Art by Alex MunnTHE BOOK OF THE PENIS WAS WRITTEN FOR FANS of that singular organ. "Some women say they don't like penises, preferring buttocks and shoulders," observes author Maggie Paley in her introduction. "But really, what good is a shoulder going to do you?"
What follows is an eclectic, breezy collection of information about the schlong; an examination of men's concern with size; penises in literature, fashion and film; ancient penis worship; a history of various types of "customization" (including circumcision, piercing, tattoo and inserts); and musings on masturbation, blow jobs and dildos. None of it is vaguely scientific -- Paley's sources include friends, hustlers, transsexuals and porn stars -- but reading it is a lot of fun, even occasionally edifying: From this book I learned that 5th-century Athens was filled with "vertical stone slabs with sculptures of the bearded head of Hermes on top and protruding sculpted erections at penis level," which everyone routinely touched for good luck. And that today, circumcised infant foreskins are routinely used by biomedical companies to grow artificial skin for burn patients. (I'm not sure I really wanted to know this.)
Since Penis offers anecdote without thesis, it can get wearisome to read in one sitting. Its best use is probably to be kept at bedside for the amusement of lovers who need to take a break before they once again put the subject to its proper use.
NOTING THAT NAKED, EVEN ERECT PENISES, NOW routinely appear in mainstream art, a heterosexual male friend of Maggie Paley comments that "one of the last bastions of the male mystery is the hard-on." Then why the current exposure? Paley wonders, speculating that it "must be that more than wanting power of the patriarchal kind, some men are beginning to want to be known, to be seen. There is a power in being known and seen, but it is not power as men traditionally understand it." A look at this new kind of power (or loss of power) is at the heart of Susan Bordo's The Male Body.
Given the territory, some characters from Penis reappear here -- Long Dong Silver, D.H. Lawrence, Norman Mailer, F. Scott Fitzgerald (who had to be reassured by Ernest Hemingway, after Zelda cast aspersions on the size of his member), Lionel Tiger, gay erotic artist Tom of Finland, and Cynthia Plaster Caster, who gained fame in the '60s with her molds of rock-star dicks. That's about all the two books have in common, though; Bordo, a professor of English and women's studies at the University of Kentucky, is after something far more serious than the celebration of an organ. The body, she notes, "carries human history with it."
To dissect the whys, cultural meaning, and affect on real men of the recent move "from near-censorship to blatant sexual fetishization -- even idolatry -- of the male organ," Bordo moves through history, biology, literature, politics and movies of the 1950s, which, she notes, "allowed the camera to lavish erotic attention on the actors' gorgeous faces and bodies." (Fifties film heroes, she also points out, were much too noble to have sex, but frequently were undressed, racked and whipped in highly eroticized ways.)
The journey is compelling but uneven. Some of the historical discussion -- for instance, the examination of male rebellion in the 1950s -- has been done before. A chapter on Bill Clinton, Anita Hill and Bob Packwood seems included only for its current-events value; another, comparing Nabokov's Lolita with the two screen versions, is fascinating, but has little relation to the rest of the book. And Bordo's decision to weave her own experiences and memories into the analytic discussion is a mistake. A memoir of her father -- or, rather, of that most primal physical relationship any woman has with a man -- begins and ends the book, and is extraordinarily touching. "What I was not prepared for," she writes of her deathbed visit, "was the deep comfort -- perhaps it could even be called pleasure -- that I got from simply being alone with him, close to his body." But none of the other personal details she shares â have even a smidgen of the lyricism, specificity or precision necessary to this kind of writing. In fact, they can be so leaden and generic, they stop the argument dead in its tracks: "Then I was 14, and Bobby Cohen was lying heavily on top of me . . . He did not seem to be having a good time as he humped away."
Bordo is at her most fascinating in her dissection of the way that that symbolic construct, the phallus, has been both connected to and separate from men's actual organs -- "the phallus," she observes, "haunts the penis" -- and in her analysis of homosexuality as the force that drove the penis out of the closet. It was Calvin Klein ads that first offered up the male body, stripped, gleaming, larger than life, and as merchandisers began to recognize the buying power of gay men, the images proliferated. Today, the athletic, sculpted physique that Klein celebrated is the ideal for straight men, too, and both sexes feast on male sexuality offered up in traditionally female ways. "Hip cocked in [a] snaky S-curve . . . eyes downcast but not closed," Bordo describes the languid-but-bulging model in an underwear ad, "he gives off a sultry, moody, subtle but undeniably seductive consciousness of his erotic allure. Feast on me, I'm here to be looked at, my body is for your eyes. Oh my."
You may feast your eyes on this lusciousness, says Bordo, but it's not necesssarily a good thing: To her mind, the current bonanza of male flesh above all is "a triumph of pure consumerism." As gorgeous men's bodies are exhibited and celebrated, ordinary men start to feel the need to measure up, and "the management and enhancement of the body is a gold mine . . . one whose treasures are inexhaustible, as women know." In fact, she observes, this expanded culture of perfection enslaves men without necessarily helping women. Pointing out increasing male use of cosmetic surgery, and the growing incidence of a body-image disorder given the unfortunate name "bigorexia" (the sense that your muscles are never big enough), she mourns, "I never dreamed that 'equality' would move in the direction of men worrying more about their looks rather than women worrying less."
IN PART, BORDO'S BOOK SEEMS TO HAVE been written as a wistful tribute to her father, whose death unleashed a grief "so much deeper, longer, purer than I had ever expected it to be" and caused "my love of men, my sympathy for them, my identification with them [to be] released from the prison of old angers and wounds." It belongs to a small genre perhaps best described as "reconciliation feminism" -- while never denying female oppression, it acknowledges the ways men can be victimized too. (In her discussion of penis size, performance and Boogie Nights, Bordo notes that "Dirk Diggler's predicament -- shame, exhaustion with cultural expectations, the failure of the body to live up to those expectations -- these are all experiences a woman can relate to.") Blaming "culture" for all our problems is a bit too easy -- left unmentioned is who created this "culture," who set its rules, whose interests it serves. Still, emphasizing that men and women share some common humanity seems far more productive than simply saying we come from different planets and will never get along.
The Male Body ends with Bordo's recollection of a conversation with her father in which he finally "gets" what she's saying about sexual harassment and Anita Hill. "In the midst of that time . . . when we had begun to despair of the possibilities of communication between men and women," she writes, " . . . my father handed me a sweet wild card of hope."
THE BOOK OF THE PENIS By MAGGIE PALEY | Grove Press | 242 pages | $20
THE MALE BODY: A New Look at Men in Public and in Private | By SUSAN BORDO Farrar, Straus and Giroux | 358 pages | $25
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.