From sharing toothpaste to wiping my poorly son's brow, true human intimacy inevitably involves a bit of grimeby Caspar Salmon / March 11, 2020 / Leave a comment
It was only to be expected that, following the handwashing recommendations made by all health organisations and governments worldwide to combat Covid-19, the clucking scolds who make up Lifestyle & Cleanliness Twitter would have a field day.
To explain: the social website has its own little corners and subsets. Football Twitter, philosophy Twitter, pornography Twitter; I gather Tory Twitter is even a thing. These groups of like-minded people form relatively organically and make the site their own by sharing in-jokes and developing a common history, a common language even.
And one of the more resilient, and somehow popular demographics to exist on this website famous for the free exchange of inane opinions is what might also be termed “Health and Sanitation Twitter.”
Here, forbidding persons with presumably pristine bedrooms will generate long conversations by holding forth on such scintillating topics as “how many towels you must own” or “how often you should change your sheets,” or “are you drinking water?” (a hardy favourite). A deathless topic in recent years has been the discovery that there is a hardcore of people who don’t actively wash their legs in the shower, preferring instead to prioritise other, more obviously dirty body parts and let the soapy water trickle down their pins. Social media is apparently still reeling from this revelation, which can be said to have birthed a whole generation of lifestyle opiners.
These people, who earnestly intone every now and then that it’s important to moisturise must know—surely they must—that it isn’t, really. Few things could be less important. But the crucial thing is never to let slip the pretence that this stuff is paramount.
Perhaps a fear of death—of becoming dust or soil oneself—is at play here. The documentary The Disappearance of My Mother, currently in cinemas, shows the ex-model Benedetta Barzini as an older woman attempting to retreat from a universe of femininity and appearances. Barzini wishes to flee the world’s expectations of her as a mother and beautiful person. In one of the university lectures she gives, she asks why we idolise youth, suggesting that it stems from a fear of annihilation. She seems to be willing herself to deteriorate: her skin bears the traces of a lifetime of cigarette smoke; we hear at one point that she hasn’t showered in two weeks. There is something beautiful about Barzini’s humanity, and about the tussle, in her, between an adventurous mind and a body that she seems to consider in purely utilitarian terms. The beauty and the cleanliness of it, are trivial to her – things she doesn’t want to wrangle anymore.
Perhaps our personal habits seem, to people from younger generations, like one thing that we are able to control. Cleanliness—the idea of subjecting one’s natural environment to one’s own will and might—could, then, be read as a sort of salve, to compensate for powerlessness in other dimensions; financial, political.
Meeting friends at a restaurant this weekend, we laughingly tried out for the first time the new elbow pats that are advised in lieu of handshakes. Amidst it, I felt a tiny pang for what we had lost in human connection—for the warm breath on a cheek, for the familiar smell of someone and for their hand pressing into the small of my back. With one’s children, as with sexual partners, many of the things that endear a person to you are to do with their grime and smell, the transmission of friendly bacteria. Catching my oldest boy’s warm sick in one hand and wiping beads of sweat from his brow when he was ill, I felt close to him, could divine his personhood from that slight and heaving frame.
I sometimes think of a friend who told me about a man who paused for only a split second when she sneezed into her hand during sex with him before wiping her palm in his hair—how sexy it was of him not to care. I think of an old lover of mine who made me warm with affection when he didn’t act like a whiny baby about sharing a toothbrush when I stayed over. And I think of Seamus Heaney, reminded of a skunk by his wife, and “By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,/Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer/ For the black plunge-line nightdress.” I love this picture of the loved one’s rump in the air, watched from the bed with a fond and easy lust. The hum of someone, the cheerful filth of your shared bedsheets—these are the imperfections that bind us to one another, like jokes.
Our natural disgust at filth, as when a baby recoils from a brown banana, is partly what keeps us alive. But running the risk of sharing bacteria with someone, of letting down one’s guard to let somebody commingle with you, is partly what makes our existences lives. We want to be able to abstract ourselves from an idea of ourselves as vectors of muck; we couldn’t cope if we truly confronted the profusion of alien bodies in our midst; and it destroys our sense of selfhood to think of ourselves as organisms.
Maybe part of the queasy horror of coronavirus now is that we are forced to focus on washing, on our unthinking relation to others in the midst of our world, and on our own physicality. This is a strain of consciousness too far—we need to be able to un-think our bodies, un-remember them, so that we can use them to connect with one another.