- ‘Listening With’ Ovid:Intersexuality, Queer Theory, and the Myth of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis
I was beginning to understand something about normality. Normality wasn’t normal. It couldn’t be. If normality were normal, everybody could leave it alone. They could sit back and let normality manifest itself. But people—and especially doctors—had doubts about normality. They weren’t sure normality was up to the job. And so they felt inclined to give it a boost.jeffrey eugenides, Middlesex
The twenty-first century is increasingly concerned with transformative processes of “becoming,” rather than set properties of “being,” in a shift of focus from what things are to how they change.jerry aline flieger, Is Oedipus Online?
The acknowledgement that sexuality was constituted differently in the ancient world than in our own (and differently, indeed, between Greece and Rome) has helped in the struggle to de-essentialize contemporary models of sexual behavior and expose the arbitrariness of the labels ‘normal’ and ‘deviant’ or ‘perverse.’ And yet the way ancient sexualities tend to be constructed around some version of the opposition penetrator/penetrated shows that, despite this acknowledgement, there is still a tendency to essentialize the models of the ancient world. This essay aims to complicate the picture by arguing for a ‘queer’ reading of the Metamorphoses and the myth of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis, in particular. It will contend that Ovid’s myth provides an etiological narrative of complex sexual identity that originates in but transcends antiquity to provide a critique of what Judith Butler (2004, 65) has called the “idealized gender dimorphism” of the present day. This narrative speaks especially to the multiple, often overlapping identities assumed by the person who identifies as queer or as intersexual. The essay has a two-pronged trajectory: examining both how the later developments of feminist and queer [End Page 175] theory informed by psychoanalysis have employed Ovidian myth within their own master narratives as they seek to understand the human subject; and using this body of theory as an interpretative lens for the myth itself, offering a reading that engages transformation as the vehicle of meaning for gender identity.
The idea that sexual difference is one of the grounding aspects of human identity is so widespread as to have attained the status of that complacent discourse ‘common sense.’ More often than not, the arrival in the world of a new individual is greeted by the question “Is it a boy or a girl?” and the observable distinction between the two is questioned neither then nor later.1 There is perhaps a growing awareness of what might be called the new ‘technologies of gender,’2 which make permeability between the categories of female and male possible and yet, because only a very few people opt for or are in a position to take advantage of these technologies, their impact on popular conceptions of sex and gender have to date been negligible.3 It is still largely the case that the opposition between men and women is regarded as a natural or normal one that is exhibited by the body. And a creation myth that underpins and naturalizes this view, such as that of Adam and Eve, has a cultural authority that reaches well beyond those who are routinely familiar with the Bible.
When it comes to adulthood, the idea that the goal for each person is to find a partner, an ‘other half,’ is also pretty much accepted by the majority. Despite statistics showing the growing number of single-person households in the United Kingdom, political, religious, and legal discourses continue to invest in the couple as the mainstay of social life in Britain.4 And a huge number of artistic texts—literary, cinematic, musical—persist in representing the finding of a soul-mate as the telos of the human condition. Indeed, it could be argued that the ideology of the couple is proving to be even more tenacious than that of sexual difference. For example, since the law changed in England, Scotland, and Wales on 5 December 2005, a whole tranche of people whose relationships were previously unrecognized by the law have chosen formally to legitimize them, and many...