Feature

Review of reviews: Books

What the critics said about the best new books: The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History; Modernism: The Lure of Heresy

Book of the week

The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized Historyby Katherine Ashenburg (North Point, $24)

Louis XIV was considered something of a clean freak. The French monarch probably didn’t bathe more than twice in his long, active life and he deemed the halls of Versailles sufficiently dazzling if the feces underfoot were removed once a week. But his habit of changing into fresh shirts three times a day marked him as an oddball in an era when much of Europe lived malodorously, in the belief that a good Christian should be indifferent to the demands of the body. The West, says Katherine Ashenburg in her history of human washing habits, essentially went “400 years without a bath.”

Today’s fruit-scented, three-shower-a-day compulsives should rest assured that heavy grooming itself does have a long history, said Holly Brubach in The New York Times. Ashenberg’s “utterly engaging” romp through hygiene’s back pages reports that routine facials, manicures, and pedicures emerged at both ends of Eurasia around 4,000 B.C. The Romans typically spent a couple hours a day pampering themselves in the city’s glorious public baths. None of this is merely trivia, though. Ashenburg successfully builds her story around the notion that every culture fashions its own response to the revulsion and fears inspired by the inescapable fact that we are animals. For the Christian crusaders of the Middle Ages, oddly enough, the answer was choosing to disdain the more regular bathing habits of their Muslim foes.

Ashenburg writes, of course, from an unusually “hedonistic yet paranoid moment” on her long timeline, said Karen R. Long in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She reminds us that it was not until the 18th century that John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, coined the phrase “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” A “brisk tour” of 20th-century American “scare ads” reveals why mouthwash swilling and deodorant dabbing have become de rigeur. The irony, said Katharine Mieszkowski in Salon.com, is that we now bathe and shower so much that we may be disrupting our immune systems. Fear of mortality “may actually be making us sick.”

Modernism: The Lure of Heresy by Peter Gay (Norton, $35)

Modernism was born in 1840s France and all but died in 1960s America, says cultural historian Peter Gay. Beginning with the poetry of Baudelaire and the nudes of Manet, the movement was distinguished in all fields by two common impulses. First among these, Gay says, was the “lure of heresy,” or the urge to shatter traditions. Second was “a principled self-scrutiny,” a commitment on the part of each artist to investigate subjectivity itself. The modernist mind-set created legends in some fields and drove audiences away in others. But the project, says Gay, required an elite audience. When Andy Warhol created a replica of a box of Brillo pads for a 1964 New York gallery show, he erased the boundaries between “serious and playful art.” Would-be modernists no longer had an arena to play in.

Despite all that’s already been written about Picasso and T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and Igor Stravinsky, said Terry Teachout in Commentary, Gay’s 600-page survey is the first to attempt “a comprehensive chronicle” of modernism across all disciplines. It’s not an easy task. Gay deserves much credit merely for being able to write “almost as fluently” about music and dance as he does about literature and the visual arts. “For general readers looking to reacquaint themselves” with many of the crucial moments and figures of the period, said Kate Bolick in The Boston Globe, it will be a treat to do so in the company of an author who is so “winningly erudite.”

But Gay’s guided tour unfortunately “ends up leading nowhere,” said Adam Kirsch in The New York Sun. He fails to investigate how modernism may have “doomed” all artists since to a futile effort to re-create “the shock of the new.” Worse, his exploration of individualized “subjectivity” neither meshes with his first theme nor explains why modernists including Ezra Pound and Knut Hamsun were attracted to authoritarianism. Somewhere along the way he should have figured out that the impulse linking both the foes and friends of liberty was the “idolatry of art.” Living in the so-called twilight of the idols, their “frail hope” was that art by itself could provide “a sufficient source of value for human life.”

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