Scholia Reviews ns 12 (2003) 32.
Luc Brisson (tr. Janet Lloyd), Sexual Ambivalence: Androgyny and Hermaphroditism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Pp. xiv + 195. ISBN 0-520-23148-1. US$16.95; UK£11.95.
David D. Leitao
San Francisco State University
This book is an exploration of Greek and Roman perceptions of dual-sex (hermaphroditism) and dual- gender (androgyny), mostly within the realm of myth, and takes the form of a collection of four loosely- related essays, much of it a reworking of the author's earlier publications dating back to the mid- 1970s. The author tells us in the preface that the book is 'intended as a working aid for all those interested in the question of dual sexuality, whether in the domains of psychoanalysis, gay or gender studies, the history of medicine or zoology, the history of ideas, or even the history of art' (p. xiii). It is indeed written so as to be accessible to the general educated reader, though there are helpful notes for the professional classicist. The main achievement of this book is that it collects in one place a number of obscure and difficult texts that bear on the theme of dual-sex and dual-gender, particularly in the area of cosmogonic myth.
Given that much of the material in this book was conceived in the 1970s, it should perhaps not be surprising that the author's approach is typical of the work of French structuralists a generation ago: it is a mostly ahistorical exploration (Brisson frequently does not even distinguish between Greece and Rome) of broad patterns of thought divorced, for the most part, from any socio-political or rhetorical context. One would have no inkling, from reading Brisson, of the neo-historicist revolution that has taken place in the history of sexuality in Greco- Roman antiquity in the last fifteen years, a movement inspired in part by the work of Michel Foucault, but really developed in earnest by a group of American classicists under the leadership of David Halperin, John J. Winkler, Amy Richlin, and Craig Williams. Brisson does not cite the work of any of these scholars. If the explanation is that much of the material in this book was originally written prior to 1990, one cannot help wondering why the University of California Press has decided to publish older work that the author has made little effort to update to reflect major advances in the field.
In Chapter 1, 'Monsters' (pp. 7-40), the author argues that attitudes toward the birth of a hermaphrodite child underwent a change in the first century BCE from superstitious revulsion (usually leading to the burning or drowning of the child) to rational understanding. This chronological argument, the author's only real attempt in the book to present his material in some historical context, is undercut in great part, as the author himself seems to recognize (pp. 39f.), by the promiscuous resort to texts from both Greece and Rome, and from very different genres. And the historical analysis is only skin deep. For example, the author observes that all sixteen of the hermaphrodite prodigies recorded in Livy come from the years 209 to 92 BCE, even though Livy's history continued down to 12 BCE. The author offers only that these were 'years fraught with wars and crises of all kinds' (p. 23). He does not explain why the 'wars and crises' of the subsequent period, say 92-31 BCE, did not give rise to similar prodigies. Nor does he consider literary explanations for the distribution of prodigies in Livy's work, such as the use of different sources for the second and first centuries or the possible use of prodigies as a rhetorical device for punctuating events in the more distant past.
The Greek Diodorus is supposed to mark a shift to a more rational attitude. It is true that he expresses disgust at two quasi-historical instances in which a biological hermaphrodite was burned alive. But Brisson also cites Diodorus' discussion of two cases in which a child who is taken to be a girl at birth develops male genitals around the time of marriage. In both cases, the person is purged of his female organs with the help of surgery and becomes a full- fledged man. The author concludes, 'Diodorus found a strategy for undermining the superstition that surrounded the appearance of androgynous beings . . . [H]e showed that androgyny is a natural phenomenon that can be resolved by means of surgery . . .' (p. 37). But these two stories are not really examples of hermaphrodites whose ambiguous position is resolved by enlightened medicine, but are stories of sex change, and the result is always a male, never a female. Diodorus says of one case 'Thus she who was born a woman took on a man's courage and renown' (p. 35), and of the other '[the surgeon] received a female invalid and made her into a healthy young man' (p. 36). What Diodorus -- or more likely, his source -- has done is to assimilate these cases of biological hermaphroditism to a mythical paradigm in which a girl is transformed into a boy at puberty, a pattern best known from the myths of Leukippos (Nicander fr. 45) and Iphis (Ovid, Met. 9.666- 797). This is not a triumph of rationality, but a naked statement of masculinist teleology.
