Scatology, the Last Taboo: An Introduction to Fecal Matters in Early Modern Literature and Art

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Editor's note: the following is taken from the introduction for Fecal Matters in Early Modern Literature and Art, a new book by Jeff Persels and Russell Ganim. To me, as I write my book, this essay presents very clearly the issues I find challenging students of scatology (in all eras). I'm honored that the author and the publisher allowed me to reprint this. You can read more about the book here.


O what lovely fecal matter!

François Rabelais

Where there is dirt there is system.

Mary Douglas

Worthy children of a Classical, Romantic and, most tellingly, bourgeois aesthetic, we can hardly be blamed for several centuries of discomfort, in both our teaching and our writing, when faced with works that deal with that last taboo, what Victor Hugo evocatively called the 'last veil' clouding our vision of the truth. Sexuality in all its myriad forms has long been the darling of academic readers, a once marginalized, now












legitimate field of critical investigation, commentary and theory building. Scatology, however, arguably an even more universal function than sexuality, still retains the power to make us blush, to provoke shame and embarrassment.

Discussion of excrement is generally relegated to one of two extremes: the objective, clinical discourse of medical and social sciences (e.g., gastroenterology, psychology, anthropology) or the subjective, gross indecency of infantile insult or juvenile jest (e.g., South Park). The contributors to this volume reconsider this last taboo in the context of Early Modern European artistic and literate expression, addressing unflinchingly both the objective reality of the scatological as part and parcel of material culture -- inescapably a much larger part, a much heavier parcel then than now -- and the subjective experience of that reality among contemporaries.

If students of literature and the arts have hitherto and in the main been reluctant to tackle, or squeamish about addressing, scatology in earnest, a slowly growing number of recent works (e.g., Vigarello, Monestier, Inglis) have articulated for them and modeled, to varying degrees, socio-historical interpretations of excrement as process, product and experience. Such interpretations owe much to at least three distinct but arguably mutually compatible intellectual trends.

First, the ethnographic fieldwork and analysis of such anthropologists as Claude Lévi-Strauss (L'homme nu, 1971) and Bernadette Bucher (Icon and Conquest, 1981) but especially Mary Douglas (Purity and Danger, 1966) posit a symbolic connection between 'dirt' and 'danger' as the formative relationship of a given society's cosmology, the desired elimination of both in the search for 'purity' constituting then 'a positive reordering of our environment' (Douglas 2). For Bucher, as for Douglas, 'impurity,' and 'disorder' are synonymous. From a social standpoint, Bucher claims that 'what is decreed impure, [and] thus execrated and condemned by a culture, is an object out of place, a cause for disorder' (142). Excrement becomes part of this disorder and marginalization because it is both naturally present but, in most cases, socially absent. It finds itself in 'ambiguous and confusing' circumstances because it is of the body but then physically dislodged from it. Consequently, human waste is separated from the individual who created it, and from the society that rejects it. Paying close attention to this 'disorder,' understanding the treatment of impurity and its concomitant 'danger' within a given society's conceptualization of its own nature, becomes critical to a full and accurate appreciation of that society.

Second, the popular versus official cultural dichotomy of Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin attempts to do just that, focusing on the subversive, 'carnivalesque' nature of the grotesque body and its excrement-producing 'lower stratum' in the works of Rabelais (Rabelais and His World, 1965). His approach has indelibly marked scholarly readings of literary and artistic scatology, particularly that of Early Modern Europe, and its influence, as we might expect, is clear in the number of following essays that take it as a frame of reference. His early attention to the socio-historically specific culture of the 'main events in the life of the grotesque body, the acts of the bodily drama' (317), and the copious critical literature it has spawned would, in fact, seem to have all but eclipsed earlier perspectives. If Freud and psychoanalytical approaches to scatology were once the obvious interpretive choice for modern readings of primary texts such as those treated here -- the standard set by Erikson's influential biography of one the Early Modern era's best-known scatologs, (Young Man Luther, 1958) -- such is no longer the case. For a variety of reasons, many of them connected to Bakhtinian and New-Historicist attention to the recovery and explication of European 'popular' culture, the postulation of a psychological, ahistorical reading of human functions and the way individuals and groups in and across time and space perceive and interpret them has been necessarily modified.

