|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.
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.
Neither Laporte nor Lewin indulge in sophomoric wordplay. That’s a virtue. But what I was hoping for was something less theoretical or impish, something more matter-of-fact. There are all those questions from childhood that never get answered. Why that color? Why the different shapes and smells? Why are bowel movements so (occasionally) pleasurable? I was hoping for something a little more like David Foster Wallace’s short story “Brief Interview #42 06-97, Peoria Heights, IL” in which he adumbrates the alchemy of “soft plopping sounds . . . slight gassy sounds [and] little involuntary grunts” by which food is transformed. (On the other hand, maybe not. A little of this goes a long way.)
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