Soap and Civilization

My mother, for as long as I can remember, made our household soap. I don’t know if she did this out of her concern for saving money, her suspicion of commercial products, from a wish to stay busy, or because she believed in doing it herself and that “Home-grown is the way it should be.” Any and all of these things may have been a factor. We were poor, and long before Neil Young discovered the charms of private herbal garden, we were constrained to depend heavily on what was homegrown. Simplicity, too, was a central tenet in my parents’ religious ethos, and they were not much moved by the come-ons of consumer society. There was always a large garden, which was especially my father’s domain; but my mother’s productions were one of the great sources of interest in his writer’s early life. Naturally she made bread, a half-dozen loaves at a time or more, out of whole wheat flour that was sometimes painstakingly sought out; and the yeasty smell of her baking greeted us occasionally, if we were lucky, on our coming home from school. She tried her hand at making potato chips, donuts, cottage cheese and hard cheese, and yogurt—not to mention pies, preserves, cakes, and cookies. In summer, we often made hand-churned ice-cream—an enterprise that involved most available hands—and in winter there was, sometimes before Christmas, one grand production of fruit-cake-making. She made candles; she made clothes—shirts for us boys, dresses for my sisters; she made quilts; she made the paste for putting up wallpaper. And she made soap. She made her soap out of lard and Red Devil lye; there would be kettles full of liquid lard heating on the stove, and she poured the molten final mixture into used milk cartons to cool and harden. I was not always too fond of this homemade soap, since without perfume or artificial color, it had none of the pizazz of commercial products, but neither did I complain about it. I think I was rather proud of my mother, for how many other kids could say that their mother made her own soap?

Within the limits of rural working class life, I suppose my parents adhered to the adage, Cleanliness is next to Godliness. We honored the tradition, my siblings and I, of the Saturday evening bath in preparation for Sunday morning churchgoing. I don’t ever remember not liking bathing: I have no recollection of having to be cajoled or terrorized into it. I was doubtless fussed over in my Sunday clothes, and I enjoyed being fussed over, and associated the attention with the process of getting clean. When I was a young teenager, about the time that I got my first farm job, I switched from bathing once a week to taking a shower every morning: since my job was to help with the morning milking before I went to school, a shower was, I thought, an absolute necessity. A shower with plenty of soap and shampoo to get rid of the barnyard odor, though that homemade soap did not quite remove the smell of cattle from my hands. Also around this time, in health class I was getting instruction in personal hygiene: I still remember the absurd textbook instruction about shampooing—lather, rinse, repeat—which is unabashed training in consumerism, it seems to me now, a gift to the companies that make shampoo. A little later, maybe age 16, washing became more important when I broke out in acne, something which lasted for years. I began to wash my face with soap twice a day; I used Ivory, on the recommendation of a friend’s dermatologist. There was nobody around to suggest to me back then, as an intelligent friend has since suggested, that maybe my acne resulted from the sexual torments of adolescence—in other words, from not getting any—an explanation that seems plausible enough now. A little less Godliness would have cured me of my preoccupation with Cleanliness. Certainly all that washing had no apparent effect, and the acne’s disappearance indeed coincided, give or take a year, with becoming sexually active. Although this brings up the fascinating subject of the connections (or lack thereof) between sex and cleanliness, let’s defer that for a bit and continue with this brief history of my attitudes toward soap.

In the last few years, I’ve enjoyed as much as ever the quotidian alternation between getting dirty and getting clean—I’m an occasional carpenter, and sometimes I’ll get very dirty—but I’ve begun look askance at the everyday use of soap, and of detergents like shampoo. Freud suggested, in Civilization and Its Discontents, that the use of soap might fairly be seen as a yardstick of civilization; and since I, a reader of Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, count myself one of civilization’s discontents, it’s not surprising that I’ve begun to wonder about our culture’s cult of washing. Vanity was first implicated in my changing attitude: several years ago, someone suggested to me that daily shampooing may contribute to my balding. (If you are skeptical, dear reader, let me admit that I am too. Men were losing their hair, so far as I know, long before shampoo was invented; and shampoo use has not contributed noticeably to hair loss in women, who should be the first to be affected. Still, the manufacturers of hair products are not to be trusted: I’m certain that no conclusive long-term study has been done on the safety of every shampoo ingredient.) In any case, I began using shampoo less and less, until last year I stopped altogether, finding that a hot shower was easily sufficient to clean my short hair; besides, this meant one less thing to pack in my travel bag. At about the same time, a woman at a personal products shop proffered me a shaving oil that could be used in place of soap, and which I’ve grown to like. And then there is the more annoying matter of the dry skin on my right hand, which no amount of moisturizing, over several years, seemed to remedy; it’s as if the skin on that hand has prematurely aged. Finally it dawned on me that many years of stripping the natural skin oils from my hand, often twice or three times a day, in combination with my frequent manual work, had probably had an adverse effect. Following this revelation, I cut back on the frequency with which I soaped that hand. This therapy is still in progress, and is slowly making a difference, I think. That I considered it out-of-the-question for so long—or rather, that I did not think of it at all—now looks to me like a kind of superstition.

