In the realm of the desensitised

FLESH and Stone Richard Sennett Faber, pounds 25 The Parthenon was high and exposed; it was meant to seem virile, undressed and unabashed
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History is not always a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. Sometimes it is a dream we are struggling to revive. Richard Sennett's impressive new work begins by addressing an acute contemporary dilemma: "the sensory deprivation which seem s to curse most modern buildings; the dullness, the monotony and the tactile sterility which afflict the urban environment". It goes on to explore, by investigating Periclean Athens, Imperial Rome, medieval Paris, Edwardian London and modern New York, th e relationship between flesh and stone, the dynamic play between physical experience and the architecture of civic life.

His thesis is that urban habits are the outward expression (often distorted) of bodily desires and fears. Dominant ideas about the body, he argues, were articulated both on a monumental and an intimate scale. Roman cities clung to an "umbilicus", just a

s ours rely on the circulation of traffic through arterial systems.

The introduction shows a Hogarth print, "Beer Lane", which shows Londoners clustered beneath a pub sign, arms around one another, merrily smoking and kissing and waving hams and tankards in the air. This, we gather, is a high ideal of liberated sensate life. Sennett is too shrewd to sentimentalise the 18th century: he notes that Londoners didn't spend all day blagging in pubs and coffee houses merely because they were convivial people. These sites were where news happened, where jobs came and went; theywere places of transaction and trade, and not only with prostitutes.

The main body of the work begins with Periclean Athens, in the Gymnasium (from gumnoi - stark naked). This is where Greeks aspired to achieve the bodily perfection rendered in sculpture, much as we strive to sculpt ourselves into shape in modern work-outtemples. The Greek gym also served as the playground for the city's erotic life - men only, of course, but not homosexual in the modern manner - Eros wasn't fussy about taking sides.

Sennett doesn't seem to wonder whether the high status and heroic physical standard set by this cult of exercise provoked some of the unease he criticises so sharply in modern life. It excluded women absolutely, for one thing (they developed their own much more enjoyable-sounding festivals - noisy parties on the rooftops); and presumably made fat, short or effeminate men feel just plain awful. Athenian architecture expressed the same "ideals": the Parthenon was high and exposed; it was mean

t to seem virile, undressed and unabashed.

If Greece loved nakedness, Rome admired geometry and order. In medieval France, on the other hand, Sennett finds a dramatically different Christian conception of physical life - gloomy Gothic cloisters, dark confessionals where intimacies were exchanged,neat melancholic gardens with pools as aids to reflection. Medieval physiology, he finds, believed in something like a Christian fellowship of internal organs - if one was in trouble, the others would hurry to help out. This belief encouraged monks to perform good works with the infirm; but also found expression in the popularity of public executions, which some top people thought a good way to provoke compassion in the onlooker.

All the time Sennett worries away at the tension between the prevailing ideas about physical life - medical, sexual, and religious - and the nature of the civic space. It was no accident, for instance, that propagandists in revolutionary France invented Marianne as the symbol of liberty: for the first time, the state became a woman. Pamphlets spoke of "the incorruptible milk of the Revolution" and gave her open, generous breasts - citizens could suckle and be free.

Sennett notices what a highly charged image this was. It came at a time when all but the poorest women used wet-nurses, a time when babies were maltreated and fed on scraps, if at all. This was not mere cruelty: kindness was unaffordable. The mortality rate was so high that an affectionate mother would have been "in a constant state of mourning".

This is all told with great and scrupulous zeal. It looks from the price that the publisher is not planning to sell many copies, which is a pity. Sennett is a serious and thorough thinker, and this work is crammed with wonderful incidental perceptions. Asharp essay on The Merchant of Venice narrates the barbarous installation of the original Jewish ghetto, and wonders about a big implausibility: why did the Christians feel remotely obliged to keep their word to a Jew?

Such digressions derive from Sennett's anxiety to accommodate contradictions, rather than wish them away. In a passage about London's underground, he suggests that modern travel does not connect us to others; it disconnects us. By making it possible - desirable, even - for people to live apart, it tempts the rich to push the poor away and bus them in to do the chores. And it makes the urban space a dead zone, something to be got through rather than something to be felt. This seems like an accurate depiction of contemporary cities - swish enclaves sealed off from shabby impoverished swathes. Even here, though, Sennett acknowledges that by working-class standards, the changes were life enhancing. People acquired space. Suddenly they didn't have to eat, sleep, have babies and defecate in the same room. A tube ride seemed a small price to pay.

The book avoids recommending the ideal flesh-and-stone city, partly because Sennett's religious convictions lead him to locate this in lost-forever Eden. Instead, he ends with some stylish put-downs: armchairs, a function of advances in sprung upholstery, cushion us from life; lavatories render a universal experience private and unspeakable; trains and planes make us stare, weirdly together-but-alone, at the backs of people's heads; air-conditioning disrupts our sense of time and temperature, and so on.

They seem like refined social criticisms. But a work so dedicated to embracing change and the irreconciliable contrariness of life might be expected to delight a little in these matters, not see them merely as threats to some ideal of social backslappinglocated in a Hogarth print. At times it seems that Sennett is saying merely that there is not enough suffering in Western life. It is one aspect of his avowedly Christian position, though his theology is unconventional: Eden was forfeited, he suggests, not through disobedience but through a loss of bodily confidence. He is not a pleasure seeker: pain, he insists, is as big a part of life, and any attempts to deny or diminish it are flawed.

Is he right? Is it true that modern life is so relentlessly desensitising? He makes a persuasive case. But even these days, when you leave a shiny new climate-controlled cloudscraper to find cold rain slapping your face like gravel and the wind tossing your scarf across the road, you don't feel the least aggrieved. You feel like you just woke up. You feel roused, almost elated.