September 23rd, 2010 / 12:38 am

Notes on the Testicular and Penile Theories of Talent

Celebrating Norman Mailer

I have a terrible confession to make—I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem able to read them. Indeed I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale. At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquille in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn. Since I’ve never been able to read Virginia Woolf, and am sometimes willing to believe that it can conceivably be my fault, this verdict may be taken fairly as the twisted tongue of a soured taste, at least by those readers who do not share with me the ground of departure–that a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.
–Norman Mailer

Most directors make films with their eyes; I make films with my testicles.
–Alejandro Jodorowsky

With them that day were various members of [Salvador] Dalì’s Divine Court: Gala, his muse, coiffed and rouged like a ventriloquist’s dummy; Prince Dado Ruspoli, famed as having the largest penis in Europe; Princess Nanita Kalaschnikoff, with her celebrated Louis XIV profile; the collector Sir Edward James; painter Léonor Fini and the unimaginably gorgeous Amanda Lear who, like Léonor, could not paint, as Kirk Douglas learned from his host, because genius is only found in the balls.

‘Paint is about time, space and balls. And Amanda doesn’t have any,’ said Dalì, bringing his palms together as if in them he held two bricks.

‘Genius,’ she [Léonor Fini] screamed. ‘Is in the slit.’
(From here)

The winners of the Norman Mailer Nonfiction Writing Awards were just announced. A lucky college student will be now be $10,000 richer. Since the awards are intended to honor the legacy of Norman Mailer, now seems like an appropriate time to defame his name by remembering what a sexist asshole he was. Thinking about Norman Mailer’s legacy, I am reminded of the way in which he advanced what I call the Testicular Theory of Talent (TTT).

I remember when I was in high school, my friend read me a quote from Dali’s Diary of a Genius about how genius was only contained in the balls, which was a claim Dali used as a way of discouraging a woman—who was likely Amanda Lear—from being a painter. Later, I discovered that there is a whole discourse and articulated thread of ideas attributing talent and genius to the balls or the fluid that comes from the balls. Surprisingly, this discourse actually has a sprawling history. Galen, a medical researcher of Greek Antiquity—thought that seminal fluid contain the “vital spirit.” Teddy Roosevelt was paranoid about masturbating too much because he thought that loss of seminal fluid would trigger a loss of “nerve force”—the force that gives us “courage, ambition, personality, character, mental powers and energy” (Paul Von Boeckmann, 1921). Norman Mailer said that, “that a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.” (Although, regarding another aspect of Mailer’s comment, I admit that maybe I am somewhat “dykily psychotic.”) Jodorowsky’s cinematic talent apparently sprung from his balls. Balls balls balls. Bad news for me, I guess. Good thing I’m not very invested in the concept of “genius” anyway.

We are probably all also familiar with TTT’s sister theory, the Penile Theory of Talent. The pen of the writer is often associated with the penis. Male anatomy becomes a metaphor for talent. This concept was discussed in landmark tome of feminist literary criticism—Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s Mad Woman in the Attic—which begins with the question, “is the pen a metaphorical penis?” Philosopher Norman O. Brown wrote, “The penis is the head of the body. Every organization has a head; headless bodies cannot act.” The direct association of bodily configuration with creative capacity is a recurring motif among some male authors. I know—the Testicular Theory of Talent and Penile Theory of Talent seem totally absurd to us now, but I think there are still remnants of this attitude undergirding how we think of genius and talent. The concept of “genius” is still largely gendered male. Someone posted an interesting Guardian article on here about the gendering of “genius” in relation to the critical response to Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Even though people are more reluctant to summon dicks and balls as a way to maintain that exceptional “talent” is exclusively masculine, the residual association of talent and masculinity still remains.

While it may seem like we live in a post-TTT, post-PTT society, these metaphors are still deeply engrained. An article on Gilbert and Helene Cixous says, “metaphors shape how we are able to think about the process of writing, and about creativity in general. By linking writing with having a penis, these authors insist that writing, being creative, is a biological act, one rooted in the body–and specifically in the male body. …[T]his equation is not an isolated incident, something that just a few jerks thought, but rather is one of the dominant metaphors of creativity in Western culture, for both male and female writers.”