I have found myself wondering about the history of washing, and of soap and its uses. How long have humans been bathing? Did the Romans use soap in their baths? (Since writing this, I read that there was indeed a soap factory at Pompeii.) When the Hebrew King David saw the beautiful Bathsheba washing herself from a Jerusalem rooftop, was she using soap? We read that the people of Biblical times anointed themselves with oil, which seems rather strange to us; but it seems less strange when you reflect that humans naturally have an oily skin which plainly serves a good purpose, and that distaste for this oiliness is a fairly recent development (a distaste which, for all I know, may be especially peculiar to American civilization). In any case, though washing, with or without soap, is as old as human history, there have been counter-tendencies, people and sects who when it comes to washing would prefer not to, like Bartleby. Perhaps such people are throwbacks to an earlier age. We know the stereotype: most of us would not be surprised if we learned that Socrates, for instance, was indifferent to washing; likewise for a character like John the Baptist, or Jesus, or any of the saints. I’ve been told that the early Christians thought that not washing was a sign of piety, of indifference to fleshly things. Poets, prophets, long-haired artists, and geniuses are often, according to the stereotype, careless about washing—though I read recently that Walt Whitman was scrupulously clean he worked as a nurse for the Civil War wounded. In our time, of course, we have the hippies and their fellow-travelers with their more relaxed attitude toward washing. I have an Italian friend, a computer programmer, who tells me that she likes being dirty; and though I’ve no children, I have the impression that many kids like it too.

It is hard to divine just what are the deeper sources of civilized people’s attraction to regular washing, and of the quasi-religious aura that surrounds cleanliness. (It cannot be simply a matter of hygiene as we know it, since the discovery of dangerous microbes is only a recent event.) How did it come about, for instance, that in the Jewish and Christian religions washing came to stand for something not just physical but spiritual—Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow? Did Pontius Pilate truly believe he could absolve himself of the crucifixion of Christ by simply washing his hands? Why this ancient belief in washing’s significance? I can think of several possible factors here, which may apply as easily to paleolithic as to modern peoples. For one thing, as Freud suggested, our forbears may well have had a correct intuition about the connection between health and washing; and so the practice is perhaps an extension of the grooming we see among primates and other mammals. There is also the matter of visual stimulation: while dirtiness tends to be monochrome, washing brings out, as in the restoration of old paintings, contrasts and bright colors not noticeable before; thus, when our prehistoric ancestors became sensitive to visual stimulus, they doubtless discovered that washing heightened its effect—notably, perhaps, that it heightened sexual attractiveness. Then there is the pleasure to be gained from mere novelty and contrast. Being clean simply feels different than being dirty—this is one source of its refreshment—and we appear to have visceral attraction to the new, and seek out those experiences that deliver it. This process works in reverse with well-scrubbed children who delight in getting dirty: surely it’s not the dirt per se which they like, but the novel sensations. I might add that one of the novel sensations of washing is more sensation, since the skin is more sensitive when cleansed of a coating of dirt. And finally, there is the matter of habitual bodily comfort or discomfort, since irritating parasites are more likely to thrive on unwashed bodies.

Whatever the hidden or obvious reasons for our nearly universal habit of washing—a psychoanalyst would doubtless offer other answers than the ones offered here—what’s plain to me is that the whole cleanliness thing has gotten out of hand. Do we really need all of the soaps and detergents and shampoos and disinfectants and antiperspirants that are sold to us on the assumption that cleaner is better and that body odor is bad? Cleaner is not always better, if that means keeping our skin free of oil and microbes. Scientists say that children need dirt around in order to build up their resistance to infection; and I’m told that there are bacteria on our skin which actually help to heal wounds. Our skin needs its oils in order to stay supple. And our bodies, showered or sweaty, smell fine if they are healthy; it is only our hyper-civilized distance for strong smells that has taught us otherwise. I long ago realized that deodorants, antiperspirants, and the like are a waste of time and money; it’s only lately that I realized the same about most soaps and related cleansers. They sell because we’ve been taught to dislike ourselves. The image world of the movies; the chic glossy magazines, and the media; the de-sexed ambience of corporate offices and fashionable shops; the sanitized arcades of the shopping mall—all exhibit disdain for, not to say fear of, the splendidly pungent, moist, secreting human body. It is this feature of modern society, among others, against which Paul Goodman protested half a century ago when he made a wistful plea for a culture “gaudier in dress, greedier in physical pleasures, dirtier in manners, more disorderly in governance, more brawling and adventurous in behavior.”

