Magazine article The Spectator

La Pourriture Noble

Magazine article The Spectator

La Pourriture Noble

Article excerpt

THE WAY OF ALL FLESH:

A CELEBRATION OF

DECAY

by Midas Dekkers,

translated from the Dutch by Sherry

Marx-MacDonald

Harvil4 16.99, pp. 280

In a time of instant images and 15minute fame you might lament the death of culture. Yet 100 years ago Andre Gide declared European culture, high and low, `the destroyer of life'. Desperate to preserve and depict personal experience, Europeans were so bent on taking snapshots and purchasing souvenirs that it quite passed them by. At the ignoble heart of modern civilised culture was a horror of transience and our taboo of death. The French social historian Philippe Aries later argued that, while we have become so sanitising that we banish dying from sight altogether (to the hospital), we have lost the thrill of the moment.

It's no doubt with this romantic perspective, and its image of pre-capitalist innocence, that the Dutch biologist Midas Dekkers writes, reminding us that transience leading to deterioration and death is the very essence of life. We should reembrace it: in cellular decline since babyhood, we are decaying. Why can't decay be more sexy? This essay has none of the scientific analysis of P. B. Medawar attempting to understand the biology of senescence. Nor does it feel odd to be named after the autobiography of Samuel Butler, who consistently opposed the theory of natural selection. There is only a sprinkling of popular biology here. It's more a marvellously eccentric, if flippant, social comment defending the nuances and variegation of all things past their best. True connoisseurs relish the taste of fungi, the delicacy of rotting cheese, the melancholy of autumn, the beauty of ruins. To all these, Dekkers argues, age has brought venerability - `it's the difference between Mother Goose and Donald Duck'!

Why can't we just let things collapse in peace? `Nature conservation is so expensive,' he complains. `Many human hands are needed to make nature look untouched by human hand.' So conservationists, environmentalists, restorers, plastic surgeons, museum directors who keep up with fads - all appear as Puritans on a wrongheaded mission `to protect death from life', vainly demanding a retreat before the inexorable tide of algae, mosses, beetles, woodworm, not to mention waves, wind, rust, heat. …

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