Thursday, April 20, 2006

Put Some on the Handle, Redux

I'm a facial hair and shaving enthusiast -- most of which stems from the fact that my Irish ancestry has left me little in the way of lip volume, but luckily, the hair on my face grows fast and thick (mostly courtesy of my mother's family). And this bleeds through into Short Schrift. There's my recent post/link about beards. You've seen my beard (a little on the scruffy side, but in a nice way) here. And most of you probably remember my post on the curiously Onion-echoing Gillette Fusion razor.

It's less well known, however, that I also have a professional interest in shaving, in my job as a literary critic. One of my favorite essays I've written so far in graduate school is about Buck Mulligan's mirror in James Joyce's Ulysses, which triangulates some lit-theory discourses on the mirror and representation with a cultural history of shaving. I'm also interested in barbers, valets, and the transition between the barber shop and self-shaving that occured in the late Enlightenment but only really solidified in the early 20th century. (Ben Franklin was a notable early adopter and proponent.)

There are plenty of great moments in literature and film that focus on shaving -- from the masked ritual violence in Melville's "Benito Cereno" to the psychological drama of the Hernando Téllez short story "Just Lather, That's All," which I think I read in high school but (like Faulkner's "Barn Burning," Elie Wiesel's Night, and every Shakespeare and Sophocles play, but unlike Johnny Tremaine or The Red Badge of Courage) has always stuck with me. Sometimes, there's a comic effect -- all of the male guests at Emma Bovary's wedding have terrible cuts on their faces from shaving in bad light. Or in A Hard Day's Night, when George is teaching Shake how to use a safety razor, Shake has a great punchline: "It's not my fault. I come from a long line of electricians." The best shaving scenes aren't just about isolation (although some very good ones in movies are -- e.g. the parallel montage in Schindler's List or the attempted suicide in The Royal Tenenbaums). They're about moments of intimacy, danger, and the threat of violence -- usually between two men.

So -- while I'm not nearly as much of a shave cook as some -- I read this article, titled "The Best A Man Can Get" [Books & Culture, via Arts & Letters Daily], with relish -- like Leopold Bloom eating a kidney. It's mostly about Corey Greenberg, technology shill for "The Today Show," who's become a passionate advocate for traditional shaving:

In the Today Show studio, Greenberg lathered up his face with English shaving cream and a badger brush, whipped out a vintage double-edge razor, and made a passionate case that the multi-billion-dollar shaving industry has been deceiving its customers ever since 1971, when Gillette (no small advertiser on network television) introduced the twin-blade razor. Everything you need for a fantastically close and comfortable shave, Greenberg said, was perfected by the early 20th century.
Then, however, the author (Andy Crouch, who has serious chops, but about whom I know nothing) takes over, and the essay turns into this nearly lyrical hymn to the art of shaving, and the gap between electric and cartridge shaving and the straight or traditional safety razor:
In the logic of high technology, the fundamental premise is our incapacity. We are tired, fuzzy (in mind and face), and in need of a simple, safe, efficient solution. Gillette's army of engineers go to work, and place in our hand "the best a man can get." But there is another kind of logic—call it the logic of the blade. The double-edged razor blade, of course, is technology too, of quite an advanced kind. But the blade does not exist to underwrite our fuzzy, lazy, half-asleep lives. It requires something of us—discipline, skill, patience. The fundamental premise of the blade is that we can learn to handle fearsome things in delicate ways.
And this remarkable reading of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey:
Homer's heroes bathe because they feast: no scene of feasting in the great halls of an Achaean king is complete without the visit to the bathchamber before the meal. The Iliad, the book of war on the shores of Troy, has almost no such scenes. Its men are at war, and too busy to bathe. But the Odyssey, though not without its adventures and battles, is a book that celebrates the man at home—the pleasure of the bath, the board, and the bed. Just offstage and never forgotten in the poem is the murderous bath Clytemnestra and her lover Aigisthus prepare for Agamemnon, a cautionary tale that reminds the heroes that baths can be dangerous and vulnerable places, and that the home requires, in its own way, as much valor and steadfastness from both husband and wife as the battlefield.
I'm not nearly as far gone as some of these guys, but I really do geek out on all of this stuff -- the poetry as well as the razors. I currently use a combination of electric devices and blades to keep my beard tight. You need at least as much precision to keep up a beard as you do to regularly shave it off, and they haven't made a straight razor yet that can reliably trim a beard. (Hell, even the electric trimmers don't do a very good job -- most of the time, I wind up using scissors.) Still, the enthusiasm driving these guys -- and the sweet, sweet allure of early 20th-century technology -- almost makes me want to convert.


Anonymous said...

The Crouch article does make a nice shave sound very sexy. And it hits key points, the issues of the apparent safety of modern razors and the time factor. Gavin, being a seasonal shaver, often comments that he'd love to have a nice professional shave and I think that most men would agree with Crouch's assessment that they are superior, if given the chance. I'd wager that Gavin would happily take an extra five minutes in his morning to get a shave he could be truly happy with. Of course, having two little girls floating around you while you have a naked blade in hand may scare him away.
I'm a bit surprised, though not entirely, that I rarely read about women's shaving. (Not that I search very hard for it.) It's mentioned in almost any pre-teen book as a right of passage to shave your legs for the first time, but is there any real study behind the phenomenon? Do the same standards of razor use/better shave apply? And who would have the 30-45 minutes I'd estimate you'd need to completely wet-shave a pair of gams??
Interesting aside, you never hear anyone recommend men wax their beards off. If you're going to shave everyday anyway, why not? Can't be worse than a bikini wax.

Anonymous said...

I've never had a barber shave me, have you? I'd like to try it at least once.

Tim said...

I've had my beard trimmed by a barber, but never a proper wet-shave. The best part, I think, would be the warm wet towels -- I almost think that if my beard got that soft, I'd be loath to shave it off.

Interesting note on lady leg-shaving vs. men's beards. There used to be a pretty standard stand-up routine and anecdotal joke making the rounds about men cutting themselves shaving after their wives used their razor to shave their legs.

This always used to seem counterintuitive to me -- after all, wouldn't a bristly man-beard break down a razor faster than fine lady leg stubble? As it turns out, though, the degradation of razor blades has less to do with hair nappiness than it does total shaving surface area -- so a full shave of both legs (at a minimum) winds up being worth three to four shaves of a man's face. Factor in the surprise when you're expecting a fresh blade and getting the equivalent of one a week-old, and blammo! instant razor burn, if not worse.