Prof. Angus McLaren and the cultural history of impotence.
“I quail, in those dire straits my manhood blunted.”
—Petronius, The Satyricon
Nearly two thousand years later, the lament of the Roman satirist Petronius for his blunted manhood can still summon a wince or a rueful chuckle. Almost every man at some point in his life will be humbled by Impotence, be it physiological or mental, temporary or permanent. What’s more, he’ll likely suffer at least one embarrassing episode of “arriving too soon.” But he won’t suffer alone, as History Prof. Angus McLaren writes in his comprehensive yet riveting new book. Impotence: A Cultural History chronicles “man’s failure to rise to the occasion” over the millennia, and contains a wealth of famous writers and thinkers who have weighed in on the subject, including Catullus, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Freud, and Hemingway.
But this is not a mere collection of gleeful quips about men’s struggles to perform, nor a tongue-in-cheek survey of strange and misguided remedies and cures through the ages. Not that McLaren couldn’t supply countless anecdotes: since 1978, he’s written 11 books on the history of sexuality, including birth control, fertility rituals, contraception and abortion. Instead of simply displaying the depths of his research, however, McLaren offers a compelling argument that different cultures have used Impotence to maintain their own unique definition of masculinity.
What we now call “erectile dysfunction” has long been the source of both public and private humiliation, anxiety and fear. The inability of kings and presidents to sire an heir has changed the shape of nations. Victorian-era doctors gave accounts of suicide notes that read “I am impotent and unfit to live.” But Impotence has also provided centuries of bawdy jokes and limericks. It is, as McLaren says, “a problem that humanity has simultaneously regarded as life’s greatest tragedy and its greatest joke.”
Although McLaren admits that his book is best suited for the more scholarly reader, Impotence is full of entertaining, thought-provoking surprises, often delivered with a deadpan, subtle wit. He seems to delight in ironic situations: in the medieval age, for example, church tribunals used “honest women” to publicly examine men whose ability to procreate had been questioned by their wives. Some doctors in the early 20th century, hoping to pass along the randy nature of our genetic cousins, transplanted chimpanzee testes into men. Their Victorian predecessors, meanwhile, used a dubious combination of salves, scalding and even cauterization on men’s privates. Most of their patients “rarely asked for a second treatment.”
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