Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Disposable Rocket

Inhabiting a male body is like having a bank account; as long as it’s healthy, you don’t think much about it. Compared to the female body, it is a low-maintenance proposition: a shower now and then, trim the fingernails every ten days, a haircut once a month. Oh yes, shaving—scraping or buzzing away at your face every morning. Byron, in Don Juan, thought the repeated nuisance of shaving balanced out the periodic agony, for females, of childbirth. Women are, his lines tell us,
Condemn’d to child-bed, as men for their sins Have shaving too entail’d upon their chins,— A daily plague, which the aggregate May average on the whole with parturition. 
From the standpoint of reproduction, the male body is a delivery system, as the female is a mazy device for retention. Once the delivery is made, men feel a faith but distinct falling-off of interest. Yet against the enduring realm heroics of birth and nurture should be set the male’s superhuman frenzy to deliver his goods: he vaults walls, skips sleep, risks wallet, health, and his political future all to ram home his seed into the gut of the chosen woman. The sense of the chase lives in him as the key to life. His body is, like a delivery rocket that falls away in space, a disposable means. Men put their bodies at risk to experience the release from gravity. 

When my tenancy of a male body was fairly new—of six or so years’ duration—I used to jump and fall just for the joy of it. Falling—backwards, or downstairs—became a specialty of mine, an attention-getting stunt I was still practicing into my thirties, at suburban parties. Falling is, after all, a kind of flying, though of briefer duration than would be ideal. My impulse to hurl myself from high windows and the edges of cliffs belongs to my body, not my mind, which resists the siren call of the chasm with all its might; the interior struggle knocks the wind from my lungs and tightens my scrotum and gives any trip to Europe, with its Alps, castle parapets, and gargoyled cathedral lookouts, a flavor of nightmare. Falling, strangely, no longer figures in my dreams, as it often did when I was a boy and my subconscious was more honest with me. An airplane, that necessary evil, turns the earth into a map so quickly the brain turns aloof and calm; still, I marvel that there is no end of young men willing to become jet pilots. 

Any accounting of male-female differences must include the male’s superior recklessness, a drive not, I think, toward death, as the darkest feminist cosmogonies would have it, but to test the limits, to see what the traffic will bear—a kind of mechanic’s curiosity. The number of men who do lasting damage to their young bodies is striking; war and car accidents aside, secondary-school sports, with the approval of parents and the encouragement of brutish coaches, take a fearful toll of skulls and knees. We were made for combat, back in the postsimian, East-African days, and the bumping, the whacking, the breathlessness, the painsmothering adrenaline rush form a cumbersome and unfashionable bliss, but bliss nevertheless. Take your body to the edge, and see if it flies.

by John Updike, Brown University |  Read more: (pdf)
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