The fear of our real bodies is also evident, in some ways especially so, in the contemporary portrayal of the erotic. The inescapable screen of imagery through which we view sex these days is in truth an image of neutered sexuality—sleek, spotless, odorless, too perfect to be true, endlessly teasing and titillating, rarely satisfied—imagery which is nothing at all like the real thing. It is “virtual,” not real, sexuality. Goodman connected this sterilization of sexuality with the need of a repressive society to isolate and control a potentially explosive drive; he observes that sex educators teach that sex is clean and beautiful, and in so doing “make almost mandatory what by its nature is capricious, non-rational, and psychologically explosive.” The truth is not only, as The Joy of Sex had it, that you are missing something if you are always scrubbed when love-making; that is obviously true, and the smell of healthy skin—its bouquet—can be intoxicating. But the often unspoken truth is that our bodies’ smells and dirtiness can be a turn-on. As Freud wrote rather mournfully, “Excremental things are all too intimately and inseparably bound up with sexual things;” and we remember James Joyce, when away from Nora, asking her to mail him her unwashed panties. It is in any case certain that spontaneous sex cannot always be clean—and who would want an erotic life that was not spontaneous? In my own experience, I’m most relaxed about washing when I’m sexually happy. Perhaps the scarcity of really good sex is entwined with the American preoccupation with cleanliness: we are still unlearning our Puritanism.

Much more could be said about the relation of health, hygiene, and washing. It is woefully plain, as it was not forty years ago, that modern hygiene and medicine have not meant the end of deadly diseases; and there have been dire predictions of more to come. A writer for Time, discussing an article he wrote on “killer microbes,” recently declared that he began washing his hands before and after every meal. But it is not at all clear that this is the prudent course to take. Maybe it is not only children who need to be exposed to “dirty” in order to keep their resistances strong; maybe that is simply another way of saying that we will flourish only if we learn to live in symbiosis with our world, rather than keeping ourselves on a wartime footing with it. For what it’s worth, my boyhood farm life included plenty of direct contact with all the dirt that farms produce, and the farmers I worked with were as healthy as, or healthier than, anyone I’ve known. Norman Cousins, in his book Anatomy of an Illness, as Perceived by the Patient, quotes a doctor who writes, “As long as humans feel threatened and helpless, they will seek the sanctuary that illness provides” perhaps feeling less threatened means first changing our attitude toward our organic environment. There is abundant evidence that it takes far more than a microbe to make you ill, that other intertwined factors—lifestyle, emotional vitality, age, or an unconscious wish to be ill—are usually involved. Many knowledgeable people believe that AIDS, for instance, afflicts mainly people whose health has been compromised in other ways, by drug use, poor diet and extreme poverty, compulsive sexuality, and so on. My father, an unlettered man, liked to say that germs are there all the time and that what’s important is to keep the defenses vital; I tend to agree, and would only add that vital defenses involve the whole of one’s life. The American lifestyle is not known for its wholesomeness, in spite of our plentitude of baths and showers and cleansers. The people most resistant to illness are, I suspect, not those who keep scrupulously clean, but those who are productive and happy. (It is not at all easy to be productive and happy in the modern world.) My hunch is that for modern urbanites and suburbanites, very little washing is strictly necessary for good health, and less may actually keep us healthier.

These days, I use very little soap. Hot showers are sufficient most of the time, and I’m taking less of them, since hot water is itself a strong cleanser that dries out the skin. While writing this essay, I experimentally stopped showering for most of a week, instead just performing occasional ablutions over the sink; none of my friends and companions found me objectionable. Of course, this is how many Europeans live, and I suppose Americans did too a century ago. I use no shaving lather, and sometimes just let my facial skin oils be the lubricant (you do need a sharp razor for this). I’m coming to understand the wisdom of, or the necessity for, skin moisturizing products; in other words, I understand that aids for keeping the skin supple are not only an age-old tradition, but they are especially necessary with our modern washing habits. It occurs to me now that my hand’s dry skin was maybe caused by exhaustion of its oil-producing glands, which simply gave out trying to keep up with twenty-five years of daily soaping. Perhaps I’ll have to use moisturizers for the rest of my life.

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C. Layman