Dung Ho 

New interest in a very old subject

Wednesday, Nov 15 2000
Illustration by Mark Andresen

The critical mind is tempted to make something of the coincidence that two books on feces have come out in relatively rapid succession. Last year there was English-born biologist Ralph A. Lewin’s Merde, and this year there’s Dominique Laporte’s History of Shit. The two books couldn’t be less alike. Lewin’s is in the tradition of inspired British amateurism. You imagine the author with his pith helmet, the native bearers, the close call with the leopard testy over having to abandon its still-warm scat. Merde is made to be quoted at cocktail parties: “Polly, did you know the Maori have 35 different words for feces?” “Nigel, really!

Laporte’s book is solemn. It’s a Prolegomenon to Any Future Crapping. He wrote it in his 20s in 1978 (and died in 1984 at age 35). Nadia Benabid and Rodolphe el-Khoury have now translated it from the French and added what seem like new photographs and illustrations, although this is not mentioned anywhere in the book, which is handsomely — indeed ironically — designed, with a furry black cover and the word shit dye-cut into it with gold ink. Laporte writes in the intellectual tradition of Jacques Lacan and Roland Barthes, Frenchmen who wrote like Germans. According to el-Khoury, it is in parody — the book is an extended jeu d’esprit, a tease, a fart — but it’s hard to tell. Histoire de la Merde is divided into six chapters with alluring names — Chapter 1: “the gold of language, the luster of scybala”; Chapter 2: “cleaning up in front of one’s house, heaping against the wall.”

Within this academic white noise is a theory. According to Laporte, the re-imagining of feces was an inevitable part of capitalism’s rise. Waste became productive night soil. The bourgeoisie could now use everything to increase their wealth, including their own droppings. He begins his book with a discussion of two French-government edicts issued in 1539, one mandating that French be used in all official documents, the other that Parisians build cesspools in which to store their waste products for eventual shipment to farmers. According to Laporte, the modern bourgeois state could not have been born without these two parallel efforts: the purification of language and the extraction of hidden value from the citizenry’s digestive efforts. Both were part of the rationalization, optimization and standardization of the ragged culture handed down from the Middle Ages. It was then that “doing your business” acquired its dual meaning.

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Once Laporte has established this thesis, he shows how it played out over the centuries. Those familiar with the Annales school of history will recognize the model — a dogged attempt to extract the meaning you want from documents no one else has ever heard of. To read such books is, in essence, an act of faith, faith that the writer is not making it up, faith Laporte sorely tests. Take, for instance, his reflections on the quite wonderful mid-19th-century character Pierre Leroux, who, in order to prove that the amount of feces humans generate will always assure that there is fertile soil to grow sufficient food to feed them — The Lion King’s circle of life in the dung heap, more or less — took “an old iron mortar” down to the banks of the Thames. There he mixed charcoal, ashes and brick with his urine and excrement and used the mixture to bring forth, triumphantly, a small plot of green beans.

In keeping with the laws of parody — push what is familiar one step further — Laporte makes information painfully difficult to excavate from his prose: “Leroux translates the most primitive of creation myths in which the earth gives birth to itself into the socialist ethos of ‘pulvis es, et in pulverum reverteris’ — the dream of a world in which man, the microcosm of God, can ensure his subsistence through a daily defecation that reenacts divine creation.” Another sample: “Since the 16th century, capitalism has persistently trapped the city in the Möbius strip of a discourse whose very unity is predicated on a division that can only be dialectically related.” John Updike called Barthes’ S/Z a “nearly unreadable book about reading”; History of Shit is a book about going to the bathroom that’s impossible to read on the toilet.

Ralph Lewin’s Merde, by contrast, with its slender size and sanitary white cover, is made for the toilet tank. Subtitled Excursions in Scientific, Cultural and Socio-Historical Coprology, it breaks down into short, straightforward chapters: “1. Terminology and Cultural Attitudes. 2. Physical Features: Shapes and Sizes.” Here’s a sample sentence from the latter, a kind of tour of the wrong end of the animal kingdom: “Turds may be single (hares), composite with faceted segments (sheep) or clumped (rabbits, pigs, and pronghorns).” And Lewin keeps going through elk, foxes, coypu, right up the chain to giraffes. From there Lewin explores how humans and animals differ in their attitudes toward defecation, gives us interesting facts about toilets, chamber pots and sewage systems through the ages, and so on. It’s a kind of Everyone Poops for grown-ups.

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