Scatology, the Last Taboo: An Introduction to Fecal Matters in Early Modern Literature and Art
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!
Where there is dirt there is system.
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).
Read more about Fecal Matters in Early Modern Literature and Art here. Thanks again to the authors and Ashgate Publishing.