A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis

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9780142002599: A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis

Setting out to "make intellectual and emotional sense of a man's relationship with his defining organ," David Friedman moves from highbrow to lowbrow in this lighthearted but substantive cultural history. Successively viewed as a life source, a symbol of a sacred covenant with God, an emblem of shame, an instrument of domination, a mere prop for the pharmaceutical companies, and finally, as simply a means of penetration-the penis has always been at the core of Western man's (and woman's) cultural evolution. With such luminaries as Leonardo da Vinci, Sigmund Freud, Walt Whitman, and Norman Mailer marking their territory on the subject, A Mind of Its Own is an intelligent and often hilarious account of man's complicated bond with his closest friend.

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Review:

David M. Friedman's A Mind of Its Own is a cultural examination of the penis, from ancient Sumer to the present. Friedman convincingly suggests that humankind's various and contradictory attitudes toward the penis have been instrumental in mapping the course of both Western civilization and world history.

Friedman begins with pagan attitudes: ancient Greeks considered the penis a measure of a man's proximity to "divine power," while the Romans, whose generals were known to promote soldiers based on penis size, saw it as an indicator of earthly strength. Thanks to the spread of Christianity, the "sacred staff became the demon rod"--a fearful manifestation of the devil. Theology gave way, grudgingly, to science. In the Renaissance, anatomical discoveries allowed for the possibility that this "agent of death" was, in fact, only a "blameless instrument of reproduction." Subsequent chapters discuss the penis's role as a racial yardstick; its "defining role in human personality" as asserted by Freud; its politicization; and finally, through the likes of Viagra, its objectification as a "thing ... impervious to religious teachings, psychological insights, racial stereotypes and feminist criticism."

Friedman's study of what he calls the "symbolic muscle" is filled with fascinating side trips (castration cults, ancient graffiti, the anti-masturbation "semen-retention movement," aphrodisiacs through the ages, and, to modern eyes, risible medical practices with the likes of monkey glands), as well as a rich cast of characters (Leonardo da Vinci, John Kellogg of cornflake fame, Kate Millet, Clarence Thomas, and Walt Whitman). The book is informal, but well researched (and documented), entertaining but not cute, wide-ranging but not sketchy, and simultaneously irreverent and respectful. --H. O'Billovitch

From the Publisher:

Washington Post, Book World, Novmeber 4, 2001

"The French writer Tallemant des Re[acute]aux (1619-1692) tells this anecdote. An Italian man discloses to a stern priest, at confession, the shocking series of his sexual transgressions. The priest thunders against debauchery, and unburdens on the sinner a fire-and-brimstone warning: Everlasting damnation is inevitable unless he mends his ways. Will he do that? The cowering confessor replies: "Yes, father, I am willing." Then, raising his eyes to show the white of the corneas and pointing to his genitals, the man adds plaintively: "But now you talk to this beast!" That the male member is prone to rebellious and unseemly behavior is an idea traced at least to ancient Greece. In Timaeus, Plato likened the organs of generation to wild beasts, apt to disregard the commands of reason and follow their own irrational impulses, carrying all before them. Hence the appropriateness of the title of David Friedman's book, A Mind of its Own. The subtitle, "A Cultural History of the Penis,"! ! had prejudiced me adversely; it raised in my mind the anticipation of exploitative pruriency or debased taste. Due examination of the text, however, soon corrected this bias. Friedman's opus blends utterly enjoyable entertainment and commendable scholarship; the language is lucid and unpretentious; the topics are developed thoroughly without incurring pedantry; and the humor (for in matters sexual the ridiculous or laughable ever touches the sublime) is as welcome as it is restrained, consciously avoiding slippage into a Rabelaisian earthiness-cum-obscenity.

Genital anatomy has been, in one way or another, the concrete substratum of untold anxieties, ambitions, hopes, frustrations and yearnings that have haunted mankind. The multifarious quality of views on the badge of maleness is reflected in the titles of the book's chapters.

"The Demon Rod" describes pagan customs that glorified, and ascetic traditions that vilified, the phallus; for whereas some men raised altars in its honor, others practiced ritual castration as a means to attain salvation. I found memorable Friedman's description of the famous processions of pagan antiquity in honor of the phallus. "The Gear Shift" reviews old ideas on penile anatomy and physiology, and the ill-advised, historically nefarious medical abhorrence of masturbation. "The Measuring Stick" deals with the apparently universal male obsession with measurements, a malignant variant of which afflicts North Americans.

"The Cigar" is not, as some might expect, a topical reference to former president Clinton's proclivities but a fine essay on the life and work of cigar-smoking Sigmund Freud, whose view of the world was "phallocentric" par excellence. (Clinton's scandalous affairs, incidentally, do get a brief mention). "The Battering Ram" appositely names a discussion of the radical ideas proper to that brand of hostile feminism for which the male organ is an execrable instrument of domination. Lastly, "The Punctureproof Balloon" surveys our efforts at understanding the mechanics of, and eventually controlling, penile erection -- a problem whose material solution we achieved with Viagra but whose serious metaphysical implications we have yet to fully realize.

A mere listing of chapters and their main themes cannot do justice to the work, for the text is given piquancy by sally, anecdote and excursus, just as it gains strength and solidity from attention to detail and thoroughness. Where medical and biologic matters are touched upon, the factual presentation is irreproachable; and as to recent developments, such as the synthesis and trial of bioactive agents to combat impotence, Friedman fosters a sense of immediacy by providing first-hand accounts or interviews with some of the main protagonists.

Friedman's chosen topic is inexhaustible. Considering the profuse synonymy available, and its splendid suggestiveness, additional chapters might have been entitled Aaron's rod, banana, baby-maker, coupling pin, gun, Jack-in-the-box, joystick, roly-poly, sweetmeat, thorn in the flesh, tool, unruly member, etc., etc. This reviewer once had occasion to write a piece that compiled several dozen English-language euphemisms (and translators of that work made it a point of national pride to declare, in learned footnotes, that each of their respective languages was richer in penile synonymy). I, for one, hope that David Friedman, prompted by this extraordinary suggestiveness, will write a second volume with as much skill and panache as he displays in this first one. *

F. Gonzalez Crussi is a physician, writer and emeritus professor of pathology at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago.

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