioning the word, he explains, causes such a reaction. According to Gary Taylor, however, a castrated man is just what some women would want and have wanted for centuries. This will sound peculiar to those raised in the 20th century on Freud or those who have followed the follies of John and Lorena Bobbitt. What Lorena did, and what Freud theorized on, was not castration as it had been understood for centuries. Before Freud, castration meant removal of the testicles, not removal of the penis. The 17th-century Byzantine physician Paul of Aegina gives the earliest medical description of the operation, which involved removing the testicles by compression or excision. (I wish that Taylor had told more about how the operations, especially self-castrations, were done, and what sort of survival rate or complications there were.)

As animals became domesticated, farmers learned that there were advantages to castrating bulls, for instance, to make pliable, working oxen. (Farmers never made the Freudian confusion and cut off the penises of their animals; that would have served no useful purpose.) It would not have been long before people began to wonder about the advantages of keeping men who had been castrated (the corresponding operation on women was much too difficult to consider).

Clearly, testicles were more important to Renaissance artists than were penises. Taylor explains that when a copy of Michelangelo’s David was unveiled at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, its equipment was covered by a fig leaf, which got complaints from the punters (and perhaps from art lovers as well). When the fig leaf was removed, “some customers then began to giggle because the leafless David’s cazzo was obviously, by modern standards, a little…well, little. Underendowed. The customer is always right. So the statue was taken away again, and David was given a couple of extra inches where it counts.” But no one complained about the size of the testicles, which Michelangelo had made as prominent as his society would have wanted. It was reproduction that was important then, and the “stones” were what mattered. Now that we have reproduced entirely enough, the “scepter” is more important. Sex for pleasure is now more vital than sex for reproduction. Freud’s theories about men’s fretting about an upcoming castration and women’s envying penises misrepresent the history of castration and the history of patriarchy.

Eunuchs, like oxen, were useful. The word itself comes from a Greek compound of “bed” and “guard.” Eunuchs had the responsibility of guarding the marriage bed. “They were qualified for that social function by being disqualified from a biological one.” Eunuchs promoted the harem system because a dominant man could thereby ensure that his harem would bear only his children. Importantly, it must have been realized that eunuchs were capable of desire, of erections, of orgasm, and even of ejaculation, but any semen produced contained no sperm. Diddling within the harem would have meant little, since there could be no issue. The Romans and Ottomans used eunuchs for centuries but eventually introduced the sensible precaution of importing rather than manufacturing them, so that the eunuchs might have been angry at their castrators but could not take revenge on them.

Being a eunuch, whatever its disadvantages, had its perks. Playing games in the harem was one. Another was that only socially dominant men could maintain eunuchs, and so the eunuch was often rewarded with money or power. In some dynasties, eunuchs were the real power, and some had full control of the state. Power in the bedchamber became power in law and power over the military. Abelard, following his castration, was an important figure in the medieval Christian church. These eunuchs were not defective men but improved ones, in the view of their societies.

Taylor’s thorough scholarship is especially well focused in his discussion of the Bible, early Christians, and Augustine. In Matthew 19:12, Jesus says, “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.” Jesus here speaks highly of eunuchs, but Augustine couldn’t stand eunuchs. So to Augustine, this could be nothing but allegory; Jesus was obviously speaking of priestly celibacy. Paul stressed a circumcision of the heart rather than actual surgery; Augustine stressed a eunuchism for priests that had nothing to do with surgery either. Taylor makes the case that Jesus was not speaking allegorically at all. An enslaved eunuch was the lowest member of his society, and “the last shall be first.” Jesus blessed the barren and encouraged his listeners to gain heaven by forsaking family and children. The clear condemnation of reproduction taken figuratively by Augustine has been taken literally by sects like the Shakers, but castration has been taken literally by plenty of others, such as the Skoptsky in Russia, who may have been actively self-castrating for Jesus until around 1970.

Taylor perspicaciously asks why the decrees against reproduction were not literally carried out and finds that it was simple Darwinian survival. The sects that kept Matthew 19:12 allegorical were able to reproduce and keep going, and those which took it (and other antireproduction verses) literally simply didn’t have a next generation to take up their traditions.

Taylor is a Shakespearean scholar (an editor of the Oxford Shakespeare) and cites plenty of the Bard, but he bases much of his work on a close reading of A Game at Chess, a 1624 tragedy by Thomas Middleton, of whom I hadn’t heard. Taylor thinks Middleton the second greatest English dramatist, but, knowing that we don’t know a thing about the play, an allegory that revolves around a castration (of testicles, to be sure, not of the penis) of a black pawn by a white one, he describes it fully and shows how eunuchism tells in sex, religion, politics, and racial affairs.

The modern eunuch is the vasectomized man; sex for men with vasectomies and their partners does not have the goal of reproduction. With citations from artists from Shakespeare and Jonson to Tori Amos and Christina Aguilera, Taylor suggests that “abnormal” sexuality and gender identities can become normal and desired, and a eunuch is just the thing to answer Freud’s famous but somewhat mutton-headed question of what do women want. Funny, provocative, scholarly, and decidedly offbeat, Castration is a witty tour de force.




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