A Scatological Interlude

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Moule’s earth closet design, circa 1909. Source: Colonel E. C. S. Moore, Sanitary Engineering, Volume I, 3rd Edition revised by E. J. Silcock (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1909), p. 10.

— Do you wipe with the left or right?

— Depends. The left under most normal circumstance. The right if I really need to do some digging around, some excavation.

— Until it’s clear, right? No brushstrokes of tan. No greasy curlicues of hair.

— Of course. I try to keep things tidy back there.

— Of course. Sometimes though. Well. It’s not always easy. You’ve got to get multiple plies. I mean, to get the stuff that sticks.

— If it’s muddy and sloppy back there, yeah. You do what you can. Need some good strong sheets. Double or triple ply will do the trick most times.

— Ever use recycled?

— Oh yeah. I went through that phase. It’s not as weak as you’d think. You get used to it.

— One can get used to most things.

— Yes. We are very adaptable, we humans.

— Ever wonder why they put those floral designs on the stuff? Or diamonds, or whatever?

— Traction?

— Possible. Or maybe for scouring purposes. To collect stray scraps.

— Could be. You might get a tad filthy on the fingers, but washing hands takes care of it.

— Yes. Always got to wash the hands.

— Big deal in this country. In public. In private. Wash the hands with a good amount of soap. Sing a song like Happy Birthday. Scrub. Make sure they’re unsullied at last, after the TP’s done its job in the rear.

— The stuff’s useless for other jobs.

— Can’t use it as napkins, or in the place of paper towels. Maybe as a tissue substitute.

— Maybe. But the wear and tear on the nose. No thanks.

— In some countries you can’t flush it.

— Primitive cultures. Collecting balled-up, dung-stained gossamer sheets in tiny trashcans.

— I don’t know. I mean, really, who needs drinking-quality water in their toilet?

— Americans. We need the best of all worlds at all times. We have bad habits. We don’t want our waste hanging around. We want it taken away as far as possible. Down, down through the sewers and septic system and all the way to some treatment plant where it collects in giant vats of sludge where it’s cooked and mixed and broken down by anaerobic bacteria, and turned into “cake” that we use as fertilizer to grow crops. But we don’t want to know about these things. We want our waste to disappear, and we don’t even care if it has a good trip. We don’t see it as a part of us that’s now going away forever. We don’t want to think about it.

— Hate thinking about it.

— The things we throw away.

— Can’t stand the thought of it.

— Something lost. Something taken. Think about it. We’re giving something away.

— But there’s always more.

— Most definitely. You shit until you die.

— And cleanliness is next to…

— Sure. But is godliness something to strive for?

— Well, as Mr. Allen says, you’ve got to model yourself after somebody.

— You know the deities of the ancient heathens were restricted in their powers and functions? Each of them was like a god specialist. Only capable of curing or helping out with a few things here and there.

— And during the medieval period we’ve got all these saints basically doing the same sort of stuff.

— Yeah. Similar. Limited functions assigned to each one.

— So worshippers of Bel-Phegor would offer up sacrifices of flatulence and excrement.

— Absolutely. And a fart was divine stuff to the Egyptians, just as the Pelusiens venerated gas that is passed.

— Cut the cheese. Have you ever thought about that?

— Not more than most. It doesn’t appeal to me. I like the word “fart.” It’s sort of an onomatopoeia.

— Me too. I wonder if all living things partake in farting from time to time, and if they find it enjoyable.

— Termites fart more than any other creature on the planet. Those little stinky bastards. They probably love it.

— It makes sense though, in these old polytheistic cultures, that folks would think their God of The Fundament should be regaled with excrement and flatulence. Maybe they thought of it as a form of praying, like if you held in a prayer too long then, oops, there it goes.

— Quite possible. Most prayers are selfish and foul smelling anyway. It makes sense.

— It’s always seemed cathartic to me.

— Of course.

— An emptying out. Ridding the body of something distasteful. An expelling of demons maybe.

— You know what Cicero said?

— I’m sure he said a lot of things.

— He said, “The fart is an innocent victim that is oppressed by the civilization of our time. Therefore I let out this cry of freedom to my pleasure, and exercise my right.”

— Nice. I like that. Something rebellious in a fart’s nature. A certain freedom. A clarion call against the powers that be.

— And don’t forget, they also make one laugh.

— As well they should. People who are embarrassed by their own farts…I don’t know. There’s something overly self-conscious about it, a lacking of belief in yourself. Good old self esteem, you know?

— I fart therefore I am.

— Exactly. It’s like marking one’s territory. Making a world for one’s self in a small, mephitic, cloudy corner of the universe.

— Anyway. It’s well known that only 1/3 of all humans pass gas containing methane. It comes from bacteria, not human cells.

— So the culprit’s the bacteria in our guts, not us.

— Pretty much.

— That’s something to think about.

— We wipe ourselves clean. It’s all ablutionary, right? Getting rid of the bad guys. Leaving us pure again. Renewed. Fresh.

— In a way. And think about the invectives we hurl that involve our waste material.

