by Tommaso Lonquich

(Originally published in Spanish on the Lacanian psychoanalysis magazine Punto de Fuga)




  Castrati singers appeared in the bosom of the Catholic Church in the mid-sixteenth century, soon becoming crucial fixtures of opera, with thousands of boys castrated annually to satisfy peak demand in the 1720s and 1730s. Following a gradual decline, castrati remained active only in the Sistine Chapel which, “had been their cradle and their sanctuary all along - the core of perversity at the very heart of the church”. [1] Their employment was only banned by Pope Leo XIII in 1903.


  Castration was achieved by removing the testicles between the age of eight and twelve years, before the consummation of puberty would lower the voice. Among a host of other bodily disproportions, castrati developed ribcages more voluminous than uncastrated men, endowing their singing with remarkable power and resonance, unequalled by their female counterparts. [2]


  The castrati initially replaced women, who were banned from singing in Church and in the public theatres of the Papal States. In a development which seems rather peculiar today, they went from singing women characters (en travesti) to roles previously sung by uncastrated men, characterized by the most heroic of masculine virtue (f.ex. the title role in Handel’s Giulio Cesare). In effect the castrato was in the privileged position of supplanting both uncastrated men and women, seemingly negating sexual difference, an “original” and wholly manufactured voice: at once ‘prima donna’ and ‘primo uomo’. [2]



  During his 1770 tour of Italy, the British music historian Charles Burney tried as best as he could to locate where castrati were ‘produced’:

“I enquired throughout Italy at what place boys were chiefly qualified for singing by castration, but could get no certain intelligence. I was told at Milan that it was at Venice; at Venice that it was at Bologna; but at Bologna the fact was denied, and I was referred to Florence; from Florence to Rome, and from Rome I was sent to Naples ... it is said that there are shops in Naples with this inscription: 'QUI SI CASTRANO RAGAZZI' ("Here boys are castrated"); but I was utterly unable to see or hear of any such shops during my residence in that city.” [3]

  The metonymic nature of Burney’s search reveals the moral opacity surrounding the practice of castration, which the Catholic Church simultaneously prohibited and encouraged. The unspoken interdiction against locating the surgeons responsible meant that the operation seemed to have occurred always… somewhere else - echoing those ineffable sanctuaries referred to by Lacan, where man and woman can supposedly be found in harmonious conjunction: “they are always sites where one really must have the password to enter. One only hears about them from the outside.” [4]


  Mladen Dolar remarks that the angel-like quality of the castrati’s voices and demeanour must have dissociated the enjoyment of their singing from the sexual realm. Accounts of public perception during the castrati’s own lifetimes paint a more nuanced and ambiguous picture. Angelic voices notwithstanding, the sexual realm seems to have been insistently ever-present, precisely since the caricature-like body of the castrato functioned as the eroticized support of sacrificed masculinity. Moreover, the castrati’s generally-preserved erectile function and their assured infertility made them eminently safe sexual objects, desired by both men and women. Despite the ridicule which their ‘little difference’ often engendered, they were artistically revered and had the potential to reach the most elevated social standing, benefiting from international fame and earning considerable income. [2]

  As the political winds of Europe shifted, the castrati became identified with the perversity of the Ancien Régime: one of the first decrees of the French Revolution was the prohibition of their public singing. [1] It was in effect the result of a historical anamorphosis: a shift in position lifted the veil of the angelic voice to reveal the horror of real castration. As the spotlight framing the castrato pivoted, their ‘pure’, sacrificial artistic sublimation morphed into a perverse bait, glistening in the voice of the Other, the monstrous siren threatening to capture the listener’s jouissance.



  The French Revolution’s urgent concern with legislating the castrato voice materializes in its shadow the voice of the Law. The preoccupation that the castrato’s voice might ring the listener’s own “bell of jouissance” points to “a charge of jouissance that cannot be integrated into the signifying chain”. [5]

  To preserve the law, the alien jouissance (jouis-sans-sense) which threatens the ‘cold’ functioning of the signifier, must necessarily be expelled. Yet every declaration of law presupposes a voice, the voice which betrays precisely the lawmaker’s jouissance, a père-version which secures the logos to its phallic anchor. It is the voice which “completes the relation of the subject to the signifier in what might be called, in a first approach, its passage à l’acte”. [6]

  It is the catch-22, the Möbius strip of jouis-sense. The primordial voice which inaugurated the rise of the symbolic is murdered at the hands of the law and returns to the subject as object a, an adamantine detritus of plus-de-jouir.

