Printer Friendly

The mirror of hermaphroditus.

In Francis Beaumont's Ovidian epyllion Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, there is a linguistic, as opposed to an anatomical, formation of the hermaphrodite. In Beaumont, the crossing of images of red and white, of intertwining "Ivy" and "Iv'ry" and "one" and "none," the crossed expectations of the female in pursuit and the male in flight, and the rhetorical reversal performed by chiasmus-all prescribe the anatomical mixing that consummates the tale. Hermaphroditic sexual union is antithetical: neither one nor none, neither male nor female, both ecstatic liquid mingling and cursed dissolution.

Among a number one is reckon'd none.

--Shakespeare, Sonnet 136

And her sexual organ, which is not one organ, is counted as none.

--Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One

God knows where it leads you to believe there is One--it can even lead you so far as to believe that there is The, a belief which is fallacious.

--Jacques Lacan, Feminine Sexuality

In his introduction to the autobiography of the nineteenth-century hermaphrodite Herculine Barbin, Michel Foucault, as I have suggested elsewhere, addresses the question of the truth of sexuality, especially the truth as sought and defined by the legal and medical-psychiatric authorities of the period (Stone). The scientific establishment insisted that every human subject must be biologically grounded in one and only one sex. So how to deal with the hermaphrodite like Herculine Barbin or the fictional hermaphrodites that crowd Balzac's fiction? The hermaphrodite upset the insistence of the medico-juridical discourse that there was an essential relation between sex and truth: one sex and just one truth. Hermaphrodites were thus always dismissed as "pseudo-hermaphrodites," beneath whose false or duplicitous claims to sexual doubleness lurked the monosexual truth discoverable only by licensed "experts." My purpose in what follows is to look at the discourse of sexuality in English adaptations and translations of the myth of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus from the Metamorphoses of Ovid--a discourse that lends itself well to both Renaissance and early modern concerns (1)--in order to argue for the "pseudo" status of all univocal claims to sexual truth, for the doubleness that shadows and informs the ideology of sexual oneness, and above all for the way that the deployment of fictional letters can be said to figure and to constitute sexual difference.

Much work has been done recently in the field of Renaissance studies arguing that gender is a linguistic construction. Stephen Greenblatt argues that the anatomical difference between the sexes is inscribed by the difference of a single letter (see also Parker; Stone). He illustrates sexual ambiguity in Twelfth Night by adducing the historical case study of Marie le Marcis, a seventeenth-century French hermaphrodite with a retractable penis, who dressed as a woman. When he fell in love with Jeane le Febvre and declared his intention to marry her, a scandal ensued and the couple was prosecuted for sodomy. Finally Jacques Duval, a doctor learned in hermaphroditism and gynecology, was able to make the penis perform under the friction of his manual examination. The law courts allowed Marie to change his name to Marin, provided that he continued to wear women's clothing for several more years. Greenblatt uses the image of the reversible glove in Feste's remarks to illustrate the nominalist position that the differ ence of a single letter may uniquely determine the disputed sex of the hermaphrodite: "The brief, almost schematic enactment of verbal friction leads to a perception of the suppleness of language, particularly its capacity to be inverted, a capacity imaged by the chev'ril glove. It is as if the cause of Marin le Marcis's sexual arousal and transformation were now attributed to the ease--the simple change of one letter--that turns Marie into Marin: 'Her name's a word, and to dally with that word might make my sister wanton"' (90). Greenblatt oscillates between arguing that letters prescribe the meaning of the glove (and of the glove's relationship to the body) and the very different, materialist, conception that the body and its explication in the discourse of gynecology determine what the glove signifies. (2)

As I argue more fully in "The Transvestic Love-Glove," Viola, in Twelfth Night, is the only one of his transvestite heroines to whom Shakespeare gives the proto-tragic depth of undergoing suffering but having to express it as if it were another's. Epitomizing her divided sexual and social condition, she confesses to Olivia, "I am not what I am" (3.1.143). This is a paradoxical articulation of the truth that nonetheless remains opaque to Olivia. In engaging the Liar's paradox, the case of Viola belies society's insistence that sexuality must have as its truth an exclusive either/or, for she is like Hermaphroditus in Ovid's Metamorphoses both "am" and "am not" at once. The speaker is not the integral whole that she seems, the unity of a vestiary surface that represents the self-possessed, self-same male, like Viola's twin brother, Sebastian. He is self-sufficient because he does not need Viola as she needs him; he, unlike Viola, does not have to cross dress to recuperate a lost sibling. In this play not only th e articulated, interior depth, but also the duplicity that differs from surface male constancy, is gendered female, that which "is not" male. Woman is the "is not" to man's "is," the none to man's one. Woman negates man; asymmetrically, she is defined (by man) as un-man.

