Howard Jacobson: I mean no disrespect to the uncircumcised, but who'd want to look like that?

Philip Roth gives the hero of ‘The Counterlife’ provocative thoughts on what circumcision denotes

Share

Among the acts of consideration I have to thank my parents for, circumcision ranks very high. I mean no disrespect to the uncircumcised, but who the hell would want to look like that? I take the point that beauty doesn't trump all other considerations – a German court recently ruled that circumcision was criminal bodily harm – but when did anyone look at a foreskin and say, "Now that's what I call a thing of beauty"? And when did anybody who didn't have that unsightly otiosity wish he did? I know there are some out there in crazy.com who rage against what was done to them, but that's zealotry talking – parent hatred, Jew and Muslim hatred, sentimentality about the rights of boy babies and their putzes – not aesthetics.

"So if foreskins are so ugly, why did God liberally distribute them?" It's surprising how often that line of unreasoning is pursued by people who in other circumstances deny God's existence. Ditto those who argue on the side of Nature. "If Nature didn't want a foreskin, there wouldn't be a foreskin," they proclaim with triumphant logic, though on another day they will support abortion, tooth implants, and the right of women to make their breasts any size or shape they choose. (I accept that an eight-day-old boy is in no position to make an informed choice about anything, but we'll address that shortly.)

Only fanatics are able to remain consistent when it comes to invoking God or Nature – those who oppose blood transfusions in all cases or insist on riding their bicycles naked through the streets of London in all weathers. Allow that for a thousand reasons, some frivolous, some not, the rest of us interfere with the bodies we are born with, and we cannot say of circumcision that we should leave well enough alone. The bodily harm charge is another thing entirely. Where we are talking female circumcision there is no defence a responsible person can offer. The trauma is provable, the damage terrible and long-lasting. At least one of the Somali women appearing on Newsnight's discussion of the subject this week was in palpable shock, years after her mutilation.

That I or any of the circumcised men I know are in palpable shock years after ours I vehemently deny, no matter that critics of the procedure will seize on that vehemence as proof that what I deny I feel – "Methinks the circumcised one protests too much", and all that.

But Newsnight would have difficulty finding circumcised men to speak with the passion of those women, and that's because they don't accept that "mutilation" describes what they underwent, or that their lives have been ruined emotionally or physically as a consequence. It's a long-standing joke among Jewish men that if there's more pleasure to be had with a foreskin than they are having without one, then their parents chose wisely for them. More pleasure than this would be insupportable.

Describing these two very different forms of circumcision as "related barbarities" is, therefore, irresponsible, inaccurate, hysterical and deeply insulting to those women who have suffered a genuine, life‑ruining mutilation.

As for the right of a child to decide such things for himself, I am of the party that believes if it were done when 'tis done, then t'were well it were done quickly. That begs the question of whether it is well to do it at all, I accept, but if it is, then it's humane not barbaric to do it when the physical pain is more quickly soothed. Behind the concerns of those who offer to speak for the child's freedom to choose lurks what the sociologist Frank Furedi has called an "arrogant paternalism", an assumption of enlightenment that places itself beyond parental authority – than which it always knows better – and beyond religious practice too. Nothing beats the image of the "vulnerable child" when it comes to finding a pretext for putting your own certainties above those of others.

Here is not the place for tracing the religious significance of circumcision for Jews and Muslims – different, as I understand it, in that for Muslims it doesn't symbolise God's covenant with man or reference the near death of Isaac which was itself a symbolic goodbye to human sacrifice. But for both peoples it is a mark of religious submission and belonging. That won't, of course, persuade an atheist, but a ritual which has a serious evolution is worth considering seriously.

No sucker for the certainties of religious practice himself, Philip Roth nonetheless gives Nathan Zuckerman, the hero of his great novel The Counterlife, some provocative thoughts on what circumcision denotes – an incontrovertible signal to the Jew that he is here and not there, "that you are out and not in — also that you're mine and not theirs ...". And further: "Circumcision gives the lie to the womb-dream of life in the beautiful state of innocent prehistory, the appealing idyll of living 'naturally', unencumbered by man-made ritual. To be born is to lose all that. The heavy hand of human values falls upon you right at the start."

That will sound Calvinistical to some, and Roth's explanation is nothing if not equivocal – how can one not be equivocal about a loss that confers a gain? – but seriousness bears a burden, and better that, any day, than the various trivialising idylls of living "naturally" and "unencumbered" and "freely" that infantilise the debates we have about religion: its beliefs, its practices and its mysteries.

Aleppo being in the news, I think of Othello, before he does away with himself, describing how, in Aleppo once, where a malignant Turk traduced the state, he "took by the throat the circumcised dog and smote him, thus". Seeing circumcision as a mark of Jewish or Muslim evil has a long history. I like to think Shakespeare felt sympathy for the Turk, as elsewhere he felt sympathy for the Jew, because he was circumcised himself.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Syrian refugee 'Nora' with her two month-old daughter. She was one of the first Syrians to come to the UK when the Government agreed to resettle 100 people from the country  

Open letter to David Cameron on Syrian refugees: 'Several hundred people' isn't good enough

Amjad Bashir said Ukip had become a 'party of ruthless self-interest'  

Could Ukip turncoat Amjad Bashir be the Churchill of his day?

Matthew Norman
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us