In pop culture there are some things guaranteed to appeal to the general public and some that will bring joy only to the diehard fan. You might like Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but not enough to watch the Leggo version that comes on the DVD. You might like Martha Stewart but feel no need to try to make cookies frosted with scenes from the Sistine Chapel to try to emulate her. You might think Jesus had a thing or two to say, but not enough that you're going to spend time in church.
And you probably have to be a relatively big fan of maleness to appreciate the new book, "A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis," by David M. Friedman. Those who have an affinity for what Ling on Ally McBeal called "the dumb stick" probably will not be able to put it down. While you normally wouldn't think of a body part as something having a specific cultural history, Friedman has written an exhaustive account of the rise and fall of the penis in popularity. It's the penis' "E! True Hollywood Story," full of never-before-seen footage, so to speak. There are riveting accounts in this book of what penises were up to before you got to know them.
The days of wine and roses for the penis seemed really to have been in ancient Egypt and Greece and, even before then, in Eridu, the Sumerian city where the first form of writing was discovered. Some of this writing told the stories of gods such as Enki, who gave life to the region by creating -- with two ejaculations -- the Tigress and Euphrates rivers.
"Phallocentric" myths pervade early culture. Even Buddha is said to have, according to Friedman, "a retractable member resembling that of a horse." One account of a Dionysian festival, circa 275 B.C., said that a "golden phallus, 180 feet long ... was carried through the streets of that city as a half-million people listened to poems sung in its honor."
The penis was definitely enjoying great heights of popularity, but what goes up must come down, and nobody can pop the fun balloon like hardcore Christians. Pride in the body was replaced by a hatred of the most uncontrollable, dangerous and offensive part of it -- the penis. St. Augustine, Friedman points out, prayed in his younger days, "Lord give me chastity ... but not now." Later, his writings turned virulently against lustful behavior. His idea that "everyone is evil and carnal through Adam" was influential enough to reverberate to this day. It boggles the mind, but impotence was as offensive to the church as lust, and all "nonfunctioning husbands" had to be examined by clerics, exams that included submerging the penis in ice water and seeing how it responded. (Guess.)
For a while, the penis was relieved of the attention of do-gooders and was blissfully handled only by science. Leonardo da Vinci was the first to do detailed anatomical drawings of the inside of the organ and to dispel myths about it at a time when erections were thought to be made of air. Later, his fellow scientist Antony van Leeuwenhoek developed the first high-powered microscope and with it discovered spermatozoa, which he called "animalcules," and which he speculated were human parts in miniature. Despite the slowly emerging enlightenment, the church and medical community still managed to find fault with the penis because it drove men to masturbation, and was thought to cause everything from tumors to insanity. Stopping "self-pollution" included some harsh methods, including encasing the penis in a metal cage or spiked ring.
As "A Mind of Its Own" moves forward in history, we're treated to details of how Sigmund Freud single-handedly put the penis at the center of our psychological worlds; how the unusually large penis size of many African slaves caused them to be feared, dehumanized and brutalized by their threatened European owners; how feminism changed our penile perspectives, and, finally, the development of Viagra.
It's a hefty undertaking, but Friedman's exacting scholarship is matched by his easy writing style. He elaborately dramatizes each development in the organ's history with riveting substories -- tales about castrati singers and the "penile lie detector" (there is such a machine) -- that make this both a scholarly work and a page-turner. There are even Herman Melville's rhapsodic descriptions of "sperm squeezing," a part of whale harvesting that he seemed to like a lot.
But then, as the joke goes, books about penises are like pizza. Have you ever had a really bad pizza? The subject matter implies, to fans, automatic interest. So, while Friedman really didn't need to put out such a riveting, detailed and thoughtful account, we're as thrilled as Trekkies at a Shatner concert that he did.
Reading "A Mind of Its Own" is like looking through the packed photo album of someone you really like and thought you knew well, and getting to discover so much more. Penises actually have more on the ball than you might have imagined. They've come a long way, baby.
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