Marin le Marcis and Marie le Marcis epitomize the hermaphrodite. Deriving ultimately from the classical paradigms of Plato and Ovid, two models of hermaphroditism predominate during the Renaissance. One model posits nostalgia for a prelapsarian union between the sexes; the other regards union between the sexes as causing the disintegration of each partner's sexual integrity and specificity. The Platonic model, as set forth by Aristophanes in the Symposium, advances an ideal of combinate wholeness prior to the separation into discrete sexual units as punishment for human disobedience to the gods. (3) If Aristophanes is nostalgic for an initial pairing of the sexes that was later sundered, many of Ovid's characters long for an original state defined in the very different terms of virgin singularity and separateness. In Ovid's account of Narcissus and Hermaphroditus in the Metamorphoses, there is bitter nostalgia for the virginal state that precedes a usually violent, often rapacious, sexual initiation. To couple sexually with another spells the loss of one's wholeness; the conjunctive sum of the sexes is less than, or even nullifies altogether, either of its parts. The one who is sexually initiated decries her or his loss of a type of single-sex union, as the violated Hermaphroditus, for example, regrets that he can no longer lay claim to being in himself all the sexes that suffice. After initiation, the two-in-one is divided by a lack or cut (castration) that severs the harmonized components into two. I will argue that this cut is introduced by the same (but antithetical) language that speaks longingly for androgynous wholeness in the idealizing, Platonic sense. (4)

Edmund Spenser employs both an elevating, potentiating model of hermaphroditism and a debasing, impotentiating one. A classic locus of the Hermaphrodite as Platonic ideal is Spenser's original 1590 ending to book 3 of The Faerie Queene, the union of Scudamour and Amoret outside the house of Busirane: "Had ye them seene, ye would have surely thought,/That they had been that faire Hermaphrodite" (3.12.46). This instance represents a conjunction of the sexes that fortifies and supplements what may be lacking in either one alone. Orgasm is perpetual climax rather than diminution, a pouring both outwards and inwards that fulfills but never empties out:
But she faire Lady ouercommen quight
Of huge affection, did in pleasure melt,
And in sweete rauishment pourd out her spright.


"Rauishment" in the sense of Busirane's repeated rape of Amoret is staved off in favor of an antithetical sense of the same word, one that expresses mutual consent: the ravishing, orgasmic intermingling of the lovers. In Ovid, Salmacis rapes Hermaphroditus; not so in Spenser, where Busirane the rapist is supplanted by Scudamour the consensual lover. Reversing an earlier violation, Spenser fictionally cleanses a traumatic stain that in real time would be indelible. Whereas for Ovid, the metamorphic joining of male and female renders the former impotent and indistinct from the latter, Spenser portrays a coupling whose whole exceeds the potency of its vulnerable parts. Not only the bodies of Spenser's lovers metamorphose, but also the names of Scudamour and Amoret may be combined to form the complex compound ScudAmoret, a copulative concatenation of syllables modeled on, yet reversing the impotent conclusion of, the way Hermaphroditus's own name conjoins the stock of Hermes and Aphrodite. This melting pleasure o f love making is the sexual analogue of what in narratological terms is the closure of interlaced narrative strands in the original ending of The Faerie Queene. The poem thus presents a model of ideal intermingling performed on linguistic, sexual, and narrative levels: concatenation, copulation, happy ending. The intertwining of narrative and sexual threads is figured emblematically in the account of the hermaphroditic goddess who presides over the Temple of Venus in book 4. She comprises the ideal complement of male and female sexes, but only under the constricting condition that this perfection remain disguised beneath a "slender veile." What the veil teasingly keeps covered is allowed to surface beneath it, at Venus's feet, in a displaced allegorical emblem of bestial yet valorized bisexuality: "And both her feete and legs together twyned/Were with a snake, whose head and tail were fast combyned" (4.10.40). This snake, whose union in itself symbolizes eternity, contrasts with the snaky folds of Errour and Duessa, the monsters whose assumption of the phallic part signifies their uncanny power to sap male combatants of their strength. The priests of Venus attempt to draw a mystifying veil over the reason for needing such a disguise, but the poet narrator has his own theory, as if only the poet, schooled in veiled metaphor and mystification, can penetrate the veil that he himself has deployed:
The cause why she was couered with a vele,
Was hard to know, for that her Priests the same
From peoples knowledge labour'd to concele.
But sooth it was not sure for womanish shame,
Nor any blemish, which the worke mote blame;
But for, they say, she hath both kinds in one,
Both male nad female, both vnder one name;
She syre and mother is her selfe alone,
Begets and eke conceiues, ne needeth other none.


The "one name" that comprehends and conceals both kinds is the linguistic analogue of the sumptuary veil that does the same. The name signals an ambiguity that corresponds on the visual axis to the veil's impenetrability. Ambiguity at the linguistic level translates into androgyny in the anatomical matrix. The unique epithet that describes the mysteries of such a love goddess is the Venus Hermaphroditus, she who comprises both Hermes and Aphrodite, male and female, under one riddling veil, one name.

Francis Beaumont's 1602 translation of Ovid's myth of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus. an expansive epyllion nine times the length of the original tale in the Metamorphoses, presents an account that differs markedly from such idealizing representations of the hermaphrodite current in the Renaissance as Spenser' s union of Scudamour and Amoret in the original ending of book 3 of The Faerie Queene. Whereas Scudamour secures his masculinity in coupling at long last with Amoret, Beaumont's Hermaphroditus is a she-man who sees himself as a woman when reflected narcissistically in the glassy mirror of Salmacis's eyes. He makes love not to an other but to an imaginary, specular projection of his sexually ambiguous self:
How should I love thee, when I doe espie
A farre more beauteous Nymph hid in thy eye?

