Sunday, March 26, 2017

'War eunuchs' in Hirschfeld's 'The Sexual History of the World War' (1930)

In 1930, Magnus Hirschfeld published Sittengeschichte des Weltkrieges in German. Panurge Press produced an abridged, adapted English translation as The Sexual History of the World War in 1934. Another English edition was produced by Cadillac Publishing Co. in 1941. The last one, since 2015, is available to read free online through the Internet Archive. Chapter 12, "Genital Injuries, War Eunuchs, etc." includes the following information.

"Above all, it was shot wounds in the testicles and also injuries to the spinal marrow which induced a complete disappearance of the sexual functions. Injuries of this sort were not uncommon during the war which explains their frequent occurrence in literature. Yet it appears that poetry gave much more attention to this problem of emasculation during the war than did science. One of these cases became famous in medical literature because the patient became a subject for transplantation experiments."

Dr. Robert Lichtenstern reported having to remove both testicles from a soldier in 1915 in Vienna due to an infected gunshot wound. The patient immediately ceased to have erections "despite various devices calculated to arouse him"; he rapidly lost his facial and body hair; and

"he read nothing and manifested no interest whatever in the war....For the most part the patient sat near his bed or at the window, ate voraciously, slept a lot, and busied himself with absolutely nothing at all. The loss of both testicles resulted in a remarkable increase of adipose tissue, especially around the neck which gave the patient a peculiarly stupid appearance."

Doctors then transplanted another man's testicle into him, with these alleged results: "Various castration symptoms, such as adiposity, altered trichosis, loss of libido and psychic indifferentism, all receded temporarily so that the patient actually entertained the idea of marrying."

Dr. F. Pick's study found "commotion neurosis" in 10 out of 25 officers and in 7 out of 75 soldiers. These men were unable to ejaculate and in some cases also unable to get erections. Pick attributed this to physical and psychic stresses of battle, including sexual abstinence.

Several literary passages are referenced in this same chapter of Hirschfeld's book:

From an author named Bruno Vogel: "I saw Sczepczyk again. With amazing precision his generative organs had been shot from his body. 'Herr Leutenant,' he whispered, a little bit ashamed and in deep confidence, 'Herr Leutenant, and I have never yet had a girl.' He gladly accepted the cigarette I gave him and I softly stroked his hair and forehead. Finally I slipped my hand over his eyes and, as a little smile of pleasure curled over his mouth, I pushed my mercifully brutal sword into his side." The title was not mentioned, but possibly this was Vogel's Es lebe der Krieg! (1924).

The Siberian diary of Edwin Erich Dwinger The Army Behind Barbed Wire: A wounded soldier says that his wife (whose picture shows her to be "a perfect child-bearing machine") wanted at least six children. "Until now we weren't able to have any children because there wasn't any money for them." When he is told that he cannot have children due to his wound, "he turned around slowly and walked to his bed, stretched himself out painfully and never spoke to anyone else until they sent him to Siberia. It is significant that we meet the tragic figure of this emasculated man further on in the novel, but at this later stage, he rejoices that he does not have to suffer the sexual hunger which the others are being plagued by."

The poet Ernst Toller has a man named Hinkemann who "may be regarded as the final literary formula of the emasculated soldier who returns home from the wars, and the inability of his wife to continue a veritably inhuman sacrifice in his behalf....we are dealing with a group of men who will never be able to find their lost happiness by the side of a woman. From every outcry of Toller's hero, we hear the whole dismal and appalling tragedy of a creature who has gone through the vast hell of war, and it is a cry which can never be silenced. How brutal is the reply to Hinkemann by his wife's seducer, Paul Grosshahn, who rebukes the cripple for seeking to keep his wife a nun. Hinke- mann is informed by the seducer that he is in reality nothing more to his wife now than a ground for divorce!"

Panurge Press and other early 20th century distributors of erotic books

Jay A. Gertzman's Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica 1920-1940 gives an engaging history of the difficulties in New York City with distributing literature that had any sexual content. "The federal antiobscenity statues, lobbied through Congress by Anthony Comstock in 1873 and enforced just as powerfully half a century later, called their wares 'obscene, lewd, lascivious, indecent, filthy, or vile.' * * * By the early 1920s, a group of young New York publishers was providing Americans with literature from European writers whom the older publishers considered too subversive to touch. Beginning in 1922, a series of court rulings made it more difficult to suppress sexually explicit material that could not be termed flagitious by any general consensus." (pp. 1, 10)

The most detailed figures in Gertzman's history include Esar Levine of Panurge Press (Esar was editor, and his brother Benjamin was business manager) and Benjamin Rebhuhn of Falstaff Press (he ran it with his wife and nephew). The Levines and Rebhuhns both had mail-order businesses and were close friends with each other. "Many Panurge titles were transferred to Falstaff in 1936 (and reprinted as new editions), and later became property of Metro Books, distributed by Benjamin Levine." (p. 30) The most important character is probably Samuel Roth, whose Golden Hind Press at 122 Fifth Avenue was raided on October 4, 1929. (p. 16) These men endured repeated prosecutions and incarcerations.

The majority of the names of booksellers in this narrative belonged to Jews. "In New York at least, during the period from 1880 to 1940, many [erotica dealers] were members of Jewish immigrant families," Gertzman writes. He adds that "German immigrants were skilled printers, lithographers, and typesetters". (pp. 28- 29)

"Although avoiding ethnic scapegoating, John Sumner [secretary of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice] sometimes specifically described the purveyor of 'obscenity' as a Jew (or Italian or German). Rooted in his opposition to erotic literature was a fear of contamination by the unclean outsider. Society as a whole, as well as the immigrant neighborhoods, was in danger of contagion. Sumner's annual reports stigmatize individuals arrested (whether convicted or not) as 'foreign looking,' 'mentally defective,' 'exhibitionists,' 'fly-by-night.' 'Most of these defendants,' he wrote in his 1928 report, 'were of the young, radical, irreligious and over-educated type. Their personal writings wherever found, indicated an utter disregard for the law, public decency or any of the proprieties of organized society. They are literally anarchists.'" (p. 45)

The Panurge books were overpriced for the Depression era. Consequently, "Panurge classified its clients into groups. There were twenty-five 'prominent individuals'...ten 'professors'; fifty 'army officers'; twenty 'reverends'; two hundred eighty 'lawyers'; and fourteen hundred 'doctors,' including more dentists than physicians — thirty-five fully typed pages were needed to list them." (p. 57) Gertzman also says: "Judge Learned Hand appears to have recognized the more complex reality, when he found Esar Levine guilty of pandering to prurience with the circulars for his Panurge Press books. He refused to admit into evidence the Panurge Press mailing list, with its 'professors,' 'army officers,' and 'physicians.' 'Even respectable persons may have a taste for salacity,' he wrote." (p. 144)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Alan Turing's story as told in the film 'The Imitation Game' (2014)

"The Imitation Game" (2014) stars the actor Benedict Cumberbatch playing the mathematician Alan Turing. Turing was famous for his work on early computers. During World War II, he worked for the British government on a team that deciphered intercepted Nazi communications. His successful cryptography is believed to have shortened World War II.

In the film, Turing is portrayed as a reclusive personality without strong ties to friends or family. He knows from an early age that he is attracted to other men. This was illegal in Britain at the time; sexual relations between men were punishable by prison. He is briefly engaged to a fellow codebreaker (Joan Clarke, played by the actor Keira Knightley), but he breaks it off with her, admitting his true feelings.

