The Art of Shaving Oneself

Jonathan Montpetit

I learned how to shave from my father. His was a face of leather; it could take a razor, daily. Just lather, a blade, a steady hand, then two slaps on the cheeks and my dad would say, “I feel like a new man.”

At the age of seven, I’m given an old Gillette, the blade removed. I drag it across my face in time with him. He sings Johnny Horton, “North to Alaska.” And I sing too, as if growing up were just a matter of imitation, of going through the motions until we inhabit bigger bodies and thicker skins.

Who did the first men learn from? In 1772, Jean-Jacques Perret writes Pogonotomy, The Art of Learning to Shave Oneself, a how-to guide and manifesto, a cry for emancipation from the sloppy surgeons who moonlight as barbers.

“What is certain,” writes Perret, “is that men who shave themselves have a face more unified and more pleasing than those shaved by strangers.”

Perret counsels patience in the beginning so that, in time, we are able to practice the art as masters: “It is essential to shave with freedom and audacity.”

“Above all,” he writes, “pay attention to the movement of the wrist.”

It is unthinkable to me to shave every day. I rash too easily; I burn with the pull of a razor across my face. And so, I am unable to make myself new again with the same frequency as my father.

I keep too much of myself from the day before, and the day before that. By five o’clock I’m shadowed by the marriage that didn’t quite work out, by the car I wasn’t able to fix, by the wars I refused to fight.

When I meet myself in the mirror, there is no son next to me, seeing in my face a leather cured by the eyes of an expectant child.

The time has come for others—the young, the callow-cheeked—to learn the art of shaving. Will they crib from experts, or learn from those who know them best?

I was made one way; the other is what’s left.

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Jonathan Montpetit

Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal. He is the recipient of numerous awards for his reporting from Afghanistan and about the far-right movement in Quebec. Find him on Twitter @jonmontpetit.


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