Continuing, in spite

September 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

It sounds like the start of an offensive book: a straight male author putting down the real diary of an nineteenth century intersex individual, Herculine Barbin, & thinking, This is deficient, I could do better. Such is the beginning of Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, a novel that would win the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 along with the approval of millions of readers. But how much of a success is it in the humanist sense? In the literary sense?

Calliope — later simply Cal — is considered a rare case of a rare hermaphrodite: without infant detection, Calliope’s genital organs were able to reach maturity without surgical or hormonal alteration. Upon discovery at 14, Cal runs away to continue her life as a young man. & in this seems to be the sense of the entire work: continuation, in spite. In the first instance, by the life narratives of individual characters & the adversities they overcome. In the second, by biological inheritance for “what humans forget, cells remember” (loc. 1695). Together, they account for the difficult life of our protagonist in the book [& only as ‘continuation, in spite’ can we justify the emigration narrative with the intersex bildungsroman that make distinct halves, a disjunction considered a weakness for many critics].

[Sperm] carry not only instructions about eye color, height, nose shape, enzyme production, microphage resistance, but a story, too. Against a black background they swim, a long white silken thread spinning itself out. The thread began on a day 250 years ago, when the biology gods, for their own amusement, monkeyed with a gene on a baby’s fifth chromosome. (loc. 3616)

Readers are not given the full history of this monkeying; we only learn of three generations [loosely spanning the 20th century]. We begin with the love story between Desdemona & Eleutherios “Leftie” Stephanides, siblings fleeing Turkish oppression in their native village of Bithynios [then, again, the great fire of Smyrna]. Their second lives in Detroit would allow them to live as husband & wife, unquestioned. The son produced from this marriage, Miltiades or more usually “Milton”, falls in love with his own cousin in the next generation continuing the trait of incest. Cal is their child and necessarily inherits the story of oppression, migration, & assimilation along with the gene mutation. These are all the things the narrator invests in the “record of my impossible life” (loc. 5170): thus, the breadth of the book. Cal challenges exclusion from biological creation by reproducing through the medium of this work.

With all the disperse details & distant locations, the novel’s elements cannot but be taken at the level of their remoteness from one another. Their details co-exist in the subconscious so that distant pieces of the story echo into the present, not unlike memory making connectors. I propose calling this a lontano effect, after the Italian musical instruction meaning “as if from a distance”.  What makes it characteristic is the mutation of space-time, in a converging manner — bringing the disparate together. Most people experience shock in lontano: in order to deal with true turning points, we pretend they’re happening to someone else [almost as though life — if defined as/by its major events — were something we’re unaccustomed to].

Lontano is also the strategy Cal employs in the chapter ‘Looking myself up in Webster’s’, where she finds the addendum “See synonyms at Monster” for the entry ‘Hermaphorodite’. At this turn, first person narration dissipates — even Callie abandon’s Callie. “The synonym was official, authoritative; it was the verdict that the culture gave on a person like her. Monster. That was what she was” (loc. 7363). The only way the account can continue is by defaulting to the third person, to treat oneself as just the protagonist — an other — as if from a distance. That is, to submit to cultural signification of monstrosity. The story of empowerment Cal goes through is one of reconfiguring the nature of Hermaphroditism, or not capitulating to custom & making his own addendum to the word. One must become an exegete of one’s own defining terminology if one wishes to take an active part in describing one’s being. Definitions are the closest things we have to fate. It is true that many of the interesting histories appearing in the twentieth century are works of exegesis out of a private need.

To rely on external interpretation — anti-exegesis — can be a dangerous forfeit. A famous 1571 publication, Ambrose Paré’s On Monsters & Marvels, states “both the ancient & modern laws have obliged & still oblige [male & female hermaphrodites] to choose which sex organs they wish to use, & they are forbidden on pain of death to use any but those they will have chosen, on account of the misfortunes that could result from such” (27) yet what these misfortunes are remains unsaid. We know that today, it is the same. Middlesex shows us as much in Cal’s choice, that a choice has to be made at all. The third biological gender is still denied; we continue to operate on newborn hermaphorodites. How is this reconcilable with modern medicine & its exorcism of deformation as punishment for sin? Paré’s book doesn’t hold judgement on the “monsters” so much as a sustained wonder at the infinite providence of Nature/God. What do we believe in today to account for the perpetuated abomination of human dignity? The sole piece of medical restraint of not treating ambiguous genitalia is an increased risk of cancer.

Hermaphrodites from Paré's 'On Monsters & Marvels' — the figure on the left corresponds closely to Eugenides' description of cal, down to the hairstyle & goatee

Hermaphrodites from Paré’s ‘On Monsters & Marvels’ — the figure on the left corresponds to Eugenides’ description of Cal, down to the hairstyle & goatee

Normality wasn’t normal. It couldn’t be. If normality were normal, everybody could leave it alone. They could sit back & let normality manifest itself. But people — & especially doctors — had doubts about normality. They weren’t sure normality was up to the job. & so they felt inclined to give it a boost. (loc. 7612)

While it’s important to say this, Eugenides ultimately fails at following through with the anti-Normality sentiment. His protagonist decides to live like a man — albeit without altering his sex organ — out of “desire [for women] & the facticity of my body” [i.e. predominant male hormones] (loc. 8183). Submission to sexuality norms & bio-gender convention win out even in Cal[liope], as though the authority of protocol is ineluctable, as though normality was normal. At the most crucial moment Middlesex turns against its own sentiment, disappointing astute readers, who continue to read in spite.


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