When poets speak of death: 100 aphorisms and epigrams on massage

Qian Shaowu nude

Painting by Qian Shaowu (钱绍武)

“When poets speak of death, they call it the place without breasts.”
Ramon Gomez de la Serna, 1917

The most eloquent means of seduction is the direct and forthright sexual proposal, though it rarely works in practice. The conventional romantic approach of dating or wooing is a better bet yet time-consuming, expensive and often insincere as well. Midpoint between these two approaches is massage, the ideal space for sexual negotiation, whereby one can get right down to business or pretend not to as the occasion demands.

Our age is marked by a poverty of the sexual imagination, where sex is just what it is, unadorned. Massage is the only physical activity to optionally incorporate sex and subordinate it to another purpose.

Think of jazz’s relationship to classical music. And then to the blues tradition and rock. Massage has the same relationship to yoga on the one hand and fucking on the other.

Massaging the pectoral muscles close to the collarbone can quickly cause a person to cry. That’s because deep memories are stored in these muscles and released for the first time. In fact, one of the main functions of the body’s musculature is to store memories, freeing up the brain to handle more immediate or vital information. Could it not be said that people in non-touching cultures such as the Anglo-Saxon release their pent-up memories so violently they must be policed?

People who are obsessed with massage were not massaged as a baby, or received insufficient touching from the mother, just as men who are obsessed with women’s breasts were probably denied the breast as a baby. The other great obsession is love. Of the three, massage is the most civilized.

Nothing soothes the ragged state of sleeplessness more than a massage. But instead of falling asleep, it only wakes you up. This is explained by the release of the body’s natural morphine, the endorphins, particularly from a good backrub. Come to think of it this may be something worth marketing: Massage Therapy for Insomniacs.

If you question whether massage can be called an art, rather than just a skill, you haven’t tried asymmetrical massage.

There’s a curious relationship between massage and death: it seems the only proper thing to do to a loved one on their deathbed. If the flesh is too sensitive and tired, massage the feet. Or the genitals. Anything, to help ease him or her into the passing, exactly as the baby is eased and massaged out of the womb at birth.

Those who have a stake in the polite massage business of bodywork centers, New Age spas, aromatherapy, “Sensual Massage” coffee-table books with airbrushed bodies, and the like, need not read further. People who own cars are not in a moral position to propound on massage etiquette anyway.

The massage therapy industry has much in common with naturist societies in the extent to which both express an old-fashioned revulsion at the specter of uninvited sex: an erection is as threatening as a gun. Nudists remind me of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden with their pet serpent.

Massage therapists who insist on keeping sex out of massage are like salesmen who push their product on family and friends: they’re better at the job than the job requires.

Of course, many seek out massage purely on therapeutic grounds—back pain, a sports injury—and nothing could be further from their mind than sexual stimulation. But isn’t this a good occasion for introducing it? Similarly, nothing could be further from my mind than the religious proselytizer who confronts me on the street, yet isn’t that the most suitable place for proselytizing?

Many people desire massage neither for a specific treatment nor for sex but something in between, and they will pay good money to the therapist who can locate that sweet spot. When it’s found, they moan.

The claim that massage has nothing to do with sex is like claiming that a boat has nothing to do with water just because it’s dry on the inside. True, water will sink a boat if allowed to leak in. But do you really want to insist that massage is nothing more than a technique for sealing the body from sexual leakage?

What about the poor guy who gets a hard-on the moment he mounts the massage table, or when touched on another part of his body? Is an involuntary erection an offense? Surely not. But if the therapist then steers clear of his erection by avoiding the belly altogether, should the guy be entitled to a discount for curtailed services, or implicitly punished by denying him one? For that matter, what about a therapist who insists on massaging the belly even with an erection present, which would require her to make repeated contact with the penis?

Is it so challenging to imagine the ideal masseur or masseuse, who, while skilled at therapeutic massage, gives each customer what he or she wants, no more or no less, whether it’s just a back massage or a genital massage? Isn’t that what they are paying for? Isn’t it cheating to take their money after denying them the massage they really want and their body demands? Isn’t it a failure of the imagination not to intuit what they want without the need to ask?

A massage business could vastly increase its clientele if a bondage option was offered, in which the customer was fastened to the massage table with ropes or shackles.

