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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Way of all Flesh

Midas Dekkers

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To purchase The Way of all Flesh

Title: The Way of all Flesh
Author: Midas Dekkers
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1997 (Eng. 2000)
Length: 266 pages
Original in: Dutch
Availability: The Way of all Flesh - US
The Way of all Flesh - UK
The Way of all Flesh - Canada
The Way of all Flesh - India
An allem nagt der Zahn der Zeit - Deutschland
  • Translated by Sherry Marx-MacDonald
  • Dutch title: De vergankelijkheid
  • US subtitle: The Romance of Ruins
  • UK subtitle: A Celebration of Decay

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Our Assessment:

B+ : pitiless romp through the wild world of decay

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist B+ 30/9/2000 .
The Independent B+ 16/9/2000 R. Davenport-Hines
National Review . 5/2/2001 Catesby Leigh
The NY Times Book Rev. B 22/10/2000 Dick Teresi
The Observer A- 10/9/2000 Paul Binding
The Spectator B+ 14/10/2000 Philip MacCann
The Washington Post . 22/10/2000 Michael Dirda

  Review Consensus:

  Dekkers can be a bit annoying, but it is an interesting book and he makes his case quite well.

  From the Reviews:
  • "From time to time, it all goes too far. (...) There is a lot of wanton provocation. But, behind all this, there are serious and thoughtful arguments. One is the need for better treatment of old people. Another is for a wiser attitude to the process of decay and the fact of death." - The Economist

  • "Dekkers is a clever writer who is a little too pleased with himself in the role of gadfly. The Way of All Flesh will give pleasure to those much obsessed by death, who see the skull beneath the skin. It will bore or offend eaters of corned beef and pickled onions who never see anything in decay but decay." - Richard Davenport-Hines, The Independent

  • "(O)ccasionally entertaining but distinctly unsatisfying (...) Science and sentiment, once at loggerheads, have become allies in this process, not least in Dekkers's case. For him, nothing of those spiritual underpinnings remains. His sense of the world is not grounded in any ideal or creed that rises above nature's cycles of growth and decay." - Catesby Leigh, National Review

  • "Dekkers, the Netherlands' most popular writer-biologist, is hardly profound -- he lacks the organizational ability to create a coherent point of view -- yet his is an entertaining book that offers up a concatenation of facts revealing that life is a fetid and rotting affair. (...) . The author probably has no future as a food critic or menu writer." - Dick Teresi, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Dekkers argues his cases with great brilliance, only occasionally vitiated by a certain over-determined jauntiness. (...) (O)n the whole, Dekkers is a percipient and accurate spokesperson for Western culture, knowing its plight and seeing possibilities for its alleviation." - Paul Binding, The Observer

  • "It's more a marvellously eccentric, if flippant, social comment defending the nuances and variegation of all things past their best. Dekkers (...) is direct, blasphemous and ambitious to be original in a way only the Dutch can be." - Philip MacCann, The Spectator

