Androgyny in Modern Literature by Tracy Hargreaves

By Tracy Hargreaves

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The erasure of sexual difference is aligned, in Praz’s reading, with the breakdown of Christian morality and the consequent dissolution of sexual difference. For Des Esseintes, the androgyne offers only a momentary release from the ennui that, on occasion, his masculinity and sexuality entail. Whether it might offer redemption from that burden is difficult to know in a Classical to Medical 33 fantasy of sexual oscillation that appears to re-inscribe what he would like to transcend (the passive woman, the active man).

The child’s later familiarity with the cow’s udder, he argued, merged the memory of suckling with an object that resembles a penis. But if the phantasy of the vulture is a phantasy of the phallus, or of fellatio, what has this to do with the mother? In ancient Egypt, the mother is represented by the sign of the vulture, and the Egyptians worshipped a mother goddess who had the head of a vulture and was usually represented with a phallus: she was depicted with breasts and an erect penis. For Freud, this emblem of fertility signified an androgynous or hermaphrodite: Mythology may then offer the explanation that the addition of a phallus to the female body is intended to denote the primal creative force of nature, and that all these hermaphrodite divinities are expressions of the idea that only a combination of male and female elements can give a worthy representation of divine perfection.

What the nature of that transitional embodiment might be is, tantalisingly, never disclosed, as though it must operate outside, rather than constitute, the transgressive sexual space that Des Esseintes both controls and is controlled by. Huysmans opens up the possibility of a sadomasochistic masculinity and femininity, considering gender as a pose to be both voluntarily and involuntarily resumed or declined. But Des Esseintes’ delight in the artificial cannot be sustained, and typically, and necessarily, it soon bores him.

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