The Best a Man Can Get

In search of the perfect shave.

This article originally appeared in Books & Culture, March/April 2006 (vol. 12, no. 2), p. 26–27.

As the “tech editor” for NBC’s Today Show, Corey Greenberg spends most of his on-air time shilling for the latest technological gadgets. (Literally, shilling—last April the Wall Street Journal revealed that several technology companies had paid him handsomely for his promotional efforts.) He can tell you why you need a video iPod, what you’re missing without satellite radio, and where to put the fifty-inch flat screen TV. But on January 29, 2005, he was enthusiastically undermining half a century’s worth of high technology.

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.

You can say that no one in his right mind should wield a double-edged razor half-asleep. Or you can say that no one in his right mind can stay half-asleep when he picks up a double-edged razor.

With his Today Show segment, Greenberg became the highest-profile convert to “wet shaving.” He is still one of its most fervent evangelists, with—what else?—a blog, At 120,000 words and counting, Greenberg’s blog could best be described as gonzo shave journalism. He explores every nook and, for that matter, nick of the wet shaving experience, whose defining elements are a single sharp blade (whether ensconced in a safety razor or exposed in the fearsome straight-edge), a brush, soap, and lots of hot water.

But Greenberg’s blog is just the most visible salient of a movement that has all the ingredients to reach its tipping point. I first discovered this utterly retro trend on the über-geek Web site, where most links tend to point to topics like “Javascript” and “hardware” (the computer kind). There are the requisite Internet forums populated by enthusiastic “shave geeks” and several specialty retailers that are selling more old-fashioned shaving products than ever. The shaving emporium Truefitt & Hill recently opened a shop in, of all places, Las Vegas. Wet shaving is far from being a mass movement, but it is growing, primarily because almost every man who tries it discovers that, in fact, Greenberg was right: with a little time and practice, shaving with a single blade can deliver an extraordinary shave, and is great fun besides.

Meanwhile, in January of this year Gillette launched its newest “shaving system,” the Fusion. Its cartridges have six blades—five in a row and a sixth on the back of the razor. Each cartridge costs more than three dollars. When an editor for Cargo magazine tried the Fusion—after a Gillette “facialist” prepared his face with “a variety of moisturizing unguents and salves”—the razor cut his neck in three places.

When I tell my friends that I have switched to wet shaving, they ask three questions, usually in the following order. Don’t you cut yourself? Doesn’t it take more time in the mornings? And isn’t it expensive to buy all the necessary equipment, compared to a drugstore razor and can of shaving cream? The answers are yes I do, yes it does, and not necessarily.

Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Gillette–Schick juggernaut is how these companies have managed to extract extraordinary profits by selling plastic cartridges to the masses, while the shaving brush, emblem of the wet shaver, has somehow become an icon of the affluent. Until I stumbled across Greenberg’s testimony, the only shaving brushes I had ever seen were displayed in opulent cases in high-end department stores and had prices in three figures.

And in fact the wet shaving market operates in direct contradiction to the hard-won insights of consumer marketing. The legendary brilliance of King Gillette was to sell razors below cost and blades above—way above—cost. Today, a Fusion razor with one extra cartridge is only $10, the magical amount at which most middle-class Americans will make an impulse purchase. A new safety razor from Merkur, one of the few remaining manufacturers in the category, is around $30. And whereas Gillette’s Edge shaving gel goes for $2 or $3 a can, a tube of Italy’s Proraso shave cream is $9, and many other shave creams come in tubs priced at $25 or more. A good badger-hair shaving brush does not, it turns out, have to cost three figures (though there are plenty of merchants who will happily sell you one for that amount), but it will not be less than $40.

But over time the numbers change places. The Merkur razor, forged of implacable stainless steel, will last several lifetimes. There is simply nothing in it to wear out. The shaving brush will last a decade or more. Replacement double-edge blades range from inexpensive (Merkur’s fearsomely thin and sharp blades are 45 cents each) to dirt cheap (at Wal-Mart, which sells perfectly serviceable blades). A year’s supply of Proraso is roughly three tubes—$27. So in the first year of wet shaving, a frugal wet shaver might spend $120 or so. But a customer who follows the siren song of Gillette marketing up the brand ladder to the Fusion will spend $150 on blades alone. In succeeding years the wet shaver, already equipped with the razor and brush, can indulge in the ridiculously luxurious Trumper’s English shave cream—two tubs, a year’s supply, are $50—and still be spending only half as much as his Gillette-addled counterpart.