Why not call massage therapy by its true name? Sex therapy. If one only wants a back or a foot massage, the qualified sex therapist can offer that too. The best foot massages are highly erotic. And did you know the back begins at the buttocks, and to get at where the spine starts you have to work inside the butt cheeks?

In ancient Rome, the soap of choice was scented olive oil. Masseurs used a curved blade known as a strigil for deftly scraping the oil off your body after a rubdown. The strigil was even used on the face. I can’t imagine they left any other parts out, when to do so would leave you feeling less than fully washed and refreshed.

Sexual massage is so inextricably associated in most people’s minds with prostitution that the not uncommon phenomenon of the gratis happy ending lies outside the pale of the imagination, where it can thrive unseen.

Group massage should always be undertaken in multiples of three. That way one can be massaged simultaneously by two people. It is the supreme massage experience. Nothing else comes close.

Massage ought to be free. Instead of paying for it, one should have the option of massaging the therapist in turn.

The massage hobbyist should not have to invest in any special materials or devices. Ideally it’s done on the grass under the sun, using the body’s natural perspiration as a lubricant (supplemented with a creamy sunscreen if necessary). Sexual juices are also good lubricants, or breast milk, especially when mixed with the sweat that pours during bodily excitement. The giver should be naked as well, drenching the receiver in his or her perspiration.

It has always struck me as one of modern society’s great ironies that we are taught to value things in direct proportion to the amount of money we must spend on them. Also incredible is how many free and pleasurable activities involving the body—massage for example—are restricted to certain contexts or sites, namely the monogamous relationship and the commercial transaction, and discouraged or proscribed outside of them. But the real shocker is that people happily go along with this arrangement.

People these days get all kinds of tattoos and facial or body piercings to celebrate their uniqueness and push the envelope of radical expression in our unprecedented era of personal freedom. Yet whoever dares accept a free massage from someone they are not in a relationship with? That is the limit of radical expression everyone abides by.

To do it well, with skill and aplomb, massage and fucking alike require practice, experience and technique. When was the last time you had a real expert show you how to do either?

In a sense, massage is even scarier than sex. Fucking merely fits various shapes into matching holes. Massage is a lot more bizarre: gathering up folds of flesh, separating the flesh from the rest of the body and rolling it around in the fingers, before replacing it back where it belongs. We’re on uncharted and dangerous territory here.

The philosopher Louis Althusser was massaging his wife on the neck when he unwittingly obstructed the blood flow to her brain and killed her. Later it came out that he had actually strangled her. Now, why would anyone want to do something like that?

The fundamental identity of massage and sex is nowhere better experienced than in internal massage, otherwise known as anal fisting, universally proclaimed by practitioners to be by far the most intense and powerful sexual experience available to humans.

Some regard massage as a base camp to prepare for the climb up to the sexual summit that inaugurates a relationship. But might not the base camp itself be the summit for some people and as far as they ever want to go?

The more you emphasize the nonsexual nature of the massage you want to give someone so as to put them at ease, the more you frighten them. People know their Freud. To say something is “nonsexual” automatically implies its opposite. You only call attention to how inevitably things will turn sexual. Substituting “therapeutic” for “nonsexual” likewise just makes things worse.

Could the appeal of massage be that it is sex for beginners? And I really mean beginners: “Now folks, here’s where we learn how to touch…”

Massage is structured sex: broken down into its component parts and reassembled along logical lines. It’s sex rationalized. In the process, it has become a metaphor for sex—one can do it with the clothes on. It’s a way of pretending to have sex in dead seriousness (though you need a bit of humor to appreciate it). Massage is displaced sex; it stands for sex. It’s what people do as if they were having sex. That’s why it’s as scary as sex.

If sexual enjoyment lies more in the anticipation than in the act, where does massage fit in? It’s the attempt to merge the two, to capture the enjoyment of the act. But this constitutes a kind of violation of the order of things, and it’s why many people will agree to sex before they agree to a massage.

To enjoy the possibilities massage has to offer beyond conventional therapeutic procedures, one needs to make a leap of the imagination (remarkably easy to do once you realize you’ve been conned against doing so all along). But once you break through to conceptual freedom, you can’t go back to mere sex. There is only massage—and technique. While you may recoil at the idea that lovemaking can be reduced to pure technique, it can in fact: love is the loving application of technique.

