To read a cultural history of the penis is to delve into humanity's most depraved pursuits: rape, genocide, pederasty, self-mutilation. To those who might have spotted A Mind of Its Own in the book store and picked it up for its lurid entertainment value (one imagines the gaggle of teens giggling as they flip to the photos insert, or the anxious loner surreptitiously scanning for the "size" entry in the index), be warned: this is a heavy and scholarly tome. In its 358 pages, the author, David M. Friedman, gives us the story of civilization as it relates to male genitalia: the creation myths of antiquity, Old Testament teachings, slavery in colonial America, Freudian psychology, the Women's Lib movement, and the advent of surgical and chemical enhancements. The material is routinely appalling or revolting, frequently inflammatory, and always illuminating.
Mr. Friedman traces man's relationship with his penis over the course of 15,000 years, and details how the organ, once revered as a symbol of life-giving potency, became in subsequent eras an evil remnant of Adam's Original Sin, a major subject in the realm of medicine (as well as of its sinister offshoots, eugenics and Social Darwinism), the catalyst for both male and female psychological development, patriarchy's villainous enforcer, and the often unfortunate participant in man's quest for a perform-on-demand sexual tool.
In the opening chapter, we learn that in ancient, arid Sumeria, religious belief held that the god Enki created the Tigris and Euphrates rivers with two prodigious ejaculations, thus enabling life in the "cradle of civilization." A thousand years later, the Egyptians believed that their deity, Atum, created the universe and spawned a pantheon of lesser gods in a single "act of sacred masturbation." For the Greeks, the "idea of the penis...[occupied] the rarified heights of philosophy and art," to the point where thousands of phalloi and hermae¨carved representations of the penis¨adorned every city and lined every road. To the Romans, the penis was a symbol of power; so much so that the "architectural centerpiece of the empire," the Forum of Augustus¨"where Emperors set up their tribunals, where the Senate declared war"¨was designed to resemble the organ itself. For the Jews, the penis was nothing less than the symbol of their covenant with God; the mark of circumcision was a reminder of Abraham's promise that his people would worship God and no other.
It was in 384 A.D. that all this reverence came to an end. One of Christianity's Church Fathers, Augustine, who was a reckless fornicator in his youth and prone to extramarital tomcatting in his middle age, had an epiphany. His weakness when it came to matters of the flesh, he decided, was indicative of his status as an agent without free will. The freedom to choose not to sin had been robbed from all humanity by its original pair. Indeed, "[after] Adam and Eve flouted God's will by eating the forbidden fruit, they experienced two new sensations: shame at their nakedness and sexual stirrings they could not control." These stirrings had been passed on to their progeny, making everyone "necessarily evil and carnal through Adam." In time, the Church adopted Augustine's view, and the penis as "demon rod" became a prevailing attitude in Western Civilization for the next thousand years.
It took the deft hand and eye of Leonardo da Vinci to unshackle us from at least some guilt and sexual self-loathing. In 1503, during the time he was painting his masterwork, the Mona Lisa, da Vinci began to dissect human cadavers in the basement of a Florentine hospital and went on to catalogue over five thousand pages of anatomical diagrams. To him, the penis was the body part most representative of man's body as machine; its inscrutable function was the most deserving of resolution and explication. His scientific quest for knowledge "was an exorcism, one that liberated the penis more than any other organ because it had been demonized more than any other organ." Da Vinci's observations and experiments prompted a proliferation of studies in the years to come, so that "the penis was colonized by anatomists as science challenged religion as the primary lens to view the body."
As intriguing as all of this may be, we the readers are safely distanced from it by time and geography. It is in the middle and end sections of the book where we enter North American modernity and encounter raw controversy. To wit, Friedman closely examines the waning years of the colonial slave trade, when "the white fascination for the black penis reached an unprecedented malignancy." Erroneous correlations were drawn between the physiology of blacks and that of apes and racist theories were promulgated about the black man's animal, hyperlibidinous nature. Fears abounded that emancipated slaves had "a rapacious sexual hunger . . . for white women." This paranoia led to widespread murder and defilement, as thousands of blacks were not only lynched for real or imagined crimes, but ritually castrated just before their death. As Friedman contends, "[to] really kill a black man, you first had to kill his penis."
The penis and brutality were inextricably linked in other ways during the latter decades of the twentieth century. A second wave of feminists pointed to the penis as a tool of male oppression. Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will, wrote: "Man's discovery that his genitalia could serve as a weapon . . . ranks as one of the most important discoveries of prehistoric times." Anti-pornography activist Andrea Dworkin argued: "The use of the penis to conquer is its normal use. In the male system, rape is a matter of degree." The penis was "politicized," and became the subject of intense public debate. It also became the conscript in a new medical movement, as zealous pre-Viagra pioneers in the late seventies and early eighties experimented with a variety of anti-impotence chemicals that often induced priapism (hours-long erections resulting in tissue damage), nausea, unconsciousness, or fatal heart attacks.
At the end of his book, the author acknowledges that he's experimented with erection-inducing drugs, himself, presumably in the interests of thorough research. (It is not known whether Friedman had any real problems on the urological front, nor whether he used such drugs as a catalyst for all-night naked hot-tubbing parties.) In a break from his usual impartial reporting, Friedman expresses consternation at our relentless pursuit of the perfect erection: one where the so-called wisdom of the body is ignored, where the emotional and intellectual aspects of sexuality are thrown aside, where the partners of medicated men are unwillingly transformed "from participants inÓintercourse to an audience."
Whatever his motivations or personal experiences, Friedman has done his homework for this book, as attested by his pages of bibliographical notes and by his acknowledgements to an impressive litany of physicians, psychologists, librarians, and social critics. It is not just his exhaustive research, however, that makes his book a success. Friedman writes clearly, with sensitivity and arch humour. When his chapter on Freud, for instance, threatens to sag under lengthy exegesis on castration anxiety and Oedipal fantasies, he anticipates his readers' likely exasperation and is quick to note that "[t]hese theories have taken as many shots as a rural road sign." He includes penis trivia a more somber-minded author might have excluded, like the fact that uberstud author, Norman Mailer, fell prey to some unwelcome flaccidity while trying to bed a then-young feminist named Gloria Steinem. His tone is a necessary counterbalance to the morbidity of his subject matter. His entire book is a necessary counterbalance to the mythologies and anxieties we live with today.
Consider the surreally hypersexed age we occupy: one where the penis receives unending attention in Cosmopolitan and call-in radio programs; where it's the unfortunate victim¨and comedic foil¨in televised home video clips featuring wayward frisbees, footballs, and dog muzzles; where it's the salesman for any number of products, dangling ponderously from billboards and glossy pages everywhere one looks. Disinformation, innuendo, and titillation reign. David Friedman¨ learned, honest, levelheaded¨provides at last some welcome perspective. ˛