When finally convicted of "gross indecency," Turing was given the choice between prison and a "treatment" of chemical castration that was supposed to moderate or eliminate his sexual feelings. Both possibilities devastated him; Turing chose treatment. The film depicts him as gaunt and frail after beginning the chemical castration. He lasted one year on treatment and then committed suicide on June 7, 1954 by biting an apple poisoned with cyanide.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The long and misguided history of swearing in on Bibles

Using any particular religious scripture for the swearing-in ceremonies for politicians and court witnesses poses the obvious problem that not everyone endorses the content of the given scripture. If someone does not believe at all in a particular God or scripture, then they may object to being forced to invoke this foreign or disagreeable belief system. Even if they are willing to recite the words and mimic the gestures, their oath would not carry the intended religious weight, since they do not believe that this particular God holds them accountable. This problem applies on a "sliding scale" to people who believe in the Bible in diverse ways or with loose or inconsistent interpretations. People do not all believe in the same God in the same way, and there is no sense in making them recite words that presume they do.

For example, president-elect Donald Trump, who was raised Presbyterian, was heavily influenced by the so-called "prosperity gospel" and doesn't currently belong to any church, according to Ken Briggs, writing for the National Catholic Reporter in January 2017.

In secular contexts, swearing on the Bible is nonsensical and causes dissension. Its practice for politicians' swearing-in ceremonies in the United States nevertheless has an interesting history that can be traced hundreds of years back to England. Melissa Mohr explains it well in her 2013 book "Holy Sh*t:  A Brief History of Swearing," which is about the history of oaths as well as obscenities.

When England was a Catholic country, swearing oaths on physical copies of the Bible held a prominent place in the culture. A religious movement whose adherents were known as Lollards opposed this practice in the early 15th century, as did Quakers in the 17th century. Lollards were willing to swear verbally by God, but were burned at the stake for being unwilling to swear on the Bible. Quakers would not swear at all, which meant that they couldn't take oaths of allegiance and couldn't testify in court. Mohr writes, "A good technique for getting rid of a Quaker you didn't like was to accuse him of doing something illegal. Whether or not he was guilty, when he refused to take an oath his property would be confiscated and he would be thrown in jail for contempt of court."

Aware of this religious history in England, the American founding fathers aimed for a more secular start to the nation in the 18th century. The U.S. Constitution prescribes this presidential oath of office: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." This secular statement avoids the difficulties that presented themselves in England. Article VI of the Constitution additionally clarifies: "No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."


The term 'book-oath' goes back at least as far as Shakespeare's Henry IV. Part II contains the words: "I put thee now to thy / book-oath: deny it, if thou canst." In pre-Revolutionary America, swearing on the Bible served as a religious test "designed to marginalize infidel deists like Thomas Paine, and religious dissidents especially like members of the Dutch Reformed Church," according to information received from Ray Soller.

Placing one's hand on the Bible

Despite this, many U.S. presidents have recited the oath with their hands on a Bible. George Washington did so at his first inauguration. (For the next several presidents after him, there are only persistent but unconfirmed national myths.) The next well substantiated claim to this is for the seventh U.S. president, Andrew Jackson, at his inauguration in 1829, followed by the eleventh U.S. president, James Polk, who also kissed the Bible when he swore on it at his 1845 inauguration, an event that was publicized by telegraph. Social critic and comic Dean Obeidallah singled out "two presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and John Quincy Adams, [who] did not use a Bible at their swearing-in ceremonies," but many others certainly did.

Saying 'So help me God'

David B. Parker wrote for the History News Network:

"...we have no convincing contemporary evidence that any president said 'so help me God' until September 1881, when Chester A. Arthur took the oath after the death of James Garfield. William Howard Taft, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Roosevelt said 'so help me God,' as has every president since then. But before 1933, we have good evidence for only four (of thirty-one)."

Of potential interest, see "Kiss the Book...You're President...: 'So Help Me God' and Kissing the Book in the Presidential Oath of Office," Frederick B. Jonassen, 2012 in the William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, Vol. 20, Issue 3, Article 5.


In the nineteenth century, England's laws for swearing-in ceremonies were challenged by the elections to Parliament of Lionel de Rothschild and David Salomons, who were Jews, and Charles Bradlaugh, who was an atheist. The Jews' proposed modifications to the oath were not accepted, while the atheist was willing to swear the Christian oath but was denied the opportunity. For showing up to work in the chamber to which they'd been elected, Salomons was fined heavily and ejected from the room, and Bradlaugh was arrested and jailed. With perseverance, eventually the Jewish Relief Act (1858) and the Oaths Act (1888) enabled non-Christians to complete the oath of office.

A secular approach seems the obvious solution to the conflict. U.S. CIA Director John Brennan was sworn in on a copy of the U.S. Constitution in 2013. Yet some politicians, seeing that Christian politicians swear in on Bibles, wish to swear in on a copy of their own religious text. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), the first Muslim to be elected as a member of the U.S. Congress, was sworn in on a copy of the Koran that was published in 1764 and was owned by Thomas Jefferson. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) participated in the ceremony and also placed her hand on the book.

Endorsers of the Bible, meanwhile, often are reluctant to allow others the opportunity to use their own texts, so the conflict perpetuates itself. Rep. Virgil Goode (R-VA) took advantage of Ellison's pending swearing-in to release a statement calling for stricter immigration laws, without which, he said, "there will likely be many more Muslims elected to office and demanding the use of the Quran." Goode claimed that restrictions on immigration, particularly from the Middle East, "are necessary to preserve the values and beliefs traditional to the United States of America and to prevent our resources from being swamped." (All this, despite the fact that Ellison is African-American and was born in Detroit.) Similarly, Dennis Prager, a talk-show host and a member of the council that oversees the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., complained about Ellison's anticipated use of the Koran. He said he feared that the nation would "abandon its Judeo-Christian values" and that he himself, as a Jew, would "get hurt" as a consequence. At their base, Goode's and Prager's expressed concerns are not about the ritual use of the Koran in American politics, but rather about Muslim Americans in public service.

Debates like this occur in many countries. For example, Israel's national anthem, "Hatikva," is written from a Jewish point of view and refers to Jews living freely in their land of Zion. This often causes distress for the one-quarter of Israelis who are not Jewish. In the February 2013 swearing-in ceremony for new parliament members, several Arab politicians left the room to protest the words of the anthem. Mere suggestions to make the language more inclusive, even when those suggestions are vague and are made by Jewish politicians, still prompt strong opposition.


In short, the use of the Bible for swearing oaths originated hundreds of years ago as a Catholic tradition, and despite some Protestant opposition and American secularist reform, the practice continues today. The custom is confusing and unnecessary. Unless one literally believes in a God who holds people accountable for their oaths, one cannot believe that such an oath has any inherent force that makes people keep their promises.

From an irreligious or non-literal religious perspective, the only extra force of a public religious oath lies in its potential activation of reverence and shame in the oath-taker. But this assumes that the oath-taker (or perhaps the audience) has certain religious sensibilities. Not everyone does, so mandatory swearing on Bibles is a transparent affront to individuals' true belief systems. It is a coercive effort to tamp down intellectual and religious diversity in favor of a public show of conformity. Some find the ritual inspiring, but others find it off-putting. Therefore, it discourages unity while being mostly useless in enforcing promise-keeping.

This article was originally published to Helium Network on Dec. 10, 2013. It has been significantly revised in January 2017 thanks to input from Ray Soller.
Image by: Adrian Pingstone, 2005. The photograph is of a Latin Bible made in Belgium in 1407. © Public domain. The Bible is on display in Malmesbury Abbey in England. Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Avoiding and correcting false beliefs

People believe these things

Lawrence Davidson characterized the arguments in Rick Shenkman's 2008 book Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter as saying that Americans are: "(1) ignorant about major international events, (2) knew little about how their own government runs and who runs it, (3) were nonetheless willing to accept government positions and policies even though a moderate amount of critical thought suggested they were bad for the country, and (4) were readily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears and public relations babble." Davidson then said that this is "a default position for any population," but that it is still a concern when, for example, "polls show [that] over half of American adults don’t know which country dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or that 30 percent don’t know what the Holocaust was."

In 2014, the National Science Foundation said that only a slight majority of Americans polled were able to correctly respond that viruses can't be treated with antibiotics and that 26 percent said that the sun revolves around the Earth.