When thou doost love, let not that Nymph be nie thee:
Nor when thou woo'st, let that same Nymph be by thee:
Or quite obscure her from thy lovers face,
Or hide her beauty in a darker place.
By this, the Nymph perceiv'd he did espie
None but himselfe reflected in her eye,
And, for himself no more she meant to shew him,
She shut her eyes & blind-fold thus did woo him.


Ovid's Hermaphroditus regards himself as male, but Beaumont interpolates a cross-gender element (androgyny) into the original story of cross-sexing (hermaphroditism), for the sexual ingenue sees himself as a girl (a Nymph) in the mirror. Gender collapse anticipates the sexual collapse that will be Hermaphroditus's, and the tale's, end; the initial fluid psychology of gender will become fixed terminally and irreversibly in the anatomical destiny of sex.

Salmacis's gesture of blindfolding her eyes is a mocking reflection upon the fact that Hermaphroditus is blind because he sees with Cupid's eyes. One of Beaumont's many additions to Ovid is a digression about how Cupid came to lose his eyes when Venus removed them "because the Ape would sometimes shoot for spight" (72), and she placed them in Hermaphroditus's sockets to make him more beauteous. Salmacis cautions Hermaphroditus about the fate that Narcissus suffered for scorning Echo and crossing suicidally through the crystal glass of the water, as Hermaphroditus threatens to do when he stares into the watery mirror of Salmacis's eyes. There, he is entranced by the vision of his Cupid-self reflected in an idealizing speculum that predicts his metamorphosis into a liquid half-woman when later he dives into the pool. Hermaphroditus's narcissism is conflated with homosexual incest, since Cupid, whose eyes capture his, is his half brother. (The mother of both is Venus.) And the reference to the identity of the wa ters where Hermaphroditus loses his virginity and the site where Narcissus was drowned points to yet another in the canon of sexual sins:
For this was the bright river where the boy
Did dye himselfe, that he could not enjoy
Himself in pleasure, nor could taste the blisses
Of his owne melting and delicious kisses.


Like Narcissus, Hermaphroclltus pours nimselr out in a species ui J1I~LUIU4UUH. The epistemological counterpart of his auto-eroticism is solipsism; he blindly mistakes his reflected self for another, independent being in the world. Neither Narcissus nor Hermaphroditus can distinguish between themselves and what they see reflected in the liquid mirror or in another's eyes.

As Salmacis blindfolds herself to mock Hermaphroditus's infatuation with Cupid, she also punctuates her initial wooing of him with a threatening allusion to the fate of Narcissus:
Fayre boy, thinke not thy beauty can dispence
With any payne due to a bad offence;

Remember how the gods punisht that boy
That scorn'd to let a beauteous Nymph enjoy
Her long wisht pleasure; for the peevish elfe,
Lov'd of all other, needs would love himself.


Salmacis goes on in this vein of alternating cajolery with threats to her would-be lover, in the hope of weaning him away from the "bad offence" of self-love and into her arms instead:
His face is smooth; Narcissus face was so,
And he was carelesse of a sad Nymphs woe.
Then that's the cause; and yet that cannot be:
Youthfull Narcissus was more bold then he,
Because he dide for love, though of his shade:
This boy nor loves himself, nor yet a mayd.


More timid and pathetic than Narcissus in this passage, Hermaphroditus seems to be something of a non-entity since he lacks even enough erotic charge to want to satisfy himself.

Hermaphroditus's inability to tell apart his eyes from those of his sibling Cupid or to distinguish between self-love and love for another is a theme also embedded in and performed by the imagery of the poem, as distinct from the characterization of the principals. The way that Beaumont deploys images of water, color, and reflected light instances the ambiguous indistinction between subject and object, sibling and sibling, and male and female, as well as the hazy moral line that divides chastity from sexual indulgence. For example, the poem associates Phoebe with the chaste white beams of the moon reflecting upon the water, whereas her brother Phoebus is the sun that raises the pitch of desire to a boil. Whereas the moonbeams of Phoebe chasten the fires of desire, the reflections that cross between the lovers' watery eyes are suns that excite and chafe. But if this symbolic structure among the deities makes the woman chaste and the man desirous, it is reversed by the gender alignment of the sublunary protagon ists of Beaumont's poem: desirous Salmacis in pursuit of chaste Hermaphroditus. The rhetoric of desire in the poem thus describes an inversion of the traditional paradigm of the desiring male subject in pursuit of a reluctant female. As both symbols and rhetorical terms cross in reverse of expected order, so do the sexes: the older woman pursues, and the younger male flees the chase, as in the myth of Venus and Adonis. Salmacis relishes the role reversal as much as Hermaphroditus fears it:
Beleeve me, boy, thy blood is very stayd,
That art so loth to kisse a youthfull mayd.
Wert thou a mayd, and I a man, Ile show thee,
With what a manly boldnesse I could woo thee.


This type of self-reversing rhetorical formula epitomizes androgyny: Women will be men, men women.

Salmacis says that Hermaphroditus's sexual timidity signals that he has "a female heart" (748), though one whose blood is evidently in abeyance until squeezed by a woman. His red lips are the cause of desire in others, but cannot be taken to indicate any susceptibility to desire on his part. Hermaphroditus is himself the unchanging agent of change in others, a libidinal catalyst that metamorphoses white to red:
His cheeke was sanguine, and his lip as red
As are the blushing leaves of the Rose spred:
And I have heard, that till this boy was borne,
Roses grew white upon the virgin thorne,
Till one day walking to a pleasant spring,
To heare how cunningly the birds could sing,
Laying him downe upon a flowry bed,
The Roses blush'd and turnd themselves to red.


