Sunday, December 7, 2008

Niels Hoyer (ed) - Man Into Woman: The First Sex Change

Man into Woman: The First Sex Change- a Portrait of Lili Elbe. 
I was very interested to find out about how sex changes were treated in the 1920s and '30s, particularly considering the lack of both medical knowledge and general acceptance (in European culture, at least) of multiple gender identities. 
First- on a trivial note- I was interested to read the phrase "throw up the sponge" (34). I'm familiar with the colloquialism "throw in the towel", but this was entirely strange to me. [According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase was used in 1860 in the same way as "throw in the towel" is used now- to submit, or give in- and referred to "the practice of throwing up the sponge used to clean the combatants' faces, at a prize-fight, as a signal that the 'mill' is concluded"]. 
I loved the reference to feeling like "a wretched grub which is waiting to become a butterfly" (34). What a beautiful phrase.
"The reason why he [Andreas] turned his back in early manhood on Copenhagen...was because...In Copenhagen he had frequently been obliged to hear how much his pictures were preferred to those of his wife. And that was perhaps the worst thing that could be said to him. In Paris, where the contrary was generally the case, he felt at home for this very reason. He felt his wife's successes as his own successes, for his dominant characteristic was chivalry towards his wife, as towards women generally" (42). [As he wrote this himself as a prospective obituary, I can only presume that this was a legitimate and sincere intimation]. What a completely charming and lovely person! I don't know if his inherent tendency toward feminine empowerment or his sensitive side was partly  responsible for this chivalry, but he seems to me to be wonderful. I've only known a couple of people in life who have exhibited this, and it is unusual enough even in fiction. I expected to discover in this book the story of a struggle toward achieving identity, but I never anticipated finding such a marvelous personality on its own. 
Here's another outdated phrase; "neck or nothing!" (52) [occasionally "neck or nought"]. According to the OED, it is "determination and readiness to venture everything or to take all risks", or as a noun, "a situation requiring such determination". This makes perfect sense, and it's actually quite a charming phrase also.
I enjoy the delicate and gentil writing, such as "received Andreas in a very considerate manner. He put a series of questions which, although of a delicate nature, were answered by Andreas without the least hesitation...Andreas exerted all his will-power to exclude thought" (52).  
Ironically enough, the patient himself seems to be sensitive to, shocked by, and even mildly intolerant toward other people struggling with their own gender identities. "He felt intensely uncomfortable. In this large room a group of abnormal persons seemed to be holding a meeting-women who appeared to be dressed up as men, and men of whom one could scarcely believe that they were men. The manner in which they were conversing disgusted him; their movements, their voices, the way in which they were attired, produced a feeling of nausea" (54). 
I love the exaggeration inherent to such Victorian-era (and post-Victorian literature) such as "The shame of shamelessness is something that actually an effort to banish the feeling he had of standing there as if in the pillory. His emotional life was undergoing an ordeal which resembled running the gauntlet. And when this torture [an investigation into his emotional and psychologial state of "a thousand penetrating questions"] came at last to an end, the inquisitor dismissed him" (54,55). Awesome.

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