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Gary Shteyngart’s ‘Gentile Region’

'Imagine what would happen to an eyeball if the eyelid was amputated' -- but the novelist is talking about his, umm...
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I have never given circumcision a single thought, other than to consent to my sons’ circumcision. Europeans think its weird for American Gentiles to be circumcised, and I think they’re right … but I remember the one kid we had in my elementary school class, a black boy who had been born at home, and who was not circumcised. All us boys wanted to stare at his primitive root wiener when we were at the urinal during recess, because it was monstrous. Nobody told us that wieners could look like that. The kid didn’t know why his penis was so strange looking, and neither did we. Third grade, man.

Reading the novelist Gary Shteyngart’s harrowing tale of dealing in mid-life with a late circumcision gone wrong caused me to send the link to my sons, asking them to strongly consider not circumcising any male children they may one day have, as it is not necessary for Christians to do this. Don’t get me wrong: I believe that people who circumcise for religious reasons should have the right to do so. The Shteyngart piece changed my mind on whether doing it is advisable for those for whom it is not a religious requirement. Shteyngart was circumcised as a teenage immigrant to the US, after some Chabadniks convinced his non-religious Soviet Jewish parents that their son needed to have a bris to be properly Jewish. It did not work out as it ought to have done, but this wasn’t a real problem for Shteyngart until a couple of years ago, well into middle age. Here is an excerpt:

For the first time since the initial surgery, I felt that I was being cared for and looked after. Is this it? I thought. Is this my liberation? “In seven to ten days,” the doctor said, “the new skin will grow in and I expect you’ll feel great.”

In seven to ten days, I was in the worst pain of my life. There were some improvements. My penis was no longer covered with scabs, and yet walking for more than ten minutes was impossible. I was losing my mind. I had finally tried gabapentin, but it brought about a mild psychosis during which I wasn’t sure what was real and what was not. The penis is an outcropping of privilege in the male of the species, but it is also a pleasure palace constantly sending signals to the brain. Having pain in the region amounts to a never-ending genital tinnitus. It is impossible to think of anything else.

I’ve always had a rational fear of dying, but when I imagined a life without being able to walk or swim or have sex or travel or do anything without pain or an Elizabethan collar, I wondered what it would be like to kill myself. I looked out the window and onto the fresh snow gathered below and considered the coldness of its eternal compress. Shortly thereafter, I read a BBC article about Alex Hardy, a British man who had committed suicide in 2017 after being circumcised in Canada as a young adult. He did not share his travails with anyone after his operation, but in a long farewell note to his mother he wrote that “these ever-present stimulated sensations from clothing friction are torture within themselves; they have not subsided/normalised from years of exposure. . . . Imagine what would happen to an eyeball if the eyelid was amputated?” That analogy perfectly articulated my own experience.

The stomachs of every male in my readership just rolled over. Shteyngart’s account is about the experience of chronic pain, both physical and psychological (because the penis is not just any body part, but a symbol of one’s manhood, and the instrument of sexual communion with one’s partner. I expected to read a very funny novelist being very funny about an embarrassing malady. Shteyngart does show a sense of comic irony in the piece, but mostly it’s about how much he hurts. It’s a surprisingly moving essay. Read it all. 

(I expect that nine out of ten male readers of that Shteyngart piece will send it to all their male friends. It’s that kind of essay.)

Here is a link to the book trailer for Shteyngart’s hilarious memoir Little Failure, about growing up in Soviet Russia, and then in New York as an immigrant. Note to those not in the know: Shteyngart is a comic novelist, so he’s not really married to James Franco. He is, in fact, married to a woman, and the father of a child. And he’s got a very, very angry penis.

UPDATE: For some reason, Disqus won’t let me reply to some comments wondering about my phrase “primitive root weiner”. Hey, I thought it was funny. More than half the boys in my class were black, and everybody, white and black, but this one kid was circumcised. None of us had ever seen an uncircumcised penis before. It looked very weird to us, like a root (ever seen an uncircumcised wiener?). We used to have to stand at a pee trough at recess, whip it out, and do our business. Little boys being little boys, things were noticed, and comments were made. We thought the kid was deformed. I brought it up to my dad later, and he said this was a common thing for children in the country born at home. I was trying above to make fun of how weird it is, coming from a circumcision culture, to see an uncircumcised penis, when you didn’t even know such a thing existed.

For the record, many years later, I was in an all-male gym shower in the Netherlands, as an adult, and someone asked me in all honesty if I was Jewish, because I was the only circumcised person in this shower full of white men.



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