Wednesday, February 05, 2014

A brief descent into scatology

I am not, in general, a fan of body humor. That's not to say I don't appreciate vulgarity: friends will gladly attest that, given the right situation or set-up line, I can be as vulgar as any fifteen-year-old boy who's just learned that the gerund form of a certain words can serve as a forceful adjective.

For the most part, however, I line up with Nina Stibbe--or, at least, the twenty-year-old Nina Stibbe who wrote the letters collected in the wonderfully funny Love, Nina. After complaining that A Winter's Tale "doesn't even seem like a comedy" because "the poor little son dies of a broken heart and the baby daughter is left in the woods to die and the wife spends sixteen years as a statue," she moves on to another of the authors on her A-Level syllabus:
It's like Chaucer. People always going on about how rude and funny it is because someone farts.
That said . . . two bits of low body humor made me laugh this week. The first came in Leo Damrosch's excellent new biography of Jonathan Swift--which is appropriate because Swift was as attuned to bodily effluents as any writer, and he's one of the few whose ventures into scatology can make me laugh. There's the sheer horror of the exclamation "Celia shits!" (on which Patrick Kurp can offer a refresher, should one be needed) and also Gulliver's multi-sized problems with waste: his unappreciated firefighting by micturation in Liliput and his spectacular failure to jump a giant cowpat in Brobdingnag.

What made me laugh in Damrosch's book, however, came not from Swift's own work, but instead when Damrosch needed to help the reader understand how poorly sewage was handled in the period. To whom did he turn? Another writer who was never afraid to note what goes into and comes out of the body: Samuel Pepys. In his diary entry for October 20, 1660, Pepys wrote,
This morning one came to me to advise with me where to make me a window into my cellar in lieu of one that Sir W Batten had stopped up; and going down into my cellar to look, I put my foot into a great heap of turds, by which I find that Mr Turner's house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me.
It's the easily (and horribly) visualized "great heap" combined with the now archaic, even prissy-sounding "house of office" and "doth trouble me" that makes me smile: this feels like a misfortune that could only occur to Pepys.

With Swift and Pepys on my mind, I was primed to appreciate a passage from Gwen Raverat's memoir Period Piece (1952) I came across this afternoon, in which she writes about the sewage-laden Cam River late in the nineteenth century:
There is a tale of Queen Victoria being shown over Trinity by the Master, Dr Whewell, and saying, as she looked down over the bridge, "What are all those pieces of paper floating down the river?" To which, with great presence of mind, he replied, "Those, ma'am, are notices that bathing is forbidden."
Which can only be topped by the genius of Bill Watterson:


And with that, we flush the scat humor. By Friday, it will all be clean as ever around here, folks. Promise.

1 comment:

  1. Have you read Léon Genonceaux's The Tutu? I refer specifically to the passages he quotes from a set of letters from 1694 between the Princess Palatine, Duchess of Orleans and the Electrice of Saxony, Sophia of Hanover, which must surely represent some kind of zenith of the scatological. You may want to get those out of the way before the Friday clean-up rolls around. They're available on-line.