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Gagging For It: The Penis in History

If Viagra has turned the penis into a ‘puncture-proof balloon’, does that mean it’s not funny any more? asks Mark Simpson

(First appeared in the Independent on Sunday, 2002)

INVESTIGATING THE PENIS can be an eye-watering business. Examining the urethra of an impotent young man, using a long nickel-plated probe called a ‘No 25 Explorer’, a 19th-century American urologist appropriately named Dr Gross wrote: “As soon as the instrument entered the passage it occasioned tremor and retraction of the testes… the muscles of the lids, nose and mouth twitched convulsively”. Finally, the patient “lost consciousness, his face livid”.

Well, yes – I think, under the circumstances, most of us chaps would be a bit narked. Mind you this patient doesn’t appear to have been deterred from returning to the good Doctor Gross to have blasts of hot and cold air sent down his urethra, a hot rubber plug jammed into his rectum and – hurrah! – our trusty friend No 25 Explorer reinserted, this time after being dipped in some cheeky corrosive chemicals.

Nowadays there are places where you can go and get this kind of thing for free, though usually you have to dress as one of the more intense members of the Village People to get in. Fortunately for those of us who are a little less venturesome, David M. Friedman’s examination of the penis and the, ahem, pointed role it has played in Western culture in A Mind of Its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis (Free Press), is a rather more agreeable – and useful – journey than Doctor Gross’s.

And of course, we all have an interest in the penis, don’t we? Er, or at least, we all have a position on it… Um, what I mean to say is… Oh, bollocks.

Well, you can see the problem with writing a book about the membrum virile: uninvited knob gags have a way of puncturing your carefully maintained hymen of seriousness.

Herein lies the strange and powerfully “fascinating” (derived from the Latin for a phallic charm) dichotomy of the penis: you can’t get any more serious and you can’t get any funnier. It’s ticklish and terrifying, titillating and tremendous all in one lunch-box. Commendably, Mr Friedman maintains an erudite and respectable tone in his book, and while he is occasionally at pains to let us know he has a sense of humour, he avoids cheap laughs. Unlike this reviewer.

The phallictastic journey begins with the Greeks, who as we know went “commando” in their gymnasia. However, the Greeks, hot as they were for the masculine body, considered exposing the glans the pinnacle of bad taste and would “infibulate” their John Thomases, drawing the foreskin forwards over the glans, and then tying it closed with string or clasping it shut with a circular safety-pin-like instrument. (It is not known if this was also indicative of a shortage of toilet facilities in Greek gymnasia.)

The Greeks disliked large members, considering only dainty ones desirable: “hung like a hummingbird” was a compliment. Aristotle gave this Tinymeat tendency a scientific basis, explaining that a small penis is better for conception because semen cools down in a large one, becoming “not generative”. And perhaps less appetising. Semen was considered by the Greeks as a vehicle for the transfer of arete: manly virtues such as courage, strength, fairness and honesty which a boy needed to grow into a man. As you’ve probably worked out, this theory meant that young Greek males had to spend a lot of time receiving ‘arete’ from older men.

Romans, on the other hand, were less versatile; they thought penetration always emasculating, and saw the penis as a sacrosanct weapon of the Roman State – glans is also Latin for ‘bullet’. When launched by slings, Roman bullets often had lurid inscriptions written on them comparing their use to acts of rape (reminiscent of the slogan “Take this, faggots!”, daubed on American bombs due to be dropped on the Taliban).

Populating the legions was also a duty of a Roman: Augustus Caesar penalised bachelors and rewarded fatherhood. Romans celebrated a son’s first ejaculation as part of a state holiday, the Liberalia. You can imagine the proud father: “Nice one, our kid! No, don’t put them in the washer – yer mam’s gonna show them to the neighbours and then frame them!”

The Christian “peter” was different. In fact, next to the rampant Roman pagan prick it was difficult to see it at all. The Kingdom was God’s, not Caesar’s; true freedom was freedom from lust. God’s only son was born of a virgin and remained one, and admired those men who would become “eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven”. Some, such as Origen, took him literally and castrated themselves. In the fourth century, Augustine’s rather exciting idea of the “demon rod” as the organ of corruption became the dominant influence on Western Christianity and Western culture, and perhaps the reason why there are so many homo priests today. After all, if one penis is sinful, two penises and twice as much semen must mean double the sin/fun.

Or perhaps it was because Jesus was the only person allowed a penis. Jesus’s organ – since it was never used and was the product of a penisless birth – was as holy as all others were damned. His foreskin or prepuce became a holy relic, so holy that there were thousands of them. Hence the taste test, a medieval version of the Pepsi Challenge: chewing the shrivelled leather to determine whether it was wholly or partly human. Saint Agnes imagined she was swallowing the Holy Prepuce at Communion (with no gag reflex).

In a classic case of projection, Christians accused Jews of ritual cannibalism – in part because of the ancient practice where a child’s freshly circumcised, bleeding penis was placed briefly in the Rabbi’s mouth. Of course, the use of the somewhat phallic word “projection” is another example of the humongous impact of the Jewish dentist Sigmund Freud and his very phallic theories of the Oedipus complex, castration anxiety and penis envy.

Perhaps it’s because I don’t believe that a cigar is ever just a cigar that I feel Friedman’s book really only reaches full tumescence in his chapter on Freud, who as far as Western culture is concerned, discovered the penis as surely as Cook discovered Australia. Actually, the penis, or at least the phallus, is Freud’s. Any book about the cultural history of the penis is de facto a history of Freud. He’s the daddy.

In an interesting passage, Friedman points out that Freud and Augustine, so far apart in other ways, meet on a crucial point: each recognised the psychic and historic potency of the penis. “For the Bishop of Hippo original sin is passed from one generation to the next by semen, and the punishment for Adam’s insult against God is erections we cannot control. For Freud the killing of the primal father and the sexual appropriation of the mother is passed on as the Oedipus complex, and the punishment is a civilisation which controls our erections.”

Oddly, one of the ways that modern civilisation has controlled our erections is to prescribe them to us. In his, he believes, literally final chapter on the history of the cultural signification of the penis, Friedman examines how Viagra has changed our relationship to it and the anxieties it produces, by turning it into a reliable thing: a “punctureproof balloon”. This is because, while Viagra is rather less fun than our old friend Explorer No 25, it does – unlike No.25 and almost all the other attempts to make the penis obedient – actually work.

The really bad news, I suspect, is that if the penis no longer has “a mind of its own” it might not be funny any more.