Friday, March 25, 2016


Stockton’s “Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame” evokes such a storm of ideas — well, not QUITE ideas, but sort of shadowy concepts that seem so vital that I try to capture them in ideas, words, diagrams. I’ve said in the past that I’m very hard to shame, but I carry a lot of guilt. There are scholarly discussions about the difference between shame and guilt.

In some strange way I relate that to Bob Scriver’s observation that I know what I CAN do, but don’t know what I CAN’T do. Of course, he was so innocent that he asked his fourth wife if she were an alcoholic and when she said “no,” he took that as fact. I think it was a way of putting the blame for her excesses on her, so that it was not his fault for not recognizing and dealing with her binges, but rather hers for misleading him, in spite of the facts being so obvious that everyone in town not only saw that SHE was a drunk, but were always telling me that HE had become a drunk. I refused to believe that. 

Humans are so bad at looking at plain facts because it demands changes in what we do, and giving up old attachments to what we wanted to happen. Is repression the came as constipation? Or depression?

This Stockton book made me look again at the binaries I’ve been claiming as the basic neurological construction of “the world” that an infant must make in order to think. I’ve talked about the intrauterine binaries of moving/static, sound/silence which are constructed (actually built into neurons as soon as they exist) from experience in the womb. And then the falling/embraced, fed/hungry, quenched/thirsty, cold/hot, bright/dark; all expressed as simultaneous in the efforts of the saints to describe their mystical experience of the Holy.

But I never even thought of the binary of filthy/clean, a nearly pre-word concept expressed by a gutteral hiss signalling, “Put that down! It’s filth!” Of course, babies — like puppies — put it right in their mouth anyway. It is the most morally tagged, most unilaterally stigmatized of all the pairs.

Only recently have I understood that proper solid excretion is at least in part controlled by the management of water — drinking a glass of water may provide enough hydraulic whateveritis to release the gut knot. Rather Freudian counsellors have interpreted constipation as refusing to surrender to the mother, who demands obedience and then immediately destroys the evidence.

There’s no doubt that my mother and I had a boundary problem, and that she had plans for me that I refused to fulfill. In the end she forced compliance with the enema nozzle, medically authorized but experienced as rape. 

Kozy Kamp

This next vignette will seem like a tangent, but slightly more polite. In the Fifties we were camping in our Kozy Kamp, a travel tent trailer and spent the night in some campground that had good old pit privies. My mother had made coffee for herself with a percolator on the Coleman stove and dumped the used grounds out onto newspaper, along with some other food scraps. She had not emptied the coffee basket, expecting to do that at the hole in the seat of the privy. Half-dreaming as usual, I just threw the whole packet of stuff down the hole.

When my mother discovered what I had done, she was enraged. She threatened to make me climb into the pit to retrieve that basket. I thought she meant it. Even my father paid attention. My brothers thought it was a good idea. Only lately have I reflected that it wasn’t just the basket lost, because she used coffee as a goad to keep her doing all her many chores, because that’s what her role was as the mother. How would she make coffee now?

My mother and my youngest brother.

I’m much older than she was then. (She conceived me when she was thirty.) I recognize that she was depressed. (Her mother was dying and my father was showing the first symptoms of his head injury, plus there was never really enough money and my father objected to her two ordinary comforts: alcohol and cigarettes.) It took her all concentration to keep us respectable.

Looking back, it seems to me that she had a curious lassitude that intensified at the end into the blood cancer that killed her, until she had little energy for anything. I feel something like the same lassitude in myself except when I’m writing. She went back to a little alcohol and many cigarettes. I go to ideas. Which I can have lying down.

But I share her idea that coffee would help. She often said, “I wish I had a cup of really strong hot coffee!” No matter how I tried to produce that or how competent the restaurant was, the coffee was never strong or hot enough. I finally decided it was symbolic.

I make cone filter coffee and it’s often cold when I drink it because once I hit the keyboard I forget everything else. I have to make a rule never to set my mug down where it can spill onto the keyboard. I’ve never gotten into espresso except at Starbucks where I drink latté and enjoy teasing the barrista. (“What flavor would you like?” “Coffee flavor, please.”) Even as latté, it’s very hot. Just recently my local Albertson’s evidently bought a low-cost supply of Boyd’s coffee which was my mother’s brand. I recognized the first sip. An Oregon store must have closed out.

But all this is only elaboration of the ideas in Stockton’s book, which relies quite a bit on Bataille’s philosophy, a guy who spent a lot of time thinking about shit. As in a pit privy. As in Pasolini:  in one of his movies there is a scene that haunts me.  A woman being punished is naked, sitting up to her neck in what appears to be sewage. Her crime was disobedience. (I hope for her sake it was not real excrement but rather gravy and meatballs, which look similar, which is also something to think about — how sometimes food-going-in looks much like food-coming-out.) And then I think about “Mineshaft.” If you don’t know what the reference is, don’t look it up.


The opposite of clean is dirty, but filthy means something different, more like infective, dangerous, totally rejected. Dirt can be the matrix of growth, something fertile, a source of life. The opposite of dirty is clean, but clean doesn’t have to mean sterile, just safe, digestible. Clean dirt? One’s mother teaches these things to her toddler. To defy her, think filthy. Smearing excrement is not an unusual symptom of child rage.

It takes me a long time to work through all this stuff, because I have to figure out what the abstractions and structural relationships are, and then translate them into human memory and story. Then I have to go walk it off. (That’s a lie. This kind of thing fills me with lassitude. They say walking is good for that, but it’s a little like telling a depressive to cheer up.) Writing like this — going from “high” academic theory to applications in my real past (and note that all the people mentioned have been dead a long time — except me, of course.) is quite unlike simple memoir or even testimony.

It is not lightly done, because it changes one’s view of the world. It’s like doing psychoanalysis, which is not usually done alone. And it often hurts, because it takes the depths of loss and misunderstanding even deeper before it can be reconstituted into something better. One might even say “cleaner.” But at least finally more free. It appears to be something I CAN do.

The point of the clean/dirty dyad is that dirty things get pushed away, denied, even criminalized. The point of this Stockton book is that both being black and being gay are “dirty” and therefore denied, stigmatized, sometimes equated. She proceeds by talking about the “Down Low” but I’m not up for that yet. More reading. It pulls in boys-at-risk, because the worst “dirty” thing about MSM is that it spreads the infection of HIV to innocents (if there is such a category).

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