No me podrán quitar el dolorido
sentir, si ya del todo
primero no me quitan el sentido.
—Garcilaso de la Vega, ÉGLOGA
One of my graduate school professors, a Spaniard, was fond of quoting this verse of Garcilaso. A scholar of Spain’s Generation of ’98, he was attracted to the existentialist thrust of the verse, which opposed the Cartesian cogito, ergo sum with I feel; therefore, I am. El dolorido sentir. The pained feeling. Except that in Spanish feeling is expressed by sentimiento – sentiment. And Garcilaso chose the infinitive sentir – to feel – which indicates a more powerful, muscular essence of the verb. And then he opposes it to sentido, which means sense as well as consciousness. They can’t take away my pained feeling, my ability to feel pain, unless they first take away my sense, my consciousness, my life. I suffer; therefore, I am. Nothing could be more Spanish.
A similar sentiment or feeling or existential thought is expressed in a South American mestizo song:
I would like to cross the river
Without feeling the sand.
I’m free. I’m a master.
I can want.
And that concrete expression of an idea morphs into the singer’s erotic desire, for he has seen a pair of woman’s eyes and he is dying for them.
They tell me they have an owner
But even if owned I want them.
I’m free. I’m a master.
I can want.
No matter that the woman he wants is already taken. He is free to want her. No one can take that away from him. No one can take from him el dolorido sentir. In this case, el dolorido querer. The pained desire, the pained love.
Yes, they can.
Two days ago, the effects of the androgen-deprivation shot a doctor’s assistant had injected under my skin a month earlier kicked in. And now I don’t want. I don’t desire. I’m apathetic, without pathos, without feeling. Ay, Garcilaso. If you were to return, as Rafael Alberti wrote in his beautiful poem, I would be your squire, just to hear you utter your sweet Italianate Spanish verse as we rode. But I would have to tell you, mi señor, that your enamored shepherd was wrong. They can take away your dolorido sentir. Just ask Abelard. Did you know about Abelard, mi señor? You must have, you who were so erudite. They castrated him and, zap, no more desire. He was no longer free. No longer a master. He could not want (Eloise). And I, your humble squire, have been humbled thusly. Cut down without a blade but with the point of a needle.
I so desired, mi señor. I was so free, so full of want, so full of pain. But now, freedom, want, pain, they’re all gone. Perhaps I should be thankful. Desire breeds frustration. Frustration breeds neurosis, psychosis – but these will come later, mi señor, many centuries later. Enjoy your freedom from psychology. Your freedom to love and write verse. Soon you will die from battle wounds. No matter. You will be read, quoted, forever. By a Spanish professor at an American Midwestern university, in a graduate seminar on the Generation of ’98. 1898, mi señor, can you think that far ahead of your own 16th century? He will quote your lovesick shepherd and his boast that no one can take away his pain, his love, his sentir. And a young student will remember your words; will always remember it whenever fortune would not smile on his love life. Until that day a larger-than-love-life reversal of fortune gave the shepherd’s words, your words, mi señor, the lie. That day they took away his dolorido sentir.
The heated state of consciousness that is Eros feels as distant as breathing the atmosphere of another planet. At the beach I see young women in skimpy bathing suits and their curves, their exposed soft skin, the hair falling on bare shoulders, the breasts barely covered by cloth, the loins exposed enough to remind a man of where everything converges, these are all pleasant. Esthetic. Near-nudes in an art exhibit. Delighting my eyes, but no further.
Surprisingly, this condition is not frustrating. Though why should I be surprised? There can only be frustration when there’s desire and I experience none of the latter. I want not. I am a serene smiling Buddha with neutered testicles. ¡Cojones! Am I a man? I am alive, I reply to myself.
The big C, I remember John Wayne calling cancer when he had licked it, temporarily. But not even the Duke could blast his way out, like he did in The Shootist, a film biography not of the actor but of the role he was identified with, the one that filled the screen since that tracking shot in Stagecoach closes in on Ringo -- the lens goes out of focus for a second, a mistake John Ford never fixed with a second take, and I always thought that blur was Death already claiming its territory, blurring the man if not the myth.
The last time I saw Wayne was on TV, at the Academy Awards. Cancer had eaten away half his weight. I wished I'd never seen him like that.
Would I end up like him? The older I got the more I learned of people who had succumbed to cancer. It seemed like everyone eventually did. It seemed that since everyone must die, this is the death that was coming for us all. I felt cancer closing in, like Poe's Red Death mingling with the guests at the masque.
