Thursday, February 04, 2010

Gail Kern Paster, The Unbearable Coldness of Female Being: Women's Imperfection and the Humoral Economy

Gail Kern Paster, The Unbearable Coldness of Female Being: Women’s Imperfection and the Humoral Economy, ELR 28 (1998)

Patricia Parker… narratives of male defect, tales of sixteenth-century penises (real and fictional) turning cold and soft, of collapsing into impotence and threatening their alarmed possessors with the specter of anatomical effeminization. Cold could overwhelm males, too, in what Parker calls a “thematics of impotence” or “lack of control over the body,” … Here gender asymmetry for once fails to prefer men: women by virtue of their defect of sex will be born imperfect but, lacking external genitalia, they cannot become more so. (417-418)

As with everything else in nature, states of consciousness and cognitive awareness were ranked in terms of cold/hot, moist/dry. Waking consciousness was thought to be a hotter and drier state than sleep; rationality was less cold and clammy than irrationality. … It followed logically that most men were thought to have better perceptual and cognitive apparatuses—better hardware, software, and wetware—than most women and were thus able to report more rationally and reliably about the world. (419)

William Congreve… Perhaps Passions are too powerful in that Sex, to let Humour have its Course; or may be by reason of their Natural Coldness, Humour cannot Exert it self to that extravagant Degree, which it often does in the Male Sex.” For Congreve, the little thing that women lack turns out to be the internal warmth and quickness of spirits… (419)

I have argued elsewhere for the ideological significance of female fluidity—for a model of the Bakhtinian grotesque female’s body as a leaky vessel, incontinent, over-productive, and requiring patriarchal disciplines. Here, then, I want to specify further the “leaky vessel” as a cold and leaky vessel. My argument is complicated because the two qualities of cold and moist are hard to separate, not only in the discourses of patriarchal biology but also in the early modern construction of the female subject. My real concern here is more with cold than with moist: … (420)

Biological detailing of female inferiority is a subject both obvious and inevitable within a pre-modern epistemology. What is still worth deconstructing, however, are the textual operations which this markingof the sign of woman made possible within hegemonic discourses such as the classical doctrine of the four humours. (421)

Patriarchal criticism did not, and could not, deconstruct patriarchal biology. It could not notice the ideological blindspots built into classical humoral theory, the conceptual faultiness of a totalizing theory of human temperaments which inscribed the sign of woman as normative in phlegm. (421-422)

It is the function of the women here conspicuously to lack temperament even as they lack agency, for to possess either would be to complicate the outlines of temperamental male display. / Female temperament makes an appearance in the woodcuts where we would expect it to, in the depictions of the colder melancholic and phlegmatic complexions. Even here, however, in the depictions of melancholia, attention is drawn to the abjected figure of the scholar at the center, his head in his hands. (422)

Men’s behaviors reveal them to be predominantly sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, or melancholic. Woman’s humorality, absent from all but the illustrations of phlegm, fails to signify because normative humoral woman is temperamentally constrained… (423)

But human bodies… are always gendered. One advantage of an asymmetrical distribution of temperature and temperament was that it allowed early theorists of sexual difference to propose physiologically different causes for symptomatically similar effects—to make affects differ from themselves. “Hot” behaviors which might be natural and laudable in ideally tempered men become pathological signs of distemper in women. (423)

“It bevoued… that man should be hotter, because his body was made to endure labour and trauell, as also that his minde should be stout and inuincible to vndergoe dangers, the onely heating whereof will driue a woman…out of her little wits” (428)

The anger of women or of other phlegmatic types, he points out, must not be confused with the wrath of the stout-hearted man: “Anger is a disease of a weake mind which cannot moderate it self but is easily inflamed, such is in women, children, and weake and cowardly men, and this we tearme fretfulnesse or pettishness: but Wrath which is Ira permanes belongs to stout hearts” (p. 276). The difference, reactive female heat subsiding back into natural, primordial cold: “those that are angry, pettish, fretfull or wantle…are cold; but those that are wrathful are hot. (429)

..for the ancients and their early modern followers, heat was thought to be an innate, inherent property of warm-blooded animals, a motive power originating in the heart and responsible for growth and generative functions, for digestion, movement, sensation, thought (pp. 8, 11-13). Vital heat was a theory commanding broad allegiance from the Greeks until the seventeenth century. …Even after his momentous proof of the circulation of blood in 1628, Harvey still regarded the heart as the site and origin of the body’s heating and cooling mechanisms” (430-431)

Temperament proceeded from the heart as the source and wellspring of a body’s temperature and moved out to influence the behaviors of a body made relatively colder or hotter by virtue of its heart. (431)

Thus to specify the female body as phlegmatic—that is, containing a determining preponderance of that cold, clammy humor—is not to localize sex difference but rather to distribute it throughout a woman’s entire bodily habitus. Like the phenomenology of her temperature, the structure of female genitalia was, in origin, a function of the temper of a woman’s heart. (432)

The famously greedy womb is greedy because woman is cold, longing for the heat of male seed, as the pseudo-Aristotle explains: “it is the nature of cold to desire, and draw” ; “the wombe and nature do drawe the seed, as the Lodestone doth iron… but she doth draw it for the perfection of hir selfe”. In coitus, that is to say, men and women might moderate their caloric differences, become thermally more alike… Thus the medical texts that caution repeatedly against the loss of bodily heat and fluid from too much carnal copulation address themselves primarily to men. (433)

The would-be wooer Sir Andrew’s surname, Agnecheek, relates to his phallic deficiencies just as his small wit, dry hand, scanty hair, and inability to cut high-stepping capers do: they are the bodily and behavioral signifiers of his lack of manly heat. … Sir Toby Belch encourages Sir Andrew to imitate his own boldly phallic display of superior bladder capacity and control: “My very walk should be a jig. I would not so much as make water but in a sink-a-pace” (1.3.129-31). But the evidence lodged in and upon Sir Andrew’s body suggests that such fluid overabundance is well beyond the production and storage capacity of this cold, dry fool. (435)

Not every man was thought to possess a manly heart or to possess its optimal heat all the time. This, according to his discouraged soldiers, is precisely what has happened to Mark Antony’s heart, its substance spent and its manly temper cooled by the infrigidating effects of too much passion for an overheated Cleopatra: (436)

In Twelfth Night it is not Orsino who can rightfully claim possession of a manly heat, but Viola’s twin Sebastian. Indeed, Sebastian enters the play to secure the social, sexual, and temperamental difference that Malvolio, Olivia, Viola, Orsino and Aguecheek in various ways have threatened. (436)

Indeed, in this first royal masque since James’s assumption of the throne and his restoration of the normative figure of the male monarch, he and the designers of the masque seem to have found an opportunity to reiterate gender boundaries and mark the temperamental difference of the sexes as more fundamental than any other. … Thus, while blackness is figured in this masque as a defect that is remediable through a kind of political transformation, femaleness is a perdurable condition by which the lady masquers will continue to be different—necessary but different. (439)


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