Christ’s Foreskin and Other Gifts

Dear CF,

I’ll see your foreskin-inspired puffed sleeves and raise you the seventeenth-century’s idea of a holiday gift: Christ’s bleeding prepuce.  I wrote awhile back about Beowulf and the contractual dimension to male (and female) gift-giving. Today? Foreskins, and what they represent.

(By the way, a great overview of the conversations happening around female circumcision is here. Warning: there is, in fact, an “Adopt a Clitoris” program with a website called “Clitoraid” (h/t).)

Robert Herrick, who we know best for his cavalier poems on Julia’s clothes and the liquefactions thereof, wrote a poem called “To his Saviour. The New yeers gift” in which he makes the following request:

That little prettie bleeding part

Of Foreskin send to me.

There is in fact a genre of seventeenth-century “circumcision poems.”  Milton wrote one (“Upon the Circumcision”). Herrick wrote several. And Crashaw? Well. I’ll save Crashaw for last, because let’s face it: we’ll never top that.

So. What do we do with this category? The practice (which obviously precedes the poetic genre) seems to spark two big debates. The first is the extent to which the foreskin constitutes a contract. (Catherine of Siena famously related her mystic marriage to the infant Christ, in the course of which she received from him a wedding band made of his foreskin.) The second is the extent to which circumcision was meant to be understood metaphorically (as a “circumcision of the heart”) as opposed to physically.

Let’s start with the contract. In his article “The Wit of Circumcision, the Circumcision of Wit” (published in The wit of seventeenth-century poetry, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth), Jim Ellis states that “Christ’s blood in the circumcision poems is always simultaneously something else: a balm, a gift, rubies. He argues that

the poetry of the circumcision calls for a changed reading practice, one that can be identified as a circumcised wit, that reads the body in a particular way. … From its origins, circumcision has worked both to demonstrate submission to the law and to establish membership in a community. The practice among Jews was initiated, says the Bible, by Abraham, who was circumcised at the age of ninety-nine. In Gen. 17:10-11 God says to Abraham: ‘This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between you and me.’  Calvin emphasizes above all else the status of the sacrament as a seal, comparing it to “the seals attached to government documents and other public acts.” The force of Calvin’s argument is to give the sacrament the status of a signature on a contract under which both parties have obligations. …

Lancelot Andrewes, who personally oversaw the translation of the Authorized (or King James) version of the Bible, reads the circumcision as “the signature of Abraham’s Seed,” which is written on Christ’s flesh. Christ voluntarily submits to the ritual, “That so He, keeping the Law, might recover backe the chirographum contra nos, the handwriting that was against us; and so set us free of the debt.”

“The legal language here,” Pebworth and Summers say,”

is typical of discussions of circumcision: the reading from the Epistles for the Circumcision in the Book of Common Prayer, for example, quotes Rom. 4:14, which states of God’s promise to Abraham’s descendants that “if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect.”

Now you may be wondering about the terms of this contract. Luckily, the Bible (and Herrick) can help. Deuteronomy 10.16 and 30.6: “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart” and “The Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart.”

And if we read the rest of Robert Herrick’s poem requesting Christ’s foreskin, we learn that he is in fact proposing a trade: his bleeding heart for Christ’s bleeding netherbits:

That little prettie bleeding part
Of Foreskin send to me:
And Ile returne a bleeding Heart,
For New-yeers gift to thee.

Rich is the Jemme that thou did’st send,
Mine’s faulty too, and small:
But yet this Gift Thou wilt commend,
Because I send Thee all.

This is in many respects a Beowulfian tit (ahem) for tat. Christ’s rich foreskin for Herrick’s small, faulty heart. Obviously metaphorical size is an issue here—Herrick’s heart, his all, can’t compare to this tiny part of Christ’s body. The trade emphasizes Herrick’s inadequacy. But it’s also a request for literal sacrifice in exchange for metaphorical faith—not exactly a bargain, on Christ’s end.

The Christian debate over exactly what the foreskin and circumcision meant devoted a lot of energy to this problem. Generally, the Christian scholars tried to argue that this was in fact a fair trade—that too literal an interpretation ran the risk of Jewishness, and that what was meant by circumcision of the penis was actually circumcision of the heart.

