Friday, March 13, 2015

The pathological character in 'The Last Castrato' by John Spencer Hill (with spoilers)

The last castrato

In the novel The Last Castrato by John Spencer Hill, a crazed eunuch is on the loose in twentieth-century Florence. The stage was set three decades earlier when five self-appointed "Camerati dell’arte" tried to bring back Renaissance music per the original Camerata:

They found a boy, Francesco Pistocchi, about ten years old who "sang like an angel," and they paid his parents "a few hundred lire" to allow them to take the boy to Florence. "They were simple folk and I suppose they thought Marchesi was a singing coach or something of the sort," one of the perpetrators recalled. They performed the castration at midnight in the candelit chapel of Santa Maria Novella. Intending to do things the way they were done in the Renaissance, they gave the boy “a posset spiked with laudanum,” stripped him, and put him in a bathtub. “‘The idea was to have the scrotum fully distended so that we could find the right tubes. Anyway, after half an hour we took him out and Cafferelli muttered a few words in Latin over him, then we stretched him out on the altar and snipped his vas deferens.’ He added, as if to justify the act: ‘It was quite painless and we employed sterile procedures. The lad was never in any danger.’” (p. 176) Years later, the victim recalled how the cardinal crossed his forehead with bathwater and said, “This is a new beginning. From this day I christen you Farinelli, the last and best of the castrati — in the name of the father, the son, and the holy ghost." (pp. 245-246)

When police heard the story decades later, they noted that the castration itself was "a felony under Italian law," and that the kidnapping and unlawful confinement were also illegal. (p. 177) This awareness accounts for why the young castrato was never able to sing. No one wanted to be associated with the castration. “The lad was simply not a marketable commodity,” the perpetrator said. (p. 179) What they had instead was a "monster". One of the Camerati realizes "he’d allowed Marchesi to talk him into creating a monster — a time-bomb fused to blow up in their faces thirty years later." (p. 112)

They had become rich and famous and none of them had given a thought to Pistocchi for years — though Pistocchi, it seemed, had certainly been thinking about them. ... Who waited thirty years to get even? Strozzi couldn’t have restrained himself for more than half a day. The only possible explanation was that something in Pistocchi’s mind had finally snapped. After bottling up the black poison of his hatred for three decades, he must have been crazier than a shithouse rat and then one day boom! all the fuses in his brain had blown at once. (p. 112)
* * *
Pistocchi’s actions, of course, could hardly be condoned; but it was easy (almost too easy) to sympathize with the desire for revenge that drove him. The men who had castrated and then abandoned him had done so for gain and with an eye only to their own profit. He had been an object to them — a thing — never a human being. They had mutilated and cheated him out of manhood, had inspired his trust and then betrayed it — all without a qualm or a quiver of conscience. Their interest in him, as Strozzi had made plain that day in Arbati’s office, was as a marketable commodity. ... He would be caught and held to account for them [his crimes]. But the guilt for his deeds would have to be shared, before the bar of eternal justice, by the five Camerati who three decades earlier had mutilated him into the avenging angel of their own destruction. They had made a monster, a nemesis, and it had returned to destroy them. (p. 211)

The monstrous split personality

Because of the trauma of his castration and his anger at his abusers, the boy Pistocchi grows to have a split personality. One is Farinelli, quiet, genteel, reflective:

He had a pleasant face lit by frank, intelligent eyes that seemed to weigh all they met with a slightly bemused detachment and that also seemed to miss nothing. He was a big man, well-proportioned and (she thought) probably very strong, who had perhaps once been an athlete, although it was difficult to judge the physique that lay under the folds of his jacket and loose, open-necked cotton shirt. But what attracted her to him in particular was his voice. It had a wistful, melancholy quality that made her think of a wind sighing in the pine trees. It was a sound she knew all to well from nights lying alone, until finally sleep came, in the loft of the cottage on Lake Michigan where her father escaped to write his books in the summer. In her mind it was a sound indelibly associated with loneliness and isolation. She wondered if Signor Farinelli had endured, like her, a lonely childhood deprived of love and motherly tenderness. (p. 37)
* * *
It was as if he had come to interpret his mutilation as the symbol of a universal truth of the human condition — as if he’d understood and been able to accept that, in a way, we’re all castrati cut off from truth and absolute knowing by the impotence of our relativity. We see parts, never the whole. We know in part, never in whole. And yet, for all our unknowing, we know that our partness is part of a greater wholeness — and we have faith that, one day, we will come face to face with it. (p. 268)