Hermaphroditus is oblivious to the affective sympathy that even lowly plant life feels for him as it turns from white to red, and he is ignorant of the poet's insertion of him into a narrative that draws an allegorical analogy between the aetiology of devirginating desire and the terms of color change in the vegetable world. Hermaphroditus remains chaste and innocent, even as his very chastity undermines the chastity of others and will ultimately compromise his own. Like the roses that his beauty causes to metamorphose, he too will undergo a change from white to red indicating that he is desired if not desiring. Thus his narcissistic (mirror) illusion that desire from an other need not be reckoned with will be shattered.

Hermaphroditus must be initiated into a heterosexual and heterodox symbolism that fractures his easy and solitary sense of self. In the following passage, the code of expected symbolic associations is crossed: the virginity of the male, devotee of goddess Phoebe, is symbolized by his white skin, while the privileged metaphor for the desire of the female, under the aegis of the male Phoebus, is red blood. The sexual conjunction of Salmacis with Hermaphroditus is but a contorted repetition in the flesh of the prescriptive linguistic crossing of rhetorical figures in the text. The love making of female and male is imaged in terms of the triumph of red over white, of female desire over male virginity. Salmacis renders vain the effort of Hermaphroditus by flight to remain self-contained in his pure white singularity:
At last the Nymph began to touch his skin,
Whiter then mountaine snow hath ever bin,
And did in purenesse that cleare spring surpasse,
Wherein Actaeon saw th' Arcadian lasse.
Thus did she dally long, till at the last,
In her moyst palme she lockt his white hand fast:
Then in her hand his wrest she 'gan to close,
When through his pulses strait the warme bloud gloes,
Whose youthfull musike fanning Cupids fire.
In her warme brest kindled a fresh desire.
Then did she lift her hand unto his brest,
A part as white and youthfull as the rest,
Where, as his flowry breath still comes and goes,
She felt his gentle heart pant through his clothes.


Desire is a figural crux, a chiasmus of colors: the red of blood, fire, and desire arises from crossing over and coupling with the frictional resistance of white. The back and forth chafing of sex produces a reciprocal circulation of heat: her hand squeezes and arouses the blood in his hand, which in turn excites the blood in her breast; then her hand upon his white breast raises the red heart from below. Desire as effect becomes responsive cause of more desire in turn, like an accelerating treadmill in perpetual motion. This crossing of skin colors in foreplay, prescribed by the linguistic cruxes, anticipates the hermaphroditic mixing of genitalia at the close of the poem. What is shocking for Hermaphroditus is not just that his cold white skin is interfused with the hot red blood of Salmacis, but also his discovery that the hot red blood is already within himself: the Salmacis within himself. He has been a female in potentia all along. Hermaphroditus's "flowry breath" and gentle panting heart in the last tw o lines indicate that losing his virginity is a process of actualizing the female in him.

A foreboding shadow is cast upon this foreplay in the figure of Actaeon (790), who was punished for his inadvertent voyeurism by being torn limbmeal. Actaeon is the hunter who is hunted by his own hounds, the seer who is blinded for his transgressive witness. But in the above seduction passage it is the male, Hermaphroditus, who is allied with the pure "cleare spring" of"th' Arcadian lasse" (Diana), while Salmacis is in the position of the male violator, Actaeon. Hermaphroditus is not an Actaeon who transgresses by seeing what is forbidden but rather someone whose self-contained pleasure does not welcome the gaze and the dalliance of the aroused moon goddess:
And then the Moone, mother of mortall ease,
Would fayne have come from the Antipodes,
To have beheld him, naked as he stood
Ready to leape into the silver flood;
But might not: for the lawes of heaven deny,
To shew mens secrets to a womans eye:
And therefore was her sad and gloomy light
Confin'd upto the secret-keeping night.


Even Diana, the moon-dwelling guardian of chastity herself, the very one violated by Actaeon, is tempted to violate the chaste "Arcadian lasse" boy by dallying with the man's secret nakedness that heaven denies women to see. Diana or Chastity, it seems, plays Actaeon to Hermaphroditus's Diana in this world turned upside-down.

The rhetorical confusions I have been examining have their visual analogue in the mirror, not coincidentally the central image in the poem. Both male and female are "confin'd" (850) in the self-enclosure of chastity, but this solitude is exploded by the mirror that defines the sexual opposites. The eye does not just look at the object world; it is crossed over or inverted by the other, object eye in reflection, thus opening the solitary self into (fatal) relation with the world. Like chiasmus, the mirror image reverses the imaged original around the vertical axis--the double colons in my analogical schema below--so that left and right are transposed. In Ovid's account of Tiresias surprised by the sight of two serpents intertwined in copulation, each serpent is a mirror image of the other. Although the serpents are of opposite sex, their interlocked double helix formation makes it impossible to distinguish which is which. Tiresias strikes the serpents and, as punishment for his transgressive vision of the sacr ed act, is turned into a woman. He is returned to his male state seven years later when he strikes the identical serpents intertwined again. Leonard Barkan describes Tiresias's transformation as a "mirror metamorphosis" because he reflects in himself the mirror image of the entwining serpents (41-42). (5) What he sees is what he becomes: bisexed. Narcissus and Hermaphroditus are subject to the allure of the mirror as well and its deathly reflection of the other sex within them.

