Archive of Weeks 10-11 Forum:
Foucault's Ideas (Dangerous and Otherwise)

Current Forum and Forum Archives for "The Story of Evolution/The Evolution of Stories" (Spring 2005)

Reflections on class and Herculine Barbin
Name: Kelsey Smith (
Date: 03/24/2005 18:48
Link to this Comment: 13992

In class yesterday, Anne chose to forbid us from using the word ³guilt², indicating that it was never okay. Personally, though, I associate ³guilt² as being connected to the notion of oneıs conscience. Therefore, guilt is still negative, but so is doing what an individual knows to be wrong. I remember being in Confirmation class in 7th grade and being forced to play a ³game² about situations with my classmates. Basically, the teacher read a card that indicated a hypothetical situation. There would be three choices: (1) the obviously right choice, (2) the partially wrong, though creatively justifiable choice, and (3) the obviously wrong choice. I always chose the first option because I knew that if I was actually involved in those situations, if I did one of the other two options, I would feel guilty for a rediculously long period of time. Therefore, it wasnıt worth it. My classmates, needless to say, felt differently. Therefore, the word ³guilt² is a perfectly acceptable word choice for me to use. However, I do not need to use it in class. I know that I have my own words that I choose not to use (rather I choose not to use them in the way that I am forever hearing them around campus), so I will respect Anneıs choice for her ³forbidden² word.

In response to Herculine Barbin, Iıve read the first one hundred pages of the book and I donıt like it as much as Middlesex. My problem is that there is no point of connection between Herculine Barbin and my own life, as there was for Middlesex. However, this book is shorter, so it is okay that I donıt like it as much.

new book? same old story? the more things change...?
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 03/25/2005 13:17
Link to this Comment: 14008

If we knew everything to be known within a text, there would really not be much point in reading it.

Austin's comment, which closed our forum on Middlesex, is also a pretty good stepping-off place for this invitation to read a new text, Foucault's edition of Herculine Barbin. Post here by Sunday @ 5 p.m. your reactions, responses, questions...

Here are a number of possibilities:
You might describe your initial impressions of this person, or of the text which tells per story, or of Foucault's commentary.
In what ways is this tale like/unlike that told in Middlesex?
Does it belong in Callie's family tree?
In the literary (or scientific?) geneology of Middlesex? How can you tell?

What sort of story is it? (catastrophic, continuous, tragic, comedic?)
In what kind of style, and from what sort of perspective (omniscient, first person limited point of view?) is it told?

Looking forward to "hearing" your thoughts--

Name: Jennifer (
Date: 03/27/2005 11:01
Link to this Comment: 14043

In the discussions we have talked about male and female voices, and it has been argued that putting people into specific categories is inappropriate. However, my initial reactions to the story were at how much she sounded like a teenage girl, and while I understand that this is not the style of all teenage girls it resembles a generalization of the writing of modern teenage girls. Sometimes generalizations serve as categories, whether they are completely accurate they will get the point across. My apologies since I donıt think I could accurately describe the ³typical teenage girl².

One of the problems I had with the book was that the details wouldnıt quite remain in my head. I would read them and then forget a good deal of what was going on. It makes what Iıve read so far confusing when I canıt quite remember characters as well. I donıt know. The book just isnıt one of my favorites.

Middlesex vs. Herculine Barbin
Name: Becky Hahn (
Date: 03/27/2005 12:31
Link to this Comment: 14045

I've been reading Herculine Barbin with Middlesex in my head, searching for links. One of the most important similarities seems to be the idea of fate. Both narrators write with the belief that their lives are fated to be as they are. Their fates have much to do with genetics--their physical conditions--as well as God/the gods, although Barbin stresses God's will in her/his condition more than Cal(lie). Both characters also fall in love with girls who they are fated to lose. Since both books are "memoirs" (although Middlesex is fictional) there is a constant consciousness of the ending. Barbin frequently mentions her terrible fate and how little she can do about it. The story loses some of its interest because the main character submits most of her free will to her "inevitable" fate.

In terms of differences, Eugenides incorporated much more background and depth into the story of Cal(lie). Barbin's story is structured much more like the diary it's composed of, in that there is little serious background discussion. We are dropped into Barbin's life without a complete understanding of the context. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it limits our understanding of her background. Barbin spends much more time discussing her/his emotions than Cal(lie), yet these emotions seem flat and frequently the details of what's causing them aren't discussed.

It's easy to see why Eugenides was dissatisfied by the hermaphroditic perspective of Barbin and felt the need to create a modern story that deals with the original causes, the medical details, and fleshes out the context. Although Middlesex may have been inspired by Herculine Barbin, I don't think it's really the same story. Middlesex is more than an evolution of Herculine Barbin, it's a new story that expresses a new identity in a different context.

Name: Jessica (jfrosenb)
Date: 03/27/2005 14:49
Link to this Comment: 14049

Reading Herculine, I'm weaving everything we've done before it in and out. Ofcourse, I am left with more questions than answers.

First: The one date we were supposed to remeber for this class: 1859. So it was hard not to notice that Foucault points out that one of the most important things about this memoir is its date: 1860. In the decade that followed "investigations of sexual identity were carried out with the most intensity." Darwin and sexuality and evolution and the establishment of modern perceptions of gender and species and all of it. Did Herculine read Darwin?

(Meanwhile, there's that damn Ovid reference on 18... can't escape those Greeks)

Also: our intersex texts until now both deal with the transformation from female to male. So now, with two models of how people have done it I'm wondering: what would it be like for me? This is fanciful, I know. But how would my female childhood translate? What kind of man would I be?

Herculine Barbin
Name: L.T.(lt)
Date: 03/27/2005 15:23
Link to this Comment: 14052

Reading Herculine Barbin has almost made me see Middlesex more clearly, knowing that Eugenides read it. What bothered me most about Middlesex was that Cal/lie always seemed to be narrating from the perspective of the adult Cal, especially during Callie's life as a young girl. Herculine never really removes herself from the events of her story, to the point where her emotions overwhelm it.

Also, though I suppose this might be giving in to an impulse for nice neat boxes, I got a very strong sense that Herculine was female, never really making the transition to a male perspective. In Middlesex, I got the strongest impression of Cal/lie as male when he was narrating his experiences as female. I don't know if this was deliberate, or if it was an effect of an adult male author trying to imagine a young girl's life. In the same way, I thought Herculine sounded the most female after she began living as a man.

On Eugenides and Barbin
Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (
Date: 03/27/2005 15:29
Link to this Comment: 14053

Like Jessica, I too have been thinking about the kind of man I would be. I also wonder how translatable Callie's and Herculine's feelings are for us,those with "true sexes". It's difficult I guess, to imagine the differences in their perception of identity and mine. I don't doubt that these perceptions are different, but how or where?

Unlike Middlesex, this memoir was described in its blurb as an "erotic diary" . I admit I've only read up to pg 119, My Memoirs, but I think I miss the physicality, fertility and the eroticism that was present in Middlesex. I can't picture Herculine in my head the way that I could see Callie. Perhaps this is reflective of Herculine's inability to live with herself, construct any identity, and her eventual breakdown.Whereas Callie's journey seems more to reconstruct herself, rebuild the lost identity.

Both Middlesex and this memoir have got me thinking about the relationship between sex/gender and sexuality/sexual preference. Both Callie and Herculine, initially female felt intuitively lustful about other women. I was curious whether this lust, attraction was different from what other children feel growing up. I remember as a child, it was always easier for to imagine myself with girls rather than boys. Is that it? Or are the books making a claim of heterosexuality? Are they assuming that if you are male, you're inherently drawn to women? This seems unnatural in both cases and I don't know what to make of it.

Lastly, I am thinking about the ethics behind having a memoir like this published. Why did, what made Foucault edit, cut out entire sections maybe, add paragraphs and finally book bind with a fancy cover? Did he think that society would learn something valuable about how to treat hermaphrodites? Did he think that Herculine Barbin was a brilliant writer and needed to be read by people years later? I can't help but feel some sense of betrayal when I read this.

Herculine, Cal(lie), and other stories...
Name: Tonda Shimbo (
Date: 03/27/2005 15:38
Link to this Comment: 14055

In case I haven't mentioned it before (which I know I have...) I'm really enjoying these readings. I find it fascinating that not only socially, but biologically as well there are many different genders, caused by the tiniest mishaps in fetal construction. I also enjoyed Foucault's introduction where he stated that "Biologica theories of sexuality, juridical conceptions of the individual, forms of administrative control in the modern nations, led little by little to rejecting the idea of mixture of the two sexes in a single body..." Not that sentence specifically, but what the sentence and the preceeding paragraphs had explained; that hermaphrodites had once been accepted in society, and we didn't have such distinct necessities for one and only one sex, and that it was a relatively modern idea that such individuals should be condemned. My mother didn't seem to understand my excitement when I tried to explain, and I wanted to argue with the many very conservative republicans I've been around this weekend while at home when the subject of sexuality came up, but as I hadn't been able to convince my own mother, I didn't feel that I'd be able to convince them either (not that I was invited to join the conversation, anyway).

