This is the first of what I hope will be a series of short looks at books from academic presses which I think might interest a wider readership. In each, there will be first a mini-review, and then a brief interview with the author.—JBJ
Impotence: A Cultural History
by Angus McLaren
(University of Chicago Press, 2007)
Laughing at erections is the province of middle- and high-school humor; laughing at impotence is a more adult entertainment. In the Friends episode, “The One with Monica’s Thunder,” Chandler has a momentary loss of power. Shaken, he asks Joey if it’s ever happened to him. Joey says, sure—happens to everybody. Not a problem. But when Chandler asks what he does in those situations, Joey’s answer leaves him even more disturbed: “Do it anyway.”
This brief scene illustrates a central difficulty with conversations about erections and impotence: Questions of definition abound. What looks like a simple question—am I hard or not?—turns out to have a long and interesting backstory. Angus McLaren’s new book, Impotence: A Cultural History (University of Chicago Press, 2007), surveys Western approaches to erection, impotence, and infertility since the Greeks. And these approaches are shockingly different. An early Christian culture emphasizing celibacy, for instance, is necessarily going to take a very different view of impotence than is, say, a late-Victorian one worrying about the decadence of the West.
Impotence is a fascinating book, one that easily sustains its most basic claim, which is 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.” Despite the presence of a blurb from Dr. Ruth on the back cover, McLaren is a refreshingly low-key guide to the vicissitudes of impotence. The book is almost unmissable for its extensive cataloging of tests (“fifteenth-century English courts sometimes employed ‘honest women’ to examine the man”) and treatments (ranging from the implantation of monkey and goat glands, to the construction of mechanical scaffolding, to various forms of pastes, salves, and unguents, applied topically, orally, or anally).