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Castrati, Balzac, and BartheS/Z Yvonne Noble [B]ut that I have a decent Regard for Posterity, I wou'd have cut away the only Credentials you have of Humanity, and made a walking Sign of you.—Charles Johnson, The Country Lasses (1715) The phenomenon of castrati singers was brought into the consciousness of the wide twentieth-century readership of critical theory in 1970 with the publication by the French structuralist Roland Barthes of his book S/Z.1 Making the book a showcase for his iconoclastic "writerly" critical interposition, he chose to analyze as his sample text a then-obscure novella by Balzac, Sarrasine —a frame tale, the inner and outer narratives of which are linked by the figure of a castrato. Barthes's importance as a theorist has naturally drawn much attention to his reading and, incidentally, to Sarrasine, but, doubtless owing to the sad insulation of academic communities, almost no contribution has come from Early Modern scholars, to whom the castrati are customary parts of the quotidian scene, not to say artists of outstanding interest for their central contribution to one of the major international art forms—the opera—during its glorious centuries from Monteverdi to Meyerbeer. Balzac's castrato therefore has been treated within SIZ (and within the trail of discourse flowing from it) almost entirely as a cultural and psychological symbol—a kind of hallucination. This assessment is true to major aspects of the text and has been very illuminating, particularly with regard to the psychology or "reading" by the outer and inner "subjects"— Balzac's narrator and Sarrasine. Adding a historical dimension, however, can highlight aspects of the text that have been overlooked : the castrato gains personhood, the readings deepen in irony. In Balzac's novella, Sarrasine, the subject of the inner story, is a young French sculptor. In 1758 he travels to Rome, where he becomes infatuated with an opera singer in whose form he recognizes the embodiment of ideal female beauty. He is unaware that in the Papal States no women are permitted to appear on 28 Yvonne Noble29 stage, that the object of his admiration is a castrato. Unable to assimilate this reality, Sarrasine perishes (violently). Balzac places this tale within a frame set in the fabulously wealthy Paris of the Bourbon Restoration, contemporary to his time of writing in 1830. His narrator has taken a young woman (whom he hopes to seduce) to a party at the residence of a family named Lanty. She becomes curious to know about a hideous old man belonging to the household who seems to have a particular affinity to the Lanty's young, lovely, talented daughter. The narrator's companion is also affected by the beauty of a painting of Adonis owned by the Lanty family. The next evening the narrator tells her the tale of Sarrasine. He reveals that the hideous old man is the same person as Sarrasine's castrato, that the Adonis image is of the castrato, and that the Lantys' wealth derives from the castrato ' s celebrated international career. These revelations are found offensive by the young woman. Directed by her to go away, the narrator makes one final, futile attempt to recover the situation: "In telling this story, ... I have been able to give you a fine example of the progress made by civilization today. They no longer create these unfortunate creatures" (253-54). Sarrasine and Balzac's narrator—and Barthes following them in his reading—see life before them as thoroughly sexualized in a strong masculine-feminine polarity. Efficacy for the subject is construed always as male sexual dominance. In Balzac this is represented explicitly in both inner and outer tale; in Barthes implicitly , by his reading of the castrato as outside life (as cold, emptiness, death) and by his invoking of a further, thoroughlysexualized vision in that of Freud. One aspect of Balzac's subject is the power of what is occluded—here, a mode of being commonplace elsewhere or in another time, veiled by the apparent hegemony of the male/masculine/dominant-female/feminine/subordinate antithesis. This necessarily implies a discrediting of essentialist notions about masculinity and femininity. Balzac invites us to consider the distinction between...


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pp. 28-41
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