The contributors to this volume are all aware of and seek to understand the mental and physical distance that separates us from the experience of Early Modern excrement. What emerges from their work we may usefully define as a set of complementary applications -- the first by the primary authors, the second by their modern readers -- of Michel Foucault's idea of 'a transformation into discourse' as outlined in his History of Sexuality. His consideration of the 'censorship,' 'denial,' and 'repressive hypotheses' (12) used to thwart the development of human sexual identity finds a parallel with the scatological in that the social desire to silence literary and artistic representations of it translates into an aesthetic and linguistic code whereby the purgative becomes expressive. As Douglas similarly argues, 'The danger risked by boundary transgression is power' (161).

Evoking reactions of disgust and/or ribald delight, the texts and illustrations under examination unleash creative forces and responses that alter our perception of what the form and function of art actually are. Cultural suppression becomes subcultural revelation as what was once rejected as waste is now valued as inspiration. Or, rather, as at least one critic has likewise argued in a corrective to Bakhtin, the distinction between high and low culture, like the rejection and subsequent recuperation of waste, actually corresponds more to the way we have chosen to recover the past than to any real separation acknowledged among Rabelais's contemporaries. As is the case in many of the Amerindians studied in Lévi-Strauss's L'Homme nu, their excrement was always already useful, recyclable, both literally and figuratively; part of the effort of the following essays is to make that point.

How that always already useful and recyclable Early Modern excrement was lost, so to speak, is the concern of the third trend. German sociologist Norbert Elias (The Civilizing Process, 1939) developed, with an acknowledged debt to Freudian psychoanalytical theory, the seminal notion of a historically documentable European 'civilizing process,' a process very much concerned with the scatological. Most pertinent to this collection, Elias zeroes in on what he considers to be the beginnings of an historical shift in modes of social behavior in Early Modern Western European society concurrent with the literary and artistic works examined in this volume. He founds his notion of a civilizing process on a gradual modification in 'personality make-up' or 'habitus' -- including, but not limited to, those involving attitudes toward the excretory experience.

Motivated by the rise of a 'courtly' and/or 'bourgeois' habitus, both of which became increasingly scandalized over time by that experience and, as a result, increasingly censorious of its representation, the shift can be readily documented in the rise and proliferation of manuals of conduct. It is worth noting here that all three trends focus on varying forms of private and public control of excrement and excretion -- the overall 'excretory experience,' as one author would have it -- as essential to a given society's cosmology, whether literal and physical or symbolic and moral. Elias's postulation of a 'civilizing process' for Early Modern Europe hinges on this.

Building on Elias, Douglas and the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, David Inglis has most recently sought to incorporate an elemental 'ethnography' of dirt into the Eliasian scheme of civilization. Elias himself points the way, as we have seen, in linking the rise of an eventual 'bourgeois habitus' to self-conscious modifications in the codes of social interaction, of which those applying to the most 'unclean' and hence 'dangerous' of them all, excretory practice, are the most problematic and so subject to most rigorous control and even repression. This, as Inglis traces most convincingly for the modern period -- his 'history' from Antiquity to the late seventeenth century is disappointingly thin -- has been effected in the West (his examples are primarily French and English) in both the public and private spheres. Dirt hence disorder hence danger become associated with the proletariat, the proverbial 'unwashed' even unwiped masses, as distinct from the hygienically sound hence orderly hence safe bourgeoisie -- that is, until the former, too, come to adopt Inglis' 'bourgeois' now almost universal Western 'fecal habitus,' ultimately depriving dirt of its utility as a class distinction.

The 'civilizing process' here becomes synonymous with the rigorous public and private effort to distance oneself from one's own excrement, the sight and smell of which grow proportionally offensive. That offense transfers easily to those words and images that represent that sight and smell, resulting in as much discomfort with scatology as with the excretory experience itself. Rabelais's 'bathroom humor' becomes the cause of an embarrassed snicker, the object of academic dismissal, the reason we read him in private but gloss over the 'dirty bits' in public. All the more so as he, like many of his contemporaries treated in this anthology, has the vexing habit of mixing an altior sensus with the quest for a perfect asswipe. Much Early Modern vernacular art and literature is disorderly, is unclean, is thus 'dangerous,' subversive, and is in need of the neo-Classical bath it will receive in subsequent centuries.