I think Herculine Barbin most definitely belongs in Cal's family tree, as they both underwent much the same confusion and frustration. I think that Herculine and Cal would have very positively influenced each other had they lived in the same time period, because both, after discovering their new identity (or lack thereof?), felt an intense desire to belong somewhere, with someone. Cal found it in California for a time, but Herculine never really did, which more than likely influenced his early suicide. These books will definitely at least sit together on my shelf, whether or not they're "related," although, who knows, they could each be carrying a distorted meme of some sort, and somewhere down the line, produce something unimaginable...

Middlesex and Herculine Barbin
Name: Anjali Vaidya (
Date: 03/27/2005 15:39
Link to this Comment: 14056

I've been trying to keep my eye out for similarities between Herculine Barbin and Middlesex- ways in which Middlesex might've been influenced by Herculine Barbin.

-For one, they both talk about schoolmistresses who were romantically involved with eachother (though in Middlesex it's just a passing reference)

-They both have that odd quality of premonition in hindsight. Herculine Barbin is filled with it. Looking at what's mentioned of his childhood and teenage years, they don't look as though they were unhappy at all- but there're sentences scattered throughout that imply that he always knew he'd have a bad life. And Middlesex had something similar... That idea of fatedness (like Becky said)- in Middlesex Cal/lie singled out in his life those things which pointed towards what would ultimately happen to him. He/she could never have known what was coming, but by singling out those foreshadowings it feels like it was fate.

I guess it's just, again, that whether something was fate or chance just depends on your perspective- whether you're looking forwards or backwards (as someone mentioned in class, I think).

-And then both books have the idea that by remaking their identities, Cal and Camille have opened up new horizons and their new lives look exciting and filled with the unknown. Camille ends up faring much worse than Cal did, though... I'm a little confused as to how Camille ended up so, so depressed and mopey. I kept waiting for whatever catastrophe sent him over the edge, and the worst that ever happened was he got fired from the railroad job. And he seemed to think that being out of a job was the worst calamity that could ever happen to anyone. His endless moaning and melodrama got terribly annoying after a while.

-And finally, all the classical references, again. Somehow the ones in Herculine Barbin are harder for me to figure out from context than the ones in Middlesex were. I'm confused about Ovid's Metamorpheses, for instance- which he keeps bringing up.

Overall, I liked Middlesex a lot better... Herculine Barbin is short so it's not that bad, but I've found myself skimming a lot. It read like a bad romance novel with way too many exclamation marks for a while. And again, I really can't see what he had to complain so much about. He had some hard things to deal with, but he really didn't deal with them very well... He seemed more spoiled and self-indulgent and self-centred than as though he truly suffered in his life.

Eugenides interview
Name: Ghazal Zekavat (
Date: 03/27/2005 16:04
Link to this Comment: 14057

I found another article in the New Yorker (surprise) relevant to what we're studying now. This article is only online actually, and you can access it here.

The article is actually an interview with Jeffrey Eugenides from July of '02. Here are some bits and pieces from it that I found interesting:

BILL BUFORD: What is your interest in a character, a hermaphrodite, who partakes of both genders?

JEFFREY EUGENIDES: My interest took conscious form at least fifteen years ago when I read Michel Foucault's "Memoirs of a 19th Century French Hermaphrodite." Foucault found these memoirs in the archives of the French Department of Public Hygiene. I thought they would be a great read. The hermaphrodite in question, Herculine Barbin, was a student at a convent school. She was tall, thin, flat-chested, and scholastically gifted. She fell in love with her best friend and they began a clandestine love affair. These were the facts of the case, and I was eager to read the memoirs because they contained a lot of elements that stirred my imagination: an amazing personal metamorphosis, a hothouse passion, and a medical mystery. There was only one problem: Herculine Barbin couldn't write. Her prose was wooden. Exclamation marks ended every second sentence. She was given to melodrama and, worse yet, she skipped over the important parts. "Middlesex" began as an urge to fill in those gaps, to tell the story Herculine Barbin couldn't. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write about a real, living hermaphrodite. Hermaphrodite characters in literature have been either mythical figures, like Tiresias, or fanciful creations, like Virginia Woolf's Orlando. I wanted to be accurate about the biological facts.

...My hunch is that I liked the idea of having a hermaphrodite narrate the book because the nature of the novelist is already hermaphroditic. You're supposed to get into the heads of both sexes and to travel back and forth with ease....What I'm saying is this: the act of reading that novel puts the reader into a state of gender confusion. You move back and forth from the male realm to the female. This wasn't something I was conscious of at the time I wrote "The Virgin Suicides." I see it now only in light of "Middlesex."

I think what Eugenides says about novels putting readers in a state of gender confusion is so true. In general, I think it's confusing enough trying to get inside the head of someone who is the same gender as us, but to have to get inside the opposite sex's head is so much more challenging. In novels, we are constantly moving back and forth from "the male realm to the female" but it's so interesting to have to do that all within one character. I think we all possess masculine and feminine qualities (although I'm not even sure that it's right to classify qualities as masculine or feminine, anymore) so when we read something that sees the world through the opposite sex's eyes, we're calling out that part of us in order to relate or understand or get inside the character's head. Additionally, I think it's safe to say that some women will relate to masculine voices more than others, and some men will relate to feminine voices more than others. Knowing that Eugenides is a man, writing as a man who was once a girl adds another layer of confusion, but, for me, anyway, Cal never completely lost that part of his voice that was Callie.

Similarities between Herculine Barbin and Middlesex
Name: Britt Fremstad (
Date: 03/27/2005 16:11
Link to this Comment: 14059

While reading Herculine Barbin, I was looking for the similarites between the two novels. Since I have only read two novels about hermaphodites in my life, this may have made that easier.

Like Becky and someone else mentioned, I think the more prominent similarity is that both authors focus on fate/destiny as being the driving force in their characters' lives.
[in my book]
page 14 "I was going to lose her, too, no doubt forever; for our destinies could not reunite us."
page 20 "A change in my destiny was going to take place..."
page 21 "My fate was sealed. That evening had dertermined the rest of my life!"
page 35 "What a destiny was mine, O my God!"

She also writes of the male Superintendent as being a man who "holds...whole future[s] in his hands." (And that this is horrible.) She seems to have an antagonistic feeling towards men, like Callie does. Maybe this changes later in the novel (I haven't finished it yet), but I can't help but think that one reason she finds it hard to become male is that she just doesn't like them.

I found her comment on science ("Sciene.. does not have the gift of miracles, and even less does it have the gift of prophecy." page 39) pertinent to our discussion on fate versus free will. Perhaps the writer does not yet know about Darwin's idea (and the "fates" genes give us), OR maybe she feels that our ability to change ourselves is bigger than those genes.

On a different topic of beautiful language... I like the usage of the verb "rent" in the sentence "..the sight of all those fresh and charming faces, which were already smiling at me, rent my heart." (page 25)

Camille and Callie
Name: Carolyn (
Date: 03/27/2005 16:44
Link to this Comment: 14060

I think that the story of Herculine Barbin (Alexina, Camille, ectŠ) is an excellent foil for Middlesex. Both Cal/lie and Camille both lived their early lives as females before it was Œdiscoveredı that they were hermaphrodites. Both of the stories are written in hindsight, which, I think, really helps the reader see how the characters identify themselves. Both Callie and Camille were attracted to females but Camille seems to identify as a female whereas Callie becomes increasingly aware of how her identity does not fit the Œideaı of female (which is illustrated when she makes up stories for Dr. Luce, she is aware that she is not really female and makes up stories believing that they will make Dr. Luce think that she is well adjusted and leave her alone). In both of the stories, there are common themes of idealism and pragmatism; during childhood, we are idealists but to enter adulthood we must become pragmatists. As Camille and Callie grow and become adults, they must deal with societal reactions to their Œinadequate sexı. Both are forced to choose a single gender when they are really a mixture of both (a choice that we all make, to rebel against the gender we have been assigned or to live within the definitionŠ ). The contrasts between Callie and Camille help me to better understand the choices the characters make. Camille helped me to better understand Callie, to understand where both Callie and Camille are located on the Œgender spectrumı and why they acted the way they did. The story of Herculine Barbin seems more catastrophic than Middlesex. Middlesex had so many different layers, themes, and I got a lot of different ideas about a variety of ideas from the book. Herculine Barbin is more concentrated, it focuses solely on the idea of gender. Herculine Barbin seemed like more of a social commentary. Camille criticized the position of ŒSuperintendent of Primary Educationı and praises religious institutions (particularly the ones run by women). After reading Herculine Barbin, I feel like I am supposed think a certain way, that a message/moral is being imposed on me. While reading Middlesex, I felt like I was allowed to draw my own conclusions and interpretations. Herculine Barbin seemed more plot driven while Middlesex seemed more idea driven. Is that the difference between catastrophic and uniformitarian? Action v. thought, moral v. interpretationŠ ?

