Oxford Magazine , Mai 2003
A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis, by David M Friedman
368pp, Robert Hale, £20
In 1957, the French psychoanalyst Georges Devereux published a paper entitled ‘The Awarding of a Penis as compensation for Rape’. Attentive or, for that matter, distracted users of the Oxford University Online Catalogue may have noticed that this pamphlet is classified under the intriguing subject heading ‘penis in literature’. If you were out for a more sizeable sample of this intriguing field you were disappointed though: until very recently, Devereux’s was the only book in this category (now we have another French contribution in Franck Evrard’s De la fellation dans la literature of 2001).
Any reader of David M. Friedman’s A Mind of Its Own must find this astonishing, as this ‘cultural history of the penis’ offers a fascinating outline of the influence of man’s ‘defining organ’ on art, society, science, religion, and politics over the past three thousand years. Unlike some other popular penis publications, Friedman’s carries it off with remarkable zest. He mercifully eschews the all-too-obvious jokes his topic affords and only rarely lapses into crass humour (although even he cannot bite his tongue when it comes to Freud, whose ‘first reference to castration was somewhat choppy’).
Friedman’s honest fascination for his topic and his relaxed attitude are captivating: What he is interested in is, above all, the relationship between man and his member, ‘a tool that creates but also destroys, a part of the body that often seems apart from the body’. For Friedman, the penis is at once a profoundly ‘mysterious’ and the ‘most honest organ on a man’s body’, engendering deeply ambivalent attitudes toward it. Thus, he treats the history of man’s member as the ‘history of its evolution as an idea’ and conceptualises it alongside competing views of the penis—religious (the ‘demon rod’), anatomical (the ‘gear shift’), racial (the ‘measuring stick’), psychoanalytical (the ‘cigar’), political (‘the battering ram’), and pharmacological (‘the punctureproof balloon’)—which, to a greater or lesser degree, influence our attitude to it down to the present day.
The opening chapter on the penis in antiquity recalls familiar facts such as the phallus’ role in ancient cults and cosmogonies (in the case of the Egyptian sun god Atum, for instance, the creation of life is represented as an ‘act of sacred masturbation’), as well as offering up more obscure—and occasionally unsettling—anecdotes about everything ranging from circumcision to castration. In Egypt, circumcision was required of temple priests, which created an unexpected dilemma for the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, who travelled there in the sixth century B.C.: ‘While visiting an Egyptian temple, Pythagoras asked to see the sacred books stored within. The chief priest agreed but with one condition: first the Greek had to have his foreskin cut off.’ Male Bodleian readers will be glad that the conditions of use have been somewhat relaxed nowadays.
The first major shift in the penis paradigm occurs with the rise of Christianity, largely owing to the enormous influence of St. Augustine, who ‘transformed the penis more than any man who had yet lived: the sacred staff became the demon rod’. While Augustine’s denigration of the penis, semen and sexual lust was by no means universally accepted in his time, his view would eventually prevail and come to dominate Western thought for the next millennium—a victory Friedman describes as ‘a triumph of medical marketing with a splash of proto-Freudianism’.
Things begin to look up again from the sixteenth century onwards, when Renaissance Man takes measure of his hitherto mysterious member. Stripped of its religious stigma, the penis is now investigated as a machine (hence the ‘gear shift’) by men like Vesalius and da Vinci. What I found particularly enjoyable here is that Friedman lets the scientists themselves speak by quoting frequently from their original work, as in the case of the Dutchman Regnier de Graaf, who in 1668 produced the most thorough investigation of the penis to date (it includes instructions for teachers of anatomy on how to create a permanent erection in an, alas deceased, male). Since Friedman proposes to focus not only on the penile shaft and glans, but ‘the testes, sperm, and all the other parts and products of the male genitalia’, his overview includes another famous countryman of de Graaf: Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who was the first to glimpse spermatozoa under his home-made microscope in 1677. The continuing friction between scientific and religious views of the male organ is aptly illustrated by Leeuwenhoeks preventive effort to convince the members of the Royal Society that he did not masturbate in order to microscopize: ‘The observations were made upon excess with which Nature provided me in my conjugal relations,’ he wrote to the Society on advertising his groundbreaking discovery.
