Time was when you could rely on academics to write desiccated tomes that gathered dust on the shelves of the Bodleian. Alas, no longer. Now they have found a cunning trick to impose their overwrought campus musings on the general public. They don't say: "I'd like to write a book about the Jacobean playwright Thomas Middleton." They say: "I'd like to write a book with a title that screams 'Sex!', and will sell in vast quantities to the deluded public. I know, I'll call it Castration: an abbreviated history of western manhood." This explains why Gary Taylor's latest title tells us more about Middleton's play A Game at Chess, and about Taylor's vasectomy, than it does about the seraglio - although the good news is that Taylor is riveting on Middleton.
At least Taylor seems as cheerily loony as his title. His prose style springs from the "groovy prof" school of writing, so Abelard and Foucault are quoted alongside Christina Aguilera and Tori Amos, and be-my-buddy phrases, such as "the great pussy pie" and "your classic corporate asshole", are scattered throughout the text. (Yes, he does have long hair and a beard.) Taylor knows his stuff, and scours centuries and the globe to present a diverting range of castrati, but centres his thesis on the writings of Freud, Middleton and St Augustine. He uses them to illustrate shifting attitudes to castration, and shows how, although biblical references to eunuchs were taken to denote celibates, castration in 17th-century drama emphasised the removal of the testicles, while with Freud (surprise, surprise) it's all about the phallus. In other words, fear of God gives way to fear of infertility, which gives way to the modern terror of sexual boredom. Taylor is admirably keen to dislodge Freud from his century-long stranglehold on notions of castration and the construction of sexuality.
The journey is entertaining and informative, but Taylor encompasses too much in his search: censored texts, underendowed statues, sodomites, as well as the implications of cloning and the human genome for male fertility, are all included in the sweep. This is because Taylor intends his book to be "about all of us (male and female, castrated or not), about the human past and present, about the posthuman future". Call me lacking in metaphysical ardour, but this just isn't what I want from a history of castration. I want a narrative medical textbook that will have every man in my office clutching his scrotum as I read out select passages (although, by way of consolation, the very sight of this book should keep most men at a 20-foot distance).
Taylor would be impervious to such fears; he has already submitted his manhood to the surgeon's knife. Because of his vasectomy, he is able to give empirical proof for his final assertion: "Anatomy may still be destiny, but we are increasingly able to alter our anatomies and shop for our destinies." Taylor may have severed his vas deferens, but the process has produced at least one swollen organ - his brain.
Rowan Pelling is the editor of the Erotic Review