But Gillette, savvy capitalists that they are, are not marketing their product on price. And the truth is that in spite of their slogan, “The best a man can get,” they are not marketing based on the quality of their shaves either. The best shave a man can get, as everyone in the shaving industry knows, is one he cannot give himself, because by far the best shave a man can get comes from a barber—the shave that starts with the application of hot towels and warm lather, and culminates in the practiced gliding of a cut-throat razor over the face of the grateful, and assiduously immobile, patient.

No, for Gillette and its well-researched customers, the issue is neither price nor quality. It is convenience—or, as the philosopher Albert Borgmann has put it more precisely, “disburdenment.” Gillette promises to relieve you of the burden of getting a close shave. You will be relieved of the upfront cost of razor and brush, to be sure (though it would be entirely within Gillette’s power to once again produce, as they did for decades, an economical safety razor that would last a lifetime). But you are also relieved of the burden of time. There’s no way around it: wet shaving takes more time. For years I used a succession of electric razors that did an adequate job in three or four minutes; wet shaving takes me ten to twelve.

And there is the issue of shaving cuts, those tiny lesions that can bleed for half an hour if not staunched with a styptic pencil or a bit of tissue paper. I never once got a shaving cut from my electric razor—it buzzed innocuously over my face, its blades well sheathed. The latest cartridge razors, the Cargo editor’s experience notwithstanding, are indeed designed to minimize the number of cuts, and they do tolerably well at it. A safety razor, on the other hand, looks anything but safe when you are loading a skinny double-edged blade into it for the first time, and in the hands of an inattentive or inexperienced user it is indeed capable of harm. This, it seems to me from my anecdotal polling of family and friends, is the core appeal of the cartridges and electrics that have driven wet shaving from the general market. They are easy, and they are safe. That is the way we want our lives—or at least, in the fog of the early morning, our shaves.

A few times a month I rise at 4:30 to catch a 6:00 flight to Chicago. There are few experiences of sheer vertiginous despair that can compare to the alarm going off at 4:30 after six hours or so of sleep. The furnace, uninformed of my travel plans, has not yet come on, so the temperature in our bedroom is about 55 degrees. I stumble into the bathroom, shivering, and wince against the light. The hot shower is comforting, but I still feel a vague sickness of fatigue in my stomach and sluggishness in my limbs. After my shower, I step to the sink and begin filling it with hot water, using that water to drench both my face and the shaving brush. Then I pick up my razor.

There are two ways to look at this moment. You can say that no one in his right mind should wield a double-edged razor half-asleep. Or you can say that no one in his right mind can stay half-asleep when he picks up a double-edged razor. Here is what invariably happens: as I swirl the brush in the tub of Trumper’s Sandalwood Shaving Cream, as I scrub my face gently with the brush, covering it with fragrant lather, as I apply the razor at an acute angle to my cheek next to my right ear, I suddenly become gloriously awake. Ten minutes into my day, I am paying utmost attention. The sandalwood aroma fills my nostrils, the steam rising from the sink caresses my skin, and most extraordinary of all, as I run the blade down my cheek it makes a tiny and distinct plink with each hair that it encounters, amplified by the tension of the blade held in the steel jaws of the razor. This experience simply doesn’t happen with a cartridge razor, let alone a whirring electric shaver. Only a single sharp blade can give you the sound of every one of the hairs on your head being numbered.

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.

The cartridge razor is safe, but it is ultimately dull. The double-edged razor, with apologies to Aslan, is not safe, but it is good. It is good to be at risk. It is good for me to face myself and hear the myriad plinks of each hair being numbered and shorn. It is good to wake up.

“After the age of forty, every man is responsible for his own face.” This aphorism, most commonly attributed to Albert Camus, was comforting when I heard it in my twenties. I was not given an easy face to be responsible for—angular, pale, and regularly visited, well into my thirties, by the acne that I was once assured was a passing adolescent tribulation. I took comfort not just in Camus’s implied absolution for those faults dredged up from the Bennett and Crouch gene pools, but also in the promise that a life well lived might change my countenance, if not into that of a movie star, at least into a soft grandfatherly handsomeness. Forty also seemed comfortably far away, as distant a milestone as 21 once was. If nothing else, Camus’s quote was yet another way to prolong adolescence (the state of mature irresponsibility, with or without acne) well into adulthood.

Now I am 38, two years away from Camus’s benchmark. The only remaining milestone for maturity I can think of is fifty, the age of AARP membership and annual prostate exams. I am not sure I still find Camus’s aphorism comforting. And thanks to Google I now know that Camus may not have meant to comfort me in any case, since the most common form of the quote begins with a word I never heard in my twenties: “Alas, . . .”

