January 26, 2011

The Politics of Virility; Or, Cock o' the Walk

It was the worst prick galling the state’s flesh (Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae, 390 BC).
The phallus: let us measure its historical penetration. A symbol of power as well as of sex, the phallus has long-since been taboo in the West. Yet, thinly sheathed in symbolic disguise, we will find it everywhere if we care to look. Do you care to look at it with me?

The Greeks, of course, founded their power on the phallus, and displayed it prominently. Everyone who has been to a museum has seen a herm, but hardly any of you have seen one as it was intended. The herm, a flat stone upright with a head on top of it, originally had an extra design feature: an erection, half way up the flat stone. Here’s an ancient image of one being carved:


And here are some more original examples:


Immediately before the disastrous Athenian excursion against Sicily all the Hermae were desecrated. The stone boners of power were lopped off en masse, and Thucydides tells us that ‘it was regarded as an omen for the expedition, and at the same time as evidence of a revolutionary conspiracy to overthrow the democracy’. The penis symbolised power: the physical emasculation of the statuesque cut at the heart of a masculine ability and right to rule. I’ll allow a fellow scholar, from whom I've purloined the pertinent images, to state the case:
In the case of a society dominated by men who sequester their wives and daughters, denigrate the female role in reproduction, erect monuments to the male genitalia, have sex with the sons of their peers, sponsor public whorehouses, create a mythology of rape, and engage in rampant saber-rattling, it is not inappropriate to refer to a reign of the phallus. Classical Athens was such a society (Eva Keuls, Reign of the Phallus).
Now, the question is, are things much different where you live? Sure, you might not have an erection for a gatepost anymore – 


– but the rest? I’m pretty sure one can still find sequestered wives and daughters kicking around the planet, tethered to the yoke of domesticity or sexual slavery. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia:
In 2001 the United States State Department estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 women and girls are trafficked each year in the United States. In 2003, the State Department report estimated that 18,000 to 20,000 individuals were trafficked [t]here for forced labor and sexual exploitation. The June 2004 report set the total trafficked annually at between 14,500 and 17,500.
I can cite you a million examples from the history of science, showing female inferiority to be located in her womb and menstrual cycle. According to the inimitable Herbert Spencer, the energy required for childbirth entails an ‘earlier cessation of individual evolution’, manifesting in ‘a rather smaller growth of the nervo-muscular system, so that both the limbs which act and the brain which makes them act are somewhat less’. The results are a lessening of the ‘general power or massiveness’ of ‘mental manifestations’, and a ‘perceptible falling-short in those two faculties, intellectual and emotional, which are the latest products of human evolution – the power of abstract reasoning and that most abstract of the emotions, the sentiment of justice – the sentiment which regulates conduct irrespective of personal attachments and the likes or dislikes felt for individuals’. It’s all hogwash, of course, but science wore an intricate rhetorical cloak in the late nineteenth century. Are we so sure it now opts for more honest stitching? Ask Larry Summers, for example.


 These pics are mine, ok?

Anybody who has seen a newspaper in the last year knows that certain men in authority have an unfortunate tendency to bugger the boys in their charge, although all the best efforts are made to hide it of course.

Do men still sponsor houses of ill repute? I’m prepared to guess the answer to that. Has a ‘mythology of rape’ existed in our times or recent times? I wouldn’t recommend googling it. And there is so much evidence of saber rattling among politicians (mostly male by the way) that it would be hard to think of it as a thing of the past.

In short, all the reasons Prof. Keuls comes up with for justifying her description of Classical Athens as a ‘reign of the phallus’ apply just as well to us. When you see a herm with an erection, or a gatepost penis, or when you read a play by Aristophanes, you can think of all this as a distantly removed age of superstitious nonsense and overt chauvinism, above which we have risen, along with our superior rational minds. But you might ask instead whether men thought better of showing their strengths in such obviously vulnerable ways after the desecration on the hermae in 415 BC. The phallus is often hidden in plain sight, but men are no less fascinated with the thing than they were in Ancient Greece.

Why do I bother to make this point? Call it a cautionary tail.

1 comment:

  1. Doctor, you seem to have proved that we are more or less as classical Athens was. I, for one, am perfectly flattered and will become eternally grateful so soon as I will bring myself to believe it...

    ReplyDelete

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