  And so the voice transubstantiates from ex-isting to in-sisting in perpetuity - it engenders sacrifice and survives all sacrifice, as it is “not only the causal object, but the instrument where the desire of the Other manifests itself”. [7] That object, S(Ⱥ), finds its materialization as the instrument of God’s voice in the shofar.


“And when the voice of the SHOFAR sounded long,

and waxed louder and louder,

Moses spake, and God answered him by a voice…”

  An ancient musical horn, whose blowing is limited to the synagogue services connected to the High Holidays, the shofar can be heard on Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and on every weekday in the period leading up to it, as well as at the end of Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).

  In his essay dedicated to the shofar, Theodore Reik enlists the framework of Freud’s Totem and Taboo to locate the shofar’s origin and to theorize the birth of music in general. What is fascinating about this primitive musical instrument is precisely how limited its timbre and range are: it produces essentially only two simple but powerful tones bordering the realm of noise, limitations which make it more apt as a signalling instrument than a musical one. Yet (or quite possibly, because of this) listeners are highly moved emotionally - reportedly even those unconnected with Judaism and unaware of the sounds’ religious meaning. [8]

  The Talmud links the blowing of the shofar to Abraham’s binding of Isaac on the sacrificial altar. At the last moment the beloved son is spared, and Abraham is instructed to sacrifice a nearby ram in Isaac’s place. As the shofar is traditionally made from a ram’s horn its sound stands for the last scream of the sacrificed animal: it re-presents the covenant between Abraham and God, a witness of the first’s obedience and of the Second’s mercy.

  But mercy includes in its bosom an indestructible sado-masochistic kernel, form which God himself speaks. In fact, while it is God’s voice ‘in the flesh’ which instructs Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, it is merely the voice of an angel which intimates Abraham to spare his son (something which Reik does not differentiate). We have therefore two voices, a split between God’s violent request on one side, uttered in His own voice and the offer of mercy, spoken by a messenger of God. The absence of God’s voice on the scene of the sacrifice effectively preserves the monstrosity of God’s voice, alienating it from mercy, unscathed.

  This is rather more in line with the main use of the shofar in biblical times as a signal of grave danger or war: its sound shocks the listeners into awe in the presence of God’s power, it warns of His punishment’s destructive magnitude. In the Synagogue, its blowing is a reminder to repent one’s sins in preparation for the Day of Atonement (a parallel precursor to the New Testament’s Seven Trumpets announcing the Apocalypse and the Day of Judgement).

  What Reik deducts from his biblical and anthropological research is that the shofar is the voice of God, incarnated in the final sacrificial roar of its totemistic animal. If the shofar affects and terrifies listeners, it is because it is re-enacting the patricide of the primal Father:

“The sudden resounding tone of the shofar which calls to mind the bellowing of a bull at the slaughter, and which is the voice of the totemistic father-substitute, unconsciously recalls to every hearer that old outrage and awakens his hidden guilty conscience, which, in consequence of the child’s repressed hostile wishes towards the father, slumbers in each in dividual and admonishes him to repent and improve.

The shofar-blowing thus becomes a reminder of the resolution never again to carry out that old outrage, and to renounce the gratification of the unconscious wishes which supply the incitement.” [8]

  Interestingly, music’s power to elicit mercy from a god is also the central event told in the Greek myth of Orpheus in the Underworld, perhaps hinting at music as the sublimatory product of the original voice of demand (“the first presentification of a dimension of the Other, endowed with retroactive fantasies of primary fusion prior to the introduction of a signifier and a lack”). [1] In this perspective, music is a veiled stand-in for the always-already-lost Das Ding whose deafening silence echoes before and beyond logos, “the voice that was both the nest and the cage”. [1] Music might perhaps be thought of as this yet-unstructured mother-child voice, domesticated by inoculation with a paternal metaphor, which structures the primal voice through (not-all linguistic) grammatical order, sieving the real of jouissance through the symbolic.       