Name: Ariel Singer (
Date: 03/27/2005 16:58
Link to this Comment: 14061

I have been thinking a lot about the reactions to Middlesex from my fellow students, so I thought that it would be interesting to find some reveiws of it. One of the more interesting ones that I found was from BBC, It is a partial transcript from a panel that discussed the book. Interestingly many of the topics that we covered n our wednesday group are talked about by the reviewers. There were two points that I thought especially related. One was that one reviewer did not like the first half of the book as much as the second, which was different from our class, in general, people our group found the ending rushed. Two, one reviewer notes, ³ My personal problem is that I'm really tired of these 530-page novels. I don't understand why people are writing books these big. It takes us to page 230 to get to the story, there is huge scaffolding on [which] it seems that this generation of novelists - and this is a '90s novel - are writing 19th century realist books.² I thought that this was another application of the sky-hook versus crane theory. The idea that cranes are often used excessively in literature, to hold a book together, whereas maybe a sky hook creates a better, more cohesive story.

Name: Lauren Z (
Date: 03/27/2005 17:00
Link to this Comment: 14062

I was intrigued by Foucault's observation that Western society believes in such a thing as a "true" gender, that a person cannot be considered a member of both genders. According to Foucalt, "sex harbors what is most true in ourselves." I believe that this idea does manifest itself in society, as well in Middlesex. Dr. Luce, after all, insisted that Callie have surgery in order that she clearly belong as a member of the female sex. What I wonder now is if the character of Cal also believed in such a thing as a "true" gender. In the note he wrote to his parents after reading Dr. Luce's report, Cal wrote "I am a boy!." He too did not believe that he could be both male and female, and went on to adopt what society understands as a "masculine" physique. I also remember that a couple people in class felt that Cal's narration felt masculine. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but I will say that Herculine Barbin's narration feels considerably more feminine. But perhaps this is because, as the back of the books suggests, she is imitating the "torrid style of hte romantic novels of her day."

A Question
Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (
Date: 03/27/2005 17:10
Link to this Comment: 14063

If Dr. Paul Grobstein (B.A. Biology 1969 / M.A. & Ph.D. (Neurobiology???) 1973) believes that "both sex and gender are social constructs"...Does he also believe that that evolution of sexuality and sexual preference also arose from social norms?

In other words, are Callie's feelings for the Obscure Object and Herculine Barbin's feelings for Sarah not directly influenced by their secret "male-ness" ?

The reading
Name: Liz Paterek (
Date: 03/27/2005 17:45
Link to this Comment: 14064

I felt a lot more emotionally flat in comparison to Middlesex. I'm a pretty unemotional person as it is but this book makes me care about the character mildly less. I almost feel as though I can see the stepping off point from Herculean to Middlesex. The similarities in the plot have been stated on here numerous times and therefore I will not reitertate them. I feel like the goal of the narrator Cal was to create more dimension to this concept of pseudohermaproditism. I wondered about author's being influenced by society by both having made their main characters show an attraction to women. Were they trying to show that these characters were secretly male all along or was Cal merely a write with the simple goal of using the same framework but developing it in a way that the author prefered? It could potentially be coincidence. I don't know.

Name: Rebekah Baglini (
Date: 03/27/2005 18:54
Link to this Comment: 14067

As I read Herculine Barbin I keep remembering the discussion Paul's small group session had last week about the voice of the narrator in Middlesex. While Cal narrates with a detached, unemotional, reporting style, Heculine (Camille? Alexina? What on earth should we call her? This is worse than a Russian novel...) write in an awkward, overly-excited, overwrought, and overpunctuated (the !!!s are making me crazy) prose. What effect do these different styles have on the story and our experience of it? For me, I've found myself bored with the way I'm constantly battered over the head by emotional overload by Barbin, who seems intent on informing us of how we should feel about and react to her predicaments. While she seems to hav a keen mind for descronstructing complex psychological experiences, she never takes a step back from her immediate, emotional reactions to events. Whereas Middlesex is an expansive, multi-faceted, multi-layered novel that weaves one story from many different perspectives, the scope of Barbin seems annoying limited in comparison. I almost always feel that attempting to view something from multiple viewpoints will yield a better understanding than viewing it from just perspective. That's why I'm taking this course and why, although still an "unreliable" narrator, I greatly prefer Cal's ways of storytelling.

Eugenides' Criticism
Name: Michael Heeney (
Date: 03/27/2005 23:59
Link to this Comment: 14072

Reading this book strongly calls to mind a comment Eugenides made in an interview about Middlesex and its influence from Herculine Barbin: I think this is the one which was showed in class, which is different from the New Yorker interview above, though his sentiments change a bit. "It's definitely completely interesting from that point of view [as a historical document]. But as an expression of what it is like to be a hermaphrodite, from the inside, Herculine Barbin's memoir is quite disappointing. She just tends to go into this moaning, talking about how misfortunate she is andŠ it's sad. You can go and read it, but she didn't have enough self-awareness to be able to understand what was going on. In a way she was pre-psychological in her knowledge of her self. And when I read that book I didn't get any information about someone with such a condition." This comes across to me as a much harsher criticism than Eugenides expressed in the New Yorker article, where his criticism was that she "couldn't write", or had trouble conveying to the reader her internal experience. His quote here suggests that she was a bad writer because she didn't have, or wasn't cognitiviely aware of, her own internal experiences and thus couldn't translate them to the reader. In reading Herculine Barbin I tend to agree with this harsher criticism of the book, in that the problem doesn't seem so much in what is an undoubtably awful writing style, but more in the way a real person, as seen through fragments of their own memoirs, becomes for the reader reduced to a caricature of melo-dramatic crisis. I find it rather interesting and disturbing for our conceptions of truth that for me at least a fiction can be far more expressive and "true" about a person's experiences and internal states than an actual historical document written by one person in an attempt to describe these states could be. Do we only care about "realism" when it is communicated to an extent which we can recognize as real?

Sorry so late!
Name: Brittany ()
Date: 03/28/2005 00:30
Link to this Comment: 14074

To respond to some points Rebekah and Michael brought up...

First: voice. The "gender" of the narrator was something I had a great deal of trouble with in "Middlesex." I felt that Cal was male, from beginning to end (maybe because he was writing retrospectively?). I took this either as a failing on Eugenides's part to convey a "switch in voices" (some of us Paul's section expressed disappointment that this "switch" wasn't more apparent) or, alternately, a strong statement about the continuity of character regardless of gender. However, with Barbin, it was just the opposite. I felt that she was female, beginning to end, even after she'd been reclassified as male. She just sounds more authentically female than Eugenides---in the way that society has predisposed me to think of "the female voice," I mean. Which brings up a question: am I really finding anything "male" or "female" at all in these voices, or is something going on with my foreknowledge of the actual gender of the author? Eugenides himself is male; I read his book as male. Barbin, on the other hand, spent most of her life believing she was female; I read her book as female. Maybe the authors themselves (or me, the audience) and not the characters are the actual forces being acted upon by the "gendering/boxing" of society. The texts could very well be totally genderless, and I'm unconsciously applying my own standards to them.

Second point: thinking over the criticism Michael mentioned (Eugenides of Babin's writing), it seems bizarre, incongruous even. Of course "Babin" isn't going to be self-aware or self-referential: it was written at a time when hermaphrodism was very hush-hush. There was very little literary/historical background for the author to draw on, and absolutely no preexisting texts to help her (her! I did that automatically!) "recognize" herself and her condition. I don't see why Eugenides went into Babin's memoirs expecting a novel. They're barely a narrative---they're only a "story" in the sense that they're sequential. Otherwise they're just impressions, a static, play-by-play recording of Babin's feelings at different stages in her life. And in that, they're vastly "truer" to life than is "Middlesex." Life, at least normally, isn't lived self-referentially. You go through the day thinking and responding, and it takes a lot of self-discipline to objectively psychoanalyze your own reactions. And you certainly don't place everything you do in a greater historical/familial context. That's what fiction is for; that's what authors are for. They draw the connections, fill in the gaps, between the shallow reflective actions of our everyday lives.

After Class
Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (
Date: 03/28/2005 14:47
Link to this Comment: 14087

Today's class was interesting. It made me realize how bad / blind I am to identifying classfiable characteristics and organizing them. I tend to think of categories in the same way that I think of electron clouds. You know that they are there but the whole system is so fuzzy that you can't quite designate an end point to each orbit.

