No Joke

Adam Phillips

  • Impotence: A Cultural History by Angus McLaren
    Chicago, 332 pp, £19.00, April 2007, ISBN 978 0 226 50076 8

Men are so exercised by the thought of impotence that they will believe virtually anything. During the 1920s and 1930s various medicines and contraptions were patented that promised to fill ‘weak and nervous men’ with ‘rampant vigour’. Though most of these inventions were denounced by the medical profession, their popularity was proof, if proof were needed, that the impotent man was infinitely suggestible and infinitely exploitable. Doubts about sexuality breed states of conviction. Suction pumps, Erector-Sleighs, Gassensche Spirales, Gerson’s Constriction Bandage and Virility (‘a double cylinder connected to a bellows to produce a vacuum that . . . “gives great bulk to the penis and makes it look grotesque”’) were all available and purchased, even though, like most of the cures for impotence that Angus McLaren describes in his panoramic study, there was very little ‘evidence’ that they worked. And yet it was, and still is, difficult to staunch the flow of more or less magical solutions for the perennial problem. ‘The market is flooded with various appliances which are guaranteed to be sure cures,’ a progressive physician grumbled in 1912. ‘It goes without saying that most of them are worthless frauds.’ What has also gone without saying, McLaren shows, is that the untold history of impotence is a history of many things, most obviously of gender relations, but less obviously – and this is implicit in his book, rather than spelled out – of our will to believe. Impotence raises the question of what wanting to believe something is a solution to, as well as making us wonder what counts as a solution. Erection on demand is a strange cultural ideal but a persistent one, and it tells us a lot about what we want to be.

Augustine and Montaigne agree that what are called in this book ‘the workings of the penis’ are unpredictable. In Augustine’s De Peccatorum Meritis et Remissione, McLaren tells us, it is the ‘autonomy of the penis’, not sex itself, that is the problem: ‘At times the urge intrudes uninvited,’ Augustine writes; ‘at other times, it deserts the panting lover, and, although desire blazes in the mind, the body is frigid. In this strange way, desire refuses service . . . it solidly opposes the mind’s command.’ Whatever the mind is, it cannot control the penis. There is a penis-mind split. The penis divides men against what they think of as themselves, presumably because these selves are used to controlling things; if they weren’t, penises would seem less ‘autonomous’ and more like a lot of other things in nature that do things in their own way, and often for reasons we can discover. Montaigne thinks the penis is like other things – our faces, our voices, our pulses betray us quite as much – but acknowledges that it still seems to have a mind of its own. At least, it does things that we might associate with sentient creatures: ‘We are right to note the licence and disobedience of this member which thrusts itself forward so inopportunely when we don’t want it to, and which so inopportunely lets us down when we most need it; it imperiously contests for authority with our will; it stubbornly and proudly refuses all our incitements, both mental and manual.’ Montaigne’s 16th-century penis is like a person who doesn’t know his place, an arriviste, one of the new upwardly mobile who won’t take the traditional hierarchy on its own terms, a kind of picaresque hero. Augustine’s penis is more like a deity, at once essential and beyond comprehension; something a man can’t help but have a tormented relationship with; something that isn’t always there when he needs it.

Impotence wants us to consider what people might have been writing about when they were writing about what we now call ‘male sexual dysfunction’, whether indeed there is such a thing as impotence when we look at it over the long haul. It is sometimes suggested that soon we will know the cultural history of everything but the cost of nothing, that so-called cultural histories in their sweep and detail are for the most part ambitiously (or just pretentiously) speculative but insufficiently scholarly and often insensitive to the suffering the grand theories claim to account for. Yet when they are read, say, as science fiction – read for the plausibility of their descriptions of possible worlds – they can be both entertaining and instructive if for no other reason than that they put together, as Impotence does, texts and quotations from different times and places that are linked nowhere else. Impotence is as much an anthology of intriguing source materials as it is a ‘study’, as McLaren puts it, of the fact that ‘every age has turned impotence to its own purposes, each advancing a model of masculinity that informed men if they were sexual successes, and if not, why not.’ Stories about impotence, as he shows, are powerful indicators of prevailing assumptions about the form and function of sexual relations. ‘Nothing is more revealing,’ McLaren writes, overstating the case, as is the way with cultural histories, ‘of a culture’s social and ideological preoccupations than the enormous pains it takes in goading men on in the often painful pursuit of the “normal” and the “natural”.’ The ‘normal’ and the ‘natural’ are inevitably the targets of cultural history, suspended in inverted commas to expose their rhetorical (i.e. ideological) intent as though readers were in danger of forgetting the new consensual norm that all norms are ‘constructed’. One of the strange effects of ‘cultural history’ is to put so many key words into inverted commas.

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