Sunday, January 31, 2010


When I was “doing education” for animal control, I used to complain that the four main things I needed to talk about were all taboo in polite society: Birth, death, sex and shit. Of course, the reason they cried out for education was that when something is taboo, it cannot be discussed and therefore no one knows anything much about it. They just wander around making guesses and accumulating wrong-headedness.

This is not just true of dogs. People are also much in the dark about their own birth, death, sex and shit, though they have begun to wonder out loud. For instance, I once saw an advice column by a doctor in a counterculture publication. He was asked this question: a frat boy was organizing a big party that was supposed to impress everyone with their daring sophistication. So he wanted to know whether, if they decorated their punch bowl with a specimen of human excrement on a floating cake of ice, whether they would actually be endangering the guests. (Which is not the same issue as whether anyone would be tempted to partake.) The doctor, completely straight-faced, said that normal stomach acid would kill almost anything contagious in human excrement but that it would be a good idea to get the donor checked for hepatitis first. Maybe the more ubiquitous human gut parasites as well.

So there are really two things to think about here: the actual reality of shit and the mythology of shit, which makes the substance so attractive to those out to shock and revolt. Since Freud, no psychoanalyst has been unaware that in dreams shit equals money. Sometimes sex. Observers have noticed that taboo subjects are only taboo to the middle classes, maybe because of ambivalence. The sophisticated top layers of society like to talk more about sex than about money. Sex talk becomes a kind of privilege because it’s “adults only.” If you wear a white coat like Dr. Masters, you can ask people anything, ask them to DO anything. But it is also a power-marker for the underclasses and lower classes where common vernacular is full of those old Anglo-Saxon low class markers: four-letter words. Middle class people say, “Cleanliness is next to godliness” and refuse to even say the word shit.

“Dark Eros”
by Thomas Moore is a serious upperclass sophisticated investigation into the philosophy of the Marquis de Sade, who was much interested in sex and shit and what they stood for. He spent much of his life sitting in prison pondering all these things and writing semi-sane screeds against the Powers That Be, describing them as libertines who had no human empathy, wanting only more power. I knew very little about de Sade until reading this. I started to read some of his stuff long ago but found it profoundly boring, which Moore grants right away. It is NOT pornography, which is supposed to be the opposite. After all, the idea of porn is to sell it.

One of the first surprises is that de Sade concentrated on bottoms, from the back, which our society finds amusing and childish. The effect of this choice is to lessen the importance of gender difference: rear ends are much more androgenous than the breasts and penises law requires us to cover. We spank on bottoms. We worry about whether they are too big. Mooning is funny and shocking and insulting, but not considered sexy. And yet, spanking erotica is a huge category in porn, especially in the upperclass circles of Britain where spanking or flogging or caning was a big part of adolescent life at boarding schools and became conflated with the antics of boys in dorms and group showers. I guess that’s not impossible to understand. And blacks, always more honest, call bottoms their “booty.”

But de Sade, in his quest for the unmentionable, talked quite a bit about what he called “the gourmands of excrement.” There are two ages when people get fascinated by excrement. One is the baby and sometimes the distressed or regressing child who simply see a smearable and smelly substance to dig fingers into. They put EVERYTHING in their mouths. The other is the oldsters who worry constantly about becoming impacted, even as they decrease their intake of roughage. On the other hand, they may become incontinent, “dirty old men.” There is also a peculiar time when entering intimacy with another person and becoming aware of things normally kept secret, like, they also use the bathroom. What a surprise!

Being an archetypal psychotherapist means pinning discussion to one of the Greek pantheon as a sort of container for a group of concepts. As it happens, the latrine workers were under the protection of Saturn, “the lord both of the outhouse and of freedom, Saturnalia. He liberates from the restraints of a narrow morality. . .” Repression as a Saturnine leads to such shit as “our cities littered with his literal garbage, and our homes . . . teeming with the excrement of human family emotions.” Impacted.

Moore remarks “government has an enormous backside.” Don’t we know it. So often horses’ asses producing bullshit. But we don’t seem to taste it, “get it,” digest it. We just hold our noses and go around. As Moore notes, the backsides are SO much more interesting than the facades of people. All those politicians who are boringly upright in front but mighty loose from the back. All those major athletic or literary personalities with unsuspected child-sides, locked in the bathroom.

Going back to the bottom without the squishy stuff, Moore makes a small mention of Aphrodite, whose alternate name was Kalliglautos, "She of the Lovely Behind." (When you write about naughty subjects, you always want to introduce some learned, i.e. Greek words.) In fact, she is often posed in a way that has a name: anasyrma, the lifting of the dress to reveal the naked body while glancing over the shoulder. Such a graceful revelation is not the same as de Sade’s insistence on torture, examination, standards (and the destruction of any lesser performers), controlling, counting, schedules, samples for testing, nit-picking attention to religion, aging, suppression, depression. cold and distance. Often it is the denial of one’s own weakness and inferiority by imposing punishment (torture) on others marked as weak and inferior. In short, modern bureaucracy in too many shitty ways.

The book is "Dark Eros: The Imagination of Sadism," by Thomas Moore. 1990. ISBN 0-88214-365-4

1 comment:

Editor said...

Thanks, Mary for cross-posting this on Barque. I recently reread Dark Eros. It continues to be one of my favourite Thomas Moore books.