Castrati, Balzac, and BartheS/Z


Yvonne Noble


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

[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 .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 Eady Modem 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 S/Z (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.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.