Gary Taylor sets out to demonstrate that because Freud was unacquainted with pigs, he confused the scrotum with the penis: his "theory of castration is an urban myth, plausible only among populations physically and imaginatively distant from agricultural practices". As any farmer would tell you, castration is an affair of the scrotum, rather than the penis. Freud's displacement was a function, in part, of the "fall of the scrotum" and the "rise of the penis", of a shift in emphasis from reproduction to pleasure. It is far from clear, however, why, except for Taylor, one should exclude the other. The psychoanalytical castration of women, and the imbuing of all men with castration anxieties organised around the penis, enabled Freud to take the "sign of Jewish racial difference", circumcision, and subvert it into a "mark of universal identity".
Taylor believes that in retrieving a history of castration, and in correcting misconceptions about eunuchs (as gatekeepers and bed-keepers, they were powerful rather than impotent; and yes, like Taylor after his snip, they were capable of lust and erections), we discover that being human and male can be isolated from a reproductive sexuality he finds abhorrent in a world of more than 6 billion. He cuts through an impressive array of material by selecting three points of ambulation: "Latin Augustine", "German Freud" and Thomas Middleton's A Game at Chess , a play which is for castration, in a book incapable of understatement or any form of intellectual trepidation, "the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone". Behind these texts, Taylor positions Jesus and the words of Matthew xix:12: "There are eunuchs that have eunuchised themselves for the kingdom of heaven." This text, and the feverish allegories thereby entailed, are victims of a radical misprision: reproduction, rather than sexual desire, is the object of denial. Taylor contends that the history of castration licenses a literal reading that is consistent with Christ's hatred of families. This hatred is predicated on casuistical readings of texts untimely ripped from the gospel of Matthew and on the supposition that a "rejection of human genitality" is more than imaginable for the eastern Mediterranean world of the time.
"Castration is bigger than Christianity," and it is "bigger than Freud." It is not, however, bigger than Gary Taylor's vasectomy. We can all be relieved to hear that this has had "absolutely no effect upon" his "sexual appetites or abilities". It has left him both with the satisfaction of no longer being able to contribute to the "binge breeding" threatening the planet and with a brand of inflammatory rhetoric he elsewhere lambasts: "I find myself wincing at the sight of yet another Christian couple towing its large litter of uniformed Aryan children." Taylor, as this gratuitous inclusion of "Christian", along with his earlier account of Jesus and Matthew, reveals, cannot forgive the Catholic church for his post-vasectomy excommunication. Non-reproductive sex, even "sodomy", as long as it happens "next door", can be celebrated as environmentally friendly, especially since we have now been made aware of the once-enviable power of the eunuch. For his own purposes, alas, Taylor has everywhere conflated the eunuch with castration: the latter is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for being the former. It would take time travel, and not just a vasectomy, to recuperate the power of what was, notwithstanding Taylor's unconvincing attack on Michel Foucault, the discursive, rather than biological category of "eunuch".
There are occasions, especially in its opening and closing chapters, when what should have been an erudite and compelling book is mired by incontinent, self-regarding urges to reveal intimate details of the author's life, and a certain vulgar exhibitionism. Perhaps a revision of the history of castration turns out, after all, to be a shabby compensation for private losses wantonly exposed?
Peter Rawlings is senior lecturer in English, University of the West of England, Bristol.
Castration: An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood
Author - Gary Taylor
ISBN - 0 415 985 4
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £15.99
Pages - 304