Name: Eleanor Carey (
Date: 03/28/2005 15:12
Link to this Comment: 14089

Today's class was very interesting. Generally I tend to resist putting myself in categories, probably because my life seems so much more important than any one category I might be able to create on the spot. Reading these books, however, I've thought a lot about how my being female affects and is important to me. When I think about what kind of man I'd be if I were told that I was a man, I cannot think anything but that I'd be a man who sees himself as really female.
Generally, the emotional tone of Herculine Barbin does not bother me, though I admit I'd have expected it would. Sometimes I don't know why she is feeling the way she is but I think it's sometimes important just to know that she had whatever feelings- I'm okay with that.

included (or was it not included?)
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 03/28/2005 20:19
Link to this Comment: 14109

Thanks for all your contributions to today's interesting class. What a pleasure it gives me, to be learning along with you guys!

You'll find a photo of the "categoryboard" we constructed together in today's class notes. I noticed that we constructed categories both

You 'll also find links in the class notes that will enable you both to look @ a description of the Minotaur figurine and to listen to Foucault's laughter over the typology of Borges' "certain Chinese encylopedia": 1. belonging to the Emperor 2. embalmed 3. tame 4. sucking pigs 5. sirens 6. fabulous 7. stray dogs 8. included in the present classification (interesting that Paul remembered this as NOT included...) 9. frenzied 10. innumerable 11. drawn with a very fine camelhair brush 12. et cetera 13. having just broken the water pitcher 14. that from a long way off look like flies.

Come back on Wednesday for further consideration of what all this has to do with Herculine Barbin....

Name: Haley Bruggemann (
Date: 03/28/2005 20:33
Link to this Comment: 14110

As this is my first post on Herculine Barbin, I just want to begin by saying that I enjoyed what I have read up to this point. The writing style threw me off at first, but much like reading Shakespeare (or something with a similar "foreign" word choice or arrangement) it grew much easier to read as I went along. I really liked having the chance to read this book and compare it to Middlesex. It is the "real" version of Cal/Callie's story, but besides the obvious Obscure Object-Sara connection, I found that I wasn't thinking too much about Middlesex (or seeing any specific part of it) in Herculine Barbin.

I keep thinking about class today and the notion that we can never escape categorization, or our "need" to categorize things. I have read quite a bit about what could be a "biological" need for organizing and categorizing things. Some say it might be essential for our survival, so that when we encounter something new or strange, it will not completely jar us. I think this is an interesting idea. We categorize so much in our daily lives, just trying to understand new things. Is the idea of someone who is not one thing or the other so shocking to us because we are frustrated by our inability to categorize him/her? I wonder how this biological need to categorize things fits in to what we've been discussing.

Name: natalie (
Date: 03/29/2005 02:38
Link to this Comment: 14130

this is in response to comment fourteen o seven four.

I disagree with the point that we do not live life self-referentially. All that we ³have² ( own) is our ³self² and everything refers back to this entity ( I personally call Natalie.) And what each individual calls themselves. Whether we are conscious or aware of it or not, this ³story teller² mechanism within each of us is at the root of all juxtapositions of the self to others, the self to the environment and all other existential relationships. And anyway, what is a normal life? One that is lived without any substantial experiences? in ignorance or transient bliss? And second of all, the idea of ³objectively psychoanalyzing² oneself or oneıs ³observed² (re)actions is quite a paradox. In fact, as far as I can tell, impossible on many levels. There is nothing much more un-objective than reflecting upon your own actions. We automatically justify, imagine, create, and subjugate emotions, sensations, revelations or any other possible convoluted conceptions of the neo-cortex. And I would like to hope for one second that the reason why we are here at Bryn Mawr is so that we may be acutely aware of the shallow reflective actions of our everyday lives. So that perhaps the shallow, naïve, or non-purposeful actions we once occupied, (If we ever had the capacity to do such things) could dissipate under the power of our own minds and our intellectual desire to become ³everyday² authors.

Some thoughts
Name: Nada Ali (
Date: 03/29/2005 15:47
Link to this Comment: 14140

I find that there are many interesting things in Herculine Barbin that correlate with Middlesex. It is obvious that Eugenides has borrowed heavily from the ideas in this book, from the relationship with Sara to the Camilles doctor to the attraction felt towards girls. They both suggest that perhaps the attraction to girls was a sign and one that is biological. Sexual preference is not shown as being a social construct and choice but rather a predisposition of their gender.While they are significantly and drastically different the similarities are apparent in a subtle way.

The differences however are interesting. Camille is more emotional and receptive to bond making. Cal on the other hand seemed more emotionally unavailable and we can clearly see now that Eugenides intended that lack of emotion. Camille in the intensity of her emotion takes the limelight away from her condition. This is not necessarily a bad thing but nevertheless Eugenides intended for us to understand the "other" factors and information rather than use emotional cover to take away from the condition of Pseudo-Hermaphroditism.

On a completely different note, I took the sex ID test and was surprised to see that Im in the male-femal continuum. My brain is slightly more female than male but Im not an entirely female brain. I thought that was interesting as Professor Grobstein had mentioned, the slipperyness of gender is represented here. The test however in some ways can also be seen as conforming to some notions of male and female that are stereotypical in a broad context. I dont necessarily know whether that is problematic or not but I do feel that there is something there to discover.

Barbin's anti-confessional story
Name: Annie Sullivan (
Date: 03/29/2005 22:37
Link to this Comment: 14150

I am not quite sure what I think of Herculine Barbin. It is certainly not as engaging, rich, and "story-like" as Middlesex.. but its very interesting. I am not really bothered by the dramatic, effusive, depressed tone of the novel, and I am not sure I would necessary classify it as female. I think (as someone may have said in class) that Barbin's voice plays on negative female stereotypes (whiny, emotional, etc), but those aren't necessarily qualities that run through the majority of female narratives. The book, after all, is after all about her emotional torment. And Barbin does achieve my sympathy...

I think one of the more disturbing things about the book is the kind of silence that pervades it. Foucault tells about the kind of oppressive notions of sexuality and systems of categorization that characterize the nineteenth century. But what I find more interesting is Herculine's own sense of silence and shame that comes through in her writing. For however effusive she may seem--and for however 'confessional' the book appear--she maintains a strange reticence before the reader. We don't really get the sense that she wants to be recording these painful memories--or villifying herself, for that matter--, but Herculine insists on her duty to share her story ("No matter how strict may be the sentence to which the future shall condemn me, I intend to continue my difficult task" -pg 36) The memoir is written in a very direct, factual way (depite the emotion!); I think someone said on the forum that it was "step-by-step," which seems accurate to me. Yet although her writing seems like a confession, she often stops herself and says something like "I cannot say....' or "I shall not say what that night was for me" (36). The unwillingness or inability to "say" was troubling. This was very different that what we find in Middlesex. The omniscient perspective and the enormous amount of knowledge that Callie relays (historical, personal, geographical, etc) makes Barbin's narration seem quite stark and confined. Furthermore, in Middlesex, the narrator seemed to be looking back (often in a detached way, especially at the end) from a kind of healed persepective.... there was a sense of ease in reading Middlesex because of this. In reading Herculine Barbin, conversely, I felt very troubled and kind of agitated by the whole narrative (It begins, after all, with a declaration of her pending suicide!!).
Anyhow... I am glad for the opportunity to compare the stories of Barbin and Callie, which I am finding to be vastly different despite their unique similarity.

reaction to Herculine Barbin
Name: alexandra mnuskin (
Date: 03/30/2005 09:53
Link to this Comment: 14158

I think the memoirs of Herculine are certainly an interesting read because, being non-fiction they have historical significance. However, like Eugenides I confess myself to be slightly disappointed with the narrative. Herculine is too emotional, too preoccupied with her inner misery and does not, in my opinion due justice to the extraordinary circumstance she/he finds herself in. Despite the fact that Eugenides rarely describes Callieıs inner state, I personally as a reader, sympathized with Callie much more than with Herculine. Sometimes in writing it is not necessary to state the emotional state in order to convey a sense of it to the reader.
I suppose I must bear in mind however, that Herculine was raised in religious houses, that the books she probably read were few and written in much the same style. It is not to be wondered at that a sheltered girl living on the charity of others should have a very sophisticated style or a true command of her feelings in this case. I believe that is what happens in the narrative; she simple lets her feelings overwhelm her at times.

