March 14, 2012

Making It New

Someone recently – I don't think it's worth linking to, because he hadn't done his homework – wrote a challenge to massage. Having googled massage a bit he'd come up with half-page list of claims for its medical benefits, from curing asthma to boosting immune function. Easy to do that: most massage sites have those bullet lists. I've written disparagingly about them before. What I'm interested in here, though, is the way he framed his challenge. “Sure, massage feels good,” he said, “but what if it doesn't really do any good?”

Discussions of the worth of massage tend to accept these as the two alternatives. Either massage is medically effective, or it “just feels good.”

Now, my heart revolts – and I'd guess yours does too, if you're bothering to read this – at the idea that massage “just feels good.” You could say the same thing, after all, about love or art. They are, in some senses, not very useful. You can, without too much of a stretch, come up with “uses” for them – love ties together the social fabric, say, or art extends the boundaries of thought – but really, nobody falls in love in order to knit together society, and no one stands transfixed in front of a wonderful painting in order to conscientiously do their self-development exercises. Some things are worth doing for their own sake. If we make up justifications for them afterward, it's only because we fully intend to keep doing them anyway, and we need some excuse to present to our utilitarian critics. That's how the bullet lists of the medical benefits of massage have always struck me. “If your spouses object to the expense, show them this list, and a link to the Mayo Clinic page, and maybe that will shut them up.”

To say that massage feels good is like saying that Cezanne's paintings are pretty. It's not that the statement is wrong, exactly: it's just inadequate, and it makes you wonder if you and your interlocutor live in the same world. Someone in the comment thread said, a little petulantly, “have you ever gotten a massage?”

I've been trying to work out an explanation of what exactly I think massage, as I practice it, is, and why I think it's important. In a therapeutic massage group yesterday, I wrote this explanation of why I was rejecting massage as therapy. It's the best summary I've been able to come up with yet:
It's not that I think my practice is particularly ineffective, from the therapeutic point of view: I don't think my outcomes differ markedly from the mean. But back when I was a client, I didn't get massage for therapeutic reasons, as understood in this group. Nor did I get it because it felt good. (Though it may well have been therapeutic, and it certainly often felt good.) I got massage for the same reason I meditate, or read poetry, or listen to music: it's a form of -- how can I put it? -- of travel. It's the closest thing I can imagine to borrowing a different nervous system and trying it on. Ezra Pound said the job of poetry was to "make it new": that's what massage does for me, both as giver and receiver. I want to own up to that being my basic project, without taking on any of this healer or shaman or "energy worker" stuff.


  1. Ezra Pound said the job of poetry was to "make it new": that's what massage does for me, both as giver and receiver.


  2. Excellent. You can say this of so many practices of life, from yoga, to poetry, to gardening, to keeping tropical fish. Whatever one loves, she does for its own sake.

  3. Yes, my comment was a bit petulant -- I still think it was a valid question. :) With certain forms of therapeutic massage, the results are measurable (i.e. increased range of motion in a joint). I should think that someone in his line of work would be able to see and appreciate such a thing, but I could be wrong.

  4. Hi Bethany! I think this comment must have slid here from another conversation? But in any case, let me say that I admire people who are doing therapeutic massage, and I think it has value. I even still practice it. You're right, there are measurable results, and it does help people. My aim here is not to disparage anyone else's practice, but to understand and explain my own.