Is old the new young?
How 'The Way of All Flesh' by biologist Midas Dekkers paints death and decay in a positive light.
The Way of All Flesh, by Midas Dekkers, Harvill Press, London. (1)
‘Everlasting dictators, eternal love, perpetual sunshine.’
Midas Dekkers’ The Way of All Flesh is concerned with ends rather than beginnings. It is a gleeful celebration of decay, a defence of old age, and an examination of today’s obsession with all things youthful. Dekkers combines science (he’s a biologist) with history, poetic discourse and a sharp, idiosyncratic wit, making this an overcrowded mausoleum of a book – but in a good way.
A detached description of the post-mortem ravages inflicted on a body by scavenging life-forms runs alongside some tear-jerking moments – such as Dekkers’ chance encounter with a graveyard of rusting steam locomotives in a South American jungle. ‘There is always something especially tragic about the death of a giant’, writes Dekkers. ‘It’s true for dead elephants, beached whales, King Kong, Ralph Richardson.’
According to Dekkers, spring is an easy season to love because it loves you back, like a dog (a previous book by Dekkers is a study of bestiality). The lengthening days trigger a hormonal high, and people go on coach tours to see orchards full of spring blossom. But ‘as seasoned cat lovers know, nothing beats love which – totally randomly – may or may not be reciprocated’. Come autumn, the blossom has become apples, cherries and pears, but few come to witness the harvest like they came to witness the blossoming. And those who do, predicts Dekkers, are mostly cat-lovers.
Dekkers is clearly inspired by the natural cycles of life and, moreover, death – but he’s no old hippy. He criticises conservationists for their attempts to stop the processes of death and decay, or worse, to reverse them. While an old town house, once restored, retains its characterful, leaning facade, the old newspaper has vanished from behind the wallpaper. ‘A restorer is the opposite of a rapist’, he writes, ‘and less successful, too’.
Landscapes change, with or without mankind’s influence. A lake decays and a marsh is born; the marsh becomes a woodland. Humans stave off signs of maturity with plastic surgery, while nature conservationists pull encroaching vegetation from the banks, in case the lake should become a marsh.
I am reminded of a friend who is frustrated that, while conservationists complain about the world’s diminishing biodiversity, and go to great efforts in trying to preserve it, they never think to create more of it. If mankind is accelerating the rate of extinction, why shouldn’t it compensate by giving speciation a nudge? Yes, a dam causes a biodiverse valley to flood – but stick a few cichlid fish in the new lake and, before you know it, you’ve got a living example of adaptive radiation as rich as the one in Lake Victoria before the Nile perch got there.
Well, perhaps not before you know it – but that shouldn’t deter the conservationists, who claim to want to save the planet for the benefit of future generations.
What we are conserving are souvenirs, says Dekkers – and the stuffed dodo in the Natural History Museum is better than the real thing would have been. ‘People are dogs in reverse: while dogs urinate on trees so they can leave something behind, people snap photographs so they can take something with them.’ Our national souvenirs may be in museums and archives, but ‘decay is indestructible’. Their ‘thick walls and imposing facades [are] designed to keep time’s destruction at bay, even though museum directors, more than anyone else, know what a futile attempt this is’.
Dekkers’ favourite museums are those in which exhibits tell of their history since first becoming exhibits – just sitting in the same display case, untouched, for a very long time takes its toll. Decay is the real connection with the past.
Though not a self-help book, The Way of All Flesh is far from unself-helpful. Confronting death and decay can make you feel a whole lot better about your own mortality – especially if it’s funny: ‘Many bouquets accompany people on visits to hospitals. All patients feel better after watching their flowers die before they do.’ But Dekkers does accept that you can get too much of a good thing: ‘A toothless old man adds charm to a Greek holiday, but 30 minutes in an old people’s home is more than most can bear.’
Which brings us to perhaps Dekkers’ most powerful point: how the lack of appreciation for things past their best in modern Western society manifests itself in our poor treatment of the elderly: ‘While old people, driven out of hearth and home, sit silently in the social room until death doth follow, allowing their backsides to be washed by impudent young brats with rings in their ears whom they’ve never seen before, venerable old cats purr away on their warm cushions next to the family hearth that’s been stoked a bit warmer just for them.’
But Dekkers still looks forward to being an old man, asking ‘What can be more exciting than to know how your life will turn out?’. Your own life is a fascinating experiment. Shame about the small sample size. In fact, the optimist in Dekkers always gets the last word. The time will come, he says, when today’s young and beautiful will become old. ‘With that great flair that brought “young” to power during their youth, they’ll soon make tomorrow’s young people understand in no uncertain terms that unfortunately for them, “old” is now in fashion.’
Those who love both autumn and cats will love this book. To those who prefer dogs and spring it may mean nothing at all. Or it might allow them to see death and decay in a different light.
Stuart Blackman is a freelance science journalist.
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