As comparative anatomy continued to size up the penis, Friedman concludes, ‘the male organ became a measuring stick’ of racial biology. In his chapter on what must surely be the most dubious and disgraceful episode in the cultural history of male genitalia, the author shows the gruesome consequences of pseudo-scientific ‘theories’ about the black penis. While Friedman cannot help to ridicule the often bizarre conclusions drawn by (invariably white) ninteenth-century researchers who obsessively collected phallometric data, he unflinchingly reveals the horrific consequences of this racialization of the penis: they appeared to give scientific substance to the White Man’s fear of the ‘black macrophallic beast’, which often culminated in the ritual castration of lynching victims. Friedman shows how the racial penis informed representations of the ‘black peril’ in films such as D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and how the (scientifically unfounded) notion of ‘black cock power’ still lingers ambivalently in works such as Robert Mapplethorp’s Man in Polyester Suit of 1980.
In the twentieth century, frontiers shifted again, as Sigmund Freud set the agenda for a battle of the sexes in which the penis took centre stage. ‘It was not an easy time to own a penis,’ Friedman somewhat morosely writes and, believe me, a long chapter on castration anxiety, bizarre impotence therapies, and fearsome anti-masturbation devices fully substantiates this claim. While Friedman is excellent at placing Freud in the medical and social context of his time, one sometimes feels that the author is flogging his horse to death, and his frequent reference to Freud’s cigar seems to speak of an obsession of his own. Everyone reading the bearded doctor can imagine Christ Church’s Tom Tower as a phallus symbol soaring over the alma mater like ‘Big Ben’ over Westminster, but you will not be taking up Friedman’s book for such tired bits of received wisdom.
On the other hand, you will learn a great deal about many bizarre practices and implements. Man’s attempts to manipulate its member range from the epipasmos, a delicate procedure practiced by some Hellenized Jews to restore their foreskin, to penisplastica totalis, the surgical reconstruction of male genitalia that was pioneered during the Second World War by the Russian physician A P Frumkin. Friedman also shows how, during the first decades of the twentieth century, these reconstructive procedures were preceded by hair-raising attempts to improve or restore male potency by transplanting testicles—often from apes or rams—into humans.
Thus, the book is bursting with anecdotes, but you also get the hard facts. The last chapter contains a detailed and fascinating account of medicine’s progress in understanding and improving the penis functioning, and Friedman shows how during the last two decades of the twentieth century, scientists and the ‘erection industry’ have joined forces to explain and enhance the performance of the once mysterious and wilful organ. Still, the old conflict between anatomy and psychology, the rationalized and the mysterious penis seems to persist. In his sympathetic account of Feminist theory and activism, the author happily takes no sides and devotes ample space not only to contemporary feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Kate Millett, but also forerunners like Betty Friedan and Helen Gurley Brown. Friedman’s unbiased and informed look at the various strands of Feminist theory in context, combined with a superb overview of parallel developments in medicine and biology suggests that the real detractors of Feminism weren’t ‘cock crazy heterosexuals’ like Normal Mailer and Eldridge Cleaver, but scientists who conducted their less spectacularly pursuit of the penis in laboratories and in the field.
While the Women’s Liberation Movement challenged the social and psychological foundations of the patriarchal system by questioning the politics that govern heterosexual relations, the ‘erection industry’ was busy engineering the penis to make it ever more powerful in purely physical terms. Whereas in the 1970s reading Kate Millet’s groundbreaking Sexual Politics could make a New York Times reviewer feel like ‘sitting with your testicles in a nutcracker’, the advent of Viagra—the ‘urological version of putting a man on the moon’—seems to have restored male self-confidence and, in the words of Penthouse founder Bob Guccione, ‘undercut the feminist agenda’. Understandably, not a few people view this ‘urological takeover’ as the antithesis of true sexual enlightenment, and Friedman devotes generous space to critics such as psychologist and sex-therapist Leonore Tiefer.
In De Civitate Dei, Augustine denounced carnal lust as the cause and effect of original sin: literally speaking, man’s inability to control his penis, ‘the way he commands his feet when he walks’, is the cause and the symptom of his Fall from Paradise. According to Friedman, the erection industry has achieved a ‘paradigm shift and a revolutionary restructuring of the masculine mystice’, but it is yet an open question whether the last chapter in this long history deserves the title: Penis Regained.