Wednesday, December 10, 2014

'The Keeper of the Bed': Unpacking the complex history of eunuchs

Charles Humana's book The Keeper of the Bed: The Story of the Eunuch (1973) is a curiosity that is worth a look by anyone who is interested in how eunuchs were depicted throughout history. Born in Nottingham, England in 1921, Humana – born Joseph Jacobs – was a human rights advocate who authored several books and died in London in 1992. "Keeper of the Bed" strikes a confident tone, but it will leave the careful reader with many questions.

Humana quips that the eunuch is often thought of as "a human pterodactyl or dodo," that is, as "one of the extinct creatures of the earth". He emphatically rejects the common assertion that they were a "third sex," although he does not fully explain what he means by that. His only elaboration is that it is more correct to perceive them as "deprived men" rather than as transformed beings.

The text demonstrates that Humana is well-read in his subject matter. He drops many key references and provides a bibliography. For anyone who wants to begin studying the history of eunuchs, this book is a good selection, insofar as it provides excerpts of important works and thus can almost be counted as an anthology. The reprinted works include: Giacomo Casanova's memoir of Bellino; six tales from Richard Burton's "Arabian Nights"; G. Carter Stent's essay, "Chinese Eunuchs"; and some of the "Persian Letters" by Baron de Montesquieu. There are also lengthy quotations from Charles Ancillon's Eunuchism Display'd and from travel writer Paul Rycaut.

Humana recognizes that eunuchs are the victims of much misunderstanding. Although he writes that "historians from Herodotus to Gibbon, in sharing the common prejudice, have fallen short of their usual objectivity," he does not escape employing this prejudice himself, insofar as he makes many generalizations. He observes from the outset that "writers from Xenophon to Burton, from Juvenal to Montesquieu, contradicted each other," but his book winds up simply citing anecdotes and publishing long passages without the level of critical analysis that could resolve these contradictions. In short, he sees prejudice and falsehood, but doesn't answer either.

"Historians and writers, court officials and ordinary people, were almost unanimous in regarding them as monsters and freaks," he writes, "their mutilation seldom accepted with the sympathetic concern shown to those who had lost legs, or arms or sight." He points out that the ancient world treated eunuchs as comic figures on the stage, but never as weighty tragic figures with deep human motivations. He acknowledges Montesquieu's fiction as having been "distinguished by treating the eunuch as a human being rather than as a totally evil creature."

He calls Richard Millant's Les Eunuques à travers les ages, published in 1908, "the most recent comprehensive work," yet says it is "nevertheless misleading since it is one of a study of sexual perversions." This is confusing. If he believes that Millant's book grossly misidentifies as a sexual perversion what should be properly understood as the product of war, slavery and sacrifice, how could he possibly call Millant's book "comprehensive"?

At the beginning of "The Keeper of the Bed," Humana identifies three reasons for castration. The first reason is war, or more precisely, "vengeance on a fallen enemy." The second reason is slavery, because castrated slaves were preferred for their "practical advantages" in certain roles; namely, in societies that segregated men and women, castrated men filled critical gaps as messengers and guardians. The presence of eunuchs enabled a particular institutionalized form of segregation. The third reason is ritual sacrifice, usually of one's own body or sexual urges, to appease a god.

This short list of reasons is manifestly incomplete because, later on, the book acknowledges many other reasons for castration. Retributive violence is not always confined to war. The theologian Abelard was castrated as punishment for having married illicitly, the eunuch Hermotimus took vengeance on his castrator and the man's sons, and slaves could be punished for any number of transgressions. Slaves may, of course, have been castrated for reasons unrelated to their service; not all were deliberately castrated for the purpose of serving a particular role.

Furthermore, some slaves were castrated to groom them for sexual roles (as was Nero's concubine Sporus), purposes that are not quite covered by the term "practical advantages." Some men were coerced by poverty or family pressure into seeking employment as eunuchs, as was common in China. Some wearied of married life or sexual urges, independent of any religious belief. Some were castrated by illness or accident. Some were guinea pigs for the Nazis. Some were castrated by doctors who more genuinely believed that this treatment would ameliorate their physical or mental problems. Overlapping with this category are individuals who identified as women and elected castration (or were pushed toward it) as an attempt to address their gender identity. Of these, Humana drops just one example at the end of the book: a Norwegian adolescent in Johan Bremer's book Asexualization (1959). Humana, however, rolls this case study into the category of "homosexuals" mistreated by doctors, and he does not tease out any further implications about gender identity, even though the quoted passage indicates that this person said he felt more like a girl and requested to be castrated.

Again, Humana acknowledges all these stories within the book – he just fails to analyze them, and therefore never knits together a complete list of all the reasons for castration. He explicitly provides a partial list and implicitly provides the rest.

Even his title, "The Keeper of the Bed," is a misnomer, because the book does not solely examine the Persian and Chinese harems. The book includes, for example, Italian singers. His repeated stylistic reference to "the eunuch" is a misleading generalization, because obviously there was more than one kind of eunuch.

A recent critical reaction to "The Keeper of the Bed" can be found in Gary Taylor's book Castration (2000) in a footnote to page 17. Taylor groups Humana's book with similar histories: Peter Tompkins' The Eunuch and the Virgin (1962) and Victor T. Cheney's A Brief History of Castration (1995). Taylor complains that these three books "were all written by amateur scholars with sometimes peculiar agendas." Humana, he complains, "included sixteen (mostly soft-porn) illustrations, uncritically accepted the universal validity of Freud's castration theories, and began and ended his book deploring 'the certainty' of vasectomy becoming 'compulsory in a future era', thereby producing 'dull generations of future sterile males' and 'submissively sterile' husbands. There is, of course, no evidence that vasectomies produce dullness or submissiveness." These sorts of books, Taylor goes on, "pay little attention to current scholarship on the texts they cite or the cultures they describe; they are essentially sensational and anecdotal."

The anecdotes in "The Keeper of the Bed" are divided by theme: "The Eunuch Through the Ages," "The Eunuch as Fantasy," "Eunuchs of East and West," and "Heaven and Earth Eunuchs." Humana wrote introductions for each part, but he did not write conclusions, nor a conclusion for the book as a whole.

One of his skimpy, faulty analyses appears in his claim that "In all societies the eunuch was involved in homosexual relationships. Those who were castrated before puberty…were the delight of paederasts, while those who had full-grown organs…offer their favors to both men and women. One can therefore conclude…that both passive and active castrati had opportunities of leading busy sex lives." The first comment is ambiguous: surely some, but not all, eunuchs had sex with men. The second comment is unduly restrictive: why should the age of castration determine whether someone is capable of heterosexual feeling and behavior? The third comment is tautological: to speak of "passive" or "active" in this context is to describe a kind of sex behavior, and if the person had a sex life, then of course he had the opportunity to have a sex life. (Never mind that, for slaves, some of these "opportunities" were compulsory.) A more meaningful paragraph would have acknowledged broad possibilities of sexual diversity, including celibacy.

"The Keeper of the Bed" is surely not the last word on historical eunuchs. Only half of its interest value lies in the anecdotes about the eunuchs themselves, while the other half lies in the meta-analysis of the authors' attitudes and assumptions. For those who are interested in both, the book provides ample fodder.

Originally published to Helium Network on July 25, 2013.

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