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A Mind of Its Own:

I figured A Mind of Its Own for an irreverent and offbeat read, and I’m thinking it would be hard to write a boring book about the penis, but I can’t say I expected David M. Friedman’s “cultural history” of those famously angry few inches to be quite as entertaining as it turns out to be.

Nor, to be frank, did I—a not especially inhibited urban homo—anticipate learning quite so much about pricks (with their associated pleasures and perils) and the various polemics they’ve inspired over the centuries. Friedman, though, is the sex-ed lecturer we all wish we’d had; with the exception of a few dull pages on Freud, he wears his erudition effortlessly, mixing history and anecdote, analysis and speculation, irony and earnest argument with a flair most social-science writers could only wish for. He’s clearly spent some serious time grappling with the Demon Rod.

Don’t conclude, whether from its delicious title or from my weakness for adolescent wisecrackery, that A Mind of Its Own is a prurient exercise; it’s actually a thoughtful (if often hilarious) overview of Western mores and attitudes about sexuality, and it’s rooted in a prodigious array of scholarship. The subject at hand, Friedman demonstrates, has fascinated all manner of researchers; sources quoted range from outspoken saint Thomas Aquinas to outspoken feminist Andrea Dworkin, from explicit Egyptian statuary to the finely detailed drawings of Leonardo da Vinci to the remarkably frank and refreshingly cant-free scribblings of the 13th-century priest Peter of Spain, who went on to be crowned pope. (“Unfortunately for the future of Western sexuality,” Friedman observes with typically wry understatement, “he died nine months later.”)

Having surveyed all these perspectives and many more, the author offers a not terribly startling observation: The thing we have about our things, he says, is the complicated product of an attitudinal evolution over centuries. What’s interesting about his work is the way he traces that evolution, helping make sense of how we got from Peter of Spain’s Quaestiones Super Viaticum (which wondered whether men or women get more pleasure out of the sex act) to the modern cult of Viagra (which surely favors the former).

Friedman sees between the two a series of epochal shifts in the way we think about both sex and the equipment that makes it so interesting. The latter, far from being a mere body part, is “an idea, a conceptual but flesh-and-blood gauge of man’s place in the world”—and “it is possible to identify the key moments…when a new idea of the penis addressed the larger mystery of man’s relationship with it and changed forever the way that organ was conceived of and put to use.”

And so, in chapters headed “The Demon Rod,” “The Gear Shift,” “The Measuring Stick,” “The Cigar,” “The Battering Ram,” and “The Punctureproof Balloon,” Friedman charts those changes. “Over time the penis has been deified, demonized, secularized, racialized, psychoanalyzed, politicized, and finally medicalized,” he says. “Each of these lenses has been an attempt to make intellectual and emotional sense of man’s relationship with his defining organ; clearly, some lenses were sharper than others.”

He proves the point section by section with evidence that ranges from the obscure to the outright bizarre. Details about Egyptian fertility cults will strike most as intriguing but hardly startling; who knew, though, that Pharoah’s generals once tallied their triumphs in tallywhackers? (“Penises cut off Libyans: 6,359,” reads one wartime catalog inscribed on the walls at Karnak.)

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Elsewhere, Friedman illuminates the history of fraught relations between church and cock, chronicling not only “a large body of art…devoted to the genitalia of Christ” and the prevalence of reliquaries purporting to contain the Holy Prepuce (a “taste test” existed to establish authenticity, he asserts), but also the rise and fall of various pseudo-Christian castration cults. Notable among them were the fourth-century Valensians, who castrated not only themselves but also any traveler who accepted their hospitality, and the Skoptsy, an 18th-century Russian sect that equated sex with original sin and held that Christ came not to be crucified but to be castrated.

Da Vinci, apparently, was among the first thinkers to reject holy and unholy associations alike. The original Renaissance man decided that the penis could be not merely redeemed, but understood scientifically—and his conclusions, Friedman writes, put him a century or so ahead of medicine’s most inquiring minds. Da Vinci, the author believes, “display[ed] a modern understanding of the penis as the key to the psychic vault of attitudes and anxieties that comprise the masculine mystique.” And it was da Vinci, incidentally, who first proposed a question previously unasked by sexual theorists: “Are not the testicles the cause of ardor?” It was 500 years before scientists isolated testosterone; trust a homosexually inclined obsessive to get there first.

From secularization and scientific experimentation (described in gruesome detail) grew less salutary trends. Masturbation phobia, Friedman points out, led directly to the still-dominant practice of infant circumcision (and practices much worse, all in the push to prevent “the solitary vice”). Notions of cultural superiority, meanwhile, mixed with sexual insecurities (the product of all that old-time demonizing?) to feed an abiding European obsession with the African phallus.

“It was stared at, feared (and in some cases desired), weighed, interpreted via Scripture, meditated on by zoologists and anthropologists, preserved in specimen jars, and most of all calibrated,” Friedman writes. “And in nearly every instance, its size was deemed proof that the Negro was less a man than a beast.”

That Friedman traces the roots of the size question all the way back to Roman ideas about black sexuality doesn’t do much to palliate the shameful accretions of myth and stereotype that attached to it during the 18th and 19th centuries—or to excuse the salacious fervor with which our culture has managed to link the notions of “notorious [genital] hypertrophy” and “exaggerated libido sexualis” in the African-American male. That, surely, is why “The Measuring Stick” is one of only two chapters that find Friedman’s tone taking on a faintly (and justifiably) judgmental edge; not even the most outrageous excesses of church and science, chronicled earlier, seem to inspire the same sense of offense.

What agitates the author nearly as much is the recent trend toward medicating away any hint of ambivalence in the man-member relationship. Friedman quotes several researchers who see the burgeoning erection industry as posing a series of potential problems, not least that Masters & Johnson’s understanding of the couple as the patient in cases of sexual dysfunction has been superseded: “Now,” he quotes one theorist as observing, “the only patient is the penis.” (The same expert points out that, although “many women like harder and longer-lasting erections,” there are plenty who’ll have to confront chemically induced hard-ons whether they’re in the mood or not.)

It’s possible that Friedman’s doubts about our national veneration of Viagra may have something to do with his enthusiasm for a school of thought that’s been pushed out of the limelight by the wonder drug and its newer cousins. His final chapter acknowledges, rather grudgingly, that “ending impotence by bringing a small pill to your lips—my apologies, Commander Armstrong—is a giant leap for mankind”; earlier, though, he’s rather more profuse in his admiration for Freud’s similarly earthshaking work. (He’s merely respectful, in the intervening chapter, of the ideas advanced by Dworkin and other feminists, possibly because they and Freud disagreed so profoundly on so many points.)

Freud moved the discussion “a distance both vast and subtle,” Friedman writes, “from the specific to the universal, from the concrete to the unconscious, from the specimen jar to the couch. It was a process that would recalibrate the measuring stick forever.” Harold Bloom’s assessment is that “no twentieth-century writer rivals Freud’s position as the central imagination of our age,” and Friedman echoes it wholeheartedly, adding the observation that “there is no denying the central place occupied in the Freudian imagination by the penis.” True enough, but for whatever reason, the following 48 pages—a dutiful romp through penis envy and castration anxiety—prove less compelling than the book’s other major sections.

But the author’s Freud fetish is a weakness only in relation to an impressive array of strengths. Creatively conceived, comprehensively researched, and crisply written, A Mind of Its Own is the best kind of pop-cultural study—both serious and serious fun. What Friedman has put together here is, if you’ll excuse the expression, a thoroughly impressive package. CP