VIVO SIN VIVIR EN MI
Three nights ago I dreamed I was making love to St. Theresa of Avila. The 16th century Spanish mystic, in spite of her divine raptures, was no cloistered nun: she was an active church reformer who traveled widely throughout Spain and would plead her cases before the Crown. Her poetry is totally religious, addressing her soul’s need to rise to the divine. Yet, a strong sensuality courses through her verse. She speaks of her urge to “enjoy” her Lord, as if she were a love-hungry bride. Still, in my dream St. Theresa was no sex kitten.
On the contrary, she was though not ugly, plain. The setting was a swimming pool, where another woman, who had been a lover in real life but whose actual identity faded from my memory as soon as I woke, was present. All three of us had gone for a nude swim. At first, my attention was on the other woman, whose charms I knew. But eventually, I turned toward the saint. Her flesh was pallid, her long hair black; she seemed shy and embarrassed about the situation she found herself in. But there was something attractive about her very plainness and inexperience. And she was not totally reluctant. I touched her. She responded. Somehow we started to make love or were about to when I woke up.
What the . . . ! St. Theresa of Avila, of all the women I knew or knew about. But the dream excited me. I felt sensations I had not experienced for a while.
Still, what in the world was I doing with this saint? I didn't even like her poetry.
I had reached 60 and yearly physicals gave me passing grades. Only low-level miseries like high cholesterol. Good heart, lungs. Could be leaner, but I did exercise regularly. And my diet was good, nothing processed, plenty of fresh— organic even – produce.
The exam included blood work for prostate specific antigen – PSA – a protein produced by the prostate. A high number could be a sign of prostate cancer; mine were in the “safe” zone. The only troubling condition found in my last exam was blood traces in my urine. At first, the doctor thought it was a bladder infection and twice he prescribed antibiotics to knock it out. But the condition remained, so he sent me to an urologist.
Although I dreaded it, for the past years I had been subjecting myself to the indignity of the digital prostate exam, which, to my relief, showed nothing. In fact, my physical had included it and, once again, I got a pass. The urologist, who gave me a digital exam as a matter of course, was another matter, not exactly a lover with an easy touch. He dug in. It hurt like hell. He found a tumor.
He set me up for a biopsy – the blood traces proved to be nothing but a common and harmless seepage into the urinary tract.
“Sorry to tell you this, buddy, but you have cancer,’’ he told me on the phone a few days later. The uninvited guest had removed his mask.
HANDLE WITH CARE
Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death men among American men – the first is lung cancer. 186,320 American men diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2008, the year I began writing this, with 28,660 deaths that year. One of six American men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in his lifetime. And many more will have it and never know it because they will have died of something else.
There is still no clearly defined cause of prostate cancer – or of many other cancers – but environmental reasons are suspected. Diet perhaps. The American diet, which had made us big and strong, has also made us fat and susceptible to illness. Genetic risk factors are being investigated with the hope of identifying high-risk individuals, who should be monitored more closely.
In spite of its scythe’s wide swing, prostate cancer death is not inevitable. A diagnosis, particularly in the early stages, does not ring a death knell. On the contrary, standards of treatment work extremely well, while research for new treatments is moving rapidly. Organizations devoted to raising consciousness among men have the goal of no prostate cancer deaths, and this goal is not a chimera.
The list of high-profile alpha males who have it and are not just surviving but living to the fullest includes Colin Powell, Rudy Giuiliani , John Kerry, Robert De Niro.
Or so I thought until I walked into the urologist’s office in Miami, where I live. Sad little old men accompanied by their sad little old wives. Hey, where are the studs? At Memorial Sloan-Kettering in New York, where I had gone to get a second opinion on treatment, it was a slightly different story. Indeed, a lot of the men were older, but at least some were better dressed. One of them was definitely an Alpha. And that was his problem.
He wore a tight black leather jacket and tight blue jeans, both clean and crisp. Not much older than 50, he was in terrific shape. He paced up and down impatiently, talking into his cell phone. He looked like a man used to owning the street, and, indeed, he was. He was a cop.
I could tell his profession by the nature of the conversations I overheard. But, God, how hard it must have been for him to submit to the indignities of this disease! To have his virility threatened, vanished perhaps. That guy’s in a worse place than I am, I thought. At least, I was never that high up the macho ladder so my fall is not as terrifying.
