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Tool Times
By Margaret Black

A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis
By David M. Friedman, the Free Press, 358 pages, $26.

A wonderful exhibit of Pompeian artifacts some years ago included a fantastic statuette that depicted a frantic man staring horrified at his furiously erect penis, the end of which had sprouted a clutch of dogs’ heads that were snarling viciously at him. What better expression of Man at the mercy of his member? In A Mind of Its Own, David Friedman says that from earliest times to the present, men have struggled but failed to exercise control over this annoyingly unpredictable body part.

The main thrust—all diction becomes difficult when discussing this topic—of the author’s argument focuses not on the independence of the penis but on cultural interpretations of it. The penis, Friedman says, has always been “more than a body part. It was an idea, a conceptual but flesh-and-blood gauge of man’s place in the world. That men have a penis is a scientific fact; how they think about it, feel about it, and use it is not.” And then he gives us a deft historical overview of the love-hate relationship between society and the male generative organ, at least as it has occurred in the West.

Alas, Friedman does not begin at the beginning. Perhaps he desired to break from rigid chronology. Certainly he wanted to begin dramatically. But his opening scene—the nauseating torture and burning alive of a medieval “witch”—is so vile that he nearly lost this reader on Page 1. Given that the penis is the book’s subject matter, graphic rending of female flesh seems sensationally beside the point, even if the scene is ostensibly there in order to discuss the Devil’s private parts. Only after describing the “demon rod”—the ultimate Christian vision of the penis in the author’s construction—does Friedman step back to the ancient world to contrast this vilification of the penis with the ancient honors accorded it.

Five thousand years ago, the Sumerian god Enki is said to have “Lifted his penis, ejaculated,/Filled the Euphrates with flowing water.” The Egyptians portrayed gigantically endowed Earth, who lies on his back preparing to create the world through intercourse with lovely lithesome Sky, who arches her elegant body over him. Admittedly, Egyptians also collected penises from their defeated enemies, numbering precisely on the walls of Karnak the quantity they cut off Libyans, Sicilians, Etruscans, Greeks, etc. Ancient Jews circumcised the penis as a sign of affiliation with God. The Greeks revered the penis—one festival featured a “golden phallus, 180 feet long”—abhorred circumcision, and institutionalized pederasty as part of a proper young man’s education. In Rome, says our author, “a Roman citizen’s body was private property . . . but his penis worked for the Empire.” Christians, however, asserted that although the human spirit was divine, flesh was corrupt, especially the penis. Saint Augustine regarded uncontrolled erections to be the result of Original Sin, and semen was the agent transmitting evil from generation to generation.

This sorry vision began to change when Da Vinci, Vesalius, and others started dissecting the actual physical penis. Unfortunately, however, empirical investigation did not improve the cultural situation. Instead, religious strictures gave way to “scientific” concerns about masturbation. God help the poor man, or worse yet child, deemed a persistent masturbator. The horrendous cures must surely have put them off any sexual activity whatsoever. Nor did science improve on religion in terms of gender equality. When Leeuwenhoek examined sperm cells under his brand new microscope, the little “animalcules” convinced him that men were indeed the true parents of humanity, just as Aristotle claimed, and women merely the storage cabinets and food supply.

Friedman does a handsome job on racism, colonialism and the penis, as well as devoting a funny, concise chapter to Sigmund Freud, whose recognition of “the psychic and historic potency of the penis” the author compares with Saint Augustine’s. When Friedman arrives at contemporary feminism, he finds himself in the company of women who totally agree that culture defines the penis, although he and they disagree regarding interpretations.

This serious, modestly comprehensive story isn’t filled with locker-room jokes, but the author keeps us entertained with a good deal of dry humor. Describing one Da Vinci diagram of the penis, for example, Friedman notes that “it is sliced nearly through at the point just behind the glans, which falls forward like the door of an open mailbox, a distressing image for any male eyes.” The following describes Freud’s reaction to some readers of The Interpretation of Dreams: “‘What is new,’ [Freud] roars in his best Alpha Male of Science voice, ‘has always aroused bewilderment and resistance.’ ” And who can resist an author who points out that a contemporary medical test for erectile function is known by the acronym DICC?

The conclusion of this eminently readable microhistory brings us to Viagra. Not until the end of the 20th century did science finally understand the mechanics of how erections go limp and what to do about it. Today the “erection industry,” Friedman says, has replaced the “finicky original” penis with “a more reliable model. . . . The penis used to have a mind of its own. Not anymore.” True, perhaps, for the older man, for whom “control” means not struggling to get or keep it up. Forgotten, however, is the wild young man who sometimes wants to keep it down. But the author is right on target when he comments that today’s “medicalized” penis is just another cultural interpretation, not the end of the story. The bedrock truths of today will doubtless look extremely peculiar in the future.


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