James Shapiro writes (in Shakespeare and the Jews) that the biblically available conflation of foreskin and heart (in Deuteronomy, for instance) was accentuated by Christian thinkers who wanted to draw a clear distinction between themselves and the Jews. In one of his sermons, John Donne reasons that “the principal dignity of this circumcision was that it … prefigured, it directed to that circumcision of the heart.”  Jewish circumcision, moreover,  “were an absurd and unreasonable thing if it did not intimate and figure the circumcision of the heart.”

One reason why Shakespeare’s Shylock is so monstrous, Shapiro argues, is that he doesn’t actually want his “pound of flesh.” What he wants instead is to penetrate Christian resistance to physical circumcision and “cut his Christian adversary in that part of the body where the Christians believe themselves to be truly circumcised: the heart.”

Shylock’s threat gives a wonderfully ironic twist to the commentary on Paul’s Romans that ‘he is the Jew indeed … who cuts off all superfluities and pollutions which are spiritually though not literally meant by the law of circumcision.'”

Paul was pretty interested in distinguishing Jew from Christian by breaking the genealogical link and reformulating the contractual stuff—the covenant—as a tension between letter and spirit.  But nobody actually knew what he meant, and the heart/foreskin confusion created all manner of trouble for Christian interpreters. (Shapiro has lots to say about this.)

To make matters worse, Paul introduces the idea of uncircumcision.

Even if a faithful Christian were circumcised in the heart, what if one’s body still carried (as Paul’s did) the stigmatical mark that revealed to the world that one was born a Jew? The seventeenth-century Scottish preacher John Weemse recognized that the early Christians were embarrassed by this Judaical scar: “When they were converted from Judaism to Christianity there were some of them so ashamed of their Judaism that they could not behold it; they took it as a blot to their Christianity.” Uncircumcision, then, was the undoing of the seemingly irreversible physical act that  had been accomplished through the observance of Jewish law, and it was a topic that Paul would return to obsessively (in large part because it was a pressing issue within the new Christian communities he was addressing).

One has only to look at Paul in Romans to see how confusing this gets: “if the uncircumcision keep the ordinances of the Law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature (if it keep the Law) condemn thee, which by the letter and circumcision art a transgressor of the Law?”

Two kinds of circumcision, two kinds of uncircumcision. And to crown it all (heh), here is Crashaw, that great bad bard of bodily liquids, who sidesteps the metaphorical and dives straight into the blood and the knives of the thing, inviting us to imagine tasting the blood from Christ’s foreskin as a sort of aperitif preparatory to the crucifixion and Communion:

Our B. Lord in his Circumcision to his Father.

To thee these first fruits of my growing death
(For what else is my life?) lo I bequeath:
Tast this, and as thou lik’st this lesser flood
Expect a Sea, my heart shall make it good.
Thy wrath that wades here now, e’re long shall swim,
The floodgate shall be set wide ope for him.
Then let him drinke, and drinke, and doe his worst
To drowne the wantonnesse of his wild thirst.
Now’s but the nonage of my paines, my feares
Are yet both in their hopes, not come to years.
The day of my darke woe is yet but morne,
My teares but tender, and my death new borne.
Yet may these unfledg’d griefes give fate some guesse,
These Cradle-torments have their towardnesse.
These purple buds of blooming death may bee,
Erst the full stature of a fatall tree.
And till my riper woes to age are come,
This Knife may be the speares Praeludium.



Respect the Cock

Dear CF,

I learned yesterday that in my city one can legally own no more than 12 chickens. This puzzled me. Why 12? At first I thought it might have to do with egg packaging—grocery stores do tend to sell chicken thighs and breasts in packages of six or twelve. Maybe we’ve just internalized the base-12 principle when it comes to birds.

Wrong. Today I discovered why. It has to do with chicken family values, which consist—according to William Harvey, my scientist du jour—of exactly one rooster and, ideally, ten hens. (I know that’s only 11. I imagine city planning officials saw fit to permit a spare.)

William Harvey is justly famous for accurately describing the double circulation of the blood in his “Anatomical Disquisition on the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals.” It’s a rousing story of perseverance and smarts overcoming ignorance and odds. We can rejoice that after a lifetime of bitter struggle (and friendship with Hobbes, which amount to the same thing), he watched his discovery gain public acceptance.

He’s less known for his treatise on animal reproduction, a tome called “On Generation” that offers a detailed and sometimes lyrical examination of the sex lives of (mainly) chickens.

