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 Publishers Weekly
"Over time, the penis has been deified, demonized, secularized, racialized, psychoanalyzed, politicized and, finally, medicalized," declares freelance journalist Friedman in a serious yet entertaining book that weaves together an enormous amount of material. In the Greek and Roman worlds, statues of figures with erections were commonplace, he observes, though by the Christian era, the penis had become a source of evil and weakness. Doctors and scientists from da Vinci onward "deflat[ed] the religious rhetoric" and scrutinized the male organ sometimes with untoward results, as when American "semen science" led to the creation of antimasturbation products such as Graham crackers. Western man's fear of the African phallus undergirded colonialism and slavery, and resonates to this day, Friedman argues, as was evident in the case of Clarence Thomas. If some of Freud's case histories might be questioned, Friedman notes how the psychoanalytic interpretation enduringly places the penis and associated anxieties at the fulcrum of society. The rise of feminism put the penis in its place, as The Hite Report pointed out the limits of conventional intercourse in moving women to orgasm, and as Andrea Dworkin exposed penile pathology though the author concludes that male sexuality arises more out of evolutionary strategy than misogyny. His final and liveliest chapter concerns the medicalization of the penis, culminating in Viagra. Even though Friedman quotes a (female) sex therapist on the limits of such drugs, he concludes optimistically that "the erection industry" has performed a paradigm shift, allowing man to impose his will below his belt. The book has a few gaps -- there's little about the gay penis -- but it should reign as the seminal treatment of this topic (and inspire many more puns).
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