A lot of your confusion and fear of massage will resolve itself instantly once you realize your body isn’t really your own. It’s the common property of the community—to soothe, satisfy, treat and cure, or whatever we decide is required.

Why massage? Why not just a gentle pat? It is in fact a very strange occupation, this rubbing of people. Isn’t it most justified and necessitated by the very people who cringe at the prospect?

To find a lover, one needs to be on the lookout for one. This is as momentous and triumphant an undertaking as seeking a free massage from someone skilled enough to do it.

As a college literature student, I regularly watched porn in order to energize the subconscious and stir up the creative juices when writing a difficult paper. Massage is a more powerful means of countering writer’s block, at its best approaching the efficacy of marijuana. It is certainly more effective than alcohol. The only problem is that it’s even more addicting than porn, pot and booze put together, and you risk getting nothing done at all.

I don’t recall the first time I desired a massage, or even my first massage. I do remember the first time I wanted to be caressed on the ass. I was thirteen and only newly aware of sex. But it clearly wasn’t sexual attraction, as the person I had in mind to do it was repulsive to me. This explains the crucial difference of massage: it’s a way of connecting with people we would not otherwise connect with. It’s a back door for people you’ve shut your front door to. If they’re savvy enough, they can find their way in.

Wilhelm Reich was on to something in his equating of rigid “body armor” with the authoritarian or fascist personality structure. Nowhere are people more vulnerable than naked and passive on the massage table. To invite people who cannot bear to be touched for a massage often elicits a violent verbal reaction (even if you allow them to hold on to their gun). Is there something as well to the observation that one of the most peaceful of countries, Thailand, also has among the highest per capita number of massage parlors?

Could it be that one of the reasons people are so embarrassed by massage, even more than sex, is that it reminds us of our mammalian instinct for grooming?

I would very much like to see the result of introducing an elective massage therapy course in high school, one that required the students to practice on each other. Sex education, as controversial as it is in some countries despite clearly being worthwhile for the teaching of health and hygiene, is palatable enough, perhaps because teenagers are already doing it on their own. But massage? In Anglo-Saxon and many other cultures, the idea would be inconceivable and shocking in the extreme, so much so that it has likely never previously been proposed or even thought of. Nothing is more revealing of the nature of the society we live in than unthinkable thoughts.

I once assumed that a fashion for naked massage was as likely to ever happen as a fashion for building houses around trees—as in around a tree, enclosing a tree. That is, until I found such a place, a café built around a sycamore tree in Shanghai. But now that the once glorious sight of Chinese women’s hairy armpits is rapidly dwindling due to the Western fashion of body shaving, my briefly resurrected hope is as well. Or it needs to be reframed as one that is as likely to exist as a fashion for winter coats lined with authentic underarm hair.

I’ve long respected the witchdoctors of our time, the body worker experts in massage, chiropractic, acupuncture, yoga, qigong, and the like. I couldn’t imagine the amount of skill and knowledge required to master a single one of these disciplines. Yet it then occurred to me, the fact so many of these body workers were popping up everywhere suggested it might not be so difficult after all. Like a lot of complicated things, it’s just hard at first. You quickly get the hang of it and the procedure soon becomes second nature. You too could become a master, or more or less pass for one, in a matter of months. All you have to do is apply yourself. It would certainly be a lot easier than the challenge of getting someone on the table for the first time to be massaged.

What underlies the dread at the prospect of a massage other than humiliation? Not the calibrated humiliation of masochistic play (though we all need a bit of masochism in us to enjoy massage), but the profounder humiliation of being laid out on the operating table.

“Oh, God, there are naked people inside!” exclaimed the woman as she ran back to the safety of her car after glimpsing a massage party in full swing through my front door. The other woman standing out on the street threw me the biggest apologetic look she could muster before retreating to the car. I had met her only the day before and had invited her. Clearly she had not been forthright with her friend as to the nature of the party they were going to. She should have proudly pushed it, even if that was the end of it.

The massage dilemma: a practice devoted to working all the parts of the body except where it most counts—the big joint in the human contraption where the legs come together. To go along with the prejudice against this hapless body part is a bit like insisting that the four humors (blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile) still rule the human constitution, or that the liver is the seat of sexual desire, as was believed in ancient medicine.