Herculine Barbin
Name: Austin (
Date: 03/30/2005 16:23
Link to this Comment: 14165

This book so far is very interesting, but not in the way that Middlesex was. I could just immerse myself in Middlesex, enjoying every detail and image, but this book doesn't seem to allow for such things. The narrative format of the book and the fact that it is simply a published journal, makes the Herculine Barbin have a very different feel. Also, her emotion, that somehow manages to not release as much feeling as one may have thought, makes it hard to understand where she is coming from. I have not quite finished the book yet, but am looking forward to its culmination so that I can reflect back on all of its parts and compare much more effectively with Middlesex.

Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 03/30/2005 18:17
Link to this Comment: 14169

As promised, to my section: here's easy access to Sex I.D. from the BBC.

While I'm here--I'm noting an interesting contrast, above, between Annie's description of the "disturbing silence that pervades" Herculine Barbin, and Alexandra's claim that it's "not necessary to state the emotional state in order to convey a sense of it" the former (desire to reveal all/know all) a "feminine" perspective, the latter (recognition of all silence can "say") "masculine"?

We spent a lot of time upstairs, this afternoon, articulating such stereotypes, meditating on the degree to which they are grounded in observations....and on the usefulness, more generally, of categorization (during this "week of diversity," for instance: does it help in building a community of scholars, if we recognize, articulate, and take responsibility for the socially-ascribed? physical? categories we each occupy?).

We also spent some time on HB's tendency to dramatize/overdramatize/melodramatize her sufferings--and acknowledged how akin that "style" was to the multiple games of "misery poker/mawrtyr poker (or, more femininely, "misery commiseration/misery-company keeping") which so many Mawrtyrs (and professors here) play.

Trying to dig, finally, @ what HB "wanted" (and whether giving per a category to "fit" helped to achieve that), it was suggested "he just wanted what he was to be okay." Question we ended with was, how's that work as a description of education? Is the process, in which we are all engaged here, about affirming who each of us is, as we are, or is it about changing that, about brain surgery? To be transformed, do we need to "rely on places we haven't been, to go to places culturally different from our own"? Can't "experience be a conversation stopper," a way of marking those places one is not willing to go exploring??

Finish Herculine Barbin, please, and post your further reactions to the book's multiple parts and/or our multiple conversations about it and related topics--here by 5 p.m. on Sunday.

Audience and Retrospection
Name: Annie Sullivan (
Date: 03/30/2005 20:34
Link to this Comment: 14171

I am still thinking about how we would characterize Barbin's story--as a memoir or as a diary.... and connected to that, I am still wondering WHY she writes her story.. To me, Barbin's narrative reads as a long suicide note. The first sentence of her story declares her pending death (by suicide), and the rest searches for some explanation, "story," or account of her life and misery... essentially, WHY suicide is necessary for Barbin NOW. Whether we call it a diary or a memoir, it is evident that Barbin percieves some kind of audience (whether immediate or abstract). Her voice is filled with shame and hesitation, and it is clear that she yearns for some kind of sympathy or exculpation. Barbin predicts the judgement of an outside reader/ audience and wants to explain herself (I think it is so interesting that as the narrative draws to a close, Barbin insists on her innocent and virginal nature-- as Britany pointed out in class-see page 99-100). Anyway, I think the point is that it is very difficult to write--especially something of a 'confessional' nature--without imagining (however detachedly) some kind of audience, reader or judge.

I think the question of WHY Barbin writes her story must ultimately come back to what Paul called "a story of the present." In a sense, Barbin is writing this story on her deathbed (her suicide seems inevitable from the very beginning). . . Barbin must therefore impute her 'current' misery onto the past. It is true that her childhood seems remarkably painless and comfortable, but nevertheless, Barbin explicitly (and quite irritatingly, as most of us agreed in class today) reminds us of her misery. Barbin's constant foreshadowing--and her "promise" of future calamity--are certainly retrospective acts. This is why I think her story reads as a suicide note... it seems like a desperate attempt to account for her *present* misery, and in order to do so, the past must be distorted. I was also very intrigued by Barbin's continual deferral of the great catastrophe that she alludes to from the beginning... For me, this was the most interesting and complicated part of her narration. It perhaps tells us less about hermaphroditism and perhaps more about retrospective writing (and "pure" memory) . . . For some reason I didn't find this disruptive or aggravating... I think I somehow expected it from the beginning. Within the first page, Barbin announces her narrative as retrospective, and because it unfolds as a 'murder-mystery'-like story, we know that the end is far more important--or at least influential-- than the process.

The Diary-like writing
Name: Maureen England (
Date: 04/01/2005 14:20
Link to this Comment: 14203

We talked alot in Professor Grobstein's section about the writing style and the contrast between whether the writing was meant more like a diary or more like a memoir. Whether the book was meant to be read by the public or not, I think it is benificial to the reader if the book is read like a diary. I instinctively read it this way because of the informal writing style. But I think that the emotion, because it is so excessive, is better understood if read like a personal diary entry.

Also, I'm interested in the religious aspect of Herculine's life. I haven't finished the book, I plan to this weekend. So far, what is striking is that Heculine, for the most part, feels comforted by her religion (or I at least it came off that way to me). Something also I liked was the internal emotion and conflict seen in Herculine which was not very present in Middlesex. I think personal conflict is very interested and especially in a first-person narrative, needs to be personal and emotional. At least in my opinion.

Name: Haley Bruggemann (
Date: 04/02/2005 22:11
Link to this Comment: 14220

I went ahead and read The Dossier and "A Scandal at the Convent" due to overwhelming curiosity. I thought it both completed and enhanced how I felt about "My Memoirs" and my reaction to it. If anything, it made me appreciate the first part of the book a bit more. Being able to read the actual medical reports and then read a story from a different point of view was refreshing. I was able to take a step back from the overwrought emotion of Alexina's voice and understand what happened to her through the eyes of an "outsider" (or someone who wasn't actually a part of what happened, especially at the convent). I enjoyed the story just as much as I enjoyed reading the first part of the book.

I was convinced from the earliest parts of "My Memoirs" that the manuscript had been written with the intention of it's possessing some type of an audience in the future. I am not sure as to how public or how widely known the author wanted it to be, but I think I was highly aware of the fact that it was written so that it could be read. The fact that the name Camille might have been added in as a replacement for HB's true name of Alexina hardly occurred to me as evidence during my first read-through. I instead concentrated on HB's seemingly direct way of writing (the pleas not to judge him too harshly, etc.)

I found Herculine Barbin to be very poignant. For me it is still amazing to think about it as a real text and not just a piece of fiction. Nevertheless, I really liked it and I am enjoying the discussions it has sparked.

Name: Brittany ()
Date: 04/03/2005 00:38
Link to this Comment: 14226

We had a long discussion this past Wednesday on what type of narrative Herculine meant her book to be; who her audience was and *why* she was writing the book. So here are my two cents...

I agree with Annie in that the book reads very much like a suicide note. However, I would also still classify it as a "memoir"---something that Herculine intended to be read by the public. I can't believe that all of the moments in which she breaks the fourth wall are literary conventions she picked up from her reading (though I do think that her reading/education heavily influenced her penchant for melodrama). She's not a great writer, but in the first half of the book, she makes what seems a logical attempt to explain her life in light of her unique physical situation. Paul said on Wednesday that Herculine's apparent childhood "misery" could be a projection of her current misery onto her past. I think I agree... the actual facts of Herculine's life were pretty benign until her "true sex" (har har) was discovered.

What makes me support this hypothesis even more is something else we discussed at length on Wednesday: the inconsistancy of Herculine's writing style. As Herculine's narrative progresses and she gets closer and closer to the present (in which, we assume, she really *is* miserable), the narrative gets less cohesive. It's as if the closer she gets to the moment of crisis, the less able she is to articulate what has switched from retrograde-misery to true misery.

Then again, I have an even bigger question on the memoir/diary conflict: Why must we assume it's one or the other? Herculine's writing style changes drastically in the last half of the book. Why should we assume that her purpose for writing it stayed constant? Or, at least, her *conscious knowledge* of her purpose? The last third of book seems to "fall apart" into a lot of whiny, less-than-coherent philosophizing. It reads less like a memoir and more like a real suicide note. I think that might be exactly what happened. As Herculine reviewed her life (and found it to be progressively more and more miserable), her depression overwhelmed her narrative cohesiveness. Her book unraveled from a concise description of her life's events into a sort of "woe is me" treatise, and in doing so actually jumped categories from "memoir" to "suicide note." (The difference being that in the first category Herculine wrote with a specific audience "in mind"---that is, she wrote *for* an audience, like a real author, taking into account her readers' ability to comprehend her story; in the second, she wrote *to* an audience---more like an angry spew of words directed "at the world/my oppresors at large," than an actual attempt at communication).