Why chickens? you ask. Harvey thought you might:

Among male animals there is none that is more active or more haughty and erect, or that has stronger powers of digestion than the cock, which turns the larger portion of his food into semen; hence it is that he requires many wives—ten or even a dozen [you see? The city officials compromised.] … Now those males that are so vigorously constituted as to serve several females are larger and handsomer, and in the matter of spirit and arms excel their females in a far greater degree than the males of those that live attached to a single female.

In case you aren’t convinced (warning, graphic imagery ahead):

The cock, therefore, as he is gayer in his plumage, better armed, more courageous and pugnacious, so is he replete with semen, and so apt for repeated intercourse, that unless he have a number of wives he distresses them by his frequent assaults; he not only invites but compels them to his pleasure, and leaping upon them at inconvenient and improper seasons, (even when they are engaged in the business of incubation) and wearing off the feathers from their backs, he truly does them an injury.

If you can get past the ick of that bit, I ask you to imagine the methodology involved in investigating the following in his capacity as natural philosopher-cum-poultry pornographer:

It is certain that the cock in coition emits his “geniture,” commonly called semen, from his sexual parts, although he has no penis, as I maintain; because his testes and long and ample vas deferentia are full of this fluid. But whether it issues in jets, with a kind of spiritous briskness and repeatedly as in the hotter viviparous animals, or not, I have not been able to ascertain.

Not having perfected the art of chicken-pleasing, Harvey nonetheless movingly describes the hen’s sexual experience: Read more of this post


Dear CF ,

I’m incensed by the word “overshare,” so I only glanced at the Jezebel piece, which seemed concerned more with the graphic and anatomical variety of the phenomenon than with the stripping bare of a life. I’m firmly in favor of the former—felt, in fact, that Sadie’s approach to the subject was quite like our own. The blood-and-guts guffaws are right, so much so that I fail to see why this is even a point of interest. Men, God bless ’em, have been talking frankly and jovially about their members for a long time. Take Erasmus cackling about penii in The Praise of Folly:

Let me ask you if the head or the face or the breast or the hands or the ear, all of which are reputed the more seemly parts of the body, actually beget either gods or men? Not as I see it; it’s that other part, so stupid and even ridiculous that it can’t be named without raising a snicker, that propagates the human race. That is the sacred fount from which all things draw their existence….

I guess I have a more anxious relationship to the other kind of Oversharing. Just now, searching for the original Salon article, I came across an October 18, 2008 article about this very issue which said the term was coined by ex-Gawker writer Emily Gould. Suddenly my case of the cranks made perfect sense.

In the spirit of camaraderie I’m taking a deep breath and a moment to overshare my thoughts on the occasion of Ms. Gould’s retirement. The following is a direct transcript of my Notes to Self on the date she quit the old-school Gawker. It’s fitting, p’raps, that she quit with an overly personal (perhaps overly dramatic, but nonetheless interesting) final post.


Came back from a party at R’s house feeling twinges of regret, as I always do. What sort of honesty is appropriate at these sorts of gatherings? I feel I always choose the wrong one. Small breakthroughs: wrote the piece defending sloth. But really an invitation to consider a spiritual crisis as represented by Sloth, the Capital Sin, as described by Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. The fact of the sigh we give when we are deprived of spiritual truths. The inability/struggle of the mind to produce “good.”

The big question in writing, as at parties, is who to sacrifice to the audience.

Is the Gawker phenomenon so explosive because it’s the cocaine  of blogging? Everything is sacrificed for the sake of the reader’s microsecond of thrills. Mothers, siblings, lovers. The columnists willingly burn the bridges of what they’ve been and will be; the question is–do they do this knowing that they will grow into what they mock, and are they prepared to deal with the self-loathing of having all this on record? Or do they think they’ll successfully avoid it all?

Emily Gould and Choire Sicha quit Gawker today. Last night she was at the party at n+1, while I was at their reading here. To go or not to go to the party tomorrow?

Take that, Hamlet. (I’ll spare you the suspense: I didn’t go.)

Let’s face it: this kind of oversharing is boring. The other kind—the kind I worry about here—is terribly, terribly risky.

