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Or Are You Just Happy to See Me? Hermaphrodites, Invagination, and Kinaesthetic Humor in Pompeian Houses

David Fredrick

            The sculpture of the sleeping Hermaphrodite in the Palazzo Massimo in Rome commonly evokes surprise and laughter, but this reaction is not immediate.  Rather, it is elicited through a subtle choreography that requires both time and space to unfold.  Through the treatment of the sculpture’s face, buttocks, and drapery, viewers are drawn clockwise along the back and around the feet of the sleeping figure, whom hairstyle, breasts, and hips all suggest is female.  Only after circling around the figure is the viewer arrested by the discovery of the Hermaphrodite’s erect phallus, nestled in the cavity formed by hir drapery and thighs.

            This discovery often produces laughter, and so the Hermaphrodite’s phallus serves as the punchline for a kind of kinaesthetic joke.  Like most jokes, it points to serious cultural tensions, in this case surrounding the construction of desire, power, and gendered identities.  However, unlike many kinds of jokes, this one depends on the viewer’s movement through space, which traces a spiral around the figure and comes to rest in a spatio-temporal bay defined by the outward extension of the Hermaphrodite’s left arm and hip.  The end position of the viewer and the Hermaphrodite’s phallus mirror thus each other, as each is “invaginated” in Derrida’s sense, occupying a kind of pocket where oppositional relations become unstable.  Among the destabilized terms are female-male, passive-active, penetrated-penetrator, and, not least, inside-outside.  This raises two reciprocal questions.  Of what unseen desire is the Hermaphrodite’s erection the visible evidence?  What becomes of the viewer’s desire when confronted with the erection?  The sculpture’s charge thus lies not so much in the discovery of the Hermaphrodite’s phallus, but in the unexpected and perhaps contradictory desires this discovery evokes in the viewer, a dangerous teasing of the inside out that is defused with laughter.

            The concept of invagination may shed light on the relation between Hermaphrodites, patterns of movement, and laughter in Pompeian houses.  Images of Hermaphroditus are often set deep in the spatial network of the house and off-axis to the entry point of the room.  In this position they appear as exclamation points to extended pathways that bring the visitor from the house entry to rooms that offer intimate social contact with the owner (House of Adonis VI, 7, 18; House of Triptolemus VII, 7, 5; House of the Postumii 8, 4, 4-49).  In the House of the Vettii (VI, 15, 1), both instances of Hermaphroditus require the viewer to enter the room, turn, and look back out to discover the image, replaying in the real space of the house the movement of discovery found in the fictive space of the paintings.  A 3D visualization of the House of the Vettii suggests that if its sculpture of Priapus is correctly restored as a fountain in the peristyle (Clarke), the statue would be framed by the view through the south doorway of triclinium p and the broad window of ala i.  In this position, the triumphant gesture of Priapus in the sculpture would serve as a humorous visual rhyme for Pan’s hand upraised in dismay at the Hermaphrodite’s erection in the painting over p’s doorway.  Finally, the sculpture of Hermaphroditus in the House of Octavius Quartio (II, 2, 2) caps a labyrinthine choreography which entraps the visitor in a series of spatial pockets: Actaeon discovering Diana (twice), Narcissus caught by his own reflection, Pan (or Silenus?) circling around the sleeping Hermaphrodite.

            In all of these instances, the image of Hermaphroditus does not simply mark a dangerous threshold, but provokes laughter at the end of a journey into the house along which social tension rises in proportion to proximity between guests and owner.  However, in this Roman context we might question the gendered implications of the term “invagination,” as the tension between inside-outside here has at least as much resonance with the fissures of the male body.

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