Since 2014, a small but growing group of "Flat Earthers" has met regularly in Fort Collins, Colo., with sympathetic meetings occurring in a half-dozen other U.S. cities. A leader recalls seeing a YouTube video that promoted the idea of a flat earth. “It was interesting, but I didn’t think it was real. I started the same way as everyone else, saying, ‘Oh, I’ll just prove the earth is round.’ Nine months later, I was staring at my computer thinking, ‘I can’t prove the globe anymore.” The article in the Denver Post says of this group: "Many subscribe to the 'ice wall theory,' or the belief that the world is circumscribed by giant ice barriers, like the walls of a bowl, that then extend infinitely along a flat plane." Today in 2017, searching YouTube by the exact phrase "flat earth" (with quotation marks) yields three-quarters of a million videos.

In 2010, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting received funding amounting to 0.00014% of the U.S. federal budget. CNN/Opinion Research found early the next year that "Forty percent of those polled believe funding the CPB receives takes up 1 to 5 percent of the budget, 30 percent believe public broadcasting takes up 5 percent or more of the budget and 7 percent of respondents believe the non-profit receives 50 percent or more of the federal budget." The final cohort of respondents who thought it was more than half of the budget may also suffer from general mathematical or political illiteracy, but it seems fair to say that many people have false beliefs about the funding for public broadcasting. (For comparison, when a Roper poll in 2007 accurately informed participants that the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) receives funding equivalent to about $1 per American per year, half of the respondents said this amount was "too little.")

"There’s no shame in not knowing; there’s shame in not wanting to know. For years I’ve said this to my college students as a way of telling them that learning should never stop. But I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that, at a certain point, there should be shame in not knowing," Charles Taylor wrote in an opinion piece for the Boston Globe. He fretted over "creative-writing students who have never heard of Edith Wharton or Ralph Ellison; journalism students who can’t identify the attorney general; students who don’t know what the NAACP or the Geneva Convention are."

"The emerging narrative of this election is that Donald Trump was elected by people who are sick of being looked down on by liberal elites. The question the people pushing this narrative have not asked is this: Were the elites, based on the facts, demonstrably right?

* * *

That Trump voters chose an easily disprovable myth over readily available facts is one sign of their willful ignorance.

And still this imperviousness to fact pales next to the racism and xenophobia and misogyny — in other words, the moral ignorance — that Trump’s supporters wallowed in. All of the condescension of which liberals have been accused can’t begin to match the condescension of the current storyline that Trump voters are too disenfranchised or despised or dismissed to be held morally responsible for their choices.

* * *

The apologists for Donald Trump voters have given their imprimatur to a culture that equates knowledge and expertise with elitism, a culture ignorant of the history of the country it professes to love and contemptuous of the content of its founding documents."

It isn't clear from this brief column how Taylor thinks factual knowledge and moral knowledge might be related. Most people would say that moral knowledge depends on drawing conclusions that incorporate factual knowledge. (For example, you have to know whether someone else is threatening you before you can properly decide how to act in "self-defense." As another example, you have to know whether a crime occurred before you can express your opinion about it. Berel Lang wrote: "...the most extreme Holocaust 'revisionists' — Faurisson, Rassinier, Butz — do not deny that if the Holocaust had occurred, it would have been an enormity warranting moral reflection, judgment, and whatever else followed from these, presumably including condemnation and punishment; they deny only that it did occur."). Some would also say that moral knowledge is not merely a concatenation of ordinary beliefs and social agreements but that it exists in some separate sphere.

We care more about facts when we feel good about ourselves

“The 2000 [presidential] campaign was something of a fact-free zone,” said Brendan Nyhan, who was an undergraduate at Swarthmore at the time and who subsequently founded a political fact-checking website called Spinsanity that led to a book All the President's Spin. In his doctoral program at Duke University, he moved on to ask, as Maria Konnikova put it: "If factual correction is ineffective, how can you make people change their misperceptions?"

From Konnikova's article:

"Until recently, attempts to correct false beliefs haven’t had much success. Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist at the University of Bristol whose research into misinformation began around the same time as Nyhan’s, conducted a review of misperception literature through 2012. He found much speculation, but, apart from his own work and the studies that Nyhan was conducting, there was little empirical research.

* * *

One thing he learned early on is that not all errors are created equal. Not all false information goes on to become a false belief — that is, a more lasting state of incorrect knowledge — and not all false beliefs are difficult to correct.

* * *

When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.

[For more examples of how this might work, see these Disruptive Dissertation blog posts. In religious thought: "The specious claim that human calamities are caused by an angry God" In political thought: "False reports that President Obama is a Muslim"]

Konnikova went on to say:

In a series of studies that they’ve just submitted for publication, the Dartmouth team approached false-belief correction from a self-affirmation angle, an approach that had previously been used for fighting prejudice and low self-esteem. The theory, pioneered by Claude Steele, suggests that, when people feel their sense of self threatened by the outside world, they are strongly motivated to correct the misperception, be it by reasoning away the inconsistency or by modifying their behavior.

* * *

Normally, self-affirmation is reserved for instances in which identity is threatened in direct ways: race, gender, age, weight, and the like. Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would."

It is also important to note the difference between actually believing something and merely claiming to believe it to maintain one's public image. Public image is more obviously related to one's identity and also to one's material interests. Alexander C. Kaufman provided this example:

"In December 2006, Exxon Mobil Corp. convened a two-day summit of environmental and ethics experts at a rural retreat near the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia....For decades, Exxon had funded far-right think tanks that seeded doubt over the scientific consensus on climate change. [The new CEO Rex] Tillerson and Ken Cohen, Exxon’s PR chief and chair of its political action committee, wanted to broaden the company’s political reach. One step was changing their messaging about climate change, moving away from the denial the company had been attacked for supporting....Not long after the summit, Exxon began to modify its public stance on climate change."

Sometimes what is claimed publicly is done to maintain relationships and make money. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky on how the American mass media operate:

"But a critical analysis of American institutions, the way they function domestically and their international operations, must meet far higher standards; in fact, standards are often imposed that can barely be met in the natural sciences. One has to work hard, to produce evidence that is credible, to construct serious arguments, to present extensive documentation — all tasks that are superfluous as long as one remains within the presuppositional framework of the doctrinal consensus. It is small wonder that few are willing to undertake the effort, quite apart from the rewards that accrue to conformity and the costs of honest dissidence."

Nyhan's work, by contrast, seems to be about more privately held beliefs.

So they say

Albert Einstein said, "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the former." Elbert Hubbard: "Everyone is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day. Wisdom consists in not exceeding that limit." George Bernard Shaw said it would be better to know that one does not know: “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” As hope, nonetheless, the words of Phyllis Bottome: "There is nothing final about a mistake, except its being taken as final."


"Why Americans Are So Ignorant: It's Not Just Fox News," Lawrence Davidson, Consortium News, April 8, 2013.

"Poll: Americans way off on public broadcasting funding,", April 1, 2011.

"Highlights of the 2007 Roper Public Opinion Poll on PBS."

"Yes, there is shame in not knowing." Charles Taylor. Boston Globe. Dec. 19, 2016.

Berel Lang. Heidegger’s Silence. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996. p. 14.

"I don't want to be right," Maria Konnikova, New Yorker, May 19, 2014.

"Rex Tillerson Supposedly Shifted Exxon Mobil’s Climate Position. Except He Really Didn’t." Alexander C. Kaufman. Huffington Post. Dec. 26, 2016.

Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon, 1988. p. 305.

Elbert Hubbard, quoted in The Village Voice, quoted again in The Week, Feb. 22, 2013. p. 19.

George Bernard Shaw, quoted in, quoted again in The Week, July 18, 2014. p. 15.

Phyllis Bottome, quoted in the Associated Press, quoted again in The Week, June 13, 2014. p. 15.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Pierre Darmon on impotence trials in pre-Revolutionary France

Pierre Darmon's Le Tribunal de l'Impuissance (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1979) was translated into English "for the general reader," minus "technical appendices dealing with juridical matters, and all footnotes and detailed references," according to the publisher's note. The English edition is Damning the Innocent: A History of the Persecution of the Impotent in pre-Revolutionary France (New York: Viking, 1986).