Herculine Barbin
Name: Kelsey Smith (
Date: 04/03/2005 08:13
Link to this Comment: 14228

I am currently rereading "Middlesex" for my third paper and I thought that it was interesting that Cal refers to Alexina Barbin early in the book. I didn't really pay much attention to that reference the first time that I had read that book. Instead, I merely dismissed it as a reference for something that was incomprehensible to me.

brain sex?
Name: Becky Hahn (
Date: 04/03/2005 10:15
Link to this Comment: 14230

I took the BBC test and the results said that my brain in neither predominently male nor female--it's right in the middle. However, I did score more "female" in the tests that asked you to judge emotion from eyes, and name words within a category. I've always wondered if my interests and strengths are due to (or at least linked to) my femaleness, or if I would have the same interests and stengths had I been male.

I guess that the cases of Callie and HB show that sex doesn't really determine personality, since they both undergo a gender change of sorts without going through a complete psychological transformation. Their writing styles remain more or less the same (although both are writing from after the change, so we don't really get the "real" writing style from before). However, Callie and HB don't make the best examples for answering this question (that is, is personality dependant or related to sex?) since they both had one upbringing--female. I think that "nurture" has much to do with identity, so in order to see if there really is a difference, a person would have to have two complete, distict lives--one female, one male. I suppose there would have to be rebirth involved...

Herculine Barbin
Name: L.T.(lt)
Date: 04/03/2005 12:34
Link to this Comment: 14232

After Wednesday's conversation about why Herculine wrote her story, I've been thinking about the book as idealizing her life. I agree that, judging by the events rather than her interpretations of them, her early life wasn't bad at all. A lot of people, looking back on their childhoods, like to say that those were the best times of their lives, idealizing what they don't remember clearly. Herculine seems to be doing the opposite, recreating her life as tragic. It looks like the same impulse, but expressed in different ways.

Name: Ariel Singer (
Date: 04/03/2005 14:22
Link to this Comment: 14235

I had a few more thoughts on Herculine Barbin after our discussion in Wednesday: one of the ideas that we mulled over was the concept of beauty. This is one of the threads, especially in Middlesex, and to a large extent in Herculine Barbin, that I found interesting. Both Cal and Herculine are often described as physically awkward, gangly, and even ugly. This was one of the reasons that people so readily believed that they were men. I thought this was an interesting distinction given that there are many, many astoundingly beautiful people who are androgynous in the world. Also there are numerous men who would/do make beautiful women. I thought it was curious that Eugenides chose to make Cal ungainly, and I think it would interesting to explore an alternate plot line, wherein Cal retained her striking looks from her early childhood. I wonder how different her/his life would have been.

I thought that we were supposed to have begun/finished Orlando for this week, and I have greatly enjoyed reading it so I just wanted to make a few comments about it. After reading Orlando and Herculine Barbin I can really see where Eugenides got his inspiration for writing Middlesex. It is clear that he used extensive components of each as his Muse for Middlesex. From Herculine Barbin he took basic plot (a hermaphroditic child when born is thought to be ³female², yet is later discovered to be ³male²), among many other bits and pieces. From Orlando Eugenides clearly reinterpreted the idea of the story being told as if ³from above². Where the story teller is almost omniscient and yet still tied to the character (although in Orlando the story teller is not Orlando her/himself). I will refrain from mentioning any other comments, in case I am wrong about the assignment.

Binary Systems
Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (
Date: 04/03/2005 14:30
Link to this Comment: 14236

I'm interested that much of our conversation this semester has unconsciously centered around the theme of binaries (sp?). Especially after reading Middlesex and Herculine I am struck by the representation of categories and especially 2 categories. The whole dilemma, drama arises because none of characters in the stories fit into these two categories.

Male / Female
Uniformitarian / Catastrophic
Continuous / Discontinuous

What is the evolution of two categories? What about our story-telling brain prefers two categories rather than a set of infinite possibilities?

Also thinking about the rules of story-telling...
If the motivation behind creating stories is that the story-teller him/herself reaches some kind of equilibrium, stablility, and this makes our stories an adaptation... Then are categories, taxonomies simply rules and limitations that we impose on our stories because it provides us with more stability ? And how exactly does it provide us with more stability?

I'm going around in circles. Can't quite link together all the things that I have been thinking about. But I do strongly feel that both Middlesex and Herculine suggest some kind of "innateness" about the character's feelings towards him/herself and other people. This intrigues me because it's saying that the categories are inherently there, and not necessarily created by external social determinants.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet
Name: Carolyn (
Date: 04/03/2005 15:03
Link to this Comment: 14237

I have been thinking a lot about Herculine Barbin and Middlesex and, after reading the Dossier I think I can identify one more of the reasons I find it less satisfying than Middlesex. The Dossier put names to text, real places were identified. I like having real Œnameı for places. We have been talking a lot about taxonomies and names are a fundamental part of categorization. (to paraphrase Foucault, as soon as we put something down in words, name it, it can be manipulated) I think that Middlesex uses names really well, specifically place names. In our section, Tonda spoke about reading the book from the perspective of a native of Detroit. She said that the book was really accurate, that that book illustrated a layout of the city that could be confirmed by her memories. By anchoring the book in a real place and manipulating small details and creating characters (also based off of real people, Middlesex was based off of Herculine Barbin) it seems more realistic, more believable. Herculine Barbin, on the other hand, seems less believable, even though it is a memoir. I understand that leaving places nameless or denoting them with an X or such was a stylistic choice from earlier times (I know it si done in Jane EyreŠ I think Austen does it as well) but, for me, it made the book more real to have entire names, especially ones that were familiar. Denoting the names of places with letters halted the flow of the storyŠ

style against substance
Name: Michael Heeney (
Date: 04/03/2005 16:27
Link to this Comment: 14241

I found this discussion about binaries and the apparent "innateness" of cateogories, superficially of gender but more fundamentally of story-telling styles, to be really interesting given the differences between Callie and HB in their respective books. It seemed that though the character of Callie changed from female to male (albeit always being told in retrospect by the 40 year old Cal), the most essential, unchanging component of s/his personality was a certain analytic stoicism which lent itself to the book's strange brand of comedy. It was this stoicism of voice, I think, that led many people to identify Cal's narration as always "male", rather than the more stereotypically affected "female" voice we see so predominantly in HB. But really, this voice was decidedly un-gendered, since it remained constant throughout her transformation, almost stubbornly so, as the details of Cal's life (her father's death, Desdemona's decay, her freak show performances, etc.) lent themselves more to a tragic voice than an ironic, satiric one. Conversely, the details in HB's life seemed to lend themselves much more to a comic one, than the over-affected exclamation and ellipses bloated melodramatic style the voice conveyed. general themes of sexual confusion and repression at a woman's convent, the narrator's amusing tendency to repeatedly make un-necessary references to the nun's breasts ("I pressed my head against her breast...which was covered only by a nightgown" on page 32) while narrating the story (presumedly) in retrospect as a man, the bizzare way in which the draconian sexual mores of the Catholic church modestly conclude that her parents had a choice to make her one gender and now HB as an adult has the choice to become another, as if it was an everyday thing. All of these details sound like excerpts from some vulgar comedy. Yet, the voice endeavors to wrest the narrative into a tragedy with all its might, that it becomes oddly tragi-comic, for me anyway, in that it eventually becomes clear that this woman has a naturally depressive temperament and is trying to construct a narrative which, in her mind perhaps, justifies the pain of her life. While initially this made me think it was a hoax, upon further thought I have to admit that, given the repeated tendency in literature of story-telling styles to be constructed in opposition to the events at hand, that it could be a real document after all.

"A Scandal at the Convent"
Name: Lauren Z (
Date: 04/03/2005 16:32
Link to this Comment: 14242

My favorite part of this week's reading is the short story at the end of book. I especially liked the themes of morality and religion. These were certainly present in Herculine Barbin's memoirs, but I don't think they were utilizied as much in Middlesex. In the short story, Herculine is called a devil by the other students because of her "masculine" appearance, and relationship with Henriette. Later, the situation becomes more confusing. Herculine claims that her relationship with Henriette is beautiful and pure. The Abbe is troubled by this, and then finds he has a hard time separating what he considers divine, and what he considers sinful. This reminds me of a comment that Cal makes in Middlesex when he is commenting on his grandparent's incestuous romance. "But I can't explain it, any more than Desdeomona or Lefty could have, any more than each one of us, falling in love, can separate the hormonal from what feels divine" (37). Both Middlesex and Herculine Barbin's memoirs force us to question what seem like clearly dichotomous categories: male and female, the divine and sinful.

Sex I.D.'s, BBC and otherwise
Name: Tonda Shimbo (
Date: 04/03/2005 16:48
Link to this Comment: 14244

I've come to the forum a total of three times now to comment, and each of the first two times read another comment that sparked a further researching and/or thought (although last time it was more of a "Oh yeah - I've been meaning to take the BBC test for two weeks now!" kind of thing). Which brings me to the point that I finally took the BBC sex id test, and it turned out just as I'd hoped - I have an androgenous brain. My personal brain score was a zero - right smack dab in the middle between male and female. I also, like Becky scored more femininely in the more typically feminine areas (emotions and empathy), and more typically male in the, what I would label as mathmatical and spacial, areas (the angles, rotating figures, etc.)