Alas, unless the next two years bring a sudden Botox-like transformation, the face I will be responsible for in my forties and beyond has quite as many faults as the one I was not responsible for in my twenties. And without a doubt, wet shaving has only made me more conscious of the face I am about to be responsible for. Every morning I stand in front of the mirror, naked from the waist up, and spend a good ten minutes peering intently at every angle and curve, every wrinkle and blemish. This is not, fundamentally, an encouraging experience.

I am not young anymore, I find myself thinking on these mirror mornings. I am not old, either, but I am old enough to be responsible. What have I done? What is there left for me to do? I have had a good, even wonderful, life so far, with vastly more than my share of blessing. I suspect I am far happier than Albert Camus. But who can go through forty years of this life, any life on this beautiful cursed earth, and not say, “Alas”?

But if Camus’s slogan is no longer comforting, it has become bracing. Just in time, at the age of 38, I have learned how to shave. I have become responsible for my own face.

Last summer I began reading the Odyssey to my eight-year-old son. Every night Timothy and I huddled up close on the sofa and opened up another chapter of Telemachus’ and Odysseus’ adventures. The Odyssey is, among many things, the story of a father and a son, and especially about the bonds between a father and son forged in shared danger, adventure, and triumph. It is also, like its counterpart the Iliad, a book about what it is to be a man: like Odysseus, a man who goes away a strong young warrior and returns, decades later, somehow something more, and like Telemachus, a youth who grows into the likeness of his father. It is also, especially to an eight-year-old, a rollicking good story, with one of the features children like most, repetition. To his delight, Timothy quickly recognized a distinctive feature of Homer’s poetry, the stock phrases, epithets, and even whole passages that recur again and again. Somewhere around book eight, he observed, “Dad, these guys take a lot of baths.”

Indeed they do. 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.

As if to accentuate the power and danger of the bath, more often than not the baths in the Odyssey conclude with a phrase like this, after the hero has been scrubbed, clothed, and anointed with oil: “He emerged from the bath chamber, like in appearance to the immortal gods.” There is here, I suspect, the simple awe of a good bath that is known only to a culture where ordinary people may never have had a proper bath in their lives; there is also the sense that the hero is most fully himself, most godlike and most manlike, when he has submitted to the intimate ministrations of a bath, has been made new by making himself vulnerable to the hospitality of his host.

It will sound like madness to say it, but when I have rinsed the lather from my face and splashed it with intensely cold water, when I have patted my face dry with a towel and rubbed in the lotion to protect the newly exfoliated skin, smooth and supple—I have some sense of what Homer meant. On a good day, a good close shave is the Iliad and the Odyssey in one: the mastery of the dangerous blade, the return to the comforts of home. To shave well is to be a man, and to be a man is closer than Homer could ever have imagined to being like in appearance to the immortal gods—as Psalm 8 put it, “a little lower than the angels,” and as Genesis put it, made in the image of God.

Yet just as the Iliad is a very strange sort of poem about war, diffident about heroism even as it celebrates it, so the Odyssey is a very strange poem about homecoming, given how often and in how many ways Odysseus seems to defer his arrival. A modern reader cannot help but be troubled by the year Odysseus spends in the house (and the bed, and the bath) of Circe, and the way he pursues every possible detour, at great cost to his shipmates, on the circuitous path back to Ithaca. Even his return home brings delay after delay, long after the bath where he is recognized by his old nurse for the first time. Odysseus and his tragic counterpart Achilles are our archetypes of manhood, for better and for worse: our capacity for valor but also our tendency toward wounded depression and inward-turning rage; our longing for home, hearth, and bed but also our bent toward wandering and lingering far from home, prolonging our adventures while our wives and children wait for our return.

Every bath, vulnerable and naked, warm and wet, is a return home, but every man is Odysseus, prone to wander. Every shave, leaving our skin as smooth as it was before we became men, before the years crept in, before we were, alas, responsible for our own face, simultaneously restores us and reminds us that something has gone wrong. We are, if we are fortunate, more than we expected, but not quite what we hoped to become.

Our final redemption will be, I think, a razor’s-edge experience. Like so many modern wanderers, Camus was both right and wrong. We will not ultimately be responsible for our own face. If the gospel is true, this life, where we face ourselves in the mirror and take responsibility for all we see there, is rehearsal for another. And that life will begin, if I read St. Paul correctly, with a very close shave, the best a man can get. Another will be the barber. If we have practiced well, we will know what is coming: the blade will be applied at just the right angle to shear off the stubble. It will be terribly sharp and terribly close, but wielded with tremendous skill and care, it will divide who we truly can become from what we were never meant to be. Then cold water will splash against our skin; fragrant oil will leave us glistening and new. We will arise and go, godlike, to the feast.