Sunday, May 23, 2010

Night Stand: Thinking Of Growing A Beard? Already Have One?

I waste a fair amount of time scrounging used book stores, flea markets, and estate sales searching for books of absurdly specific scholarship, and have now acquired quite a library of such titles. The subjects range from histories (auto-eroticism, pawnbrokers, playing cards, diseases of cattle, urology in ancient Egypt, tumbling, torture, massage, burial customs, cemeteries, cremation, grave robbing, circumcision, scurvy, ventriloquism, the Odd Fellows, prostitution, dowsing, prosthetics, syphilis, eyeglasses, hearing aids, noses, lice, hygienic practices, etc.) to manuals (chiropractics, orchestral conducting, military survival handbooks, funeral directing, marching band formations, embalming, practipedics, Masonry, the breeding of chinchillas, etc.)

I generally stay away from anything published after 1955, and anything bearing the imprint of a university press. I like my arcane scholarship to be obsessive, digressive, and slippery, at best. Most of what I have fits that bill.

Tonight I'd like to consider Charles Nessler's The Story of Hair (subtitle: "Its Purpose and Preservation"), published by Boni and Liveright in 1928. The copy I have bears a stylish fountain pen inscription: "To Clarence Jr., from Mother. February-1942. Formerly owned by Mme. De Gaulle."

The book is filled with wonderful illustrations --including a photograph of the handsomely coiffed and mustachioed author-- that I am unable to share with you owing to the fact that I do not presently own a functioning scanner (no fault, really, of my own; blame Microsoft for refusing to allow me to install a perfectly good HP Scanjet 5470c on my new computer).

Mr. Nessler writes in his preface that during the nearly two decades he spent working on his book he "personally observed, treated, and experimented with hair from thousands of heads. Simultaneously I had the opportunity to study the mental characteristics of those whose hair came under my notice, and to observe the fundamental nature of the individual and the covering of his scalp. For years, in many countries and among many classes of people, I have sought the truth about human hair. I have been on terms of intimacy in every stratum of society. I have visited innumerable institutions --hospitals, orphanages, prisons, schools and factories, studying the relationship between the individuals I have found and the hair on their heads."

We are also told that in 1905, prior to Mr. Nessler's rigorous anthropological adventures in the wide world of hair, he invented the permanent wave.

Rest assured, then, that this man is an expert, and this is no ordinary treatise on hair. Though there is no indication that he ever earned either title, I am persistently tempted to refer to the author as Dr. Nessler or Professor Nessler, so zealous and wide-ranging and sometimes scary is his dogged approach to his area of scholarship.

Given my frequently agonizing relationship with my own facial hair, and the regular, ridiculous experiments with a razor that I have conducted during periods of boredom and frustration, I was particularly interested in Mr. Nessler's treatment of the subject. The discussion takes place in a chapter curiously titled "The Race and Its Hair (Sex Production)."

Make no mistake, my bearded and mustachioed friends, the expert is in your corner, and goes so far as to claim, "If modern civilization follows the logic of its growing intellect, rather than of its primary instincts, it will eventually bring about the dreaded consummation of race suicide. It is the bearded and mustached man, even in this country, who, retaining some degree of the primitive fires, really sustains the race....Even now, I venture to assert, if a census were taken it would be found that the clean-shaven man of the educated strata, even though married, would not keep up the population, nor are he and his spouse willing to do so because of the weakening of their instinctive inducements. Our national moral standards are reducing the individual's true value as a citizen."

In defense of this somewhat startling position, Mr. Nessler quotes Mussolini: "I am anti-whiskers. Fascism is anti-whiskers. Whiskers are a sign of decadence. Glance at the busts of the great Roman Emperors and you will find them all clean shaven --Caesar, Augustus! When the decline of Roman glory began, whiskers came into style. It is true of all periods. The Renaissance was a beardless period. Whiskers were the rule of the old decadent regime, which Fascism replaced with youth of clean-shaven faces."

Later still, in the chapter's concluding thoughts, we are given an additional bit of buttressing encouragement courtesy of an article --datelined from London-- in the New York Times: "Beards are coming back. Britons growing whiskers to combat women's masculine imitations. Whiskers and mustaches are coming back. Barbers say imitation of men's styles and habits by women is given as the direct cause by those now engaged in raising hirsute adornments. With women copying masculine fashions in hair cuts, dress and smoking, proponents of the beard say it stands out more than ever as a badge of masculinity and the vogue of the clean-shaven man is on the decline."

Read those last three paragraphs, gentlemen, and try to persuade me that Mr. Nessler --writing more than 80 years ago-- has not made an airtight case for "hirsute adornments." It's time to cast aside those razors or risk not only emasculation, but the dousing of the primitive fires and the consummation of race suicide.

If you need further encouragement to liberate yourself, read about King Camp Gillette, the Utopian flake who invented the disposable razor and enslaved (and essentially gelded) generations of American men (Excerpt: "Gillette’s particular Utopia would abolish competition, advertising, superfluous middlemen, and eventually money itself. 'If I believed in a devil, I should be convinced that competition for wealth was his most ingenious invention for filling hell,' Gillette wrote. His world would be so efficient that, as he wrote in a later work, 'an individual under the corporate system could produce enough in five years to maintain him for a lifetime of seventy years.'....In the future, as Gillette saw it, 60 million Americans would be housed in one huge city powered by the Niagara River, a city as wonderful as a 'perpetual world’s fair.' The residents of Metropolis would live in a grid of 24,000 apartment buildings, more than 100 million rooms in all, each standardized, to simplify rug cutting. The apartment buildings, grouped around large domed courtyards, resembled 25-story-tall beehives.").

Finally, as an additional bonus to tonight's entertainment, I give you an easily digestible tour of shaving throughout history, sponsored by QuikShave.


  1. is it any wonder that so many writers are starving when there are so many (like you) who are willing to give their work away? this is a big reason why editors and publishers increasingly believe that they can get away with paying nothing or next to nothing for content.

  2. Words are worth whatever they're worth, and obviously plenty of them are no bargain even if they're free. I for damn sure have no buyers, but I'm also not donating my services to be a "community voice" on some corporate media site.

    I removed your name and link, by the way, because it seemed a bit shameless to bitch about a blog that nobody reads and then include a link to a blog where you do nothing but pimp your own hackwork and whine about the fact that no one wants to pay you for it.

    At any rate, I'll be adding this bullshit to my long "fuck this" list shortly.

  3. I'd shy away from kerfuffles with characters who refer to their writing as "content," sir. Just my opinion, of course.