Even more illuminating for the argument that links the essays in this volume, Elias's primary cultural marker, Erasmus -- whose 1530 conduct manual, the De civilitate morum puerilium (On Good Manners for Boys), is an important milestone in the 'civilizing process' -- not only announced the advent of the specific socio-historical scatological moment, as it were, that would become ours, but also that he was himself aware of participating in one. A curiously revealing case in point, the Adagia, compiled over the course of his career, explicate many a proverbial scatological act (of micturition, of excretion) toward which the commentator demonstrates a predictable -- following the Eliasian thesis -- and telling reserve. Yet adage 3.7.1, Scarabaeus aquilam quaerit ('A dung-beetle hunting an eagle'), acknowledges, as much as any other contemporary work treated in the following pages, a relationship to excrement different from our own:

The fact that it [the dung-beetle] uses the droppings of animals for its own purposes is a matter of praise, not accusation. As if doctors do not do exactly the same, not only making ointments with a variety of animal and even human excrement, but prescribing it in medicines for the sick (297)

Moreover, he continues, in explicit recognition of his own historically determined, and thus intrinsically mutable, relationship to the scatological:

But is it also true that men are offended not so much by excrement itself as by the current view of it; to the earliest mortals this substance was not so disgusting as it is to us, for they called it by the very auspicious name of laetamen ['manure,' from laetare, 'to gladden'] and they had not hesitation in giving the god Saturn the nickname of 'Sterculeus' [from stercus, 'dung, shit'], and this was a compliment if we believe Macrobius. (298)

Erasmus, both harbinger and codifier of a 'civilizing process,' of a new 'scatologically-challenged' habitus-in-the-making that would forever distance us from our excrement, noted himself, and with all the troubled 'objectivity' of an ethnographer, his own and his contemporaries' distance from an earlier scatological golden age, 'if we believe Macrobius.'

That this Erasmian/Eliasian shift coincides with the same historical moments and spaces inhabited by the works discussed in this anthology -- works constitute so many witnesses to and agents of that change -- is worth exploring as a hypothesis for dispelling some of the inevitable and discomfiting 'ambiguity' surrounding excrement, for clearing away, as it were, the taboo on serious treatment of scatology in art and literature. What 'clouds' our ability to appreciate the frequent Early Modern recourse to excremental rhetoric, whether in text or in image, is, as Erasmus suspected, our own socially, culturally and historically determined distance from an earlier scatological golden age.

Traced anthropologically, sociologically, culturally and historically, the Early Moderns arguably shat differently (not to mention ate, drank, digested, pissed, farted, vomited and spat differently) as well as inherited and cultivated a different understanding of those paradoxically both natural and grotesque acts. Explorations, however tentative, of that difference should render Early Modern Europeans' less abashed use of scatology less ambiguous, less unsettling, more meaningful. Although far from comprehensive, the following essays on some of the period's cultural artifacts begin to do just that, looking for, to paraphrase Douglas, the system in the dirt, for '...if uncleanness is matter out of place, we must approach it through order' (40).

-- Jeff Persels and Russell Ganim

Read more about Fecal Matters in Early Modern Literature and Art here. Thanks again to the authors and Ashgate Publishing.

23 Comments on "Scatology, the Last Taboo: An Introduction to Fecal Matters in Early Modern Literature and Art"

Tydirium's picture
k 500+ points
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That's really interesting. I wonder why there is such a lack of discussion about poop in academia... obviously, it's a very important part of our lives. I guess that Shameful Shitting extends even to so called smart people -- they're embarassed to study the realities of the imperfect human body.

Tydirium's picture
k 500+ points
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I read a bit of Rabalias in school. He's really funny -- his story is about a giant who represents bodily functions taken to the extreme. It's pretty darn entertaining, although not as good as that Swift poem.

daphne's picture
PoopReport of the Year AwardSite AdminComment Content ModeratorComment Quality Moderatore 6000+ points
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I will have to read this later today, as I'm groggy, a bit hung over, and too hazy to appreciate this, which is our task, as poopreporters.

My hats off to Tydirium for being coherent. Now, I'm going back to sleep with my doggies and kitties and try to get some room in that bed somehwere.

ZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

.....hugging bunnies since 1969
www.daphneszoo.com

daphne's picture
PoopReport of the Year AwardSite AdminComment Content ModeratorComment Quality Moderatore 6000+ points
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Dave-O, by no means am I downing this. I actually look forward to reading it when I get back up. Please note.

I will never be a morning person.

.....hugging bunnies since 1969
www.daphneszoo.com

daphne's picture
PoopReport of the Year AwardSite AdminComment Content ModeratorComment Quality Moderatore 6000+ points
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I found one of the De Sade excerpts that I was talking about. In Justine, near the beginning of the book, someone pees in the punchbowl upon request and everyone at the table drinks it.

.....hugging bunnies since 1969
www.daphneszoo.com

Academic Shite's picture
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Wow, very interesting!

The Shit Volcano's picture
Comment Quality Moderatorh 3000+ points
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If the academic world can talk about fish farts, they certainly can talk about shit. I would love to get a copy of this book just to have it on my shelf!

I found Jesus! He was behind the sofa the whole time!

The Holy Shitter's picture
l 100+ points
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ZZZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

freakazoid's picture
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Well, we know who the intelligent readers on this site are. Not you, Holy Shitter.

The Shit Volcano's picture
Comment Quality Moderatorh 3000+ points
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Knock it off!

I found Jesus! He was behind the sofa the whole time!

daphne's picture
PoopReport of the Year AwardSite AdminComment Content ModeratorComment Quality Moderatore 6000+ points
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OK, I've read this, and I thought of another writer who had no trouble putting "taboo" things into his works, I think, as a way to keep one interested in his very progressive thoughts.
I'm talking about the Marquis De Sade. I have all of his works except for one book. He will rock my world with his outlooks, then get into the most nasty sex scenes or use of poo and pee, at times. I don't know if it's in context with this, but the idea remains; poop and literature can co-exist for a myriad of reasons.

Sorry I took so long to wake up! Good contribution, guys. Thank you Dave for waking up up a bit.

.....hugging bunnies since 1969
www.daphneszoo.com

the shit reaper's picture
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zzzzzzzzZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.......

the shit reaper's picture
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being bored by something like THAT is not a measure of intelligence or unintelligence. (I did tried reading it.) Since when is this a damn book club?

Slim Jim Junkie's picture
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I do appreciate that Dave put up more shit-literature, but this just wasn't as enterning as the poem of a guy who couldn't imagine his girlfriend being able to have excretory abilities.

The Shit Volcano's picture
Comment Quality Moderatorh 3000+ points
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What I forgot to add to my comment is, knock it off, freakazoid. I wasn't writing well that night. The negativity is just starting to get on my nerves.

I found Jesus! He was behind the sofa the whole time!

the shit reaper's picture
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daphne, that reminds me of a party I went to, except we didn't have pee punch. we used our man-juice as icing on a cake and ate that.

Fart Poopie's picture
j 1000+ points
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Wow. I think I would get this book just to let it sit on the coffee table.

L Wrong Hubbard's picture
l 100+ points
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I think I'll get this book for the bathroom. It will sit next to my copy of How to Shit in the Woods

Happy trails,
L. Wrong
http://ppkindustries.blogspot.com

Happy trails,
L. Wrong
Chairman & CEO, PPK Industries

Anonymous pile of crap's picture
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Hmmm Intellectual analysis of shit. I'm going to wipe my ass clean of this. Not that it doesnt sound indepth its just im not into shit like this...

healthy 1's picture
j 1000+ points
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This does sound like a fascinating book.

There is so much to poop and art. I have just rescenly dug into this, I could never imagine how much there is to it.
_______
It's not nice to fool mother nature.

"Two percent of the population think; three percent of the population think they think, and 95 percent of the population would rather die than think."

Titus Christodoulou's picture
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I have just been reading Burke's Scatological Rites while writing a political comment on the elections, coining latrinalia for the whole politics of my country. I will lay my hands (the sinister one, shit is in the Easter traditions only for the left hand) and thanks for bringing it to my attention. And yes, I am the shitty academic type.

mushandflush's picture
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Perhaps the greater the interest in academia about poop, the better the life of the average pooper will become. That is, if academia choses to bypass the big business of septic, sewage, sludge and environmentalists and find the most cost effective way to manage poop.
That would truly be an art.