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The Implications of Dichotomy in Middlesex, Herculine Barbin, and Everywhere

Kate Shiner

It is hard to describe oneself on a fundamental level without referring to some kind of dichotomy. I might say I am liberal, a westerner, an intellectual, or that I tell circular as opposed to linear stories. For some reason placing oneself in the middle or outside the realm of one of these dichotomies is often viewed as unacceptable, or at least less than optimal. Sometimes it is linguistically impossible, as in the case of definitively gendered articles and pronouns. We are defined by what we are not as much as by what we are. What is underlying these dualist categories, and why do they arise and persist?

Sex identification is perhaps the original and most rigid human dichotomy, and many see sexual hermaphroditism as the most grotesque of all aberrations from civilized human nature. In Middlesex, a novel by Jeffrey Eugenides, the main character Cal looks up "hermaphrodite" in the dictionary and it advises her to "See synonyms at MONSTER."(1) (430) It is further the case that in modern western societies any permutation of one's singular sex identity whether voluntary or not has been viewed not only as disgusting but stigmatized as morally reprehensible. We see this stigma expressed in Herculine Barbin, the memoirs of a nineteenth-century hermaphrodite. When Barbin is reflecting on changing her official status from male to female s/he worries, "Didn't this abrupt change...offend all the laws of conventional behavior?" (2) (79)

But it is apparent that these laws of conventional behavior do not adequately encompass all persons or perspectives. Further on in his/her memoirs Barbin protests, "Doesn't the truth sometimes go beyond all imaginary conceptions...? Have the Metamorphoses of Ovid gone further?" (2) (87) Barbin's lover also notes in him/her the desire to escape from category when she reportedly tells Barbin, " are thirsty for a free, independent existence, which I cannot give you." (2) (80) In a similar vein in Middlesex Cal rallies against theories of category and sexual assignment when s/he states,"But it's not as simple as that. I don't fit into any of these theories" (1) (479)

Could we not learn something from a sexually or culturally hermaphroditic perspective that we could not learn while locked into a rigidly dichotomous category? In Plato's Symposium Aristophanes philosophizes that all humans were hermaphroditic before the gods separated them, and that this separation is the root of human suffering. (3) In fact, in Greek myths hermaphrodites often had special prophetic abilities. And when speaking of his novel Middlesex Eugenides wonders, "Why is a hermaphrodite not the narrator of every novel? It's the most flexible and omniscient voice. Every novelist has to have a hermaphroditic imagination..." (4) Alongside all of the degrading associations linked to hermaphroditism, there is definitely a sense present in the world that hermaphrodites have a special kind of "sight" that lends itself to storytelling ability.

But one questions what exactly it is about hermaphroditism that enables this unique sight. Are hermaphrodites escaping the dichotomy or somehow encompassing both sides of it? The answer seems to be the latter, because even the term intersexual (preferred by many hermaphrodites today) is a category which defines itself in relation to the already established sexes. The sexual dichotomy pervades our culture so fully that it does not seem conceivable that one would ever truly be able to escape it, but only to first accept its premises and then blend them together once again.

What underlies this persistent cultural phenomenon of dualistic categorization may actually be what is referred to as a Hegelian dialectic, first described by the German philosopher Hegel. Under this system of inquiry one must first develop a thesis, then a counterthesis, and from the combination of these two theses create a synthesis which advances beyond both. Applying this principle to a Judeo-Christian perspective it would seem that God created the thesis in man, from which he produced a counter thesis in woman. Thus we would naturally consider the hermaphrodite to be the synthesis of both.

Even though this perspective of the Hegelian dialectic in relation to sex is often imperfect, it is somehow inescapable in many cultures, even those before Hegel and outside the Western tradition. The is because the human mind bases thought on language, and without some kind of initial word or definition to categorize and separate a concept from everything else no concept can exist. However, there are some important and interesting distinctions between dialectics among cultures which reveal their constructed and imperfect nature.

Physical sexual dimorphism has resulted in definitions of cultural dichotomy in all known cultures, but which sex is defined as the initial "thesis" or truer sex can vary. Since in the Judeo-Christian tradition the male category is the initial thesis, the characteristics that are defined and associated with this category are clearer than those of the female category, which by definition encompasses everything that is not male. This fact may give a female perspective more freedom (although historically it has not resulted in better treatment for females).

This male "thesis" can be seen in cultural treatment of male vs. female homosexuality. One distinctly gets the sense that in this culture that a male who has sex with men is somehow less masculine and more aberrant than a female who has sex with women is abnormal and unfeminine. This is reflected in the fact that many more scientific papers in America are written trying to make biological sense of male homosexuality than female homosexuality, about which there are virtually none. In Aztec culture, however, the roles seem to be reversed. In the Aztec creation story a woman, "Coatlique," is impregnated by a knife and gives birth to all men.(5) And fitting with the model of the antithesis, it is also known that male homosexuality was well-tolerated in Aztec culture, and considered a normal behavior between warriors. (6)

These observations of creation stories in relation to treatment of homosexuality are not definitive, of course, but do suggest that the definitions of things "masculine" and "feminine" in different cultures may depend largely on the initial decision of what exactly defined male or female, and which term was defined first. This type of boxing in, of defining something by what it is not, is a characteristic of all dichotomies which is an awesome and sometimes arbitrary force in language and culture. In the words of Nietzsche, "It is powerful who made the names of things into law, and among the powerful it is the greatest artists in abstraction who created the categories." (7)

Dialectics are a natural and useful way for humans to describe their world of experience. However, opposing categories often create a sense of separation and impermeability which is not characteristic of reality. Many times experience is best described in a way that looks beyond or ranges within the defined dichotomies. This explains why hermaphrodites- sexual, political, and otherwise- make excellent storytellers, and why great storytellers do their best to adopt a hermaphroditic perspective.


1) Eugenides, Jeffrey. Middlesex. New York: Picador, 2002.

2) Barbin, Herculine. Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth-Century French Hermaphrodite. New York: Pantheon Books, 1838.

3)The Greeks: Hedonism. Moore's Metaphysics website

4) "Diddlesex." Underground Literary Alliance Website by Michael Jackman

5) "Aztec Creation Story." website.

6)"A Dilemma Judaism Prefers to Ignore." Hagshama website, 2003. by Sharona Fredericko

7)Biology 223 Discussion Notes: "A Further Exploration of Kinds,
Whence They Arise, Wherefore They Are Useful (And How They Can Be Misused....?)"

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