Let’s take a second to unpack what’s going on when people say that genius and talent is tied to genitals designated male. Essentially, what is taking place is the projection of meaning onto bodily surfaces as a way to validate the arbitrary association of characteristics with bodies that are divided binaristically. Bodies do not signify or generate meaning on their own: they rely on us to constantly reify and continue circulating certain meanings. In a yet-to-be-published (do you want to be the one?) essay I recently completed called “The Phallic Titty Manifesto,” I wrote the following about the way we imagine bodies:

Consider the logic behind “feminine” and “masculine” morphologies. When we think of “female anatomy,” it is largely defined by absence, which is represented by the vagina. The cunt is considered a hole, not a thing in itself but the absence of the thing. “Male” anatomy is defined by the ability to penetrate or ejaculate. The thing goes into the hole, the seminal fluid is absorbed by the empty vagina. Not only is this binaristic divide problematic because it renders women “passive” and men “active,” it’s also a totally mythic fabrication. Men have holes. They’re called anuses, mouths, nostrils. Women can penetrate with their tongues, fingers, fists, tits. Breasts can be round, but so can testicles. Dicks can be long, but so can tits. People falling outside masculine/feminine gender categories also likely possess some combination of concave and convex body parts. The way we imagine bodies seems incredibly distorted by an imaginary picture we project onto the surface of bodies.

Returning to the example of Amanda Lear and Salvador Dali again, it is important to note that Amanda Lear is transgendered (although it remains in question since she doesn’t openly discuss this), which both confounds and illuminates the absurdity of the logic behind TTT and PTT. Dali said that Amanda couldn’t paint because she doesn’t have balls. Does that mean she lost her ability to paint after transitioning? Could she have been a good painter if she didn’t transition? Can I be a genius too if I get some testicles attached between my legs? A lot of significance is placed on the possession of a certain anatmoy in deterniming one’s capabilities. For many, it may not be completely apparent how bodies come to mean something in relation to genius, creativity, and talent. But when these characteristics are implicitly tied to masculinity, in a roundabout way we arrive at the same point of departure as these backward ideas because notions of masculinity and femininity are still intimately tied to bodies.

Since I consider the concept of “genius” to often be a mythic construction, I am curious as to where you, the reader, thinks good writing comes from. I don’t feel like I was born with a natural penchant for constructing sentences, although I have been drawn to the medium for quite some time. What produces good writing? Is it libidinal–the byproduct of an excess of sexual energy? Does good writing emerge through disciplined practice? Do you think some people are just born with an innate aptitude for language? Does the writing not even matter as much as the people you know or the way you promote yourself?

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  1. RyanPard

      What produces good writing? Talent, commitment, playfulness, flexibility, a love for the artform, luck.

      How is genius a mythic construction? In what way do you define it? If ‘genius’ means “someone who is exceptionally creative,” I don’t understand how you could reject it as mythic. Is it the idea of the “born genius” you’re rejecting? Or. . . ?

  2. alexisorgera

      oh good.

  3. alexisorgera

      Jackie: New College is decidedly less Jackie-esque without you :) Your name pops up a lot! You know, I haven’t read Cixous since college. I’ll have to pick up Third Body, which I may or may not have read. You probably did read the Foster…I’ve only read the one chapter, but I like him.

      Stealing ideas from his head, ah yes. I wish I had that superpower!

      Stop by the WRC if you’re in town, per favore.

  4. Tylerv

      Good topic. The dominant subconscious of the Thing going into the Hole is too very real and powerful to be rationalized away. Rather, exceptions will always be alternatives to the dominant mode. I don’t believe in Genius, but I do think artistic forcefulness most often comes from a very honest and powerful connection with sexuality, subconscious or otherwise. This can be an alternative sexuality and rare to crack the dominant form of Thing in Hole.

  5. Caroline Bren

      “there is no gender bias. … i … want to punch you in the face.” — “jereme”
      “I know of no way to stop anyone who thinks I am a sexist, except by putting her to sleep.” —Alec Niedenthal

  6. Hank

      In what way is patriarchy inherent to philosophy?

  7. Hank

      Noah, you need to distinguish between working-class women and upper-class women. They did not and do not still fulfill the same roles.

  8. jackie wang

      i sort of want to punch you in the face for the part about bodies but i am trying to be laid back about it.


      also, i am saying that the qualities attributed to genitalia (talent, absence/presence, emptiness/wholeness) are absurd and arbitrarily assigned. so i’m not even saying that a “jelly roll” is empty… i’m dissecting the logic behind those designations

  9. jackie wang
  10. jackie wang
  11. 1starfish

      yeah, i think lazy people who are what might call “fast learners” probably don’t produce work of the quality of a really dedicated person…although there are all kinds of factors that determine someone’s ability to work within a field… encouragement/discouragement, access to knowledge/tools, who you know, whether or not your work is intelligible within established discourses, etc.

