In advanced industrial societies, defecation is the most underrated of the biological activities, while too much, obviously, is made of sexual intercourse — it’s overpraised, overanalyzed and certainly overadvertised. Even urination has its admirers, probably because men associate it with the penis, hurler of semen. Two men fighting one another are having a pissing contest. They piss each other off. They drink too much and get pissed. But lose your girlfriend and you’re dumped. You feel shat on. You poor turd.
Part of the problem is that the elimination is poorly designed to find a constituency in an identity-based culture such as ours. The two sexes perform the act identically. Male homosexuals have ambivalent feelings toward it. There is nothing empowering or glamorous about moving one’s bowels. The feces fall downward, not outward — there is no parallel to manifest destiny in its movements — and its coloration analogizes not to gold, as urine does, but to the dross of the soil. Shit is for farmers.
Most of all, defecation is a reminder that we too will go back into the earth, that the journey the bolus takes through the building plumbing, into the casketlike sewer main and on to the treatment plant and the ocean prefigures our own inevitable dissolution into bits of carbon and water. As 19th-century philosophers noted, one of the characteristics of bourgeois culture is an inordinate fear of death. Air bags, anti-smoking laws, Lifecycles. Having come through two world wars, the last thing Americans wanted to think about was death. So we came to defecate in wide white ceramic bowls the equal of hospitals in their joyless focus on sanitation, the offending matter flushed out with five vast gallons of clean water.
If there’s a place on the intrepid reader’s bookshelf for these two new books, it’s because things have changed. Shit happens, but why now? In the early ’90s, incentive programs for low-flow toilets cropped up across the country. City governments offered financing to landlords, some of whom could make $50,000. The adult desire to accumulate money (per Freud) equals the child’s fetishization of his or her own feces. Now landlords could have both. They ripped out their old death-fearing toilets and replaced them with slender bowls that use only 1.5 gallons per flush. Consequently, we are now closer to what we have eaten than we have been in a century. The smells, the bits of feces caking the bowl, the repeat flushings. Those who remember standing on two treads over a hole in some French bar or hotel will feel they are back in Europe, squatting right alongside Laporte — or even in the savanna with Ralph Lewin, defecating under a flame tree and then covering it with soil.
The ongoing question of why the ’90s weren’t like the ’80s can, I think, be answered in part with attention to this change. In the ’90s there was even more money around than in the ’80s. Yet no Michael Milken or Ivan Boesky appeared. There was no increase in the number or length of stretch limousines. The Bonfire of the Vanities succeeded, whereas A Man in Full (The Man Who Was Full?) did not. The low-flow toilet reminds us, the stock markets notwithstanding, that we are still human, mortal, condemned. During the sanitary crisis that followed the tragic 1889 Johnstown flood, men who could defecate with minimal stink were in great demand. I wouldn’t be surprised if we find ourselves in a similar (squatting) position sometime soon.HISTORY OF SHIT | By DOMINIQUE LAPORTE | The MIT Press | 160 pages | $20 hardcover
MERDE: EXCURSIONS IN SCIENTIFIC, CULTURAL AND SOCIO-HISTORICAL COPROLOGY By RALPH A. LEWIN | Random House | 192 pages | $20 hardcover