Did anyone else notice? Maybe it’s just my own highly prurient imagination. The New York Times in its Arts section on May 26 published a large, full-color reproduction of Anne-Louis Girodet’s painting, The Sleep of Endymion (to illustrate Michael Kimmelman’s review of the Girodet show currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum in New York) which may just contain the first penis displayed in the Times, at least in Technicolor.
If so, it couldn’t be a more appropriate choice, since the shaded organ is engaged in a kind of hide and seek (or as the French say, a game of cache-cache) with the spectator. And maybe with Endymion’s lover, Selene, as well. Selene was the moon goddess—later identified with Artemis/Diana. According to myth, she fell in love with the beautiful young shepherd Endymion and begged Zeus to give him eternal life. The wish was granted, but on the condition of putting Endymion to sleep. Asleep or not, he was visited by Selene nightly and managed to father 50 daughters with her.
Selene enters Girodet’s painting as a shaft of moonlight falling on the languid youth, whose body is somehow both buff and feminine. Its pose is that of a traditional female nude, offered to the gaze. The shepherd’s hair falls in ringlets to his shoulders. It is indeed Endymion’s gender ambiguity that gives significance to that penis detectable in the shadow created by the moonbeam. We might well doubt for a moment his masculine identity.
With Girodet (1767-1824), it is probably safe to assume that the gender-bending was intentional. His interest in the beautiful male body swerves from the heroic model propounded by his master, Jacques-Louis David, into something far more ambiguous and at least potentially homoerotic. The inspiration for his painting often comes from dreamy Romantic literature—from Chateaubriand (see The Burial of Atala) or that most influential of literary fakes, the supposed Scottish bard Ossian. The hard bodies of David’s Oath of the Horatii, for instance, give way in Girodet to the caressed body of Selene’s desire in The Sleep of Endymion, painted in Rome in 1791, after the painter had won the Prix de Rome.
The painting quickly became famous. There’s evidence that Girodet’s contemporaries—or near contemporaries—noted the ambiguous sexual signs marking Endymion’s body. Most remarkably, there is Balzac’s novella Sarrasine, the story of a French painter and sculptor by the same name, which stages a complex series of artistic replications of a beautiful body that eventuates in the Girodet painting. The first body in the series belongs to the opera singer Zambinella, who is taken by Sarrasine to be a woman. Sarrasine, like Girodet, has won the Prix de Rome and come to learn his trade in the Eternal City. He falls passionately in love with Zambinella. Only after a number of tricks are played on him (and some equivocations practiced on the reader) does he discover that no woman is allowed onstage in the Papal States.
Zambinella is in fact a castrato, and as such he is the destruction of all Sarrasine’s dreams. Sarrasine tries to destroy the statue of Zambinella that he has been working on as his representation of “perfect” womanhood. After Sarrasine falls to the knives of the assassins hired by Zambinella’s protector (a cardinal, of course), his work is executed in marble. It then serves as the model for a painting of perfect male beauty, an Adonis by Joseph-Marie Vien, which in turn becomes the model for Girodet’s Sleep of Endymion. The New York Times’ first penis has its origins in loss.
I think that notion would have delighted Roland Barthes, who discovered Sarrasine by way of a French psychoanalyst’s essay on Balzac’s personification of castration. Balzac’s novella became the occasion for what I continue to believe is Barthes’ greatest book, S/Z. In the title, the S of Sarrasine and the Z of Zambinella are separated by a slash mark that represents castration, but also something more: the breakdown of the “wall of antithesis” that undergirds all meaningful structures, that indeed makes meaning-making possible. If you abolish difference—in the first instance, gender difference, indeed anatomical difference—you risk the collapse of an edifice of traditional meanings, rules, prohibitions, categorizations. Barthes implies that not only Balzac but classical Western culture more or less depends on the concept of antithesis, and that anatomical difference is at least the symbolic foundation for it.
Barthes’ subtle playfulness as critic and cultural commentator of course reveled in the kind of “pandemia” of signs and meanings produced by the discovery of castration in Sarrasine. Balzac, apparently one of our most “classic” of novelists, demonstrated how the whole house of cards could be made to come tumbling down. And Barthes, discreet participant in gay culture, was clearly delighted that it was through a kind of game of cache-cache with the penis that basic cultural and linguistic assumptions were put into question.
Barthes published a reproduction of Girodet’s Sleep of Endymion as the frontispiece to S/Z. I don’t know whether he noted with irony that when the American translation was published by Hill and Wang, the frontispiece was reproduced over two pages, and the fold between the two runs down the middle of Endymion’s body, with the result that you can’t tell whether he has a penis or not.
The printer’s error—or discretion?—in the U.S. edition of S/Z has now happily been compensated for by the Times. One wonders whether the compensation was preceded by intense policy debates among the editors. In any case, witting or not, it was surely a good choice for a Times first.