The problem a lot of people seem to have with massage is precisely that it’s a substitute for sex, as if this constituted an appalling redundancy. What’s missing, of course, is a sense of irony. But irony in the context of sex turns out to be even more disturbing than massage.

Being massaged often induces laughter, especially among ticklish types. But just watch what would happen if the massage therapist burst out laughing. I suppose it would not be regarded as very funny.

What keeps many first-timers away from massage is not fear of being sexually touched so much as fear of the unknown: the exasperating uncertainty involved. The massage parlor is a house of horrors upon entering, and quite often the tackiest of experiences upon exiting.

An odd occupation indeed, this massaging of people. If not for money or sex, why in the world would anyone want to do it? What’s the appeal in rubbing another person’s flesh? If not an expression of love, is it a tactic of control? Or is it primarily aesthetic, like the sculptor who labors away at refined three-dimensional objects that serve no practical purpose?

Let’s compare massage and torture. Both commonly place the recipient on a dedicated table and go to work with great care and precision, applying targeted pressure to the body to achieve certain results. Unlike a surgical operation, massage and torture start with a healthy body and require the recipient to be conscious and responsive during the procedure. They represent extreme antipodes of intimate bodily attention and seem to differ only in being the obverse of each other, one fortunate and the other unfortunate, one the ultimate expression of humor, the other the ultimate expression of the absence of humor. I suppose a person being tortured might try to block out the pain by imagining its sweet obverse; or in a moment of lucidness might be struck by the tragic irony of the situation. Nobody ever deserves torture, while everybody deserves massage—and yet the two are so close. Perhaps the torturer himself uses a carrot-and-stick approach, massaging the very body part he traumatized only a minute before to help ease out a confession. Who knows, he might even make a superb masseur.

The US is one of the few countries to employ entrapment (undercover police posing as customers soliciting sex) to ferret out massage prostitution, defined in some States as any exposure or touching of the genitals or breasts in a commercial massage. If you want to understand American massage culture, you need to start from this.

Sometimes all it takes is a shift in context. For instance, the madrigal (the a cappella art song that flourished in Renaissance Italy), which is so esoteric most classical music listeners aren’t even sure what it is. But take your usual madrigal troupe standing stiffly before their scores in concert attire and seat them haphazardly among guests in a drawing room, or in a circle on the lawn of a campus commons surrounded by students, or in the reverberant space of a subway station, and the formerly inscrutable object emerges in crystalline splendor. Now do the same with massage and shift its context from the luxury spa to the humble dinner party.

The coupling of loneliness and computer technology has resulted in an explosion of products that have the population effectively enslaved—Facebook and other networking sites, photo-messaging, sexting apps, and so forth. No doubt the technology will grow more incredible in the years to come, as will the possibilities of virtual sex—and virtual massage. I foresee massage robots. I foresee mechanical hands operated remotely by a massage therapist or friend whom you could massage virtually in turn. And yet, isn’t the most notable aspect of all this technology that it’s just an avoidance strategy from the most advanced act of all—live massage among two or more friends?

Is erotic massage the result of an experiment to invent a guilt-free form of cheating?

The earliest massage you receive is in the womb as the mother caresses you over her pregnant belly. The earliest massage you give is to chew your mother’s nipple. Is this why some societies are so disturbed at the sight of public breastfeeding? That it’s not purely for the sake of the baby after all but keenly enjoyed by both mother and baby?

What massage is all about and what makes it different from sex is that it’s the attempt to get at the erotic disburdened of the personality. It’s the body literally laid out on the table, sex on a platter as it were, with the distracting face conveniently out of the way. Whenever I am asked what my favorite fruit is, my answer is always whatever fruit I happen to be eating at the time. Similarly, my favorite massage partner or patron is never a particular person but the legs of whichever person I happen to be opening up at the time.

One way to inquire as to the value of an activity or practice is whether it’s productive beyond itself, whether something can be learned from it—not the knowledge required to practice it but the knowledge that results from perfecting the practice. Does massage constitute a discipline in this sense, a form of knowledge? Can it improve not just the body but life itself? As a result of a life steeped in massage, is one any the wiser? Is the goal to master it, or on the contrary, to outgrow it?

The ideal massage would consist in the therapist zeroing in on just one spot—the body’s central itch, the psychic boil—and going in deep enough to reach it. And if this happens to be the anus?

