The Itch That Can’t Be Scratched: The Poor Hermaphrodite of the One-Sex Model

For my post I will be drawing from Ovid’s Hermaphroditus and Salmacis as well as Thomas Laqueur’s chapter “Destiny Is Anatomy”, but in the name of good discussion I will naturally encourage you all to connect with the other texts we have read for this week as well. As I am interested in writing about pleasure for our final paper, the terrifyingly named “genital itch” that Laqueur mentions grabbed my attention (44). This itch can be described as a process of attraction, where the “sperma and catamenia generate heat in the genital regions, [and] both put pressure on the sexual organs that are prepared to respond to their stimuli…to spur coition” (44). In trying to track the buildup of sexual passion, Aristotle points to the buildup of fluids within the body that create this “itch”. He even goes so far as to say same sex relations existed because of the sheer power such an itch caused, where, naturally, “great pleasure is to be had from scratching” (44).

With this in mind, Ovid’s story becomes particularly interesting when one considers poor Hermaphroditus’ prayer to Mercurie and Venus. After emerging from the pool, he (she?) emerges a “toy of double shape” and “his limes were weakened so/ That out fro thence but halfe a man he was” (Book IV 468-9, 472-3). This does not seem a positive description, and despite his fusing with another person, he is described as less than what he was. His sexual organ is hinted at with “toy”, but in describing it as such the text seems to be demeaning its newfound “double shape”. So why then ask that “whoso commes within this Well may so be weakened there” and effectively “diminish” other men who take a swim (477)? It may be that he is cruel, but it also seems that this newly, doubly sexed individual has realized that he too will have an itch that cannot be scratched.

Before his change, there is quite a struggle between the Nymph and the beautiful boy. They “strive, struggle, wrest and writhe”, and although it may be unnecessary to say considering their nakedness, Laqueur notes that within the male-female sex act is a power struggle between the male and female seed  (Book IV 459) (Laqueur 40). The quarrel between the Nymph and the boy can be re-imagined as arousing, though for the Nymph this hardly needs to be said. When combined, this arousal, I think, remains. To be a hermaphrodite is not a condemnation in and of itself, but to exist as the only hermaphrodite is to condemn such a person to forever feel the itch. In order to satisfy both sexual organs, Hermaphroditus must ideally find another person possessing the same “double shape”. The story then seems to be trying to resolve the issue of satisfaction inherent in Hermaphroditus’ dilemma, which exists as the “desire/ The which their double shaped sonne had made” (479-80).

Perhaps, though, he merely recognizes a new emerging identity that cannot exist within his previous culture. Laqueur states that “Aristotle, who was immensely concerned about the sex of free men and women, recognized no sex among slaves” (54). Men were citizens, women were free, and slaves were slaves, beings who “are without sex because their gender does not matter politically” (54). I wonder then, if Hermaphroditus has a fear that is working in the other direction; would he/she, as a dual-sexed person, not fit into this model and therefore be genderless, even made a slave? His last act then, to create others like himself, also stands as the creation of a new society, where the traditional model is broken to accommodate the doubly-sexed. Are there other interpretations that you see within the story? How else do hermaphrodites create problems with the traditional “hammer and anvil” model of sexuality?

The Fifteen Books Of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Trans. Arthur Golding. London: B.F., 2002. Print.

Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body And Gender From The Greeks To Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. Print.

Bloodshed in The Duchess of Malfi and Eve’s Apology

Last week, we discussed Foucault’s ideas concerning the significance of blood during the Middle Ages. According to Foucault, to a society concerned about death, “blood was a reality with a symbolic function” that held significance to both human biology and the organization of medieval structures of power (Foucault 147). Comparatively, modern society is concerned about life and procreation, and sex now plays the role blood once did. In this post, I would like to focus on a certain aspect of blood, namely the notion of “bloodshed,” and examine how it is represented in The Duchess of Malfi and Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women, as well as what implications these representations may have for sexuality.

The plot of The Duchess of Malfi is based around a struggle for control over a bloodline. Ferdinand and the Cardinal attempt to dissuade their widowed sister, the Duchess, from remarrying and thereby continuing her own branch of their shared bloodline. When their efforts fail, they begin to target her and her family, attempting to blockade the channels of blood she has produced through her marriage to Antonio and through their offspring. To do this, Ferdinand and the Cardinal resort to having them killed, a literal cessation of blood flow. Thus, in The Duchess of Malfi, control over blood and its flow is synonymous with power, in accordance with Foucault’s thoughts regarding the cultural value of blood.

Bloodshed (or rather, lack thereof) also plays a role in the plot, but its significance does not seem as straightforward. The two brothers attempt to regulate the Duchess’s bloodline, but without “spilling” any of her blood. Initially, they try to coerce the Duchess not to remarry through intimidation rather than violence; they try to quarantine her instead of immediately disposing of her. Even when she is ultimately killed, it is through strangulation—no blood is actually drawn, even though Ferdinand has earlier threatened her with his father’s knife (1.3.38) and given her a poniard with which to kill herself (3.2.69). This decision regarding the method of her execution appears to be deliberate and meaningful. In her critical piece, “Drowned in Blood,” Ariane M. Balizet discusses how Ferdinand views the Duchess as a “contamination” to his own bloodline that he must “purge” (Balizet 32). Perhaps, then, this bloodless execution is performed to contain the alleged bad blood within its impure vessel, safeguarding Ferdinand and the Cardinal’s bloodline from their sister’s infected blood. Contrarily, before her execution, the Duchess says, “I have so much obedience in my blood, / I wish it in their veins to do them good” (4.2.148-149). She claims that her own blood is pure, and her brothers are actually the one who possess the impure blood. If this is true, then her brothers’ decision to kill her without bloodshed may instead be motivated by a fear that any exposure of her blood will reveal her as innocent and them as contaminated.

The notion of bloodshed also appears in other medieval texts, but in non-medical contexts, such as in Aemelia Lanyer’s Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women. Referring to Pontius Pilate’s condemnation of Jesus, Lanyer writes, “Why wilt thou be a reprobate with Saul / To seek the death of him that is so good, / For thy soul’s health to shed his dearest blood?” (Lanyer 94-96). She argues that such a fault as sending Jesus to his death would be just as great as Eve partaking of the forbidden fruit. As such, it ought to restore the equality between man and woman once enjoyed in the Garden of Eden. Man, as represented by Pilate, would refrain from this bloodshed, then, not to avoid contamination, but condemnation.

I argue that in both of these cases, exacting bloodshed results in a loss of power on the part of the executor. Moreover, if, as Foucault claims, the “symbolics of blood” have transitioned into an “analytics of sexuality,” then the medieval significance of bloodshed has certain implications about modern conceptions of sexuality (Foucault 148). To draw or spill blood was to reveal its visible and tangible nature, which, like sex, was accepted only under certain settings and within certain discourses. The costs of violating these accepted discourses was a loss of power or social standing. Today, we can see similar consequences being imposed upon those who draw sex from out of the recesses of privacy and into public view.


Works Cited

Balizet, Ariane M. “’Drowned in Blood’: Honor, Bloodline, and Domestic Ideology in The Duchess of Malfi and El médico de su honra.” Comparative Literature Studies 49.1 (2012): 23-49. JSTOR. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. New York: Vintage Books, 1978. Print.

Lanyer, Aemelia. Eve’s Apology in Defense of Women. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 1433-1436. Print.

Webster, John. The Duchess of Malfi. Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 1572-1647. Print.