How Not to Offend
A message for all thinking and/or stinking people?
Why all this camp-meeting hysteria about personal hygiene?
Everybody's lonesome because he's a polecat?
If even your best friends won't tell you, and four out of five have it, who is a dog's best friend?
Now we know why Little B.O. Peep lost her sheep?
CLOSELY related to the combination of moral fervor and know-how is the cult of hygiene. If it is a duty to buy those appliances which free the body from toil and thus enable housewives not to hate their husbands, equally urgent is the duty to "be dainty and fresh." Under the scream caption we are told in tones of Kaltenborn unction:
It would take much space just to list the current words and phrases related to B.O. and to "leading the life of Life Buoy." Mouth washes, gargles, tooth pastes, hair removers, bubble baths, skin cleansers, and dirt chasers are backed by long-standing national advertising campaigns. "Even your best friends won't tell you." "Why be an Airedale?" and so on.
The present ad for Lysol, "a concentrated germkiller," is typical of the shrill melodramatic warnings that accompany these products and should be thought of in connection with the agonies of the daytime soap serials. The colored comics in the Sunday supplements frequently carry six or eight frame spot-dramas of the terrible penalties and dazzling rewards that life hands out to those who are neglectful or careful, as the case may be. In one of these, entitled "Georgie's Black Eye," a twelve-year-old boy is bragging to his mother how he got a shiner for defending her honor at school. Some of the fellows were sneering that her husband was running out on her. She didn't have what it takes to keep a man. Mom, mortified, gets busy with the tooth paste. Soon Dad is waltzing, her around the living room and Georgie calls in the fellows to see for themselves. "Gosh," they say, "looks like he's going to haul off and kiss her."
Most of these ads feature ravishing chicks left in sordid isolation because they "offend." Or a young couple on a bench sitting too far apart, the boy sulking. Overhead an old owl says, "Ooh, ooh, no woo." Or a handsome lad with dance card asks, "May I have the last waltz?" to an indignant girl who raps out, "You've had it!" Again, two girls are making up a party list and one says, with disgust on her face: "Invite him?—Over my dead body!" Of course, he was a swell kid, but: "Of late he had been pretty careless about a rather important thing, and the news got around fast. . . . While some cases of halitosis are of systemic origin, most cases, say a number of authorities ..."
full-page spread shows a threesome in a panic: "Here comes Herb!
For Pete's sake duck!" After Herb goes back to his big car, they
go on to say, "There ought to be a law."
Legs that Delight
Pages could be filled with familiar items like "Kissing is fun when you use . . ." and "Keep daintier for dancing this way," and "Their lost harmony restored by . . ." and "Use Fresh and be lovelier to love."
It all adds up to this, that when the hideous specter of body odor looms, all human ties are canceled. The offender, whether parent, spouse, or friend, puts himself outside the law. And when lovely woman stoops to B.O., she is a Medusa freezing every male within sniff. On the other hand, when scrubbed, deloused, germ-free, and depilatorized, when doused with synthetic odors and chemicals, then she is lovely to love. The question remains as to what is being loved, that gal or that soap? There is an age-old notion that healthy body odor is not only an aphrodisiac but a principal means of establishing human affinities.
Implied in the cult
of hygiene is a disgust with the human organism which is linked with
our treating it as a chemical factory. D. H. Lawrence, rebelling against
the puritan culture in which he was reared, insisted all his life that
industrialization was linked to the puritan hatred of the body and detestation
of bodily tasks. This, he claimed, not only was reflected in our hatred
of housework and physical tasks but in our dislike of having servants
smelling up our houses while helping with that work. So that the small,
hygienic family unit of our cities and suburbs is, from this viewpoint,
the realization of a Calvinist dream.
There is an old Huguenot hymn which goes: "Everybody stinks but Jesus." And Kenneth Burke, in his Ideas in History, argues that the very synonym for scrupulous cleanliness, "a Dutch kitchen," means a Calvinist kitchen, and that the puritan world has merely substituted soap for the confessional. In the same way, Lewis Mumford in his Culture of Cities notes that: "Today, the degradation of inner life is symbolized by the fact that the only place sacred from interruption is the private toilet." Yet in the seventeenth century, when personal privacy was much valued, the highest classes of society openly performed acts of excretion at their bidets beside crowded dining tables. But today privacy stinks.
The privacy that was once the refreshment of the mind and spirit is now associated only with those "shameful" and strenuous tasks by which the body is made fit for contact with other bodies. The modern nose, like the modern eye, has developed a sort of microscopic, intercellular intensity which makes our human contacts painful and revolting:
"We might have had a wonderful life, but now she puts out both the cat and me." This is the world of Jonathan Swift, who foresaw and fore-smelt these horrors. His Gulliver in the land of the giants records his disgust with the huge pores and monstrous smells of the Brobdingnagian beauties exactly in the spirit of current ad-agency rhetoric.
Clifton Webb as Lynn Belvedere recently enacted for the movies the role of the impeccable gentleman. In creating this role he has at once embodied mechanical efficiency, moral disdain for ordinary humanity, and horror at human messiness and dirt. He masters people and problems by sheer contempt. This witty role provides genuine insight into the cult of hygiene and the puritan mechanisms of modern applied science. Mr. Webb, as it were, satirically unrolls an entire landscape of related activities and attitudes. In that landscape human reproduction would be effected, if at all, by artificial insemination. "Sex pleasure" would be entirely auto-erotic. The feeding of babies would dispense with the foulness of the human and animal secretion known as milk. The preparation and consumption of food would be conducted in a clinic by white-coated officials. And excretion from the cradle to the grave would be presided over by a special caste of robots, who would care for the victims of such necessities in germ- and odor-proof laboratories.
Fear of the human touch and hatred of the human smell are perfectly recorded by Mr. Webb in his role of Lynn Belvedere, the super baby trainer. They are also a principal theme of Dr. Mead's Male and Female, where the reader will discover her indignation that the child's earliest notions of virtue are associated with punctual urination and excretion:
The bathroom has been elevated to the very stratosphere of industrial folklore, it being the gleam, the larger hope, which we are appointed to follow. But in a world accustomed to the dominant imagery of mechanical production and consumption, what could be more natural than our coming to submit our bodies and fantasies to the same processes? The anal-erotic obsession of such a world is inevitable. And it is our cloacal obsession which produces the hysterical hygiene ads, the paradox here being much like our death and mayhem obsession in the pulps on one hand, and, on the other, our refusal to face death at all in the mortician parlor.