The Way of All Flesh, A celebration of Decay
Harvill Panther (review)
Midas Dekker seems like quite a character. According to the blurb he is Holland's most popular writer-biologist. He has also written a book on the history of Beastiality (Dearest Pet: On Bestiality, Verso publisher, 2000). The Way of All Flesh allows the author ample scope to demonstrate his irrereverance and flippancy. At times I thought it went a little too far. By the end of the text I didn't find his jokes or remarks humourous. They became a little tiresome in the way that the BBC's "Grumpy Old Men" became tiresome. I certainly don't agree with the cover remark made by one reviewer that Dekkers was hilarious.
The book looks at decay of all types but perhaps its underlying theme is that we (as biological organisms) need to accept our own death, come to recognise and embrace old age and to re-welcome it into our fold. Modern, Western way of life shuns old age and decay, pushing it from our minds and isolating it from desirable, beautiful youth and health. Dekkers locates a few interesting phenomena for discussion. I was particularly interested to read about the (late?) medieval "Stairway of Life"... something I'm extremely surprised not to have come across (or perhaps noticed) in the past. These images show a series of steps rising to a peak and then descending again... like a large winner's podium at a sporting competition. Ages are marked on each step from birth through 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years at the top... and then descending again from 50 to 60 and down to the grave at 100. Each step is illustrated with an ageing human character. Apparently these images were quite common sitting-room wall adornments and were given as presents at key moments in one's life. The interesting thing about them is that the peak of life was at 50 – perhaps the prime of one's wealth, status and experience. It was all (literally in the case of these stairways) down-hill from then on. At least 50 years is an advance on the current peak which must be somewhere (for a male anyway) between 19 and 30 years of age.
The discussion of elephants' responses to death was also new and interesting to me... and although I wasn't completely bored reading the rest of the book's 250 odd pages I really didn't find that much of interest in it. The text was perhaps too shallow for the most part to grab my attention. It talked about many aspects of death and decay but none in sufficient detail that I learnt anything about them. Overall the book was disappointing. The topic has so much potential!
Alan Dorin, 8 Dec 06