Deutschland über us.
When I was a junior in high school in the early nineties, I was mildly obsessed with the German exchange student, Christoph, a soft-spoken, ponytailed Blues Traveler fan who sat behind me in pre-calc. (Fine, I admit it: fellow Blues Traveler fan. Everybody in Oregon liked Blues Traveler in 1992, and that is a fact.)
One day, we were hanging out in the library, and Christoph sat looking perplexed as our friends embarked on a round of the Penis Game, which, if you’re not familiar with the oeuvre, is a sophisticated contest of derring-do and wits, in which participants take turns saying the word penis in an inappropriate setting — bar mitzvahs, assemblies, funerals — at escalating volume. The “winner” is he or she who bellows the word for the human biological male’s primary sex characteristic at the loudest register possible.
“Penis,” whispered my friend Les. “Hey Christoph,” I said. “How do you say penis in German?” “Schwanz,” he said. “Penis,” said my friend Ari at a normal volume. The librarian shushed him.
“SHVONTS?” I repeated. “Yes, that’s right.” I made him write it down. (Years later in Berlin, I would watch a dubbed version of Reservoir Dogs, where Tarantino’s infamous “Like a Virgin” monologue spoke of Schwanz auf Schwanz auf Schwanz auf Schwanz auf Schwanz.)
“So when you play the Penis Game in Germany, is it the Schwanz Game?”
“We don’t play the Penis Game in Germany.”
“PENIS!!!!!” (Winner: Les.)
I was still taking Spanish at this point, so Schwanz was the first German word I ever learned. (The second was the word for “jump,” springen, pronounced SHPRING-un. “Hey Christoph, how do you say ‘Jump! Jump!’ in German?” I was Christoph’s favorite.)
I have long insisted that an English edition of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (and an unfortunate affair with a Teutonophile later in high school) is the origin story of my lifelong obsession with the land of Wagner and Wurst — but now that I think about it, the truth is this: So taken was I at that moment, by what I assumed was Christoph’s extremely sophisticated and cosmopolitan attitude toward male genitalia, that I made a mental note to study German in college on the spot. (It was not until my junior year abroad, however, that I learned that Schwanz is slang for dick, and the technical term for penis is…Penis, pronounced PAY-nuss.)
It’s twenty-five years later, and I can’t speak for Christoph, but the rest of his Landsleute seem as blasé as ever about, well, the preferred organ for das Blasen. Even the prurient, ridiculous BILD newspaper, which traffics in boob shots and sensationalism (“How’s it going with This 80-year-old Grandpa-Dad?”), has little more than a shrug for the latest bombshell out of the porno-sphere: the adult site CamSoda’s forthcoming login via “dick-ometrics,” i.e. the dick-pic as password. (No word yet on what the site’s hordes of non-phallused users will do. I’ll keep you posted.)
Sure, BILD’s blurb has a passable German version of a pun about “getting membership with your member” — mit Glied Mitglied werden, one of the better demonstrations of German’s close relationship with English. But otherwise, even the BILD staff doesn’t seem particularly scandalized.
Instead, the German penis beat seems to be just another news category in the country’s most-read publication, evident in the CamSoda piece’s interstitial ad, which boasts MORE IN PENIS NEWS, and links to a larger array of matter-of-fact schlong journalism than even BILD should reasonably be expected to purvey. (Speaking of which. The German word Schlange, pronounced SCHLONG-uh, means both “snake” and “queue,” and my long-suffering freshman German prof’s description of a long line — eine lange Schlange — caused my entire class of Americans to be incapacitated with Penis Game-esque giggles for the better part of a week.)
The German relationship to the human penis is paradoxical, just like the German relationship to, say, order — to be ordentlich (OAR-dun-lish) is, along with being pünktlich (POONKT-lich, or punctual), one of the culture’s most prized qualities, and yet the coat-check Schlange after any show in the country is not a queue so much as a mandatory clothed orgy.
Anyway, speaking of orgies: Your average German is far more likely to see a stranger’s penis in regular day-to-day life — on TV, where soft-core pornography has played after 10 p.m. on free channels for decades; in a nonsexual capacity on the FKK beach — and they are, as Christoph explained back in the day, less likely to make a big squeamish giggling deal out of it. (Compare this to the prized ideal of the Evangelical American virgin bride who, until her wedding night, has never seen a human penis once.)
And yet (the Fundamentalists are gonna crow when they find this out): The demystified dong doesn’t seem to correlate with a particularly prodigious or un-prodigious desire for doin’ it — indeed, the average age of German virginity loss, 16.2, is more or less the same as our own, of 17.1. (I guess those purity balls really do work — eleven extra months of chastity!)
When I was a German professor, it was always my goal to impart not just grammar and vocabulary, but intercultural understanding, by which I mean making my students deeply uncomfortable and then hoping they would be remotely curious as to the origins of that discomfort. This I accomplished almost entirely with viewings of the repertoire of legendary German Schwanz-artiste and sometime filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. (“WARNING,” I’d write on page eleven of my fifty-page syllabus, “THIS FILM CONTAINS FULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY. PLEASE BE CHILL ABOUT IT.”)
As a proud member of the Young People’s Corruption Brigade, it was not just my vocation, but my sacred duty to nudge straight-laced Ohioans in the general direction of slightly less uptight fetishization of the human bathing-suit area. Sure, most of my students were already too old for my pernicious influence to contribute to lowering the dowdy U.S. virginity-loss age, so we could finally beat Germans at something besides a Best Inane Small Talk contest. But perhaps, at least, my university’s German majors could attend their own graduation with slightly less of an inclination to scream SCHWANZ during the speeches.