Chapter 2, 'Dual Sexuality and Homosexuality' (pp. 41-71), uses an extended analysis of Ovid's version of the Hermaphroditus myth (Met. 4.285-399) to explore the relation, in Greek and Roman thought, between dual-sex and passive homosexuality. Brisson illustrates persuasively how Ovid has joined two separate tradition -- the myth of Hermaphroditus' merger with Salmacis and a folk belief in the enervating properties of a Carian spring named Salmaci -- by having the dual-sexed Hermaphroditus pray to the gods that men who enter Salmacis' waters in the future 'become soft', mollescat. But Brisson goes farther and argues that Ovid's myth 'sets out to explain the origin of passive homosexuality' (p. 42), which requires him to understand mollescat in the narrowest sexual terms. Although there is much semantic overlap, the word mollis is not a synonym for 'passive homosexual'. Only Vitruvius' statement that Salmacis' waters could make men molles et impudicos comes close to making the link explicit (pp. 52, 166- 67 n. 18). I think it is wrong to impose so narrow a reading on Ovid in the absence of further clues in the text. But my main reason for quibbling with Brisson's translation of mollescat is that it serves as the foundation for an assumption that permeates the remainder of this chapter that dual-sex and dual-gender are fundamentally analogous. Such an assumption requires much more argumentation as well as a dose of theoretical sophistication.
Chapter 3, 'Archetypes' (pp. 72-114), explores the theme of dual sexuality in creation myths drawn from Orphic and Gnostic texts, the Chaldean Oracles, and the Hermetic Corpus. Brisson provides a useful survey of the different traditions, but does not go much beyond description. Because he tends to think of 'male' and 'female' as abstractions, he does not seem attracted to questions like why most of the 'dual- sexed' creator figures are really male gods that possess attributes or powers of both sexes. Nor does he seem interested in historical questions: At what historical moments were dual-sexed creator figures most attractive to the Greeks? To the Romans? Why? Instead, he tends to think in terms of a single broad mentalité that stretches from Homer to Proclus: his title for this chapter, 'Archetypes,' is quite revealing. But I think it does matter, particularly to the general reader at whom this book is aimed, to know when Damascius and Proclus are writing, and what biases they bring to their accounts of earlier cosmogonic speculation. Indeed, it is surprising that no mention is made whatsoever of Martin West's Orphic Poems,[] the most serious attempt (however controversial) in half a century to sort out the different historical layers of the Orphic tradition.
Brisson also pays little attention to the rhetorical contexts of texts he canvasses. The area that suffers most is his discussion of the cosmogonic 'myth' in Plato's Symposium. Whereas Aristophanes himself introduces the original double male, androgyne, and double female to make the argument that male-male love is superior to male-female love, Brisson privileges the original androgyne as the model for an undifferentiated primordial union of opposites, and in effect replicates the heterosexual teleology that he so shrewdly observes (p. 80) in Freud's treatment of the same 'myth' in Three Essays on Sexuality. Brisson clings to the old-fashioned notion that Aristophanes is channeling a genuine primitive 'myth,' and ignores excellent recent work that demonstrates how artificial a confection this Platonic 'myth' really is.
In Chapter 4, 'Mediators,' Brisson revisits material from an earlier work.[] With Tiresias, Brisson shifts from figures that possess attributes of both sexes simultaneously to figures that become male and female successively. His argument in this chapter has a familiar structuralist ring: such figures mediate not only between male and female realms (thus Tiresias helps settle an argument about whether men or women enjoy sex more), but also between gods and men (Tiresias is a diviner), humans and animals (Tiresias is turned into a mouse in the perverse version of the notorious 'forger' (p. 126) Ptolemy Chennos), etc. The argument is valid as far as it goes, but tends, as structuralist arguments often do, to elide issues of a more socio-political type: does the male Tiresias, who gives the correct 'male' answer to Hera's question, really mediate in any meaningful way between male and female?
Brisson covers some fascinating material in this book, and the author is to be credited with making this material accessible, much of it for the first time, to the general reader and professional classicist alike. But he does not ask the important socio-political, historical, or theoretical questions that most historians of sexuality in the English-speaking world tend to pose nowadays. For those issues, the reader is on his own.
[] M. L. West, The Orphic Poems (Oxford 1983).
[] L. Brisson, Le mythe de Tirésias. Essai d'analyse structurale (Leiden 1976).