Dirt, the anthropologist Mary Douglas wrote, is simply “matter out of place.”
That’s a wide definition which would apply, for example, to virtually everything currently located on my desk. Yet its very messiness and slipperiness as a concept make it a fertile subject for an exhibition: “Dirt: The Filthy Reality of Everyday Life” at the Wellcome Collection in London.
Dirt, of course, can be fertile, as is stressed by the old northern British dictum, “where there’s muck there’s brass,” or, for those readers who don’t speak Yorkshire, dirt and money go together. Recently, P.J. O’Rourke made a similar point: The modern city is the mess people make when they get rich.
As it turns out, London is partly made of the stuff. In the early-19th-century large mounds, “dust heaps,” rose above the urban landscape (they loom in a sinister fashion over Dickens’s novel, “Our Mutual Friend”). There’s a view of one on show, a small white mountain rising above the houses of King’s Cross. This detritus was mixed with mud, ash and other refuse and turned into bricks — or, as we say these days, recycled.
The exhibition, however, begins with an opposite cliche: Cleanliness is next to godliness. That, it seems, was decidedly the view of the 17th-century Dutch, who may well have been modern Europe’s first hygiene obsessives. As is stressed in the paintings of Pieter de Hooch (1629-1684), they were big on sweeping, polishing and scrubbing. De Hooch’s contemporaries gave a high moral value to being spick and span.