  12. Hank

      Thank you for that, it was very interesting. However, it didn’t answer the question of how “patriarchy is inherent to philosophy,” which is what Caroline Brenn indicated upthread. Indeed, the article you linked to seemed to indicate that patriarchy was not inherent to philosophy, otherwise it would not have had that list of recommendations at the end.

      I must point out, though, that I have a certain interest (and therefore stake) in philosophy that leads me to be a bit biased in that I don’t want to think that philosophy is something that is inherently patriarchal, which would make it a bad thing.

  13. jereme

      “coo coo coo…” — “caroline bren”

  14. jereme

      why? oh i dunno jackie. i am an emotional dude i suppose.

      i don’t like people telling me what a body is or isn’t even when it is done in a circuitous way.

      i guess my main issue is: so what?

      only a massive egoist or a complete loon would believe a yam bag is the source of genius. let me guess, the person making such a declaration just happens to have balls?

      why spend time paying out passive satisfaction. there is no logic behind the absurd. that’s why it is the absurd.

      gender is the same as politics: you are either in power or want to achieve power; both sides fear equality because it leads to powerlessness.

      do you consider yourself a feminist jackie?

  15. dole

      another important thing to remember about Norman Mailer is that his books are mostly unreadable.

  16. Tricia

      Because the study of philosophy is most often supported by venerable institutions. The most prominent of these institutions, say Oxford and Cambridge, didn’t even admit women until the 20th century–and then only admitted them to women’s colleges until 1920 and 1947, respectively. Many of Cambridge’s colleges remained male-only until the 70s and 80s. And even after they were granted full membership, women weren’t allowed in many of the common rooms and pubs where discussion took place. In the 50s and 60s, if female students married, their study grants were taken away, while a man’s grant was increased when he married. Long after the overarchingly patriarchal structure was seemingly removed, assortments of smaller rules and regulations were left in place, all of which aimed to make it difficult for women to study and continue studying. That’s what makes Iris Murdoch such an interesting philosopher of her era.

      Remember, too, that many of the great female philosophers of history did their work within the confines of the Church, which allowed them freedom from, er, washing machines. Teresa of Avila, Hildegarde of Bingen, Catherine of Siena were all formidable philosophical thinkers. Simone Weil, too, should be considered a member of that tradition. So, in a way, should Flannery O’Connor.

      As for women who write about what it “means to be human,” might I recommend George Eliot, A.S. Byatt, the aforementioned Iris Murdoch, Willa Cather, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, Flannery O’Connor, Gertrude Stein, Marilynne Robinson, Clarice Lispector, Penelope Fitzgerald, Christina Stead, Isak Dinesen, Muriel Spark, and Pat Barker just for a few.

  17. Hank

      But none of that makes philosophy inherently patriarchal.

  18. Tricia

      No one is saying that sitting down and considering philosophical questions in like, your living room is a patriarchal act, unless the questions. They’re saying that philosophy as a subject is full of both patriarchal ideas and

      No one is saying that philosophy must always and forever be patriarchal because the patriarchy inheres in it–I doubt Catherine meant it in that sense. Philosophy is considered a patriarchal discipline because women were actively excluded from it for so long, and because philosophy as an investigation of humanity failed for a long time to consider women as half of that humanity.

  19. Tricia

      Strike the first paragraph, obvs–the perils of cut-and-paste. How rude to give you a glimpse into my sausage factory like that.

  20. Lane Silberstein

      oh snap, thanks so much for posting that. She sounds like Woody Allen plus estrogen. I love Ozick, did part of my senior thesis on her, but she is quite controversial: she has disavowed being a “woman writer,” and Elaine Showalter critiqued Ozick pretty harshly in her new book.

  21. Nicola

      Wah. Men and their evil penises of death. Wah. Grow up. If we stop talking about things in these terms, and stop viewing ourselves as if we’re viewed merely as “holes”, this will all go away.

  22. Hank

      If she didn’t mean that patriarchy inheres in philosophy, then why did she say, “There are not many female philosophers because philosophy is an extremely patriarchal discipline, not because the women are stuck in the kitchen (are you fucking kidding me?). That is to say, the problem is inherent to philosophy…”?

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