Mucus, saliva, sweat, vomit, urine, farts, feces, earwax and more are humorously (and seriously) described in this anthropological/historical investigation.
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From Victorian times well into this century, American magazines carried advertisements extolling the advantages of "silent flush" toilets. The idea was that if you were playing bridge with friends at home and the urge to excrete came, you could excuse yourself with some polite lie about wanting to check on the canary, attend to the horrid task, and then return to the table without anyone knowing where you'd been. If you lacked a "silent flush" model, however, the sound of the toilet would jar the guests to the realization that the "go check the canary" story was a lie, and that you had just wanted to take a leak or pinch a loaf after all. That hideous sound of common plumbing would brand you a liar and remind everyone of their mortality, letting you know that no matter how ready your minds and souls are to live in an eternal abstract world of language, reason, truth, beauty, and card games, you're still trapped inside aging meat machines.
Broadcast television constantly shows us murders, rapes, and dozens of other crimes which rarely, if ever, touch most of us directly. Records, books, and magazines can be even more explicit. The scatological, however, which affects all of us at all ages, is taboo. A perfectly healthy area of our lives, immediately comprehensible to anyone, can never be shown on television and is all but ignored by media which otherwise stop at nothing. Why?
Meanwhile, artists and writers who do draw upon the scatological, such as Andres Serrano and James Joyce, become centers of controversy. They're dragged into courtrooms and hearings and forced to defend their work against people shocked and offended as only people who are trying to escape from something within themselves can be. And all over things every three-year-old knows about and has no aversion to. What's going on here?
Many cultures in many times have used human excreta as components of medicines and magic potions. But it is in our culture today that these materials have the greatest magical power. We rarely mention them, but when we do, the effect can be electric. They're some of the commonest substances around, and yet because of what the represent to us and remind us of, they repel, shock, and offend. They're a part of us, literally inside of us all, but our collective reaction against them and against people who view them differently has motivated us to wage war, commit genocide, and destroy the environment. That's a lot of magic power. Magic power we could do without.
Erich Fromm, Norman O. Brown, and other drawing on Freud, have suggested that our society denies bodily functions because collectively we have an anal personality. Long ago, we repressed bodily desires in exchange for objectivity, industry, punctuality, and thrift. We prospered as a result, subjugating and controlling other less repressed societies and nature itself (locally, at least) with our science and technology. In exchange, however, we lost our comfort with ourselves and with life as a whole. Reminders of our past, our origins, our biology, disturb us deeply, and we, as people and as nations, constantly fight against those who threaten our fragile self-images.
At the same time, our reluctance to accept our oneness with nature has also brought us to the brink of worldwide ecological disaster. Our denial of nature grows from deep religious and cultural roots, so unfortunately, as Al Gore asserts in Earth in the Balance (1992), only a radical rethinking of our relationship with nature can save the earth's ecology for future generations.
I believe that radical rethinking starts at home. How can we realign with nature globally if we can't even do it with our own bodies?
Part of being repelled by our excretions probably derives from innate, health-preserving instincts that guard us from infection. But as with any of our other instincts (such as those relating to reproduction), the area where these innate individual inclinations meet and interact with the rational and society-building parts of our natures, is a fascinating tide-pool spawning many convoluted rationalizations and involved codes of conduct relating to essentially irrational behaviors. That's what makes the subject such a kick.
I found a lot of information about bodily functions at the library, but little of it explained how people deal with the things in their daily lives. For this information, I conducted my own survey that asked people detailed questions about their personal hygiene habits. I got most of my "subjects" by standing out in the main plaza of the U.C. Berkeley campus with a bunch of questionnaires, pens, and dollar bills. Calling out to passers-by that they could earn a dollar by simply filling out a questionnaire quickly attracted willing people, although some of them declined to participate once I told them what the survey was about or after they leafed through the questionnaire. The survey participants, like people in general, seemed genuinely interested in their bodily functions, but because of old and destructive taboos, the subject is still seldom publicly discussed or written about. Other subjects participated through the Internet; I announced the survey on the newsgroups rec.humor and alt.tasteless and received responses from as far away as England. (Similarly, I researched the "Bodily Functions In the Cinema" chapter by posting to the newsgroup rec.arts.movies, and the "Urination with Genital Piercings" chapter by posting to rec.arts.bodyart.) The last chapter reprints the final version of the questionnaire and discusses more fully how I conducted the survey.
Three final comments: First, I deliberately de-emphasized bodily fluids from the reproductive systems, not because they aren't interesting-menstrual blood is the most significant of all, culturally-but because I think sexual functioning gets plenty of press already. Second, I didn't cover disease. Fear already obscures our perception of bodily fluids, and many in the media have reacted to AIDS by adding even more irrational fear. I wanted to present a sunnier view by emphasizing health. Finally, much of this book questions attitudes and actions perpetuated by the dominant Western religious traditions but I believe that it is possible for an individual to adhere to any one of them in a thoughtful, positive, and enriching way.
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