— Well, then you’ve got to take coprophagia into consideration too. At least insult-wise.

— Most certainly. Like in Angola, Africa for instance, where telling somebody to, “Go and eat shit,” is the greatest insult.

— I think that particular objurgation is pretty universal. The Cheyenne have a word to show a high level of contempt with another: “natsiviz,” which quite literally means, “Shit Mouth.” And the vilest insult one Ponca can give another is to say, “You are an eater of dog dung.”

— And bad events are said to be, “shitty,” and somebody who does something stupid is a, “shit head.”

— Imagine walking the streets of Edinburgh in the 1400s and having to risk having shit dumped on one’s head from a high window by a maid emptying a chamber pot or two, and her calling out, “Gardy loo!” as a warning, though not a very efficient one.

— Didn’t the king of Spain almost trigger a revolution by demanding a stop to this practice of tossing “human ordure” out of windows after nightfall?

— Sure did. The people were scared of “night soil” in the privies and sewers. Most were even fearful of indoor plumbing at first, of those first S-trap contraptions that promised to keep the sewer gasses at bay. People are always scared of change, especially when it involves their private habits, things they think of as being dirty or shameful, things they’d rather not speak of in public. Shit does makes our food grow though. Manure. Out one end and back in the other. It’s very cyclic in nature. We’re kind of eating our own shit all the time, if you think about it that way.

— Kind of like the old “spiritus urinae per putrefactionem.”

— Um. Not really ringing a bell. Refresh my memory.

— Oh. Way back in the old days they had this way of making a sort of cure-all tonic. They’d make a twelve-year-old boy drink a bottle of wine, and then gather up all his piss into a receptacle. Then they’d place that piss-filled container in a basement room where it was surrounded by giant mounds of horseshit for forty days. Then they’d pour it over a bunch of human shit, and then it’d be distilled in an alembic. The resulting fluid was said to be the greatest healing potion known to man. Cured everything from scurvy to cachexia to hypochondria. Probably didn’t smell great though.

— Oh yeah. That stuff.

— Hippocrates promoted using dove dung on the scalp as a cure for baldness, and the Saxons applied the excrement of pigs to warts. I think they used cat shit for dandruff control.

— Probably worked as well as Head & Shoulders.

— Most likely. Even though we’d rather not think about it, anal grooming habits must be considered too. There are certain health benefits to keeping one’s ass clean.

— Sure. All sorts of things can go wrong between those two flabby humps of skin. Hemorrhoids. Loose stool. Anal fissures. Diverticulitis blocking things up from above. And you know, wiping the ass with cheap toilet paper will eventually kill you. Sometimes I feel like I need a colonoscopy for my soul.

— Interesting. I wonder what that would entail?

— Not sure. I do come up with some of my best ideas when I’m sitting on the pot. Something about the relief, the slight bliss of the sigmoid colon’s tickle, that light-headed blur that comes on as things go “plop” into the waters below.

— Something baptismal about it maybe? Like you’re getting another start, another chance to go about things, only carrying a little less weight.

— A bit less of a load. Yeah. In that sense, you really are a bit freer after a good shit.

— But I’m still pondering some excremental statutes. Such as: the last wipe should be lightly brushed with wispy auburn streaks and then dropped softly into the bowl. Flush once, and only when necessary, for odor and appearance. Repeat flush if residue is left in the standing water.

— And: if it is yellow, sure, you can let it mellow, but only if it that yellow is of the shade of lemonade, not iced tea.

— What about bidets? A jet stream of water shot at the perineum and the anus to clean without paper.

— Ah. Yes. The pet ponies that the French royalty kept, and you straddle it without having to hover, a great relief from the dangers of the barbarous wipe. Invented by a French furniture maker in the late 17th century, a nut about hygiene attempting to make a few bucks off the fear of the unkempt ass. I like the idea in theory, but the practice is more difficult for me to attain. Old habits, I suppose.

— We lock the door to the world so nobody can see us in our most fragile condition. To squat or sit. A private place where you can finally be left alone. A room to rest in, to recover from the world’s constant onslaught of attention. No more cesspools cleaned out by tradesmen. No more large receptacles in the streets for chamber-pot waste that was collected by fullers: slaves who worked ankle-deep in tubs of human piss, which was taxed as “wash” and was a good source ammonium salts and was used to cleanse and whiten cloth. Looking back it may seem obscene, but our moral compasses are always adjusting over time.

— The Shitter, The John, Crapper, Lavatory, Mens and Ladies Room, The Loo…

— Mind the water. Mind the splash.

— Euphemisms of all sort. And the final metonymy of the term, toilet. That little cloth draped over one’s shoulder while hairdressing. Being at one’s toilet. Grooming and preening and powdering the nose. And finally, now, we can praise the stools of famous men, hardened over time, ossified into artifacts, the part standing in for the whole. George Washington’s last meal. The caveman’s leavings. A tiny speck of DNA from a wooly mammoth used to bring the beasts back from extinction. We may be done with our shit, but our shit is not done with us.

— Amen. Light a match, my friend. A foul wind this way doth blow.

— Yes. And we are only what we stink.

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