The 17th century was a perilous time for a man to be accused of failure to consummate a marriage. It often led to pseudo-medical examinations by the Church, to a public trial in court, and to legal dissolution of the marriage. The examination was generally informed by “the eternal trinity which confirms a man’s virility: ’erecting, entering, emitting’, in the words of the surgeon Guillemeau.” (p. 13) The examination of at least one man in 1694 was invasive enough to involve the surgical removal of a large bladder stone. (p. 115) By the 19th century, there was a backlash against this entire enterprise, and the public debate about impotence subsided.

Darmon writes:

"Deep in the shadowy unconscious of every man lurks a terrible fear of castration. The myth of virility can be seen as the sublimation of this anxiety into a more abstract form which is the basis of a man’s prestige, yet completely beyond his control. The forces that do control it are certainly mysterious. From one day to the next, its happy functions, the tangible proof of male prestige and perfection, can vanish like smoke in the wind, for no apparent reason. It is a cruel state of uncertainty. For all his pride, the virile male is a man trapped by his celebrated and over-estimated body, and the endless escalation of his physical prowess, which, far from reassuring him, plunge him into an infernal spiral of anguish. At any moment, the world which he has built up around himself may disintegrate. For this reason, the trial and condemnation of his impotent fellow men affords him substantial consolation. It serves to idealise his own position, and allows him the opportunity to display his own conformity with the collectively approved sexual norms – a conformity which is statutory, mandatory and of divine ordinance. The priests themselves submit to it, and the Church casts out all those whose virile organ, though sworn to inaction, reveals the slightest anomaly." (p. 2)

Thus impotence trials had a “dual objective: to reassure and to incriminate.” (p. 13) "Is it any coincidence that, from Sparta to Nuremberg, the most disastrous ideologies have been those founded largely upon a coherent mythology of virility?" (p. 229)

Darmon says we need a "categorical" and "visceral rejection" of the impotence trial, and a recognition that "to debate impotence in the first place is to trigger off a poisonous chain of logic" that will lead to an impotence trial. (p. 228-229) These trials were especially bad for men, constituting a form of public shaming. They did seem to empower women to divorce their husbands, but this could backfire, as sometimes the woman would be taken into custody. In 1667, a woman who petitioned the High Court of Provence for separation from her husband was sent to a convent by the bishop. Darmon says this was about "depositing temporarily in the hands of a third party an object whose ownership was in dispute. The husband had first of all to prove his ability to operate the object before he could reclaim it. In the eyes of the law, the title deed was acknowledged as valid only under these conditions." (p. 127)

Despite this opinion, however, Darmon's writing conveys humor when relating many situations. In describing the idea of "relative impotence" (when a man is able to perform sexually with one person but not another), he says this idea "was responsible for situations which made complete nonsense of the institution of marriage," including a man who fathered children with several concubines in his house but had never slept with his wife. "After twelve years of this regime, his wife finally came to realise that her household was in certain respects infringing the laws of Christian marriage." (pp. 25-26) He also quotes a transcript of an investigation in which a physician Croissant de Garengeot noted of one man's erection: "far from lasting longer upon being handled, as is the case with the true erection, it immediately faded away." After which Maître Simon: "What penis, he [Simon] exclaimed, however swollen it might be, when handled and examined by Garengeot (since M. Col de Vilars was content to hold the candle all the time) would not wilt on the very spot? Did this oracle from Bourges flatter himself that he was of sufficiently comely appearance and had a sufficiently enlivening hand to stroke the imagination of a man of modesty?" (p. 183)

There was a longstanding fear that if a woman was bound to a man who could not have the kind of intercourse that was sanctioned by the authorities, she was at risk of being abused as he took out his sexual frustration on her. “For the theorists of the classical period, the ‘counsel’ and advocacy of chastity drew its inspiration from an excessively refined conception of human nature. Sexual continence in marriage was merely a fiction, an abstraction. In reality – which was rather more prosaic – the wife of an impotent man was prey to the lascivious excesses and perverse wit of a spirit unhinged by its disability.” (p. 66) In part because of this, from the 16th century, “the marriage of a eunuch was seen as an intolerable threat to the doctrine of Christian marriage.” (pp. 12-13) As an example, in 1655, Denis Pinot wanted to marry Marie Bulot, but their parish priest would not publish the banns because Denis Pinot was, “by common knowledge,” a eunuch. The couple appealed to the High Court of Paris, but the court rejected the appeal. This case was famous for being a rare outcome. Generally, partners who wanted to marry would not reveal such a secret. (pp. 68-69, 71) In the eyes of the authorities: “By marrying, the impotent man commits an act of larceny, profanes a sacrament, and indulges in an inhumane, cruel and dangerous act. These were the three themes which, from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the end of the eighteenth century, recurred incessantly in the writings of jurists and theologians.” (p. 59) Yet: “At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the surgeon Guillemeau noted that the removal of one or even of both testicles did not put a definitive end to sexual relations.” (p. 23)

Accusations of impotence could, of course, be brought up as a pretext for preventing marriages that others opposed for other reasons and interests.

“Thus in 1639 an inhabitant of Pamiers decided to get married. His brother tried to prevent him, on the grounds that he lacked ‘those natural parts necessary for marriage.’ The accused retorted that ‘the beauty, whom the matter most concerned, had no complaints, and, when this was no longer the case, she would have him tamquam patrem, non tanquam maritum’ (as a father if not as a spouse). The parliament of Toulouse ruled that the marriage could proceed. Needless to say, ‘the beauty’ had been made heiress to a tidy little fortune.” (p. 67-68)

Darmon mentions one brief anecdote from Ancillon's 1707 Traité des Eunuques, but it is possible he learned about it from a secondary source, as this book is not mentioned in his bibliography. (It was a rare book that seems never to have been reprinted until it was digitized in 2010.) He does, however, address the question of eunuchs, since this overlaps significantly with the question of impotence.

"In the case of eunuchs – those afflicted by 'overt impotence' (Tagereau) resulting from some congenital malformation – there were fewer problems. In its fullest snese, the term 'eunuch' means a complete absence of genitals. Occasionally these do exist, but with some flagrant anomaly. Tagereau reported the case of a man 'possessed of two penises, each hindering the other', of another whose testicles were situated above his penis, and of a third 'who had a penis the size of a wart and testicles that of two peas, hardly discernible.'

The contempt in which these unfortunate individuals were held by the general public reduced them to the level of outcasts or monsters. 'They bear the mark of their ignominy upon themselves,' wrote the theologian Fevret. 'How might we consider them to be whole, since this blemish in them is so considerable, and what reasons might induce us to believe them fit for marriage?' The verdict of Sébastien Roulliard was even more savage: 'These castrates are incapable of progeny, and we do take it as given that it is these which either sex is accustomed to hold in abomination, and whom the Greeks termed half-men or half-women, neither men nor women.' In their hatred of eunuchs, some went so far as to call them creatures of the devil. According to the lawyer Peleus, 'spados [eunuchs] are incubate demons, for which reason, in the manner of those spirits that have relations with women, their substance is colder than the icy wastes of Scythia, and does spoil the reproductive faculty that women possess by nature.