The mirrored-serpent motif occurs again in the myth of Cadmus, who becomes the serpent that he has seen and slain:
"Why, O son of Agenor, dost thou gaze on the serpent thou hast slain?
Thou too shalt be a serpent for men to gaze on."

["quid, Agenore nate, peremptum
serpentem spectas? et tu spectahere serpens."]


Seer and seen are inextricable not only at the level of chiastic syntax--serpentem:spectas :: spectabere:serpens--but also at the thematic level signalled by the verb spectare. In seeing a sacred primal scene, the scopophile is punished by having to renew via autochthonous parthenogenesis the sexual potency that he has violated. Thus after slaying the serpent, Cadmus must plow the virgin soil and plant it with the inseminating serpent's teeth.

In Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, the confusion of seer and seen describes an unwilling initiation into the sacred, rather than the violation of the sacred in the stories of Tiresias, Actaeon, or Cadmus. The collapse of subject and object occurs at the tactile level of the invaded body in this story, not only through the subject's sight lines in the others. Having slipped away and cooled down from the initial encounter of caresses and hand holding, Hermaphroditus jumps into the pool to escape his pursuer. But Hermaphroditus's flight only ensures his capture in the clutches of Salmacis. The interplay of red and white, blood and ivory, repeats itself, with the addition of the sexually explicit image of ivy entwining itself around a tree:
When beauteous Salmacis awhile had gaz'd
Upon his naked corps, she stood amaz'd,
And both her sparkling eyes burnt in her face,
Like the bright Sunne reflected in a glasse:
Scarce can she stay from running to the boy,
So fast her youthfull bloud playes in her vaynes,
That almost mad, she scarce her selfe contaynes.
When young Hermaphroditus as he stands,
Clapping his white side with his hollow hands,
Leapt lively from the land, whereon he stood,

Into the mayne part of the cristall flood.
Like Iv'ry then his snowy body was,
Or a white Lilly in a cristall glasse.
Then rose the water-Nymph from where she lay,
As having wonne the glory of the day,
And her light garments cast from off her skin.
Hee's mine, she cry'd; and so leapt spritely in.
The flattering Ivy who did ever see
Inclaspe the huge trunke of an aged tree,
Let him behold the young boy as he stands,
Inclasp in wanton Salmacis's hands,
Betwixt those Iv'ry armes she lockt him fast,
Striving to get away. [...]


Ovid compares Salmacis to a serpent that twines around the eagle that tries to carry it away: a two-sexed serpent that wraps both its vaginal folds and its phallic tail around the bird and so triumphs, as Salmacis does when she wraps herself around Hermaphroditus. (6) Beaumont expands on Ovid's one-line hint of the ivy imagery: Salmacis is the Ivy that, like the serpents in the tales of book 3 of the Metamorphoses, entwines Hermaphroditus's Iv'ry and by squeezing makes the white one red. In wrapping around the Iv'ry (Hermaphrodites), the I'vy (Salmacis) cuts it and so makes the two words--differentiated by just a single letter--one. As words like "Ivy" and "Iv'ry" that designate ostensibly opposite gender traits can cross over and combine, so too bodies of different sex become indistinguishable when concatenated. The literal prescribes and predestines the corporal.

Does sexual union create a whole man or a male manque? It is ambiguous whether the mixing of male and female results in a potent one or a neutered none. Beaumont omits from his poem the opening lines of Ovid's tale, which posit that to be devirginated is to be rendered null. Horace Gregory's modern translation of the lines reads as follows:
The waters of the fountain Salmacis
Have earned an evil name: the men who take them
Become effeminate or merely zero--
Certainly less than men, which is well known.

[Unde sit infamis, quare male fortibus undis
Salmacis enervet tactosque remolliat artus,
discite. causa latet, vis est notissima fontis.]


To be less than a whole man is to lapse into either no man or half a man ("semivir" is the word that crops up at several points). In Arthur Golding's 1567 translation, the man who bathes in this fountain of intercourse "commes thence a perfect man no more." The sexed man becomes instantaneously unsexed--a male manque--so different from the perfection of Spenser's hermaphroditic Scudamour and Amoret and his Venus who comprises "both kinds in one,! Both male and female, both under one name" (4.10.41). For Hermaphroditus the one is nothing but a source of anxiety, far from any ideal. (7)

The blood drawn from Hermaphroditus by intercourse with Salmacis at the close of the poem brings to a head all of the images that Beaumont has foregrounded in his rendering of the myth:
And in one body they began to grow.
She felt his youthfull bloud in every vaine;
And he felt hers warme his cold brest againe.
And ever since was womens love so blest,
That it will draw bloud from the strongest brest.
Nor man nor mayd now could they be esteem'd:
Neither, and either, might they well be deem'd.


[Nec duo sunt et forma duplex, nec femina dici
nec puer ut possit, neutrumque et utrumque videntur.]