The author of that first Salon article I stumbled on, AV Flox, does some lovely work articulating what it is that blogs have done, and how they’ve eroded levees and flooded the neighborhoods of real life. It’s blogging, I think, that made it possible for her to write the following to her aunts in an e-mail:

I have decided that a man’s libido must have an invisible umbilical cord that connects it to the New York Stock Exchange; I have no other way to account for the fact that I don’t recall the last time I was intimate with my husband…

She describes the embarrassment she felt a moment after sending it, but decides, in the end, that suburban silence is more pernicious than candor.

“So,” she concludes,

when people ask me how marriage is, I say it’s a pain in the neck. It’s like taking care of a giant, ancient machine that can help you accomplish a lot of tasks in the emotional fulfillment department, but which constantly needs maintenance and calibration.

At the risk of further boring you, dear friend, I Overshare two other things I found in that same notebook, from when I was trying to calibrate my own marriage.

On a day when I woke up (warning: TMI ahead omg!) wanting sex:

It was the Cal-USC game. X looks good in his cowboy hat. The kitchen was clean—I did it late last night. X picked the living room and bedroom up a bit. Oh, environment.

Norman Mailer died. An assistant killed Linda Stein with a yoga stick. A girl in Italy is being held for helping to kill her roommate in some sort of sexual context. Benazir Bhutto is out and about. Mark Danner is in the Best American Essays edited by David Foster Wallace. I listened to David Bowie. And Beethoven’s 1st Piano Concerto. Nazis were the other dominant story theme. Made my first Itunes purchase—2 episodes of The Office.

Saw D, N and Baby yesterday. Very cute, but so far from what I’m prepared for, and X is much farther still. Thinks it’s conformist and conventional to have one, doesn’t feel he wants one but feels the inevitability of it.

The powder for beef onion gravy does not make tasty beef onion soup. This should not be surprising. But I thought of Ramen. My high school reunion was today—that just occurred to me.

On another Day, following a dream in which I yelled at two manicurists in a large white warehouse (calling one of them—and I was proud of this—“Barber Barbie”), I find that I was already struggling with this problem of Gifts and Work in Marriage and had in fact unconsciously developed the solution I suggested to you—namely, turning everyday things into the gifty currency:

Why do some old men always wear dark glasses? How do some people always offer to do the dishes, even when it isn’t a real offer?

What’s an offer? To make an offer. What does that mean? A coffer is a container for expensive things.

A Coffer of Offers

  1. a neckrub
  2. to do the dishes
  3. to vacuum a room
  4. to leave the apartment for 1 1/2 hours
  5. to sweep up the porch
  6. to edit a paper for you
  7. to read an article you enjoyed and talk about it
  8. to read a story you enjoyed and talk about it
  9. to make the bed
  10. to clean the bathroom
  11. to shake out the bathroom rugs

It’s a terrible little list.

But what did YOU make of the Oversharing, dear CF?



Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

Dear CF,

I started the evening rereading “Brief Interviews” and felt convicted and abased, recognizing in myself too much of what the Depressed Person says. And you, dear friend, are the beleaguered Support System with whom I (i.e. the depressed person) try constantly to really truly literally “share,” to whom I reach out for a glimmer of connectedness, for whom I try to Be There. To see myself thusly has only exacerbated my isolation-feelings, my anguish, my sense of injury, my feelings of abandonment. I’m nothing but a cracked bundle of need, a pail of neuroses. I think my three therapists would agree.

In that story the therapist dies “without leaving any sort of note or cassette or encouraging final words for any of the persons and/or clients in his life.”

For a moment I fantasized about DFW being my fourth therapist and indulged the ghoulish question that first struck me when I heard about his suicide:

Did he leave a note?

At any rate he left a cassette, and you found it. You’re right. It may be eleven years old, but Charlie Rose’s interview of David Foster Wallace covers 80% of what we’ve talked about, minus the sex. And I mean that literally–every time women appear, it’s a negative for him. He’s unhappy or exasperated with their role in his artistic world, and the feeling seems mutual.

On Unforgiven:

What’s interesting is that I don’t know a single female who likes the film. Females think ‘Western?’ It stinks. And if you can get them to watch it, it’s not a western at all. It’s a moral drama. It’s Henry James, basically. It’s very odd.”

Charlie gets worked up about this, agrees, and adds that this is the greatest rift his girlfriend and he have ever had about a movie.

(And there’s Henry James, king of the tragedy of manners, large as life. In a Western, no less–the one genre he might be least expected to appear in. I may have to watch Unforgiven after all.)