As a result, eunuchs found themselves outcasts, rigidly ostracised by ecclesiastical and civil legislation....the articles of canon law...prescribe[d] a scrupulous and intimate physical examination of candidates for the monastic orders. ...eunuchs were prohibited from admittance to [civil] public office..." (pp. 17-18)

Through the 16th century, eunuchs – men with no testicles and no ability to ejaculate, but sometimes with the ability to get erections – were permitted to marry, but if their wives brought them to impotence trial, the marriage could be dissolved. On June 27, 1587, Pope Sixtus V required that the marriages of eunuchs should be dissolved regardless of whether the married couple wanted that. This was followed at the turn of the century by a prolonged legal battle of the Baron d'Argenton who sought to prove that his testicles, while undescended and thus not visible, nevertheless existed. He lost the case. In 1604, "[t]he whole of Parish rushed to be present for the autopsy of his body," and, when the doctors found his undescended testicles, "D'Argenton was posthumously declared potent, and the Faculty of Medicine in Paris pronounced by decree 'that for the purposes of engendering offspring, it is not requisite that the testicles be present in the scrotum of a man, provided nevertheless that he display other and sufficient marks of virility.'" (pp. 21-22)

Meanwhile, "hermaphrodites" – those who exhibited physical characteristics of both sexes – were at risk of summary execution from Roman times all the way through the ages, despite Ulpien's third-century Lex Repetundarum statute that dictated that they should be assigned to one sex or the other and treated accordingly, a precedent that continued to influence pre-Revolutionary France.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Should philosophical ideas be subject to empirical verification?

One question is whether empiricism itself can be empirically verified. Michael Lerner:

"Consider its [scientism’s] central belief: ‘That which is real is that which can be verified or falsified by empirical observation.’ The claim sounds tough minded and rational, but what scientific experiment could you perform to prove that it is either true or false?"

Another is whether, although empiricism is indeed a value, there may be other methods and approaches that are also valuable. Sir James Baillie:

"Empiricism is so true that the closer one keeps to it – without becoming an empiricist! – the better. Just as, on the contrary, Idealism is so questionable that the farther one keeps from it – without ceasing to be an idealist! – the truer will one's view of reality be."

Daniel C. Dennett:

"This spell must be broken, and broken now. Those who are religious and believe religion to be the best hope of humankind cannot reasonably expect those of us who are skeptical to refrain from expressing our doubts if they themselves are unwilling to put their convictions under the microscope. ... If the case for their path cannot be made this is something that they themselves should want to know. It is as simple as that. They claim the moral high ground; maybe they deserve it and maybe they don’t. Let’s find out."

In philosophy, it is important to define one's terms precisely, as advised by Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet:

"One of the essentials for any sound philosophy is to produce for every science an exact and precise language in which every symbol represents some well defined and circumscribed idea; and so by rigorous analysis to guarantee that every idea is well defined and circumscribed."

Defining terms enables them to be verified. However, if defined too rigorously, one loses the flavor, subtlety and ambiguity of ideas, as well as the different human perspectives that generate them.


Michael Lerner. The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. HarperSanFrancisco, 2006. p. 132.

Sir James Baillie, Reflections on Life and Religion, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1952. p 252-3

Daniel C. Dennett. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Penguin Group, 2006. p. 17.

Marie-Jean-Antoine-Nicolas Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet. Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. (1794) Translated by June Barraclough. Westport, Conn.: Hyperion Press, Inc. 1955. p 44.

Philosophy to bring joy

Epicurus said: "Philosophy is useless if it does not drive away the suffering of the mind."

What will end suffering and bring joy? Is it a final analysis, or is it the process of thinking itself?

First, we may need to begin with reverence, as Sir James Baillie wrote: "The final and supreme destiny of the scholar is to unite wisdom with kindness, knowledge with love, care for truth with love of man – and without reverence that is not possible." We may also need curiosity, as St. Augustine wrote: "We learn better in a free spirit of curiosity than under fear and compulsion." We may need to accept our humble limitations and contradictions, as Johannes Climacus wrote:

"That which makes understanding so difficult is precisely this: that he [the learner] becomes nothing and yet is not annihilated; that he owes him everything and yet becomes boldly confident; that he understands the truth, but the truth makes him free; that he grasps the quilt of untruth, and then again in bold confidence triumphs in the truth."

And we may need to resist assumptions, conclusions, labels, and roles that are given to us, as James Baldwin wrote:

The world's definitions are one thing and the life one actually lives is quite another. One cannot allow oneself, nor can one's family, friends, or lovers – to say nothing of one's children – to live according to the world's definitions: one must find a way, perpetually, to be stronger and better than that.


Epicurus, quoted by Alain de Botton, The Consolations of Philosophy, Vintage Books, 2000. p 55.

Sir James Baillie, Reflections on Life and Religion, London: George Allen and Unwin, 1952. Title page.

Augustine, Confessions, I:14

Johannes Climacus (Soren Kierkegaard), Philosophical Fragments, ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton University Press, 1985. p 30-1.

James Baldwin, quoted by John Stoltenberg as an epigraph to Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice. New York: Meridian, 1989.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Truth is a bully

A character in a novel by Gregory David Roberts called truth a "bully". People feel they have to pursue and honor truth even when they don't like it or it doesn't seem to serve them.

"...take yesterday, for instance, when we were all talking about truth. Capital T Truth. Absolute truth. Ultimate truth. And is there any truth, is anything true? Everybody had something to say about it – Didier, Ulla, Maurizio, even Modena. Then you said, The truth is a bully we all pretend to like. I was knocked out by it. Did you read that in a book, or hear it in a play, or a movie?"

This truth, this bully, requires its own bully – the challenge of falsehood – to compel it to strengthen itself. John Stuart Mill wrote, "If opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil's advocate can conjure up."

But then, maybe the devil's advocate is also correct, as per Neils Bohr: "There are trivial truths and there are great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of the great truth is also true."

Some see a "hierarchy of truth," as explained by Kovach and Rosenstiel:

"It is interesting that oppressive societies tend to belittle literal definitions of truthfulness and accuracy, just as postmodernists do today, though for different reasons. In the Middle Ages, for instance, monks held that there was actually a hierarchy of truth. At the highest level were messages that told us about the fate of the universe, such as whether heaven existed. Next came moral truth, which taught us how to live. This was followed by allegorical truth, which taught the moral of stories. Finally, at the bottom, the least important, was the literal truth, which the theorists said was usually empty of meaning and irrelevant. As one fourteenth-century manual explained, using logic similar to what we might hear today from a postmodern scholar or a Hollywood producer, 'Whether it is truth of history or fiction doesn't matter, because the example is not supplied for its own sake but for its signification.'

"The goal of the medieval thinkers was not enlightenment so much as control. They didn't want literal facts to get in the way of political/religious orthodoxy. An accurate understanding of the day threatened that control – just as today it is a weapon against oppression and manipulation."

What reins in truth? It does require "a measure of some kind" or else it is not viewed as truth. Nicholas Fearn:

"The wider conclusions of Protagoras may be self-refuting, but he did hit upon an important insight. This is the thought that every truth requires a measure of some kind. Truths are not true of and in themselves, but are true within a system of thought, or according to certain rules that test their veracity. This would be the case even if there were only one objective measure of truth. It is unequivocally true that two plus two equals four, but only because four is always the result when we apply the rules of addition correctly. The value of a pair of shoes, on the other hand, may be different according to whether they are given to a beggar or a king, but in each case their value is a value to someone. In both cases, the measure of the truth is external to what it evaluates. How we are to evaluate the measure is another issue, and one that does not always have an easy answer. It will certainly not do to say that this measure is simply 'reality' or 'the way things are,' since how we divine the nature of things is precisely what is in question."


Gregory David Roberts. Shantaram. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2003. p. 60.

John Stuart Mill. Essay on Liberty, quoted in Rollo May, Power and Innocence: A Search for the Sources of Violence. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1972. p 109-110.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel. The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2001. p 38.

Nicholas Fearn. How to Think Like a Philosopher. New York: Grove Press, 2001. p 15.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

The portrayal of the historical figure of Aga Mohamed in the novel 'Zohrab, the Hostage' (1832)

Aga Mohamed was a real person. He is portrayed, partly fictionalized, in Zohrab, the Hostage (1832) by James Justinian Morier, who served as British ambassador to Persia 1810-1816. In the article below, emphasis is placed on how this character is portrayed, without regard to possible "spoilers" of the three-volume novel.