Male anxieties that postcoital flaccidity is tantamount to invagination are at the heart of the sexual moralization of Ovid's and Beaumont's texts. (8) Man becomes woman at the moment of sexual climax because this is simultaneously the moment of anticlimax, the downward arc of detumescence. One is none, or perhaps two halves that don't add up to a unitary whole. The lovers are not two, nor are they one, but rather a coincidence of opposites that renders the one none. As such, their union is anamorphic; seen awry, the act of love looks like death. Androgyny proves fatal for the male in this, as opposed to Spenser's, account of Hermaphroditus, because sexual initiation forces the boy to cross the mirror image of his reflection doubled anamorphically in the pool and in the eyes of Salmacis. I speak of anamorphosis because the boy's integrated mirror reflection is but a deathly lure. (9) In effect, to be effeminized is to be neutered ("neutrumque"=neuter/neither) or castrated, or, at the linguistic level, drawn a part between the two poles ("utrumque"=either) of a disjunctive antithesis. As two bodies become one-the cold white skin is interfused with hot red blood, the Iv'ry encircled by the serpent-like Ivy-and as the interior of the body rises to meet its superficies, sexual identity becomes indistinct, less a matter of either/or than either/neither. To be either sex indifferently is to be no sex at all in the exclusive sense of one or the other. As Lauren Silberman puts it, "Ovid plays 'uterque parens' [each of his parents] against 'neutrumque et utrumque videntur' [They seemed neither, and yet both] (4.379). The parents' oneness contrasts with their son's sense of noneness, of being neutered" (211 n.). Further, as I would put it, sexual difference is no more fixed than the arbitrary difference- effected by the letter "n"-between utrumque and neutrumque in Ovid's Latin, or either and neither, one and none in Beaumont's English rendition. (10)

The rhetorical vehicle for the moment of dramatic and sexual climax, unsurprisingly, is chiasmus, (11) the privileged trope for intercourse. Salmacis proposes that the lovers will be perpetually intertwined in linguistic as well as anatomical terms:
So graunt, just gods, that never day may see
The separation twixt this boy and mee.


[ita, di, iubeatis, et istum
nulla dies a me nec me deducat ab isto.]


Salmacis prays to the gods that "no day ever come that shall separate him from me or me from him," to translate the Latin chiasmus into more literal English. Mortals bind the gods by means of rhetorical formulae like this one. The speaking is the doing: the pronominal cross-coupling of istum:me :: me:isto is what gives this prayer its performative force. Narcissus will answer Salmacis's binding formula with a counter-prayer of his own that will bind all future bathers in these once pure, now contaminated, waters. He will plead for the inverse of Salmacis's ideal of continual intercourse by insisting instead on perpetual impotence. Prospective pleasure is cross-countered by retrospective disgust; prayer is crossed and turned inside out by curse. Put another way, love making in prospect may be prayed for; in postcoital retrospect it is vilified.

Hermaphroditus is condemned to repeat the deliquescent dying in which his parents conceived him; the parents' union "author[s]" (911) his nominal (the melded Herm-Aphroditus) destiny. (12) He must retrace the path marked from and leading back to his nominal origin; his biform name is both linguistic origin and anatomical destiny in the pool. This name comes to underwrite its bearer's curse on all future sexual generation(s). As Silberman suggests, Ovid's text-"uterque parens [. . .] rata verba [. . .] fecit"-can be rendered doubly because Hermaphroditus himself is nominally and anatomically double ("biformis"): either each of his parents fulfilled his words," or, something very different, "each of his parents erased his words" (211 n.). The ambiguous language indicates that fulfillment, on the one hand, and dissolution or erasure, on the other, are identical. The narrative climax of the tale is the sexual union of Salmacis and Hermaphroditus in the waters that dissolve the latter's identity in an evacuating o utpouring that repeats the primal scene: the moment of sexual climax for the son is an outpouring, signaled by the pun on "offsprings" (913), of the stillborn fruit that results from the expense of the parents' orgasmic dying:
When the young boy Hermaphroditus sayd,
With set voice of neither man nor mayd:
Swift Mercury, thou author of my life,
And thou my mother, Vulcans lovely wife,
Let your poore offsprings latest breath be blest,
In but obtayning this his last request,
Grant that who e're heated by Phoebus beames,
Shall come to coole him in these silver streames,
May nevermore a manly shape retaine,
But halfe a virgine [semivir] may returne againe.


Sexual union and devirgination are paradoxically reconstituted as a fountain consecrated to perpetual virginity. Hermaphroditus's legacy to future generations, the testament of his dying words, is that there be no more offspring like himself. The will of the dying man: Let sexual initiation return every man to the virgin state.

Virginity is redefined as a condition of ecstatic/extinctive copulation, a state of being half maiden or half virgin while the other half is man: "And since that time who in that fountaine swimmes,/ A mayden smoothnesse seyzeth halfe his limmes" (921-22). The mollification of the male member ("mollitaque in illis membra") renders it "mayden," i.e., female and virginal, beyond the pale of desire.

In presenting the poem to his audience, Beaumont hopes that his work will have a legacy as enduring as Hermaphroditus's dying curse. He wants the reader to achieve such complete identification with Hermaphroditus's fate that he too will be excited and drained: "I hope my Poeme is so lively writ,/That thou wilt turne halfemayd with reading it" (ix-x). As a soft-core substitute for the sexual act, the storied pages of the poem itself serve as Hermaphroditus's crystal pool, into which the reader stares longingly and becomes feminized. Like the fabled grapes painted by Zeuxis, Beaumont suggests teasingly, the poetic mimesis is so convincing that it and its referential object become indistinguishable. Representation and reality fuse in the way that male and female fuse in the waters, so readers have no choice but to recapitulate in their own persons the hermaphroditism they read about. The presumptive male reader cannot complacently experience the seductions of the liquid text at a vicarious remove. The study offe rs no safe distance that would allow one to be titillated without the risk of being sucked fatally through the paper looking glass and turned inside out like Hermaphroditus.

