A Mind of its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis by David M Friedman - review by Alexander Waugh

Alexander Waugh

The Book We Have Been Crying Out for

A Mind of its Own: A Cultural History of the Penis


Robert Hale 368pp £20 order from our bookshop

I am tired of people telling me that penises aren't interesting, because they are; and, though I'm no Freudian analyst, I strongly suspect that these ignorant folk are trying to conceal a preoccupation which is embarrassing to them. How can anything be boring that has, through the course of human history, been worshipped, admired, feared, envied, reviled and ridiculed? How can one feel indifferent about a pneumatic device with one hole that can shoot two discrete and utterly different fluids from it?And, let us not forget, this single rod of human tissue is a primary source of erotic pleasure for more than half the human race. Whence, then, its dullness?

David Friedman is absorbed by the penis because, as his title, A Mind of Its Own, implies, he sees it as a freethinker - a third party, if you like, in the human story. 'A man can hold his manhood in his hand, but who is really gripping whom?' he asks. The penis for Friedman is 'something insistent yet reluctant, occasionally poetic, at other times pathetic, a tool that creates but also destroys, a part of the body that often seems apart from the body. ‘This', he says, 'is the conundrum that makes the penis hero and villain in a drama that shapes every man. And mankind along with it.’

Lofty claims, you may think, but Friedman is fastidious in his efforts to substantiate them and his results are predictably fascinating. Incidentally, the word ' fascinating', according to the author, has penile origins. Aristocratic Roman boys were given bullae, or lockets, by their fathers to wear around their necks. Inside each bulla was a fascinum, or ithyphallic icon, put there to ward off paedophiles. The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology claims that a fascinum in Latin refers to any non-specific spell or charm, but I prefer Friedman's assertion that 'Today, fifteen hundred years after the fall of Imperial Rome, anything as powerful or intriguing as an erection is said to be "fascinating".'

Until now, penis literature has been singularly pathetic. Books like Aizid Hashmat's The Penis (a dry, scholarly and ultimately disgusting urogenital survey of skin lesions, traumatic injury, reimplantation, erectile dysfunction, and neoplastic diseases) are no fun at all. More common nowadays are the kitsch popular-market offerings, twee books like Facts

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