That being said, with the "typical" feminine and masculine results of this sex id test, I wonder if some of this isn't dependent on the way we are brought up. I was able to score highly on the typically masculine areas, which as I said I consider to be mathematical, and a result of my previous mathematical study (before Bryn Mawr...) My dad was also big into math and science and technology and always tried to spark an interest in me as well, and so I did take AP Calculus and Honors Physics in high school (and to be honest, I almost miss math classes now...shh!), and I kind of think that that is why I was able to score so highly in those areas. So I wonder if the Harvard President's recent statements were true to him because of something like this ID test, which states that men typically score higher in those areas - but the results of this test is in turn because girls and women are STILL infinitely less likely to take such classes throughout their lives - because we are almost brought up to think of them as "boy stuff." (It reminds me of when I was little and we'd go to the toy store, and there were aisles that were most definitely "boy aisles" to me, because they sold GI Joes and Monster Trucks and large, scary looking action figures.) Perhaps if more girls were pushed into such fields along with the boys, the sex id test would yeild different results?

Name: Eleanor Carey (
Date: 04/03/2005 16:57
Link to this Comment: 14245

In response to comment 14232
I agree that Herculine is recreating her life in an idealizing manner, making it look tragic from the beginning. Perhaps this stems from a feeling of having lost what she enjoyed when she was young- if we look at her life before discovery as a man as happy, surely we can imagine her feeling she has lost her place in the world and a contentment she might prefer not to have to miss. While her life as a man doesn't appear to have been horrible, it did not include the success of her life as a schoolmistress or the affection she seemed to have valued so much. The memoir certainly incited my sympathy- I might have liked to have understood more of what was going on (perhaps instead of reading exclamations of woe), but I did feel for the narrator and enjoy my reading of her story.

more Herculine Barbin
Name: Austin (
Date: 04/03/2005 16:57
Link to this Comment: 14246

We discussed in Wednesday's class a little bit about whether Herculine Barbin sounds like the writing of a male or a female and whether such a thing can exist. When I read this book, I can't help but feel like I am listening to the voice and writing style of a female. Even though I have known that the narrator becomes male in the end, I still get an overwhelming feeling that the narration if feminine. It makes sense that Camille would write femininely as she has lived happily as a female for a large part of her life, but if there are such things as male and female brains and gender IDs, it wouldn't matter how she was raised or where she felt her gender should lie...would it? When we are taught how to write by family or teachers, girls and boys do not get different instructions. For example girls are not told to be more emotional and boys aren't told to be matter-of-fact in their writing. We all write in a style that fits us... but does that have have a partial reliance on gender or is it strictly personality or through the books that we've read - and do personality traits and liked books have a relation to gender as well?

I haven't taken the Gender ID test yet, but I plan to as this is very interesting to me. The idea that there are different gendered brains makes sense to me, but the narration of Herculine Barbin doesn't seem to quite follow that idea in my opinion.

Name: Laine Edwards (
Date: 04/03/2005 17:26
Link to this Comment: 14247

Something that I have noticed in class, and specifically in Professor Dalke's discussion section, is that we are often asked "Is this useful?" The more I think about that question the more it frustrates me because I don't see what is "useful" about asking that question because in my mind it inherently becomes a "yes" or "no" question.

As I've been reading Herculine I've been trying to ask myself the same question but in different ways. I started out with "Where is this useful?" and I think it has been most useful in the context of this class and looking at Middlesex as an extension of Herculine. Outside of our evolution community I'm not sure that I could find a place where Herculine was readily useful in the same ways.

I also asked myself "How is this useful?" and that was the form of the question that I found to be most helpful to me in thinking about the book. Herculine provided a very direct contrast to Middlesex and for me this helped to highlight certain issues. The piety and modesty that played such a big role in Herculine was present in Middlesex, but not to the same extent. It was interesting to see how those two elements affected the outcome of the two main characters.

Overall I think that "Is this useful" can be a thought provoking question, especially in the terms of the types of books we are now reading. Providing a context, however, in which the question can be grounded would allow me to think more specifically about what in these texts is useful to me and where.

I am "male"
Name: Britt Fremstad (
Date: 04/03/2005 17:44
Link to this Comment: 14249

I, too, just took the BBC Sex I.D. test and it claimed that my brain is 50% male. Now, more than ever, I feel that this whole idea of "male narrations" and "female narrations" (or male/female brains) means very little.

I say that because I think we are using this one category (the gender category) to lump together very different ideas. The BBC test (and our own conversations?) defined people male or female depending on their spatial, verbal, empathizing, and systemizing skills. According to the BBC test I am a spatial empathiser--something both male and female. Why, does our society insist that we lump together such unrelated categories so that we can create an "orderly" world? ( that surveys can merely ask if we are male or female...)

I believe we talked in Ann's group about how humans simply like order, that it makes us feel more in control. (Certainly, Foucault's idea relates to this in that we can mold things once we name/categorize them.) At the same time, few people like to name categories to put themselves into. (Or, at least, there are some categories--like whiteness--that people many refrain from putting themelves into.) I wonder if humans like categories because it helps them to order other people, but at the same time humans dislike them because it allows them to be ordered around...

HB: A depressed soul?
Name: Kate Shiner (
Date: 04/03/2005 21:48
Link to this Comment: 14257

I've been thinking about Paul's suggestion that Barbin's problems may have been caused by the fact that she had the chemical imbalance characterstic of depression rather than the fact the she was a psuedo-hermaphrodite. It is a compelling idea but I have reservations in accepting it.

I'm reminded of Anne's paraphrase earlier in the forum from Cherrie Moraga, who asserts"that therapy is the privitized gringo consciousness that our illness is individual, as is our cure."

Perhaps Barbin was depressed (well to me she/he obviously was) but can we really say that the imbalance caused some kind of skewed perception on her part? Perhaps his/her unique (genetic) personality combined with her his/her unique cultural circumstances led to this chemical imbalance. Does this make her laments any less valid? I don't think so. I also think it doesn't excuse society for her depressed state anymore than it excuses the significance of her personal struggle and ultimate suicide.

Name: maria ()
Date: 04/03/2005 22:06
Link to this Comment: 14259

There was discussion in Paulıs discussion group last week about how to characterize this Herculine Barbin. Some members of our group were of the opinion that it was a hoax, some thought that it had been written as a personal diary and some considered it to be a memoir, written very much with an outside reader in mind. I personally am of the opinion that it is a memoir, intended for an outside audience. Not only does the narrator refer several times to the reader, but it also seems that the narrative is striving to present the figure of Barbin in a sympathetic lightŠ.Barbin is having his say as to how he should be remembered.
It was suggested by Paul that this was written in some ways like a mystery story. That there are allusions to some catastrophic event throughout the text. One is waiting to see what this event was and why it was so bad that in the aftermath of it Barbin is unable to look back on his childhood without imbuing those memories with his current despair. It was pointed out in class that in many ways Barbinıs childhood had been quite satisfactory. He had been cared for, given a home, given friendsŠand yet, I think that fails to account for the emotional toll that being a Œcharity caseı can have on a childıs psyche. As someone who has attended private schools all of her life, I was always amazed at how keenly my peers who were on scholarship or financial aid felt the difference between their place in the school and mine. Barbin does seem to be an emotional person who is overly concerned with his relationships from very early in hi life, but in all fairness, his physical and education security depended on him remaining in the good graces of the authority figures. Children are often quite good at sensing when their situations are not secure and the financial and social disparity between Barbin and his classmates clearly made an impression on him. Perhaps the over-the-top writing style, the need to be seen as sympathetic, the almost pathological need for affection and love has less to do with his sexuality and more to do with his personality and personal history.

the evolution of memories
Name: Maja Hadziomerovic (
Date: 04/04/2005 05:30
Link to this Comment: 14269

I have been thinking about Barbinıs reflection of her childhood events, and I am fascinated by the idea that we were talking about in Grobsteinıs section. A child has a very limited view of the world compared to an adult in the same environment. Therefore, the way a child perceives an experience, either traumatic or non, is certainly different than the angle an adult would take on it. Furthermore, if an individual goes back through their memories and attempts to re-analyze their past experiences, an evolutionary change is bound to take place. An evolution of those existing memories, that is. Later in life, one is equipped with a more peripheral vision. They know the events that took place after their experience and they are detached from the immediacy of the experience at hand. Weather it be intentional or not, this allows for a much more analytical view and opinion on the matter. Once an event from the past has been re-analyzed, it can no longer be recalled exactly as it was experienced. The experience becomes tainted with the idea of what one should have felt like or thought of instead of the memories of what one actually went through and thought of. And slowly but surely, the memory evolves and is replaced by our new idea of how things should have been handled instead of how they were actually experienced.