The difference between desire and chastity is no greater than the nominal difference between male siblings with interchangeable eyes like those of Cupid and Hermaphroditus or male and female siblings like Phoebus and Phoebe distinguishable by only a terminal letter. So too the gendered opposition between Ivy and Iv'ry is maintained by nothing more stable than a single placeholding letter. However arbitrary this literal-minded nominalism may seem, the difference of a single letter often inscribes the distinction, such as it is, between the sexes. The crossing of male and female in the sexual register metamorphosing single Hermaphroditus into biform Hermaphrodite is predicated on visual and linguistic crossings. In crossing the mirror of water--the action that proved deadly for Narcissus--Hermaphroditus is destroyed not by the narcissistic allure of a unified self-image, but by the double crossing of the body (copulation) and of language (chiasmus).

In attempting to escape sexual initiation by diving into the water, Hermaphroditus succeeds only in dissolving his virginal oneness by pouring himself out ("offsprings"). His death returns him to his Hermaphroditic birth; in the liquid (amniotic) beginning is one's liquid (dissolute) end in the pool, a sort of demonic inversion of the oceanic sense. Deliquescence is the fate of all offspring. The dualism that permeates the symbolism of the poem--liquid eyes versus liquid water; water as exchange of liquids in intercourse versus water as chaste quencher of desire--divides Hermaphroditus's gender as well. These multiple symbolic valences for water are antithetical in dissolving hard and fast distinctions between female and male, subject and object, the sexual and the chaste. The liquid that is the medium for all the sexual coupling is both metaphor (in the text) and referential ground (in the world). The referent of the liquid may be taken in turn to be either the water of the pool or the promiscuous interchang e of bodily fluids; or both, since in the confusion of intercourse the two types of liquid flow together (confluere). As the dominant imagery of chaste moon-reflecting water gives way to the antithetical symbolism of water as the fluid exchange of sexual liquids in intercourse, it is ambiguous whether the hermaphroditic mixing of male and female creates a one or a none, a union or a dissolution, a blessing or a curse.


(1.) The twenty-fifth anniversary issue of English Literary Renaissance (1995) is in part devoted to the terminological debate between "early modern" and "Renaissance." In her contribution there, Annabel Patterson notes how Renaissance studies have been taken to idealize the fine arts and humanistic traditions of both classical and post-medieval Italy, whereas early modernists emphasize the fractured identities and contentious violence of British history and politics. My account of the Hermaphrodite borrows from the Italian tradition of Neoplatonic love even as it shows how such idealism masks an early modern preoccupation with the violence that fractures.

(2.) In the discourse of gynecology from Galen to such Renaissance authorities as Ambroise Pare, the most influential model represents male and female genitalia as morphologically equivalent but positionally and therefore hierarchically opposed: the female genitals turned inward are homologous to the male apparatus pushed outward and perfected. For Pare, the male is the teleological completion of what in the woman is supposedly missing or atrophied. Greenblatt derives this paradigm from Thomas Laqueur.

(3.) See John Brenkman. A pretext against which Brenkman's essay plays is the idealizing account of Mircea Eliade, The Two and the One. Eliade traces the history of the Neoplatonic doctrines of coincidentia oppositorum and discordia concors, the reconciliation of opposites whose most characteristic form is the harmonizing of sexual difference. The account in the book of Genesis of God's creation of the sexes asserts that "male and female created he them." Some commentators interpreted this assertion to mean that there was an originary union between Adam and Eve that the fall sundered into separate male and female identities nostalgic for their loss of wholeness.

(4.) The Lacanian paradox that language performs the loss that it seeks to recoup is well explicated by Kari Weil: "Language functions only in the absence of the object, it is the very inscription of loss of the object, even as it offers the only tools for knowing and representing what it is that was lost" (6-7).

(5.) In the following paragraph on Cadmus, I am also much indebted to Barkan.

(6.) The translation of Ovid by Sandys (1632) indicates a serpent that is at once engulfing and entangling and whose sexual acrobatics pose an incontrovertible double threat:
And wraps about the subject of her lust,
Much like a Serpent by an Eagle truss't;
Which to his head and feet, infettered, clings;
And wreaths her tayle about his stretcht-out wings.


The inferior, earth-dwelling creature undermines the superior, and the female cloaks itself in the muscular male body of the Serpent. If it seems unlikely that the Serpent can defeat the Eagle, we must step back from the naturalistic world and consider that the Eagle here represents the withering Hermaphroditus. The dissimilarity between this "king of the birds" (regia ales) and Hermaphroditus is like the dissimilar topsy-turvyness of the female playing the role of male aggressor.

(7.) Much of Luce Irigaray's work explores how woman occupies in patriarchal discourse either the zero or the double or duplicitous position, never the identical unity of the one.