Although the author acknowledges that all of Persia is full of stories – some within living memory – of "the famous Aga Mohamed Shah, famous for his cruelty, his wisdom, and his wars" and "the ominous aspect of his ferocious countenance," nevertheless he says that his story changes some historical facts. Amima was really Mohamed's mother, but in the novel, she is his niece. Mohamed really killed one brother and blinded another, but in the novel their fates are combined in a character called Hussein Kuli. The attack on Asterabad is fictitious, but inspired by "the enormities of his cruelty" during the siege of Kerman, the facts of which can be found in Sir John Malcolm's History of Persia, Vol. II. The novel contains anecdotes about a bloody handkerchief (Vol. II) and counting eyes with a whip handle (Vol. III), which he says "were related to me by creditable witnesses."

But it has not been my object to draw a miniature picture of his character; I have only attempted a sketch. He is my prototype, and I have placed him in my narrative, as a painter sometimes inserts a dragon or some such monster in the foreground of his landscape.
* * *
We are told, – Either follow tradition, or invent such fables are consistent with themselves:
"Aut famam sequere, aut sibi convenienta finge."

Volume I

The chief eunuch is called the Khajeh Bashi; he lives in the palace. He "served Aga Mohamed with great zeal, although he dreaded the violence of his character with a feeling amounting to something more than womanish fear." (p. 152) He is addressed with terms of respect, for example, "Almas Aga" (diamond lord), but he responds by acknowledging his humble status: "Almas is her slave, and only waits her commands to show her the excess of his devotedness," he says to Amima, addressing her in the third person. (p. 154) The king, Aga Mohammed Shah, calls him to appear whenever anything important happens. He is, for example, in charge of supervising the Shah's nephew Fatteh Ali's goodbye to his sister. (p. 54) He is also in charge of maintaining the Corook, which is a clear path in front of the Shah's women when they are allowed to take a journey. The public is notified in advance not to cross the Corook on pain of death. "...the whole being marshalled by the royal eunuchs, who with loud shrill voices, and angry words and gestures were casting about the eyes of watchfulness and suspicion, in order to discover any audacious trespasser who might have transgressed the awful Corook. The whole was closed by the person of the Khajeh Bashi or eunuch in chief and a numerous suite, who were ready at the smallest signal to scour the country, and inflict immediate death on any unfortunate offender." (p. 29)

"the reader will perhaps be curious to become more intimately acquainted with the person of the extraordinary being who will form one of the principal features of the following narrative.

Nature, in forming Aga Mohamed Shah, intended to have installed a mind of uncommon vigour into a body capable of seconding its energies, by making it full of activity and strength; but the whole scheme was frustrated by the cruelty of man. Whilst the sharpness of intellect was preserved, it became diseased with ill-humour and moroseness, for every time that his body became an object of contemplation, he entertained such disgust towards himself that he feeling finished by placing him at enmity with all mankind. What would otherwise have been tall and erect, was now bent with the curve of apparent age; – what would have been strength of muscle and breadth of shoulder, seemed blighted and shrivelled. His face, particularly in a country where beards are universally worn, appeared like a blotch of leprosy, for it was almost totally hairless, – it could only boast of a few straggling bristles, which here and there sprouted at irregular distances, like stunted trees upon a poor soil. The skin which covered it resembled wetted parchment, hanging in baggy furrows down the cheeks, under the chin, and about the neck. This spectral countenance, for so it might be called, was, however, lighted up by a pair of small grey eyes of more than human lustre, which, from under two ragged curtains of eyelids, flashed all their intelligence abroad, and as they expressed rage, jealousy, or cruelty, made those who were exposed to their fire feel as if they were under the fascination of some blood-seeking monster. But with all this there were moments when this face would smile, and would even relax into looks of pity and benevolence, but so treacherous were these symptoms esteemed, that at length they were only looked upon as signals of some extraordinary disaster, or as beacons to warn those in danger to be upon their guard. (pp. 10-12)

"It is impossible to describe the expression of the face upon which the eyes of all present were turned, for bereft as it was of its native manliness, all that could be read in it was distrust, envy, and hatred." (pp. 33-34)

On another occasion, his niece's servant reports that "the Shah looked in a vastly killing humour". (p. 148)

"At length he came, and though but slightly attended, still his presence produced a sensation of awe that nothing could suppress, which might be likened to the instinct of smaller animals, that feel the neighbourhood of some large and venomous snake, without actually seeing it." (pp. 174-175)

The Shah has a "hideous" humpback as an attendant and, in particular, as a barber, and "it was generally supposed that the Shah had selected him for his important office, in order to keep himself in good humour with his own deformities." (pp. 12-13) The arrangement "was the ichneumon waiting upon the crocodile," and the humpback was "hated as a spy, and dreaded as an informer." (p. 13) Similarly, the chief eunuch, the Khajeh Bashi, was "many shades uglier than his master" and that, the author commented, "perhaps might have been the reason of his preservation." (p. 153)

The Shah has a falling out with his nephew on a hunting trip, because they both shoot at the same animal, and the Shah's first gunshot does not kill it, but the nephew's second shot fells it. "As soon as the successful result of it was seen, the envy and rage of the Eunuch at once started into active passion." (pp. 43-44) Even hours after the incident, he seems "not unlike a venomous snake coiled up within itself, ready to dart upon its unconscious prey." (p. 47) Because of this incident, he essentially threatens his nephew with death – letting him know that he killed his father and will easily kill him, too – and sending him away into a kind of temporary exile.

Contemplating the prisoner Zohrab, the Shah is "like the bloodhound, which, though muzzled, still snarls and snaps at what he thinks ought to be his prey". (pp. 98-99)When Zohrab approaches the Shah, "he obeyed and stood nothing daunted, with head erect and a firm countenance, exhibiting in his person a specimen of manly beauty which strongly contrasted with the degraded form before whom he stood." (p. 111) Zohrab says he does not mind if the Shah insults him or destroys him, "but when thou abusest my father, he who is thy equal, and to whom thou partly owest thy elevation, he, whom compared to thee is as the finest gold to the vilest copper, then I will speak; then I will tell thee, base dog! that I throw back thy odious words to thy face, and that I spit upon thy odious presence. And now do thy worst." (p. 116)

The chief huntsman had the idea to make a pillar of skulls (kelleh minar) of animals he slaughtered and to place Zohrab's head at the top. When he presents this delightful idea to the Shah, the Shah unaccountably turns the idea of violence against the loyal huntsman. "'What head can be better than thine?' roared the tyrant, in savage merriment." He instructs the chief executioner, the Nasakchi Bashi, "who was always in attendance," to "go complete the minar" and behead the huntsman. (p. 123) The Shah's strange order is not immediately believed by those present. "His horrid face broke into a demoniacal expression of fury when he saw that there was hesitation in obeying his commands. The ragged skin which fell in furrows down his cheeks began to bloat; the eyes seemed to roll in blood, and the whole frame, from which in general all circulation seemed to fly, wore a purple hue..." He is about to behead the huntsman himself, when the executioner steps up quickly behind the doomed huntsman and does his duty "with one blow of his deadly black Khorassan blade." (p. 124) The sight of the "streams of gore flowing and spouting in all directions" caused the Shah immediately "to be soothed into quiet," and "his features resumed their wonted dull and leaden expression." (p. 125) He then turns against the executioner for having fulfilled his command: "'Dog and villain,' he exclaimed, 'why did you slay my chief huntsman? what demon impelled your officious hand in this deed? well is it for you that there is such a feeling as compassion, and that the Shah can spare as well as he can spill! Go, go! clear up your work, and finish it by wiping your own self from our presence.'" (p. 126)

After the death of the chief huntsman, the Shah is regretful, but falls short of contrition, blaming the events on the appearance of Zohrab and lamenting his own loss of face in the eyes of his subjects.

