The Way of All Flesh: The Romance of Ruins
Reviewed by Moira Muldoon, Fri., Dec. 22, 2000
The Way of All Flesh: The Romance of Ruinsby Midas Dekkers, translated by Sherry Marx-Macdonald
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 276 pp., $25
If ever a book had a misleading title, this is it. The Romance of Ruins? Romance? Last I checked this book was far more concerned with an in-your-face attitude about decay than pointing out the romance of aging and dying. "Wine is nothing more than the rotten juice of raisins," Dekkers writes. "Half of the juice gets drunk by fungi -- yeasts -- which, out of gratitude, urinate alcohol into the bottle until it's full again. At a certain moment, the alcohol content is so high that the yeasts succumb to their own waste." A glass of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, anyone?
Never mind that there's a great deal in this book that makes you want to swear off eating forever -- florid descriptions of molding fruit and how much improved decayed meat is over fresh, which if it were really fresh would have rigor mortis. (I was unfortunately eating lunch when I read that.) There's very little real exploration of how and why we humans place such a high value on youth to the exclusion of the beauties of old age.
Dekkers, the immensely popular-in-Europe Dutch equivalent of Stephen Jay Gould, seems intent on giving his audience a swift kick in the pants with a serious gross-out game, as if to shock us into facing realities about death. I'm all for mocking our youth-obsessed, death-defying culture, but at times Dekkers takes it to such an extreme that its effectiveness is undercut: Referring to dieting as cremating yourself bit by bit feels like being thrown into an anti-eating disorder boot camp, not philosophical reflection. (After reading this book, I did a little research on Dekkers and discovered he's not a fan of laws that keep adults from having sex with children and has written a book on bestiality. I realized I got off easy with the diet-as-cremation thing.) The point is, yes, shock me, mock me, but after you've stripped me of my pretensions and illusions, help me question why they were there to begin with and what they mean. That's what Dekkers doesn't do nearly enough of.
The last two chapters of the book are the best. "For fear of decay, many people spoil their last years with diets, fitness exercises and the fear of God. Is it a long life you want? Or a fun life? Or an acceptable compromise?" Here are the discussions about how we behave as we get older and whether things we do to prevent it really have value. However, even these discussions are too cursory. The cloning of sheep and its implications for immortality merit only a couple of paragraphs. He talks about a woman whose cells have been kept alive for 50 years without ever telling us why. I'm assuming that it had something to do with her widespread cancer, but what kind of research are scientists performing on the cells? What do they hope to learn? And how does that affect our notions of aging and immortality?
The premise of this book is that "life is a way of dying slowly." That's true. And we all need to face up to the naturalness of decay and death. Dekkers certainly does. But while photos of lepers and maggots eating a corpse may bring home the fact that we age, disease, and die, they don't help us see the beauty of being part of a life cycle, nor do they speak to why we shouldn't fear and fight dying. Without that, what's the point?