For most of the history of our species, in most parts of the world, bathing has been a collective act. In ancient Asia, the practice was a religious ritual believed to have medical benefits related to the purification of the soul and body. For the Greeks, the baths were associated with self-expression, song, dance and sport, while in Rome they served as community centres, places to eat, exercise, read and debate politics.
But communal bathing is rare in the modern world. While there are places where it remains an important part of social life – in Japan, Sweden and Turkey, for example – for those living in major cities, particularly in the Anglosphere, the practice is virtually extinct. The vast majority of people in London, New York and Sydney have become used to washing alone, at home, in plexi-glass containers – showering as a functional action, to clean one’s own private body in the fastest and most efficient way possible.
The eclipse of communal bathing is one symptom of a wider global transformation, away from small ritualistic societies to vast urban metropolises populated by loose networks of private individuals. This movement has been accompanied by extraordinary benefits, such as the mass availability and movement of services and commodities, but it has also contributed to rampant loneliness, apathy and the emergence of new psychological phenomena, from depression to panic and social anxiety disorders. ‘Urban alienation’, a term much-used by sociologists at the start of the 20th century, has become a cliché for describing today’s world.
It is difficult to imagine a more powerful counter-image to the dominant picture of modernity than the archetypal bathhouse. Of course, these spaces vary greatly. The Japanese sento, with its strict rules and fastidious emphasis on hygiene, could hardly be more different from the infamously squalid wash houses of Victorian Britain. Hungary’s vast fürdő, some of which spread over several floors, provide a different emotional experience to the intensity of the lakȟóta sweat-lodge of Native America. What links all these examples, however, is the role such spaces have in bringing together people who might otherwise remain separate, and placing them in a situation of direct physical contact. It is this aspect of proximity that remains significant today.
Reintroducing bathhouses with such a principle in mind could be a means of tackling the loneliness of living in contemporary megacities. These would not be the luxury spas and beauty salons that promise eternal youth for those who can afford them, nor the gay bathhouses of the world’s metropolises, but real public spaces: cheap, multi-purpose and accessible to all.
Today, many people are turning to yoga, mindfulness and other mind-body practices as a private means of resolving the sense of ‘disembodiment’ that can arise from a cramped life spent in metro carriages and hunched over computer screens. The bathhouse could provide a similar space to focus on the body but, crucially, it would do so at the collective level, bringing corporeality and touch back into the sphere of social interaction. The Japanese call this hadaka no tsukiai (‘naked association’) or, in the words of a new generation, ‘skinship’.
Original publication 26 August, 2016
Posted on NatCorn 28th December 2019
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