"And thus I lost that poor old Hussein! – where shall I get such another servant? Evil was the hour when the Mazanderani youth came across my path. We have committed a crime which but for him never would have been; we have lost a servant whom we shall never replace; and my subjects look upon Aga Mahomed as a monster of injustice!" (p. 184)

Zohrab's life will be spared, but he must marry Zulma, the chief executioner's daughter.

Volume II

The second volume focuses on the unrequited love of Zohrab and Amima and on Zohrab's dilemma in being forced to marry Zulma.

There is a comment about how eunuchs look older than they are:

"Upon the frame and countenance of an eunuch, an appearance of premature age settles the cast of his features even from youth, and the changes are not so strong as upon the man, whose beard, like the verdant foliage of nature, shews by the variety of its tints..." (p. 98)

The Shah is described:

He was seated on his throne surrounded by a throng of the most brilliantly arrayed courtiers and attendants. He himself was dressed so entirely with jewelry, that as the sun glanced upon him, the eye could scarcely meet the beautiful and magnificent refulgence. A crown, in the front of which shone conspicuous a diamond of immense size, was placed on his head, whilst a pair of armlets or bazûbends, those distinguishing badges of Persian royalty, also composed of stones of immense value, were distinguished on the upper limb of each arm; here glistened those two famous diamonds the koh nûr and the deriah nûr, the mountain, and the sea of light, which had been seized by Nadir Shah among the spoils of the Moguls at the siege of Delhi, and upon which the Persians now looked as talisans which gave their possessor a lawful claim upon the throne.

His sword was placed across his knees; nothing could exceed the richness of its belt and sheath; a resplendent dagger glittered in a girdle of incalculable value, whilst he was backed by a pillow, so inlaid with precious stones, that it looked like a work of mosaic. But with all this his appearance was scarcely human; a dressed skeleton would have filled his place as well; at best he became a living illustration of the vanity of life. The jewels in which his person was incased, were contrasted with the ghastliness of his features, whilst those same features seemed to destroy the value of the jewelry.

But still how dreaded a king was he to his subjects! They could not attach ridicule to any thing belonging to one who had gained power and a throne by superiority of intellect, and which he had exercised in elevating their country to great eminence among the nations of Asia. There was something so uncommon in the circumstance of a being, so degraded in his person, raising himself to kingly power, that that circumstance alone gave a character of the marvellous to his appearance, and surrounded him by feelings of awe and mystery, highly conducive to the establishment of his power. (pp. 103-104)

Amima, while receiving advice from a dervish behind a curtain, faints, and in the commotion that includes the arrival of the Khajeh Bashi (chief eunuch), the curtain is pulled back and the dervish accidentally sees her face. More women and eunuchs come to solve the problem, and the dervish turns and leaves. (p. 130)

The first mention of the race of of eunuch – somewhat surprising, as the palace eunuchs were racially segregated in Persia – occurs in this sentence: "he perceived a well-veiled and richly dressed woman alighting from a finely caparisoned mule, held by a young black eunuch." (p. 136)

Zohrab had a little adventure in which he manages to enter the area of the palace that contained the women's apartments by dressing as a woman escorted by a servant, Ali. Zohrab was forced to stop and leave Ali when "they came to the wicket where a guard of eunuchs was stationed" and then he tried to find his way out of the palace, fearing "instant death" if he attracted the attention of more eunuchs. (p. 152) Two eunuchs were suspicious and were about "to lay violent hands upon him" when Amima's servant Mariam silences them, pretending to recognize the unknown figure as a woman, and invites Zohrab in. (p. 153) His arrival startles Amima, but, after she recovers from her faint, she begins to warm to him. Just then, they hear that the Shah, accompanied by "impatient eunuchs," wished to pass through the room to go to he turret (he is actually seeking the dervish, whom he distrusts), and they fear for their lives. Zohrab had nowhere to hide in the room, and he could not put his costume back on because harem women were not allowed to veil themselves in front of the Shah. They quickly knot scarves together and lower Zohrab off the turret to a nearby roof. The Khajeh Bashi finally bursts in, "foaming with rage at the impediments placed in the way of the performance of the Shah's commands," and Mariam responds to him: "And who are you, you old carcass without a soul! you old scabbard without a sword!" He argues back that he must do the Shah's bidding, because "by a nod of his head he may take off mine," and Mariam retorts, "We'll all teach the Shah to nod...and there let us trust may your hated noddle be nodded off." (pp. 163-164) The Khajeh Bashi sees the knotted scarves on the turret and he says, "In any other harem, a katl-i-âm, a universal massacre, would ensue." Mariam says that the women may tie their scarves any way that they like, and that if the eunuch speaks any more, they will hang him with the rope. (p. 165) They untie the scarves, and the Shah enters and is none the wiser.

Zohrab meanwhile has an interview with Zulma, who professes to be mad with love for him, but he rebuffs her and tells her he never consented to the marriage and will never marry her.

Through an act of trickery, Zohrab's father, Zaul Khan, rescues him from captivity and brings him home. The Shah is furious. "He was accustomed to look upon himself as the most quick-sighted and penetrating of human beings; what then was his mortification to find himself thus completely outwitted, and by one whom he so entirely despised! The feeling was maddening to the highest degree – he could scarcely contain his wrath from falling upon the whole city at once, so enraged was he at the situation of a dupe in which he thought he was placed." (p. 261) He orders the chief executioner and the head guard to be whipped for their negliglence, and they are bastinadoed into unconsciousness. (pp. 262-263)

The Shah then calls a witness to the activities of the "dervish" and of Zulma. The witness is identified as a Kechekchi (also spelled Keshekchi, meaning unknown) and a servant of the Shah. He says he saw the pair but admits that he was too "afraid" to do anything. At this time, the Humpback reveals that he found Amima's armband under Zohrab's pillow; it had once belonged to Amima's father, but the Shah had given it to Amima, and she had given it to Zohrab as a token of her affection.

His first impulse was to order instant execution upon her who had excited his wrath; but so malignant were his present feelings that he seemed to have pleasure in dwelling upon them, in order hat he might devise a more sweet and perfect revenge. The pause, the awful pause, which ensued during these his cogitations was felt by those present as if they stood on the verge of eternity – as if they were awaiting the signature of their death-warrant, so sure were they that none but the most dire results could accrue from the delay.
* * *
At length rousing himself from his apparent stupor, like the deadly boa rising from torpor and preparing for a fresh victim, he wreaked the first effects of his rage upon the poor keshekchi. "Strike his neck," he roared out to the full extent of his terrible voice, as he looked upon the offender. "Go, and let others know what it is to be negligent of the Shah's affairs."

Upon this a ferash ghazeb, a most ferocious monster, stepped up, and with one blow of his sword, severed the wretched man's head from his body. (pp. 267-8)

The "odious king" proceeds with more executions of the innocent along with the guilty, and his subjects respected his authority. "'Tis true they would call him a shaitan, a devil, a blood-drinker, a despot, but then at the same time they would add the epithet ajaîb, wonderful, which in most of their minds would also imply "admirable." (p. 269)

The Humpback reveals to the Shah that a man was seen climbing down from the turret, exiting the harem. The Shah calls for the Khajeh Bashi, addressing him as "Pander." The Khajeh Bashi is terrified by the allegation. (p. 274) The Shah is angry because he had previously felt toward Amima "a devoted tenderness, a sense of gratitude towards her for allowing him to feel that at least there was one creature in the world who cared for him," but now he sees that as "a mere illusion". (p. 276) He fantasizes throwing Amima off the turret with his own hands. The Khajeh Bashi goes to Amima's quarters late at night to fetch her and bring her before the Shah. She finds this highly irregular, and tells him, "the first words I utter will be complaint of thee. Will the Shah consent to see his niece exposed to the gaze of man without her veil?" (p. 281) In response, "the hideous creature indulged in a malignant exulting chuckle". (p. 282) Instead of bringing her to the Shah, however, he brings her to a horseman, and she is left exposed in the wilderness to die. She is rescued by a man who says that his brother was castrated by Adil Shah, a rival of his father's, and that he would have met the same fate soon after had Adil Shah not died. (p. 312)

Volume III

Volume III opens with the Shah's rage:

"The violence of feeling which had urged the Shah to the destruction of his niece, was succeeded by acts of unprecedented barbarity, as if he were anxious to stifle the feelings of remorse which the one had raised in his heart, by others still more atrocious. In losing Amima he had lost the only tie in which the affections of his heart were engaged; having once surmounted this, he overthrew every barrier, and like a wild beast breaking from his confinement, spread terror and alarm wherever his steps carried him. The first ravings of his fury turned towards the Khajeh Bashi."

