Boom and Bust

Margaret Anne Doody

  • A History of the Breast by Marilyn Yalom
    HarperCollins, 331 pp, £15.99, March 1997, ISBN 0 04 440913 3

‘The sexualised view of the breast,’ Marilyn Yalom asserts, is a Western phenomenon. Non-Western cultures, she assures us, ‘have their own fetishes’. This seems dismissive, running the risk of a National Geographic style of condescension, other cultures representing the (scorned) site of an (inferior) idyll in which everything hangs out, and there are no hang-ups. Women who have been ‘going abroad with their breasts uncovered since time immemorial’ are not necessarily bare of any cultural suspicions about them. Yalom has some of the vices and virtues of the writers of the Enlightenment in whose line she follows. If we see how changeable and culturally determined our view of ‘the breast’ is, we have, she believes, some chance of conquering the irrationality and superstition surrounding the fetishised object. What might happen then is not so clear.

Yalom’s book is pleasant enough, even if there are some contradictions and many gaps. She is not much given to acknowledging the work of others. In her study of the 18th century, for instance, she repeats what a number of scholars (Ruth Perry especially) have already dealt with, and this should be more openly recognised. Even more striking is the paucity of literary quotation, and the almost total absence of quotation from, or reference to, novels; the exception is Philip Roth’s The Breast. Yalom notes the works of a few Renaissance poets who wrote blazons describing the breast of the ideal mistress (among her other attributes), but otherwise ignores literature in favour of the graphic arts (anything from Rembrandt to advertisements for Maidenform bras). A History of the Breast is a sensuous object in itself – as the object she deals with is customarily represented to be. If Yalom wishes to question male appropriation of the breast, she also wants to perform her own eroticisation. The paper is substantial and silky and the book is profusely and agreeably illustrated. Some attitudes to the breast, some ways of viewing it which Yalom condemns, are so well illustrated that the reader may also share them before condemning them. It is part of the interesting problem Yalom has set herself that we – the male or female ‘we’ – cannot, should not, be disgusted by almost any graphic representation of the woman’s breast, even while we are being asked to understand and reject the kinds of objectification involved. After all, both male and female babies experience the breast as a primary source of pleasure and play, and it remains an erotic idea for nearly all of us. However we define our gender, we are all likely to be implicated in owning or objectifying the breast of another person from our earliest infancy, like the famously angry, greedy infant St Augustine.

‘Who owns the breast?’ is the basic question Yalom wants us to ask. The difficulty for women is largely defined in terms of a cultural desire to own and dominate the breast, which is taken over as a sender of messages, an obtrusively physical entity translated into the symbolic order. A woman does not ‘own’ her ‘own’ breast. Yalom is getting away from ‘the body’ to focus on one particular aspect of the female body. So important is the breast concept, so breast-centred our culture, that the name of our larger kind, the category to which we belong, has been given to us on the basis of the tits possessed only by the females. We are the ‘mammals’ – the mamma’s boys and girls, distinguished by our mammary glands. Are men really mammals, then – or do they just fake it?

The female bosom has been given special status, in a way that is bound to affect any individual woman’s presentation of her physical being. Men, after all, despite the phallic culture, have rarely had to make a personal, involuntary, public and consistent penile display. Rarely – but sometimes. The era of the codpiece (from the late 15th to the early 17th century) offers the closest parallel in the male world to the treatment of the breast in the female world. A man is fortunate in that his scrotum is hardly ever required to be a public event. It is unlikely to be measured and found wanting. But a woman’s ‘secondary’ sexual organs are public and subject to judgment.

For Yalom, the ‘history’ of the breast is to be traced in (overlapping) periods or stages. In the beginning, from Neolithic images through medieval paintings of the Virgin Mary, the breast is ‘the sacred breast’. It is a religious object, exhibited with veneration in relation to the Divine Power, as in Egyptian images of Isis suckling Horus, or nursing a pharaoh with the divine milk of life. Like most scholars who do not go into Egyptology, Yalom does not bother with deities other than Isis, or reflect on the worship of Hathor – often represented as a cow – from whom the sacred suckling apparently derives. Naturally, Yalom prefers to believe that the ‘beautiful Artemis’ of Ephesus is adorned with more than twenty breasts, although she admits that these globular objects might be bulls’ testicles; she is certainly correct in pointing out that, in representing Charity, later artists have used the many-breasted female.

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