(8.) Lauren Silberman says, "Although Hermaphroditus gives an implicitly moral interpretation to his physical transformation-he has become weak and effeminate-the physical suggestions of postcoital flaccidity indicate a physiological interpretation of his experience" (211). She argues that the myth suppresses Hermaphroditus's own desire by projecting it onto Salmacis, whom Hermaphroditus may then conveniently blame for the postcoital consequences.

(9.) This articulation or introduction of depth into a surface marks the passing beyond what Lacan designates as the mirror stage, the stage of the Imaginary, into the alienating embrace, via language, of the Other. On anamorphosis, see Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis.

(10.) Beaumont also deploys the or/nor and evermore/nevermore antitheses as further indications that in patriarchal discourse woman effects through intercourse the negation-literally the "n"-of man's virginal singularity.

(11.) The rhetorical trope chiasmus or syneciosis was englished by George Puttenham as the cross-coupler in The Arte of English Poesie (1589). Although it speaks of the mixing of species rather than genders, Puttenham's definition of the cross-coupler makes explicit the cross-fertilization between language and the sexual body: "It takes me two contrary words, and tieth them as it were in a paire of couples, and so makes them agree like good fellowes, as I saw once in Fraunce a wolfe couple with a mastiffe, and a fox with a hounde." Joel Fineman discusses chiasmus as the cross-coupler in Shakespeare's Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets. In his essay "Shakespeare's Will: The Temporality of Rape," Fineman points to the complementary, chiastic crossing of the letters M and Win The Rape of Lucrece, as in a phrase like "men have marble, women waxen minds" (1240). To take another example, from Twelfth Night, the remark of Viola, "Whoe'er I woo, myself would be his wife," expresses her gender confusion both in the disjunctive play between first personal "myself' and third personal "wife"--the cross-dressed and cross-lettered interplay of M and W--and in the way the syntax unfolds in inverted order from third to first person, then first person back to third.

(12.) Ann Rosalind Jones and Peter Stallybrass argue that the name of Hermaphroditus insists on the mother's role as genetrix, but it effaces her gender by excising and replacing the expected gender-determining terminal letters: she becomes Aphroditus, not Aphrodite. In tracing the many Renaissance moralizations of Ovidian poetry, Jones and Stallybrass make a strong case for how heterosexual virility itself is what effeminizes the male.

Works Cited

Barkan, Leonard. The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986.

Beaumont, Francis. "Salmacis and Hermaphroditus." Elizabethan Minor Epics. Ed. Elizabeth Story Donno. New York: Columbia UP, 1963.

Brenkman, John. "The Other and the One: Psychoanalysis, Reading, The Symposium." Literature and Psychoanalysis. Ed. Shoshana Felman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1977.

Eliade, Mircea. The Two and the One. Trans. J. M. Cohen. U of Chicago P, 1965.

Fineman, Joel. Shakespeare's Perjured Eye: The Invention of Poetic Subjectivity in the Sonnets. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.

_____. "Shakespeare's Will: The Temporality of Rape." The Subjectivity Effect in Western Literary Tradition. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology P, 1991. 165-221.

Foucault, Michel. "Introduction to" Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite. Trans. Richard McDougall. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

Greenblatt, Stephen. Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. Trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985.

Jones, Ann Rosalind, and Peter Stallybrass. "Fetishizing Gender: Constructing the Hermaphrodite in Renaissance Europe." Body Guards: The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity. Ed. Julia Epstein and Kristina Straub. New York: Routledge, 1991. 80-111.

Lacan, Jacques. Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the ecole freudienne. Ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose. Trans. Jacqueline Rose. New York: Norton, 1983.

_____. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Ed. Jacques-Alain Miller. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1977.

Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1990.

Ovid. Ovid's Metamorphosis, englished, mythologiz'd and represented in figures. Trans. George Sandys. London: 1632.

_____. The XV Bookes of P. Ovidius Naso, entytuled Metamorphosis. Trans. Arthur Golding. London, 1567.

Parker, Patricia. "Gender, Ideology, Gender Change: The Case of Marie Germain." Critical Inquiry 19 (1993): 337-64.

Patterson, Annabel. "Still Reading Spenser After All These Years?" English Literary Renaissance 25 (1995): 432-44.

Puttenham, George. The Arte of English Poesie. London, 1589.

Silberman, Lauren. "The Hermaphrodite and the Metamorphosis of Spenserian Allegory." English Literary Renaissance 17 (1987): 208-23.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Ed. A. C. Hamilton. London: Longman, 1977.

Stone, James W. "The Transvestic Love-Glove of Twelfth Night." Assays: Critical Approaches to Medieval and Renaissance Texts IX (1996): 153-76.

Weil, Kari. Androgyny and the Denial of Difference. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1992.

James W. Stone ( is assistant professor of English and comparative literature at the American University in Cairo. He has published articles on Shakespeare, Milton, film theory, and contemporary Egyptian art. He is completing a book entitled Shakespearean Masculinities.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Northern Illinois University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Salmacis and Hermaphroditus
Author:Stone, James W.
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Mar 22, 2002
Previous Article:Anti-edibles: capitalism and schizophrenia in Margaret Atwood's The Edible Woman.
Next Article:Discovering and (Re)Covering the Seventeenth-Century Religious Lyric. (Book Reviews).

Related Articles
Panormita's reply to his critics: the 'Hermaphroditus' and the literary defense.
Divine thief.
Quick Quiz.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters