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A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis Paperback – January 28, 2003

4.1 out of 5 stars 34 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com 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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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).

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 376 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; Reprint edition (January 28, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0142002593
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142002599
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #675,116 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By F. Orion Pozo on May 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover
It is hard to write a book about the penis without dealing in euphemisms and double entendres. Yet this book uses them well to show the role the penis has played in the development of western culture. The book is a cultural history of the penis, and explores human (mostly men's) thinking about the male reproductive organs.
The first chapter, The Demon Rod, explores the moral view of the penis as it developed from ancient times through Christianized Western European thought. Is the penis a gift of the gods or man's link with the devil? This is the question that is explored in this chapter. From the phallic cults of ancient Sumer, Egypt, Greece and Rome, through the Jewish circumcision pact, to the demonization of the penis by Christian thinkers like Augustine, the role of the penis in the relationship of man to his god is explored.
Chapter Two, The Gear Shift, starts with Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical dissections and examines the early attempts of western science to discover the biological rather than the mythical aspects of the penis. The period covered is the 16th through the 19th century. Most of the science, though well-intentioned, is colored by the moral thinking of the time. Although much is learned, many false theories coexist with newly discovered anatomical facts.
The next chapter is called The Measuring Stick and is a look at the theories surrounding Racism and penis size. It outlines the history of the belief that males of African heritage have greater penile size than any other race. From Noah to Mapplethorp, the fascination and fear associated with this concept and the racial theories that developed along side it are well laid out.
The Cigar is Chapter Four and it explores the influence of the penis on Freud and psychoanalytical thought.
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Format: Hardcover
Feminists have been bashing "phallocentric" culture for a couple of decades now, but most have not bothered to examine or explicate the central element of such culture, namely the male organ itself. David M. Friedman has written a well-researched, admirably forthright account of Western culture's alternating aversion toward and obsession with the penis. Friedman tracks this evolution from the semen-drenched religious texts of ancient Sumer (where the word for semen is the same as water, and the gods literally bathe the world in sperm) through the ancient Greeks and then how the organ was "demonized" by St. Augustine and the Catholic church. Other chapters consider how racism has centered for centuries on white male fear of macrophallic African men, as well as Freud's attempt to "universalize" penis envy and castration anxiety. While one might quibble with a scholarly detail here and there (notably Friedman's acceptance of Foucault's theories about Greek sexuality, which have been notably contradicted by more recent scholarship), this is such a well-researched and engagingly written study that it deserves to be widely read. Men and women alike will gain a clearer understanding of why we put fig-leaves on statues and why a cigar is not always just a good smoke.
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Format: Hardcover
Though the store had it filed under pornography, this book is not at all pertinent to that smarmiest of genres. It's a cultural summary of the significance of the male genitals around the world and throughout history. Sometimes anthropological, sometimes psychological, sometimes medical (perhaps to a fault), and often exhibiting wry humor, the book is modest in scope and level of analysis, and certainly a good read.
My personal interests, as an anthropologist, were the sections which discuss the ancient and religious history of the genitals, up through the Middle Ages and into the well-meaning pseudo-science of the nineteenth century. Not so engrossing, I thought, are the later chapters. "The Measuring Stick" goes a bit too far and graphically into homosexual fantasy, and the last chapter was a downright disappointment, as its discussion of modern views on the male genitals becomes a scientific tract on testicular surgery with way too many medical details and terminology.
In the end, the book begins well, ends not so well, and in my opinion, is well-written enough throughout that it remains for the most part pleasing.
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By A Customer on December 10, 2001
Format: Hardcover
The other night I was telling a friend of mine ...--to go along with an omniverous intellect and particular interests in the sciences--why he would like this book. I explained that the author had done a remarkable job of synthesizing medical information and cultural ideas of various disciplines from throughout Western civilization (from the Greeks to the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and Enlightenment, right though the modern era) as they pertain to what turns out to be the fantastically rich vehicle of the male organ. It's the kind of book you want to read passages of aloud to a friend, because they're edifying and illuminating ("testify" comes from testes), not to mention off-handedly hilarious. More than simply a good read, "A Mind of Its Own" is thought-provoking; we live in an era of incurable sexually transmitted diseases and a headlong commitment to creating the bulletproof penis. Friedman's book limns this penile paradox, and their precedents over the last couple of millennia. I'll be giving this book as a Christmas gift to friends who will get a kick out of the topic, and appreciate the serious and witty way it is handled.
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