The people gather quickly when they hear the Shah is about to sit on the throne, "for in the presence oft he tyrant, who could say that his turn for destruction might not be the next upon the book of fate?" In this case, the Shah speaks pointedly to the prime vizir Mirza Hajji Ibrahim to demonstrate to everyone that "he had arisen blameless, and that the confidence reposed in him had not in the slightest degree diminished." (p. 23) The Shah then gives military orders about clothing, provisions, and weapons. "His sagacity awed almost as much as his cruelty. Every one felt that, under the scrutiny of such an eye and such a mind, to do one's duty was inevitable, and therefore none flinched, but went heartily to work in its accomplishment." (p. 24)

Shir Khan Beg was summoned, and "the eyes of all were turned towards him, as one destined to receive a further infliction of punishment. ...he could scarcely stand, so truly was he terrified (in common let it be said with all the Persians of his day) by merely knowing himself to be near the presence of the Shah. He made his proper bow, and left his shoes at the door." (p. 40) Later, however, Shir Khan Beg is honored with rich dress, including a ceremonial diamond-hilted dagger whose honor he has always dreamed of. The Shah is thus able to assign him to a dangerous expedition. (pp. 98-102)

Zohrab has an opportunity to kill the Shah. Ali points his musket at him, but Zohrab orders him down.

"The moment of vengeance elapsed, and once of serious meditation succeeded. Zohrab was lost in a thousand reflections upon the sigh of hte being whose life he had just spared. His own persecutor, the murderer of his Amima, the invader of his country, the announced murderer of himself, his father, mother, and family; the proclaimed shedder of the blood of thousands of innocent people. All this had gone by, and he had refrained from taking vengeance into his own hand. The Mussulman youth felt that such destinies were to be wielded by the hand of an all wise Providence, and not placed at the disposal of a weak and erring mortal such as himself." (pp. 132-133)

Zulma tells the Shah that, one day, Ali arrived from Asterabad to deliver a letter to the humpback. Ali repeatedly refused to tell Zulma what the letter contained, but finally, Zulma seized it from him, discovered its "treachery," and reported it to the Shah. The Shah asked the executioners to ready the rope on a lightning-struck pine tree, as Ali waited, pinned by guards, and he also sent for the humpback.

"There sat the king, coiled up as it were in the folds of his power, like the dragon of the wilderness spreading terror around; above him reared the towering stem of the pine, scathed and blackened, overtopping all the trees of the forest, stretching out its burnt and withered ranches in stiff and rigid outlines, and presenting no bad emblem of the withered person of the Shah himself." (pp. 158-159)

As soon as the humpback is brought to him and the Shah reads the letter, the humpback is hoisted up on the rope and swings from the pine tree. The Shah then asks for Ali. (pp. 164-165)

"After the defeat of the royal army at the attack of the Tehran gate, the Shah had solemnly sworn on the Koran and by his own head, that he would deliver up the city for three successive days to the pillage of his troops; and that he would not be satisfied unless at the end of that time twenty mauns of human eyes were placed before him. Humanity shudders at this recital, but true it is that in Persia, now as in ancient times, the extraction of eyes was always a punishment resorted to when death was not inflicted. Noses and ears were also frequently commanded to be brought before the conqueror, upon sacking a city; eyes almost always." (p. 198)

The Shah hates Zaul, "and he determined never to sheathe his sword until dead or alive he had both father and son in his possession." In the Shah's tent, surrounded by his supporters, "his face beaming with ferocious malignity, he pronounced the awful sentence of the katl-i-aum, or general massacre, and to give it an appearance of lawful and religious severity, he caused a firman for that purpose to be issued, sanctioned by a fetvah of the Mushtehed of Persia." (p. 199-200) It was the Siege of Kerman, and there was "heard the uplifted voices of a whole city in malediction of the tyrant." (p. 200)

From his horse, the Shah yelled, "A hundred tomauns for the head of Zaul, and five hundred for Zohrab alive." Everyone takes up the call for arms. (p. 202)

Zohrab sees his father slain, and then he cuts a pursuer in half (p. 204) and manages to rescue his father's body before being beaten and brought to the Shah. The Shah tells him it is his last day. Zohrab asks to be killed immediately so that he can "die without being grateful to thee for any thing." Then he asks the Shah if he may be the "atoning sacrifice" for the innocent people so that the bloodshed will stop. "If thou hast a heart, let my words reach it; and if thou hast a soul, let the fear of a future life and future retribution overtake it." The Shah calls him a "dog" and orders him to stop preaching. Zohrab retorts that he is the "father of dogs". (p. 213) To increase his suffering, the Shah orders: “Let his confinement be so strict, that the Shah will be jealous if even a ray of light visits him.” (p. 214)

Eyes of victims are brought to the Shah. Sadek assures the Shah that it is the requested number. The "unfeeling" Shah warns him that, if there are not enough, Sadek's own eyes will be taken to meet the request. The executioner shows him the tray of eyes and begins to count them, then the Grand Vizir Hajji Ibrahim bursts out with a plea for mercy for the innocent victims. "The perverseness of the Shah's mind, acting upon his hot and ardent nature, was like a parasitical plant, which is seen to entwine itself, cover over, and take possession of a large tree in the forests of tropical climates..." He then dismisses his executioner from his responsibilities. (pp. 216-218)

When the Shah's nephew Fatteh Ali appears, older than everyone remembers him, they long for his kingship. (pp. 234-235) The Shah cannot abide hearing complimentary words about his nephew because he feels that he is being negatively compared to his nephew. (p. 238) When the Shah tells his nephew that he killed his sister Amima, his nephew curses him, and the Shah orders him killed. (pp. 248-249) Fatteh Ali is taken to prison, lamenting Amima’s death. Sadek longs to tell him the truth but can’t. (pp. 253-254)

The Shah tells Sadek that "my liver is turned into blood," but Sadek prostates himself and begs: "Your slave is too great a lover of his Shah to commit such an act. Let the Shah kill him, but let him stay his hand from th blood of the innocent youth." The Shah calls Sadek a "base reptile" and dismisses him, but privately, the Shah worries that he is losing favor among his own servants. (pp. 259)

The Shah orders Zohrab to be paraded backwards on a donkey, spit on, then impaled. (p. 265)

Then he tells Zulma: Her father, the chief executioner, must kill Sadek before dawn. He doesn’t tell her why. Meanwhile, Sadek finds his name on a kill list, and Sadek and Hussein conspire to stab the Shah in his sleep. The Shah awakens enough to run around the room first before he’s stabbed in the heart and falls, still declaring he is the Shah. “And thus fell the scourge of Persia’s fair kingdom, and of her soft and thoughtless sons.” (p. 280)

Sadek removes the Shah's head and also takes the kill list. He then breaks the news to the confined prince Fatteh Ali that his uncle, the Shah, is dead, and that his sister, Amima, lives. Sadek puts the severed head in the Grand Vizir's room as a prank. (p. 285)

When Zulma hears the news of the Shah's death, she wants to tell the imprisoned Zohrab. Fatteh Ali gives him the news about the Shah and Amima. Fatteh Ali is bedecked with the koh noor and deriah noor jewels on his arms. (p. 320)

Zohrab marries Amima. Zulma settles for a quarrelsome marriage with Shir Khan Beg. Sadek chooses voluntary exile.


James Morier. Zohrab, the Hostage. London: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street, 1832.