Wallace is even less happy with feminists who interpret the length of his books as having to do the length of his dick. I don’t blame him. First, it’s not true. Secondly, it’s not surprising that he prickles. The stakes of that sort of criticism are higher for him than they are for most. Returning for a moment to the irony of our generation constituting a Demographic, nothing would be quite so humiliating, for the culminating practitioner of a particular brand of artistic self-awareness, than to be found guilty of a truly unconscious influence.

But the dick’s not totally off the table. The Chronicle published an article on “intellectual crushes”–the brainy attraction a student feels to a certain kind of teacher. If anything, it’s the organ responsible for this feeling, the “intellectual dick,” that is the Firecracker’s great preoccupation (and Wallace is one, make no mistake). The writers he mentions—Delillo, Barthelme, Barth, Pynchon—were all well-hung in this department, and are all regular recipients of the male Firecracker’s admiration and energy. This isn’t penis envy, which Freud reserved for girls, and which it is evident, I think, that I suffer from. But it’s close.

Wallace says Lynch’s obsession is “The unbelievably grotesque existing in a kind of union with the unbelievably banal.” This truly brilliant take on Lynch gestures, I think, at what appeals to the cerebral Male. Let’s drag Henry’s brother William into this and call the Firecracker’s fierce (and not unjustified) admiration for Lynch, Barth et al. what it is, at least in part: a drive. Earlier than sex, but post-pre-Oedipal. It’s tribal and does not easily admit women–let’s be frank, it works better without them. It’s the universal desire to get lost in the funhouse and wee vigorously into the Po-Mo Stream of Consciousness (sponsored, alas, by the Depend Adult Undergarment).

Urinal cakes, mirrors, death diapers and the sublime, all in a tidy package.
Read more of this post

Crack a Dick Joke

Dear Carla Fran,

Hmm. I come to your question perplexed. And just a little afraid of the other half. I often reflect that, if I were a man, I would find women terrifying. I might have been the ultimate misogynist. Women can so often be judgmental, clique-obsessed, label-crazy, and content to be content with the merely frivolous. Even their relation to serious things–marriage, or babies, or work–can be compromised by a massive immaturity, or an insistence on the zaniness of the young.

That all this is not exclusively the purview of women should not be a surprise. But it disturbs me every time. One gets used to a particular kind of prejudice, and the problem with new forms is that one always has to consider that they might be legitimate and true.

I am friends of sorts with a few males, and we occasionally go out for drinks. Most of the conversation revolves around little-known movies, the poor performances of well-known actors in those B- (or C-) movies, and the slight surprise that each additional judgment (claiming exclusivity, discrimination and taste) stacks upon everyone else–including those who claim to like the movies being condemned in the latest judge-a-thon.

My crush, incidentally, ended just now, and as a direct consequence of all this. While the goodwill towards humans of the male persuasion mostly remains, it does so only because I recognize, in each round of judgment, that someone disagrees. I take shelter in that person’s wide-angle lens, and bask in their absolution. I hate myself for this.

All of which is to say that I don’t know. I don’t know how you escape the mantle of gender, or how you turn your voice into an actual one. I am not after all of this club–I’m a visiting member, as it were–and while they tolerate me, I’m definitely not a decision-maker in the group. I hear the dick jokes, I laugh obligingly some of the time; I have no desire to get in their way (I would resent it if a boy in a girl-group got weird over vagina puns). Still: verdicts get passed, and I watch, not as a voter but as an observer. I am at best a citizen-journalist.

The moment of redemption from the day that I can share with you is this: I had a male student refuse to do part of an assignment because he felt it was offensive to the study of poetry. I took great pleasure
in handing his ass–and his writing–to him on a silver platter via my written response to his assignment. He needs it badly, and the triumph is that on paper I feel brilliantly genderless. The power of writing, I think, is that it can do this. It lets you command ethos in ways that presence does not.

That said, no one knows better than I do the dangers of written communications. I wonder, though, if you could look for a way to make them see how they’re being unfair–or sexist. Either by adopting the same offensive tone, or by parodying them, or by somehow using humor to defuse the situation. This is the only tool I’ve found so far, and I hand it to you with all its lumpy imperfections and banana cream pies.

Fondly (and a bit disillusionedly),


PS–Today I WORE Spanx, for the first time ever. Theme!