Saturday, November 8, 2008

Barbin the hermaphrodite

It is Intersex Solidarity Day, thanks to Herculine Barbin born and designated a female 170 years ago today. She died tragically before reaching 30, having changed her gender to male and her name to Abel some years earlier. She left a diary, though, describing her short life which has been widely used by academics studying gender issues. In the 1970s and 1980s, Michel Foucault, a French intellectual, brought Barbin’s story to a wider audience, and it then became the inspiration for a Pullitzer Prize winning novel.

Barbin was born on 8 November 1838 in Saint-Jean-d’Angély, France, 100km or so southwest of Poitiers, and officially registered as female. She spent her childhood in a Catholic orphanage and then in a convent. In her late teens she studied to be a teacher, and then took up a teaching post. There she fell in love with another teacher, who was also the daughter of the headmistress. Subsequently, a doctor found her to have a masculine body, with a very small penis and testicles. In 1860, Barbin’s civil status was switched to male, and she changed her name to Abel.

At the time, newspapers carried reports of Barbin’s sexual reclassification, and branded her one of the preternatural monsters of the age. Eight years later, before she was 30 in early 1868, she committed suicide in the Theatre de l’Odeon, a seedy Parisian area, leaving behind only a manuscript diary. Medical History gives a few more details. The doctor who reported her death, also rescued the diary and gave it to Auguste Ambroise Tardieu, a medical scientist. He published some verbatim excerpts in a French academic journal. Thereafter, Barbin regularly appeared as a subject in medical and legal literature. She also inspired fictional works as early as the 1890s.

More recently, in the 1970s, Barbin’s story found a modern popular audience with the publication of Herculine Barbin (Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth Century French Hermaphrodite) by Michel Foucault, who found the text in the French Department of Public Hygiene (although RE-discovered might be a more accurate word to use in the title!). Foucoult was a well-known French philosopher, intellectual and historian, author of The History of Sexuality, who died in 1984. Foucoult’s book on Barbin, translated into English by Richard McDougall, has three parts - the memoir or diary itself; a commentary, medical notes, press reports etc; and a story based on Barbin’s life.

Here is a translation of what Le Monde had to say about the book in July 1978: ‘Herculine Barbin can be savored like a libertine novel. The ingenousness of Herculine, the passionate yet equivocal tenderness which thrusts her into the arms, even into the beds, of her companions, gives these pages a charm strangely erotic . . . Michel Foucault has a genius for bringing to light texts and reviving destinies outside the ordinary.’ 

And here is some of Amazon’s promotional text ‘With an eye for the sensual bloom of young schoolgirls, and the torrid style of the romantic novels of her day, Herculine Barbin tells the story of her life as a hermaphrodite. Herculine was designated female at birth. A pious girl in a Catholic orphanage, a bewildered adolescent enchanted by the ripening bodies of her classmates, a passionate lover of another schoolmistress, she is suddenly reclassified as a man. Alone and desolate, he commits suicide at the age of thirty in a miserable attic in Paris.’

Barbin’s birthday today is celebrated by Organisation Intersex International, as Intersex Solidarity Day. It calls on ‘all human rights organizations, feminist allies, academics and gender specialists, as well as other groups and individuals interested in intersex human rights’ to show their solidarity by organizing workshops, lectures, discussions on several specified topics - one of these is ‘the sexism implicit within the binary construct of sex and gender’, and another is 'the life of Herculine Barbin’.

More popularly, Barbin’s life inspired the American Jeffrey Eugenides to write Middlesex, a novel that won the Pullitzer Prize in 2003. Interviewed by Mick Brown for Irish Independent, Ireland’s largest selling daily newspaper, Eugenides said Barbin’s memoir is less promising than it sounds: ‘She’s not a very good writer. She never talks about what her body is like, what she feels, what her sexual relations are like, and she’s very melodramatic.’ Nevertheless, he told Brown, reading it led to the idea of writing his own story about a hermaphrodite.

It seems there are no substantial extracts of Barbin’s diary anywhere online, but Amazon has a few pages viewable, and a few academic works available through Googlebooks, refer to or quote from it. Here is one sample of Barbin’s writing, taken from Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity, by Margaret A McLaren.

‘At that age when a woman’s graces unfold, I had neither that free and easy bearing nor the well-round limbs that reveal youth in full bloom. My complexion with its sickly pallor denoted a condition of chronic ill health. My features had a certain hardness that one could not help noticing. My upper lip and a part of my cheeks were covered by a light down that increased as the days passed. Understandably, this peculiariaty often drew me to joking remarks that I tried to avoid by making frequent use of scissors in place of a razor. As was bound to happen, I only succeeded in making it even thicker and more noticeable still. My body was literally covered with it, and so unlike my companions. As for my figure it remained ridiculously thin. That all struck the eye, as I realised everyday.’

1 comment:

Joseph Muhammad said...

Wbat I found interesting where the final paragraph in which he is writing about the hair on his face while everyone has believed he was female, and then Eugineds saying that Barbin was a bad writer and did not give details about his body or feelings (wrong, and the feelings can be assumed - prolonged sadness and pain, duh, he committed suicide at 30!) and his audacity to think Barbin should have described his sexual relations! What a damn pervert Eugineds is. Does he think hermaphrodites have some sort of bizarre sexual practices that are different from the ones he would have? What a freakin moron. I'm glad I never read his book and I will be sure to keep it that way. He owes apology to all hermaphrodites for his remarks about Barbin's writing.