Let’s again compare massage and lovemaking. You know when you try to kiss someone you’re passionately attracted to and they pull back after a few moments? It’s not because you’ve committed some mortal offense, but simply that they’re not ready (or willing). However, the same does not apply to massage. There is no give and take, no experimentation. You cannot just waltz onto a person’s taboo zones. The body is offered only after being declared partly off-limits. One reason for this is that lovemaking is a kind of battle; with massage, the recipient has already surrendered but without giving up the fort.

American women enthusiastically show off their breasts down to but not including the nipple. They are fastidious in devising ways to keep the exact perimeter of the areolas securely and reliably out of sight as they caper about. Chinese women, by contrast, shield their breasts behind bulky bras and frown upon cleavage. Yet they can be counted on to expose their nipples with disarming carelessness when bending down. Similarly, massage establishments per capita in China far outnumber the same in the US.

Only those who have broken through to aesthetic freedom can appreciate the art of massage. Only those who realize its utter pointlessness and uselessness can begin to cultivate it.

Whoever experiences my writings on massage as an assault on decency and has made it as far as this paragraph only by virtue of having opened the book at random, would do better to level the charge of political irrelevance in this looming endgame era of ours. And yet literary frivolity and sordidness has never been more relevant. Both their excess and their paucity drive home how we got into such a catastrophic predicament in the first place.

Massage as a metaphor for truth? It’s not a metaphor but an identity, or more exactly, a synecdoche. In any case, the relationship is unfortunate. For whoever is interested in the truth?

A married Japanese woman I had long been attracted to once visited me in China. As it approached bedtime on her first night with me, I wavered between two delicious proposals: to offer her a massage or take a bath with her. Both involved dramatic unveilings—the parting of the robe or the parting of the shower curtain. They were therefore incompatible, since such drama and suspense can only be released once, the first time. We took a bath. She told me she was hoping for a massage.

“Massage therapy” in the West implies a body massage with oil, i.e., a Swedish deep-tissue massage, which requires oil to plasticize and open up the flesh and ease the fingers into the muscles. In the East, massage shops explicitly promote “oil massage” in distinction to the non-oil treatments that are traditionally available. Yet the “oil” of oil massage inevitably has connotations and nuances all by itself. For many, it’s the most inconvenient of substances, which dirties up the flesh and sends one into the shower. It’s not quite a euphemism for sex but something more obscure, an unctuous Other drawing both male and female Western tourists and mocking them at the same time.

To return to the topic of torture: for some, massage is torture play, something sought out not for pleasure but for the sake of pain. Of course, no massage is satisfying without a degree of discomfort, but the more adept technicians locate the hard knots in the body where the lightest precision touch delivers pure pain—and delayed pleasure. The variety of stressful massage treatments available testifies to this demand, from acupressure to acupuncture, from deep-tissue worrying of the musculature to the relentless jabbing of Chinese massage, from chiropractic and Rolfing to shaking and slamming people against the wall.

I want to evolve massage, to lift it into the realm of dissonance, to invent new and unprecedented techniques: e.g., levitation massage: suspending someone above you with your arms and legs while lying on the floor and massaging them with all four limbs. I want to make sculptures of people being massaged. I want to create musical compositions out of their recorded groans.

It’s well known that sexual attraction is all about smell. Are massage therapists truly able to maintain the highest standards of their practice when a customer’s hostile or friendly pheromones get in the way? I suppose it must be a constant struggle, not always victorious.

Developed countries accord people a greater degree of privacy in all spheres of activity than developing countries, and this applies to massage establishments. In the West, patrons always get their private room or cubicle. The idea of being massaged openly in front of other patrons, even just for foot massage, is objectionable. Things are far laxer in the East, particularly China, where privacy is never a right, a given; where you are hardly bothered when a stranger barges in on you while being examined naked in the doctor’s office or massaged in a spa or parlor. But the question at stake here is whether private massage is in fact unsatisfying because it’s inevitably confused with intimacy, whereas public massage frees you up, if disarmingly so, to relax into things.

How do you fantasize the initial sexual scene with someone you’re passionate about? How does it ideally unfold? Kissing followed by entangled limbs? Entangled limbs followed by kissing? Best to maul the body before or after peeling the clothes off? Or is it better to start everything off with a massage? Of course, it is. But however does one propose a massage to someone you’re in love with? It’s a bit like putting your arm around a date at the movies before taking her hand: you’re upsetting protocol.

