The New Testicle of Jesus Christ
“I try to create fantastic things, magical things, things like a dream.”
~ Salvador Dali
Did you know that testicle and testament come from the same Latin word, testis, meaning witness? If you’re wondering how a testicle could possibly be associated with a witness, consider this:
In ancient Rome, two men taking an oath of allegiance held each other’s testicles, and men held their own testicles as a sign of truthfulness while bearing witness in a public forum. The Romans found a word to describe this practice but didn’t invent the practice itself. Other primates had already been doing this for millions of years. Two male baboons who cooperate with each other by forming aggressive alliances against other baboons frequently fondle each other’s genitalia. This behavior has nothing to do with sex but it’s a social ritual that primatologists call a “greeting.” The behavior of ancient Romans and male baboons can be explained by the Handicap Principle, an evolutionary theory according to which the most effective way to obtain reliable information about a partner’s commitment in a relationship — whether a political alliance, a romantic relationship, or a business partnership — is to impose a cost on the partner and assess the partner’s willingness to pay it.
To better understand the testicle ritual and its explanation, it’s important to remember that cooperative relationships between unrelated individuals are intrinsically unstable: one business partner may cooperate one moment and cheat in another, and one romantic partner may promise eternal commitment one day and end the relationship the next. Economists call this “the commitment problem.” Because of the commitment problem, two partners must frequently assess the strength of their bond, in order to decide whether to continue investing in the joint venture or bail out. The most direct way for romantic partners to assess their mutual commitment is simply to ask each other, “Are you sure you still love me?” or “Are you sure you want to be with me forever?” Couples in love do this all the time but unfortunately this is not the most reliable of methods for assessing commitment (and for animals, it’s not an option at all). People can be insincere, or even clueless, about their feelings and future behavior.
Evolutionary biologist Amotz Zahavi, the father of the Handicap Principle, has suggested that the most reliable way to assess how much a relationship is worth is to assess its market value, that is, how much someone is willing to pay for it. Your boss at work can tell you that you are a valuable employee and praise your work constantly, but the best indicator of how valuable you are to your boss is the salary he or she is willing to pay you. Words are cheap, but money isn’t. In nature, the equivalent of money is fitness: the ability to survive and reproduce. Therefore, the best way for an animal to address the commitment problem in a cooperative relationship is to assess the extent to which a partner is willing to risk his or her survival or future reproduction to maintain that relationship. In other words, testing the strength of the bond involves behaving in ways that are costly, risky or otherwise detrimental to the partner.
When two male baboons , let’s call them Bill and Bob, fondle each other’s genitalia, they both take a huge risk. By letting Bob fondle his testicles, Bill shows a great deal of trust in Bob’s good intentions. Bob could quickly and easily terminate Bill’s reproductive career for good by ripping his testicles off. On the other hand, by getting so close to Bill and attempting to touch his testicles, Bob exposes himself to a high risk of aggression. A single bite inflicted with Bill’s sharp canines could scar Bob for life. Again, initiating a greeting requires a great deal of trust that the other individual will not respond aggressively to this potentially dangerous violation of privacy. By taking the risk and tolerating the imposition, two male baboons demonstrate how much they value their relationship. A male baboon who wants to measure precisely his partner’s commitment to their alliance can continue holding his partner’s testicle until he gets smacked in the head or bitten. The probability of getting a negative reaction increases exponentially with time, so being able to prolong the ritual for even one second is a significant accomplishment that bespeaks the strength of the commitment.
The word testament in Latin is testamentum, meaning the publication of a will. It’s a legal term. In the Bible, the word testament is used to translate the original Greek διαθήκη diathḗkē, which means covenant, relating it right back to the alliance of male baboons above. Because the root word however, is witness, a new testament presumably also introduces a new witness into a case you have heard before and thought you understood based on the prior evidence.
Surrealism delves into the subconscious, the dream world, the land of irrational elements, the bizarre associations Freud so loved, those unexpected connections. To gather images, Salvador Dali mined the liminal regions between sleep and waking, where the mind flies free of the constraints of logic and social convention. This morning I found the title of this blog floating around in my half-wakedness. After I made the bed, I consulted a dictionary.
Dali based his painting, Madonna of Port Lligat, on a renaissance painting by Piero della Francesca, the Brera Madonna.
Both of these paintings include the seashell and egg. The shell is said to be a reference to Venus, replaced by Mary in the rise of Christianity. The egg hanging by a thread, this is meant to symbolize ….?
The idea of a cosmic egg is found in mythologies from all over the world. An egg is an egg. Everybody knows what an egg represents.
I wonder if the knight in della Francesca’s version transforms into the rhinoceros in Dali’s dream of the scene? Ionesco wrote the play, Rhinoceros, in 1959. He used the image of people turning into rhinoceroses to symbolize his friends in Romania, professors, students, intellectuals, joining the Iron Guard, becoming Nazis. After the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945, Dali’s paintings began to reflect the dematerialization of objects. Not only are atomic bombs incredibly destructive, they are based on science that undermines our ideas about the solidity of matter.
The new testicle of Jesus contains the seed-idea that you don’t need armor, or weapons to stab your opponents with, in order to be safe. We could call it a covenant of vulnerability. Sperm are a lot like ideas. The testes produce millions of them, just as the mind produces millions of thoughts, all with the capability of impregnating matter, taking form. Which wolf do you want to feed, etc., blah blah blah.
Am I being too abstruse? What interests me in all of this is the possibility of a radically new way of seeing. The word “perception” means both the act of seeing and the interpretation of what is seen. Two people can see the same egg, or the same rhino, or the same president, and derive completely different meanings from what they see. My brother-in-law may see that egg and think of a cheesy omelet frying on the globally-warmed pavements of Arizona.
Is there another way to see the world? Is there another way to witness my own story? I began the theme yesterday, with another way of seeing Ben Lerner. I have many witnesses in my mind, many ways of perceiving the same thing. Some of the witnesses mistrust my therapist. Some love her — too much, she says. Last night I was feeling quite desperate. I saw that she is never going to be able to heal me. This therapy is going nowhere. It’s a dead end.
Beware the poetic volta. Today I woke up with a new idea, the sperm of Jesus entered my head! Soon Zeus will be born from the sea foam. Maybe tomorrow I’ll write about that. I’ve had my fill for today of sowing.