Ozma of Oz and today's class
Name: Anjali Vaidya (
Date: 04/05/2005 00:17
Link to this Comment: 14314

I've been mulling over the video we saw in class this afternoon... It made me start thinking about a book I read ages ago, called Ozma of Oz (the third book in the series that begins with the Wizard of Oz). In this book, the heir to the throne of Oz (a princess named Ozma) is turned into a boy when she's just a baby by Mombi, the Witch of the South. And Mombi hides this little boy and raises him as a boy for many many years. I think he has no idea who he really is until he's... 12 years old? Or so? I can't remember. At which point he's turned back into a girl- back into Ozma, and rules Oz as Princess. And now that I think of it it's funny, since the transition from boy to girl is made absolutely effortlessly. Ozma is completely happy as a boy, and afterwards completely happy as a girl. She has no identity crises, or anything like that. Her gender shifts, and everyone just accepts it.

The reason why I thought of this was that when my mother first read this book to my brother and me, when I was maybe 7 years old, it gave me the idea that gender might completely fluid. And that idea was terrifying to me. I didn't want to suddenly magically turn into a boy. And I "knew" that this wasn't possible, that Ozma was a fictional character, but I had a very overactive imagination and it took a while to stop imagining that happening... And one thing that I found fascinating about the video today is that now I know that things like that happen. That voice of reason in the back of my head telling me to stop being silly when I was 7 years old was wrong. One of the people- the one with long wavy dark hair, sitting on the left- said he/she had seemed completely female until puberty. I can't stop thinking about that. It's just incredible. Callie was the same, I know, but that was fiction- seeing actual people talk about such experiences had much more of an impact. I mean, how would that feel? How hard would such a discovery be? Middlesex tries to describe what it might be like... But that's fiction. And Herculine Barbin describes it but laces it with so much melodrama that it's not very enlightening. Growing up, absolutely believing yourself to be one gender, and then suddenly receiving signals from your body at puberty that that is not what you are... It must be mind-blowing.

Or else... perhaps it's more mind-blowing for friends and family than for the person itself. From the video today, it sounded more as though discovering that they were intersex was a relief. It made sense to them- far more sense than the concrete genders they had been assigned. And Callie's reaction in Middlesex was the same- it wasn't so much a remaking of identity, for her/him, as a realization of what she/he had been all along.

the effect of "back-shadowing"
Name: Eileen (
Date: 04/05/2005 21:21
Link to this Comment: 14335

"The neocortex, which aspires to coherence, tries to fit new input into existing structures (hence a propensity among humans for nostalgia)" - Anne Dalke's friend.

"He was still too young to know that the heart's memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice, we manage to enjoy the burdens of the past." - about Dr. Juvenal Urbino, from Love in the Time of Cholera

Is the past inevitable?(to apply a forward looking adjective to the past, to pose a question that exists in the classroom ether of suspended belief). There's no meddling with it, only forgetting or re-writing it, or with the selective memory of preference, nostalgia or situational blindness, erasing what was never seen or perceived. How can we avoid selection, there is too much abundance and variety to remember everything.

Looking back, Herculine Barbin found Sara's love doomed (in retrospect) but the affair sweet and idyllic, with the great preserver of salt ("after the laughter I guess comes the tears"- Wu Tang) from anguished tears keeping her happier days pickled and distant and dear. Maybe Sara was the sweetest girl in the world, maybe she was dull or skittish or a pillow queen diva, but she has been dead for too long for there to be controversy about her portrayal, and all we have of her is "shorn and frozen in the lover's inward eye"- toni morrison, silent and an Obscure Object if ever there was one.

"what we know comes to so little,
what we presume so much-
the most we can do is
ask questions and die."
- Pablo Neruda, Moscas entran por boca cerrada.

I mean, all I have is rising intonation and uncertainty in the released balloons that go up until they pop and drown, the heavenward and gravity bound ???? question marks that are as useless and enigmatic as anything coy, only even worse, because at least something coy pretends to know, and all I've got is out there, openly unresolved.

Brain Sex
Name: Jessica (jfrosenb)
Date: 04/06/2005 11:31
Link to this Comment: 14349

I finally found a ruler and finished the BBC's Brain Sex test. My results said I was exactly halfway between the average female brain and the midpoint between the sex's. I think if I had to pick that's exactly where I'd want to be. I like my female leaning brain.

But in answering the Sex History section of the test, where they ask questions about the first time you had intercourse, how many times, with who, whether your attracted to male or female... for many of those questions I didn't have answers that could fit into those boxes. They asked them like they were such simple questions, but I wanted a page to answer them, not just room for a number or a yes/no option.

Me, with my "normal" female expression of sex and my feminine leaning brain, feeling limited and categorized by a binary. The interesting part of this experience for me, though, was that I didn't feel I was the only one being forced into boxes. These researchers will never be able to understand my brain this way, because they don't even know what questions to ask.

Which makes me think... am I even asking the right questions? And something about this class I"ve been wondering for a while: why are we using the 2nd half of the semester to discuss gender? I mean, why not someother part of us, some other evolution or brain thing or whatever. What else could I ask these questions about? I have a feelinng, everything.

Name: (nali)
Date: 04/06/2005 13:24
Link to this Comment: 14352

I agree with Jessica on the fact that the BBC questionairre on Sex ID was very boxy. As I mentioned before in a posting it seemed as though the continuum of maleness and femaleness in the Sex ID test was using definitions of male and female in a boxy manner. They didnt necessarily try and change our notions of sex but instead told us that we had elements of both. This doesnt mean however that there is space for someone in the middle. However for the sake of fluidity of sexes and how we can (within the box) be like both is made apparent and clear by the test. Yet the test prescribes to pre conceived notions of what it means to be male and female and those boxes are labels even if they allow some level of diffusion.

On another note, I found the idea of the book being a hoax utterly fascinating. Yet, I dont think I necessarily believe that. The fact that I found myself writing like Camille after reading one too many novels of that era, suggests that we sometimes write about ourselves in ways that embellish how we feel. This doesnt meant we embellish our emotions but words often dont depict what we feel as effectively as we may want to while in a reflective state. This is probably due to the fact that memories are interpreted by our brain in ways that may not be entirely correct. Hence we dont have perfect memory and to compensate or embellish what we once felt or went through, the brain creates a story influenced by all that is around us, including the literature, writing styles and cliches. Perhaps this is where the memes pervade our writing creating an utterly different story that depicts events in the way we would like to remember it as oppossed to how it actually happened.

After reading this book, one is left wondering what it was about. Was it a story of a hermaphrodite, a childhood, Sara, unforunate turn of events in adolescence or class struggle?

Name: Nada Ali (
Date: 04/06/2005 13:24
Link to this Comment: 14353

Above was me.. submited it by mistake without writing anything else

Name: Arshiya Urveeja Bose (
Date: 04/06/2005 19:46
Link to this Comment: 14358

Anne asked us in class today to construct a metaphor for the learning/teaching process. What would be the classroom? Teacher? Other Students?

Other than the fact that I mysteriously developed brainfreeze during this exercise and couldn't come up with anything real, this single image of a little girl sitting on the doorstep of her house having her hair oiled by her grandmother found itself into my head. So teachers shake things up, and hope that in the process some liquid dissolves into your scalp?!?

Thanks to Anne and Paul for oiling my head, I guess !

(apologies for silly posting)

boxes, and metaphors for getting out of them....
Name: Anne Dalke (
Date: 04/06/2005 23:12
Link to this Comment: 14362

Thought I'd fill in some background for Arshiya's not-so-silly-@-all post...we'd worked our way, upstairs this afternoon, from interrogating the "normal" to the difficulty of altering pronouns (which are "function words," rather than "content words," and so very hard to change) to reflect multiplicities of gender....were comparing Farsi and Chinese (which have no gender) with French and Spanish (which ascribe grammatical gender to things that don't have biological gender...)

...this went on until Jessie observed how "boxed in" she felt, as a result of this class, how increasingly aware of her inability to get outside the language available to her to describe experience...

and I, distressed (because I thought this class was all about offering ways OUT of boxes...)

invited an associative game, using metaphors to articulate ideas, and generate their associated networks of related ideas--to illustrate how we can come up w/ new ways of interacting...

I actually drove back to English House tonight to take a photo of our metaphor-board, only to find it erased, alas. Here are the ones I remember:

Self Classmates Teacher Class
big ears mouths finger body
wildflower insects soil/water/environment garden
clam ocean sand pearl
ledledleader-outerfrom educare=L. to lead out

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