The normal person on the massage table expects oil, the madman the hatchet, the artist menstrual blood.

What is radical massage? It differs from nervous massage in transforming the motions of the hands into gestures.

Why massage when dancing is everything? Massage focuses and concentrates the dance. It could even be described as a form of dance, if not for the fact one person is passive. But then there is mutual massage.

Among the things planted in the garden of radical self-expression are erotic situations. Massage is like those mail-order companies that give you countless flower seeds to choose from. Case in point: a banker I was dating in Beijing. Things were moving glacially with her. To speed things up, I proposed giving her a massage. Bu xing, no way. I asked her to give me a massage. Bu xing. I suggested both of us getting massaged together at a luxury spa. Bu xing. How about letting me watch you get massaged? Bu xing. How about watching me get massaged? That worked.

The masseuse’s fingers creep into my body’s crevices the way I creep into my dreams.

If love ultimately outgrows sex, enlightened sex likewise outgrows love. Most ultimately grasp the necessity of the former; few ever grasp the latter. In other words there are two kinds of sexuality. What makes erotic massage difficult for so many is that it is suspended between the two. It is quite a balancing act.

There are many reasons to pay for massage, but in China one stands out. With an unlimited number of massage shops and masseuses and masseurs, I can meet a new person each time. Few can be friends. But one might.

The difference between massage as a science and massage as an art is that with the former you know exactly what you’re getting, whereas with the latter you don’t. This is acceptable on a museum wall or in a theater, perhaps, but on the body? Too terrifying to contemplate for most.

The problem with how-to books on massage is that they reduce an art to a procedure, or worse, a list, a manual. Massage should really be taught like Zen, where the rules must be invented afresh each time. A calligraphy for the body.

If you agree to a massage on first encounter, you deprive me of the opportunity to seduce you, but you blow me away by your clarity.

I wish I could get women as caught up in massage as they are in the horoscope! It’s been my lifelong endeavor to fathom the strange appeal of the horoscope. If it’s the arcane that fascinates, why limit yourself to the Western zodiac? Why not the Chinese meridian system? For Daoists as for Renaissance astrologists, the body is a microcosm of the planets. The meridians directly access the cosmic Qi through bodily manipulation and massage. If you want to know where I’m located on the celestial chart, the answer is literally at your fingertips.

It’s the strangest of jobs, this strenuous manual labor performed many hours a day on virtually naked bodies, the majority of which hold no attraction for the massage therapist and may be unwashed and smelly on top of it. Even purged of all sexual insinuation, is it not a kind of sex work? To adopt the peculiar view that it’s not sex work when it obviously is, is like insisting alcohol and tobacco are not drugs because they’re legal. Now, I happen to like wine even though it’s a drug. Similarly, I happen to like both the alcoholic and non-alcoholic varieties of commercial massage. I have no problem in designating both of them prostitution, given the corresponding freedom with which our society stretches the term “drug” to suit its various interests.

On the other hand, isn’t massage best carried out in accordance with the Japanese aesthetic of Wabi-Sabi, with everything a bit “off,” under-optimized, in the rough, soiled, dirty?

It’s curious how shocked and saddened we are by the sudden breakup or divorce of a couple we had thought were perfectly matched and in an indestructible relationship. It seems almost unforgivable (until we learn the facts of the case). The prerogative—the autonomy—we grant ourselves as a matter of course about when to enter into or terminate a relationship—we don’t grant to others. I’ve long been mystified by this hypocrisy that inclines us to be more disappointed in others than in ourselves. Or could it be that our friends’ actions speak to their failure—and remind us of everyone’s failure—to harmoniously absorb new lovers, a new couple, and segue into a foursome? And to use massage as the ideal means to this end?

Nothing makes me cringe more than those desperate “sexy lingerie” stratagems in women’s advice columns for “rekindling the bedroom fire” and saving a marriage. Coffee-table massage books don’t help either and get quickly discarded in the kitsch pile, like those fancy toys that look so great in the TV commercial which the child plays with only once (if anything is the real moral problem of our time it’s none other than waste). Commitment must be continuously recharged just to keep the relationship treadmill going. Paradoxically, though, there is no better method of shoring up commitment than bringing in outside people to join the couple in erotic massage.