  In his Seminar X “Anxiety”, Lacan takes up Reik’s essay, highlighting that:

“sacrifice is destined, not at all to be an offering or a gift, both of which belong to a quite different dimension, but to capture the Other as such in the network of desire.

[…] It is a common experience that we do not live our lives, whoever we are, without ceaselessly offering to some unknown divinity or other the sacrifice of some little mutilation that we impose on ourselves, validly or not, in the field of our desires." [9]

  The Other is constituted in an imaginary fashion by assuming that it is inhabited by a desire akin to ours, a desire which can be entrapped by a sacrificial bait:

“The whole question was to know whether these gods desired something. Sacrifice consisted in behaving as if they desired like us: therefore O has the same structure. That does not mean that they are going to eat what is sacrificed to them, nor even that it can be of any use to them; but the important thing is that they desire it and, I would say further, that this does not provoke anxiety in them.” [9]

  Lacan then goes on to discuss the stain which materializes object a as gaze: a lack of a lack which can only precipitate anxiety in a god which is subject to desire:

“The victims always had to be without stain. Now remember what I told you about the stain at the level of the specular field: with the stain there appears, there is prepared the possibility of the resurgence, in the field of desire, of what is hidden behind, namely in this case this eye whose relationship with this field must necessarily be elided in order that desire can remain there with this ubiquitous, even vagabond possibility, which in any case allows it to escape from anxiety. To tame the god in the snare of desire is essential, and not to awaken anxiety.” [9]

  In the Old Testament, castrated animals are deemed unfit for sacrifice (Lev. 22:24) and castrated members of the priestly caste were forbidden to enter certain parts of the temple, to approach the altar, or to make sacrifices. (Lev. 21:16–24). The stain of castration is considered both on the side of the sacrificial animal, but also on the side of the castrated priest, who is limited, in effect, from coming ‘too close’ to God (lest we risk the Other’s / God’s anxiety, we surmise).

Feldman highlights the mechanism of sacrifice in the castrati phenomenon and relates it precisely to a kind of ‘musical priesthood’:


“To offer one’s own son for castration was to make an offering to God and thus consecration to the church, which also mediated family relations. Legally the church condemned the practice as being against the order of nature and counter to the obligation to be fruitful and multiply. […]

In some sense castration for singing, as a sacrificial offering to the church, was much like joining the priesthood. […] That virtually all castrati did sing primarily or (more often) exclusively for the church speaks to the issue of castration as sacrifice in the properly Catholic sense.” [2]

  The castrato was that most precious of sacrificial animals, a ‘chant-être’ whose stain was precisely the very sacrifice he had already pledged to God. And yet, his voice was allowed to come as close to God as anyone’s (certainly closer than any woman’s voice).



“The Supreme Being […] is situated in the place, the opaque place of the jouissance of the Other – that Other which, if she existed, the woman might be”. [10]

  Despite the anatomical lack (or rather, because of it), the voices of the castrati - reportedly stronger in volume and more intense in timbre than those of uncastrated men and women -seemed to function effectively as an audible metaphor of enviable sexual potency. This echoes Reik’s own account of the voice as a substitute for sexual power (on the trail cleared by Darwin and Freud):

“There is no doubt that the voice is sometimes interpreted by the unconscious as a kind of substitute for sexual power. (Compare the usual female enthusiasm for tenors, etc.) It is therefore not surprising that the shofar does not completely lose this old significance.” [8]

  Stretching this premise to its ultimate conclusions, Reik even foreshadows Lacan in the description of the voice of the Other as a sado-masochistic object:

“Strength is the common element in the representation of sexual power and of God’s voice. It is clear from the analyses of obsessional patients in whom loud speaking seems to cause physical pain, and who themselves can only speak softly or in a whisper, that loud, uninhibited speaking is unconsciously equivalent in them to unbridled sexual activity.” [8]

  Moralists throughout history have problematized the tendency to lawlessness of the singing voice: it can all-too-easily unglue itself from the text and become fetishized, a pleasure onto itself which subverts the firmer ground of phallic logos, to which it should remain subservient. If text is the domain of the Name-of-the-Father, then music, Wagner tells us, is a woman. This oscillation between masculine and feminine, between the Apollonian and Dionysian is exemplified by St. Augustine in describing religious vocal music:

“When […] I am moved, not with the singing, but with the things sung […] I acknowledge the great use of this institution. Thus I fluctuate between peril of pleasure, and approved wholesomeness. […] When it befalls me to be more moved with the voice than with the words sung, I confess to have sinned penally, and then had rather not hear music.” [11]

  The musical voice as a feminine “intrusion of otherness”, of jouis-sans-sense, means that the relation between text and voice is bound not to find a steady harmonic solution. [1]



  Although Feldman is ironic towards employing the concept of sublimation to delineate the castrato figure, she summarizes the traditional psychoanalytic perspective accurately: “sex in the castrato absents the hollowed-out body and settles in the voice, causing erotic ecstasy in listeners for whom it becomes the object of an immoderate desire.” [2]

  The object a organizes itself into song, a sublimation which veils the voice’s anxiogenic core. As Miller puts is: “we speak, chat, sing to shut up what deserves to be called the voice as object a.” [5] When a voice turns into music, it becomes the acoustic mode of decorating the void of Das Ding, veiling it from around its perimeter, according to Lacan’s formula: “All art is characterized by a certain mode of organization around this emptiness”. [12] Music “evokes the voice and conceals it, it fetishizes it, but also opens the gap that cannot be filled”. [1]

  At the same time, the real of castration (for Freud the central, non-negotiable anxiogenic ‘stain’) is in plain sight - more, it is front and center stage, sacrificed precisely to the gaze. Here is the short-circuit of the castrato: in order to serve God through music, the sacrificial victim is castrated, paradoxically marking it in perpetuity as unfit for sacrifice. It is as if desire of the Other and anxiety found their respective places on ‘opposite sides’ of a Möbius strip, a topological impossibility which reveals that these apparently discrete concepts are in fact in continuity with one another.


“Is the jouissance that the Law persecutes as its radical alterity [anything] other than the aspect of jouissance pertaining to Law itself? Is the voice of the Father an altogether different species from the feminine voice? Does the voice of the persecutor differ from the persecuted voice?” [1]

  Might the allure of the castrato have emanated from his incarnating S(Ⱥ)? In his reverberating voice, a spectator could seemingly gaze into the ultimate point of alterity in the Other. A masculine-feminine body which made of two voices one object “which cleaves and bars the Other in an ineradicable extimité”. [1]

  That the castrato had sealed with his own blood a ‘Devil’s pact’ with none other than God only entangled the two irretrievably. To repurpose Lacan’s words:

“And why not interpret one face of the Other, the God face, as supported by feminine jouissance? […]  And since it is there too that the function of the father is inscribed in so far as this is the function to which castration refers, one can see that while this may not make for two Gods, nor does it make for one alone”. [13]





[1] M. Dolar, “The Object Voice,” in Gaze and voice as love objects, Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 1996, pp. 7-31.

[2] Augustine, The confessions, London: J.M. Dent, 1924.

[3] J. Lacan, Encore, Paris: Seuil, 1975.

[4] J. Lacan, L'angoisse, Paris: Seuil, 2004.

[5] J. Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979 .

[6] J. Lacan, Ecrits, A Selection, London: Tavistock / Routledge, 1989.

[7] J.-A. Miller, “Jacques Lacan et la voix,” in La voix: Actes du colloque d'Ivry, Paris, 1989.

[8] T. Reik, The Shofar (The Ram’s Horn) in ‘Ritual: Psychoanalytic Studies', New York: Norton, 1931.

[9] M. Feldman, The Castrato: reflections on natures and kinds, Oakland: University of California Press, 2015.

[10] C. Burney, The Present State of Music in France and Italy, London: T. Becket & Co. Strand, 1773.

[11] J. Lacan, ... ou pire, Paris : Seuil, 2011.

[12] J. Lacan, The Object of Psychoanalysis, London: Karnac, 2002.

[13] J. Lacan, Feminine Sexuality, London: Macmillan, 1982.

[14] J. Lacan, L'Ethique de la psychanalyse, Paris: Seuil, 1986.