The urologist at Sloan-Kettering was reassuring. His surgery would attempt to spare as much nerve as possible. Nerves could be rewired, like an electrician patching up damaged cable. Then there were procedures to induce virility, like the Viagra-family pills. All was not lost.
I was not depressed. And I didn't hinge my manhood on my penis and mixed up my power with potency, like the pacing cop who walked up and down the crowded waiting room in the basement of the Sloan-Kettering building devoted entirely to our sick prostates, our fragile manhood.
PRETTY TO THINK SO
“There are worse things than celibacy, Mr. Shannon,” Deborah Kerr tells Richard Burton in The Night of the Iguana. “Yes,” replies the drunken Episcopalian priest expatriated in Mexico, “lunacy and death.”
Burton’s character was being flip, as usual, and, also as usual, hyperbolic. Death is no more, perhaps even less feared by men than, if not celibacy, impotence, an unwilled formed of celibacy. As men age, we become more susceptible to bouts of impotence. It begins with drinking – and for those who indulge, drug use. For much of our first years of drinking and fucking, we can do both with abandon. But sooner or later, the moment of truth arrives and one too many means one too less. Trouble is we are used to alcohol putting us – and our partners – in the mood for love. But where, indeed, our partners at the receiving end may indeed be very much in the mood, our penis won’t respond. That is when a man discovers his vulnerability.
I was an eager reader in my teens, and impotence was then just one more bookish experience. I read about it in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises – all the Hemingway I’ve read was in my teens, his novels being the ultimate boy stories. Jake Barnes, the narrator, had suffered a war injury that rendered him impotent. At the end of the book he and the alluring Brett are riding through Paris in a cab when “a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic . . . raised his baton. The car slowed pressing Brett against” Jake, who can feel her lusciousness but can do nothing about it. She had just told him, “Oh, Jake . . . we could have had such a damned good time together” and in the novel’s last words Jake replies, “Yes . . . Isn’t it pretty to think so.” The heavy-handed irony of the raised baton and Jake’s bitter reply to Brett struck me as subtle and smart. But in my late teens impotence was only this thing I read about.
I was in my late 20's when it first happened in life, not in literature. After an evening of too much food and wine I became sad and slack in the sack. At that age, however, recovery from excess comes quickly and as soon as I could, I did.
With the passing years, this happened more often and recovery less quickly, so I was careful with drink – sexuality being a man’s natural guide to temperance. I knew the day would come when sex would be over. But that was far in the distance, no crow’s nest I could climb would allow a sight. Research showed that most old folk could do it and, in fact, did it as often as young folk – in some retirement communities, men, who are in a buyer’s market because women far outnumber them, devote themselves to the pleasures of their slacker years: getting laid and getting high. At 60 I had no thought of retirement. And, when I did, the prospect of spliffs and eager ladies – not shabby at all.
But the body does say no eventually. In her late years, M.F.K. Fisher gave an interview to the New York Times in which she revealed that a few years before she had lost interest in sex and that recently she no longer cared for food. For the renown sensual gastronome to admit this only meant one thing, I concluded: it was time to give it up. Sure enough, next time I read about her it was an obituary.
Sex and food. Their passing from my life would inevitably be harbingers of death, but as Don Juan says on his first appearance on the stage in Spain's 17th century, ¡Cuán largo me lo fiais! – what a long time you give me to pay it [my sinning] back. Eat, drink and be merry for Death is far, far away.
Impotence? Yes, libido was declining, but that had its merits. Best of all, age could make a man a good lover. The embarrassment of premature ejaculation was a distant memory. On the contrary, as long as erections held, an older man could be a paragon of virility, allowing a woman her multiple orgasms until she tired. Of course, once a man is done, the call of “again!” cannot be answered right away. Time for pillow talk, going out to dinner, a good restful sleep. We rest to engage another day.
But my idyll had ended.
Author Enrique Fernández writes about all aspects of culture and the arts, including food in his Miami Herald column “Consumed.” He has been a columnist at Billboard, the Village Voice, USA Weekend, the New York Daily News and the Sun-Sentinel. He has written catalog notes for art shows and liner notes for music albums. He was the Senior Vice-President/Executive Director of the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. He holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature.
This is an excerpt from Pretty to Think So: Eros and Prostate Cancer, to be published by Books & Books Press.