The book's main female character, Cordelia, feels that she can identify with his frustration to some extent: "She had endured the tyranny of a husband who had consumed her and spat her out. She knew about betrayal and disempowerment. In a way, she [Cordelia] understood what he had suffered — his castration, his loss of selfhood. But she had broken free and started again. For him, there could be no new beginning." (p. 246) She also sympathizes with the wife of Signor di Banco, who she perceives as embodying “that sorry paradigm of marital conditioning – the eunuch helpmate, sapless appendage of her mate. Cordelia felt her presence in the company as an embarrassment and an affront – an all-too-acute reminder of what women were content to endure from men, of what she herself had suffered in her five-year union with Charles Passmore.” (p. 39) These two examples show a layered interpretation of what it means to be castrated or to be a "eunuch." It is about being consumed and betrayed so deeply that there is no way out, only "disempowerment," "loss of selfhood," in the way that a woman sometimes becomes an "appendage" to her husband and cannot grow or extricate herself.

But then, on the other hand, Pistocchi has a personality with a single-minded focus on revenge. “Debagged and dumped, that’s what I was,” he tells himself. (p. 263) Before the police identify the serial killer, they nickname him "Lo Squartatore."

"Francesco Pistocchi was an angry man, a man consumed by a burning and implacable hatred for those who had wronged him. He was also a simple man — in many ways, even a childish man. His emotions were blunt and visceral desires: not much more, in fact, than savage instincts. There were no grey tones in the palette of his emotional life. His response to events was confined to the primal imperatives of white and black — love and hate — and love was a feeling he had not experienced for many, many years. What he understood best was hatred — and in particular the deep psychological satisfaction of revenge. The wonderful reality about revenge, as he knew from experience, was that it worked. Unlike most other solutions, it actually did make you feel better." (p. 60)

He cuts the vocal chords of the former members of the Camerati, and for the one who actually held the knife, he plans a special punishment of stuffing his genitals down his throat. When approaching his intended final victim, the one who had actually held the knife to castrate him decades earlier: “His eyes burned like coals in their sockets, and a maniacal grin distorted the curve of his jaw into a twisted, demonic parody of joy.” (p. 205)

The image of a Native American is invoked, drawing up cultural stereotypes of stealth and monstrosity:

With the fluid grace of a cat, he crossed the trembling length of his observatory and swung onto a ladder that was bolted to the wall behind a bank of silent, hanging valances. He made his descent swiftly, his crepe-soled shoes silent on the metal rungs. (p. 145)
* * *
He would make the last two hundred yards on foot, moving stealthily – like an Apache. He liked the idea (learned from American westerns) of the feathered underdog, his knife clenched in his teeth, making a surreptitious attack on the well-guarded fort and then melting without a sound, undetected, into the embalming cover of darkness. Only in the cruel light of morning did the stunned and marveling cavalry-troopers find the scalpless corpse of their colonel in his blood-soaked bed, where he had died without a peep or whisper. A feral smile curled at the corners of Pistocchi’s lips. The image appealed to his quixotic sense of the proper romance of revenge. He liked to have a little fiction woven into the weft of his reality. (p. 202)

The moral for others

The moral of this novel is not ultimately focused on redemption for Pistocchi or about eunuchs in general. It pivots from Pistocchi's tragic unraveling to about what men and women can learn from the eunuch's more well-adjusted personality of Farinelli.

For Cordelia, Farinelli is a kind of poetic inspiration as she moves from feeling like an unappreciated wife to being a free agent in the world.

For Cordelia's new male love interest, the balance between gender polarities is of personal interest. He claims to be working on "a poem called Androgyne, about the paradox of masculine and feminine attributes in human personality. I’ve been wrestling with it for weeks and, to tell the truth, I don’t know any more which of us will end up winning – the heroic poet or the poem that’s fighting tooth-and-nail not to be born.” (p. 194) Cordelia later explains the poem to someone else as being “about the reconciliation of male and female characteristics in human personality. His argument is that we all have both – masculine and feminine traits, that is – and that they’re balanced, though in different proportions, in each individual. Personality is the subtle tension of the two held in a creative equilibrium and working together in unison.” (p. 215)

In this book, however, such redemption is not available to the queer character, who suffered a permanent schizoid break in the personality, committed multiple murders, and eventually slew himself. It is only the heterosexual, normatively gendered characters who have the power to interpret gender as gentle reflections on creativity and freedom and to live out this wisdom.

John Spencer Hill. The Last Castrato. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

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