Massage freaks so many people out, I suggest, because it’s one of the only activities utterly shorn of reassuring symbols, or any symbols. Just hands on a body. Even sex is a symbolic expression of love. Massage is a fistfight in slow motion, a gentle fistfight.

Is there such a thing as passionate massage, the way we speak of passionate sex? In order to be effective does massage need to be hypercool and controlled, like a surgeon with the scalpel? Or frenzied and furious? The more you are into the body you’re massaging, the more your hands shake from hormonal spasms and the more you fuck up the massage. The less you are into the body, the more predictable and professional the treatment, but there is no love in the hands.

Mulierem enim seu uirgo seu uidua sit, grauis et honesta matrona proco nudam exhibet, ac probus aliquis uir uicissim nudum puellae procum sistit,” wrote Thomas More in his Utopia (published in 1516), which allowed prospective couples to view each other naked before committing themselves in marriage. While it was intended to fine-tune the marital choice to help ensure fidelity under pain of death, the idea is a splendid one, in spirit at least and beheading aside. Thus I propose that everyone give each other a massage after their initial encounter as a way of breaking the ice.

Massage steps in to deal with the hand grenade of jealousy that often blows up a relationship before it’s barely gotten started. What massage does is to take apart the grenade and lay all the parts neatly out on the table—casing, screws, springs, triggers, pins, primers, circlets and wires—everything arranged with the stylishness of a circuit board or a gun show display and flattened out for the sake of sober analysis.

Can one become addicted to massage? Absolutely. As addictions go, it is one of the most productive in terms of wisdom gained, being after all a pioneering investigation into the flesh, the least understood of organs.

When I tell people I’m writing a book on one of society’s more fraught and funnier conundrums, they say, “What’s the problem? I love massage. I go for it all the time.” That enthusiasm lasts until I offer to give them a free, expert massage. Not only do they refuse, they refuse so emphatically I dare not ever bring up the topic again. It’s as if I invited them to an opium den or a meth lab.

The remnants of the day, like a still life: wine stains on the coffee table, ashtray with roach, chips and salsa, and in my underwear, thighs besmeared with oil. Ah, it’s time for a shower and fresh bed sheets, for there’s another house-call massage in the morning.

One frequent argument of the polite massage industry for divesting massage of the erotic is a technical one: the Gumby-like flattening out of the body in intensive deep-tissue work is wholly antagonistic to the contorted tension of sexual excitation. They are deemed not only mutually exclusive states of mind; either is physically distressing in the presence of the other—the former expelling tension from the body, the latter sucking it into the body. But in fact the two are not incompatible. Simply start with erotic massage and conclude with chaste or “therapeutic” massage. If you need structure, adopt that of the short story: rising conflict and climax (sexual suspense and release), followed by dénouement (relaxing massage).

If one feels that people are hard nuts to crack for stubbornly resisting massage, there is a certain truth to it. They are still in their shell, and massage is needed precisely to soften up the chrysalis and catalyze molting into a winged creature of erotic joy.

The polysemy of massage entails the practice, finally, to be a linguistic one, interactional in function, a species of invitation. “Massage” doesn’t really mean what it supposedly means; it only considers, offers. It is also a classic example of the floating signifier, something like the Polynesian concept of mana, “a symbol in the pure state,” capable of being invested with any symbolic content: “symbolic value zero” (Levi-Strauss).

You may divest massage of the erotic, but you can’t divest it of its affect.

The burden of love wears one down over time until, like a heavy anchor, one no longer has the strength to carry it but finds some rest and consolation in friendship. The burden of sex likewise weighs one down until sufficient rest and satisfaction is found on the massage table.

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1 reply »

  1. Every culture is massively different as you are well aware Isham. Most Americans live a life scared out of their minds—-scared of everything—-walk up to someone on the street and tap them on the shoulder to get their attention and the person usually almost has a heart attack thinking they are being attacked——how many of these people do you think would be into being massaged naked by a naked stranger? It seems to me that something like that would only happen in cultures where people feel safe/happy being naked in public like the countries that have nude beaches and generally feel ok with their bodies. I know that this article is your absolute dream world but I don’t see it happening anytime soon—especially the free massage part!

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