  • "As they say, old age isn't for sissies, and neither is reading about it. You'll need a taste for the abyss, and a wish to confront the palsied, decrepit self that awaits all of us, if we should live so long." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ruin is inevitable, decay ever-present, to live is actually (and always) to die. Midas Dekkers is no compassionate author, looking on the sunny side of things: this is the way the world is, he maintains, and we should accept that. Death can't be defeated and practically all efforts to thwart it are counter-productive.
       A welcome respite from the shelves full of self-improvement books out there Dekkers' work revels in decay. Ruin is our fate, so we might as well embrace it ! One might think of it as a nihilistic tome, but Dekkers writes with good cheer and his main point seems to be that we should simply come to our senses and accept the world as it is and not worry so much about eternity (and about sticking around for eternity).
       Dekkers buries readers under an avalanche of facts, hammering his point home with a sledgehammer style, but the book is, in fact, quite fun. Decay is everywhere: our bodies are doomed to decay, as are all animals, and, in fact, all life forms. And our art, our buildings, even the earth itself won't be spared from inevitable decay either. Dust to dust, indeed: everything is doomed to ruin.
       Mankind, however, battles to build for eternity (or at least posterity) and to stay alive as long as possible (and to look as young as possible). It can't be done, as Dekkers points out. Biology won't permit it, and neither will chemistry or engineering. Collapse comes, eventually, to everything -- and generally sooner rather than later.
       Dekkers merrily leads readers down the road to perdition, pointing out all the fascinating stops along the way. Decay is explored in all its variations: from how different foods spoil (a voluminous and pungent section itself) to the decay of our bodies, both when they are alive and when they are dead. "During the course of your lifetime, you lose your own weight in skin", Dekkers reminds us, and he offers similar salient and slightly unsettling facts about most of our body parts.
       Nature offers examples on a larger scale. Birds moult, and fortunately their feathers aren't very durable, easily eaten away by insects: 250 billion (!) feathers end up being dropped in the Netherlands each year, he estimates, and "without moths and bugs, the country would have long since become one big eiderdown."
       Dekkers offers examples of how even the sturdiest structures are condemned to fall apart, describing the incredible microorganisms that "develop threads that can penetrate deep into the stone" and then crack it apart from within. (These are often helped by sandblasting which superficially cleans the stone while in fact literally injecting the ruinous algae and bacteria into the stone.)
       Dekkers gleefully jumps on the many foolish efforts to build for eternity or to prolong life. He is not cynical (most of the time), but he does see the humour in the situation. Overall, he thinks we are better off not living forever -- or building monuments that last for all time. Building to last: God forbid it should ever happen", he warns, sensibly reminding readers: "Imagine if all those houses from the 1960s had been built to last". (As convincing an argument for his case as there is.)
       Dekkers also examines the fetishization of decay -- "the romance of ruins" as the (American) subtitle of the book has it. Ruins themselves fascinate, showing the ravages of time (which the onlooker -- still alive and well -- has basically avoided). From the building of buildings to look like ruins (or designing buildings, according to Albert Speer's "Ruin Value Theory", so that they would eventually be impressive as ruins) to the preservation of human (and animal) bodies Dekkers considers what seems like all the variations on this theme. And he points out that once humans get their hands on ancient objects they do a marvelous job of hastening the process of ruin -- from exposing archaeological treasures to "restoring" works of art.
       Even extinction has something going for it, Dekkers argues. For animal species he argues it can enhance their status: "Pandas are heading in the right direction". (Okay, there is some sarcasm to be found here.)
       Dekkers writes quite well, though he truly does heap the examples on, considering decay and ruin in all its forms and the ingenious ways man (and nature) try to combat it. He does not shy away from picturesque descriptions, though a fair number are perhaps a bit too sweeping (and occasionally stomach-turning): "The best way to describe the sea -- where so many of us spend our expensive holidays -- is as diluted sperm."
       The science is mostly right, though often presented misleadingly simply (i.e. not explaining all the points at issue). Occasionally Dekkers is off base: "Anyone in the 1950s could have predicted the grey boom. A baby boom is always followed by a grey boom." In fact baby booms can continue, snowballing so as to avoid an aging of the population -- it's what has been happening in the so-called Third World for most of this century. Eventually there will come a collapse (though what follows might also not necessarily be a "grey boom"). The extent of the catastrophic collapse of the birth rate in Western industrialized nations (especially Western -- and now Eastern -- Europe) and Japan, leading to the greying of these societies, was not foreseeable.
       Similarly, Dekkers maintains it is "easy to predict the future of a human generation" (and specifically the age distribution of the population of a given area) -- "discounting exceptional circumstances". Given that in the last century alone Europe, for example, saw at least two such exceptional circumstances (World Wars I and II, as well the Influenza in the wake of World War I) which completely skewed the age-distribution of its population it seems naive to believe we can calculate this statistic even a few decades into the future.
       On the whole, however, this is a solid and satisfactory and perversely fun read. Richly illustrated with more examples of decay than most might want to see, it is a welcome change from the usual emphasis on perfection, restoration, and life. An odd book, but worthwhile.

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The Way of all Flesh: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • Ilya Zbarsky examines a failed effort to halt inevitable decay, in Lenin's Embalmers

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About the Author:

       Dutch biologist and writer Midas Dekkers was born in 1946.

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