On Giving a Shit
Peter Smith, Between Two Stools: Scatology and its Representations in English Literature, Chaucer to Swift
Manchester University Press, 304pp, £17.99, ISBN 9780719097614
reviewed by Christina Black
Not everyone is aware just yet how necessary and audacious a task this is. For, as evidenced in the preface, Smith is self-consciously aware that the subject of his book makes good fodder for a joke about the value of research in the humanities. But the truth of the matter is that his book represents a genuine contribution on an important but neglected aspect of English literature. Very few literary scholars to date have had the guts (or stomach) to commit to a serious, book-length, and systematic study of gross particulars. Mikhail Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World (1965) and Sophie Gee’s Making Waste: Leftovers and the Eighteenth-Century Imagination (2009), notwithstanding the interregnum, are notable exceptions (and a few wonderful, scatologically-minded essays cover that gap, it should be noted). Smith, though, takes the subject to a new literal and material extreme, and charmingly sheds any remaining inhibitions in the name of scholarship.
Smith’s overall argument is simple: English literature from the 18th century or earlier cannot be properly and fully interpreted without understanding that scatological references at that time were even more prevalent than they are today, and that contemporary reactions to the scatological were less “Puritanical” than ours. In his view the 20th and 21st centuries are neo-Victorian in their prudishness, which he proves by convincingly reinterpreting many scatological references modern scholars have missed in canonical literature. His discoveries are all the more surprising in academic fields as long-standing and crowded as Shakespeare’s.
But that’s not to say that this book’s audience is strictly academic. Between Two Stools is a lively read, fascinating for anyone who loves English literature. Smith resuscitates old, dirty vocabulary to explain jokes and references lost on modern readers and can’t resist throwing in puns of his own, comparing Gulliver’s Travels to ‘the Fart of Darkness.’ The authors he writes about are mostly familiar and when they’re not, they’re compelling. He explains and defends every last, lewd detail in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales; demystifies Shakespeare by showing how plays as varied as Hamlet and Twelfth Night are better understood through a multitude of suggestive nicknames and digestive detail; but also keeps as his lodestar a less-known but fascinating Renaissance how-to manual and celebration of the flushing toilet, written by a renegade English courtier who invented it (the aptly named John Harington). Smith corrects prior readings of these medieval and Renaissance texts and transports the reader back to what Bakhtin called the ‘carnivalesque’ mode of scatology of Early Modern literature. The subsequent shift to Rochester’s poems’ ‘bleak anality’ comes as a jolt.
The English Civil War roughly demarcates when the jocularity of Chaucer morphs into abiding pessimism. Smith connects the change of mood to the overthrow of the Cavalier cause, with which Rochester was closely affiliated. The disturbingly literal bodies in Rochester’s poems become a metaphor of the body politic ‘subjected to the whims and incontinences of the body natural (as in the much-vaunted debauchery of Charles II himself),’ and form ‘a discourse of political critique and issues from within its own ranks.’ But Smith also proposes a biographical reading of these poems which sees Rochester internalising all of his own obscenity: ‘Rochester’s own corporeal decline as well as the cruelty of his demeanour and that of his social equals are reified in a disorder of the guts.’ Smith continues, ‘It is as though he figures forth in the concoction of pus and piss, the crisis of the aristocracy displaced from the centres of power by the middling sort.’ So Rochester’s long battle with of personal illness and ‘the cruelty of his demeanor’ comes to represent the disorder of the 17th-century British body politic; perhaps in diagnosing his culture as diseased, Rochester ends up embodying it.
Smith opens his final chapters on Swift with the observation that his use of the scatological is ‘both more developed and more disturbing than Rochester’s,’ which at this point seems more of a promise than a warning. In earlier chapters, Smith’s arguments seemed to suffer for lack of a relevant scholarly discourse he could enter into; not so here, where Swift’s ‘excremental vision’ has been a longstanding point of contention. If Rochester’s writing was a product of a diseased body, Swift’s, it has frequently been alleged, was the product of a diseased mind. Smith rescues him from the charge by developing both historical and formal arguments to show Swift’s keen interest in excrement shows much more than mere neurosis. Namely, ‘Swift’s scatology … demonstrated a barbed and personally targeted satire against Whiggish opponents,’ as well as derived, no-doubt, from the noxious, everyday reality of inadequate sewage systems in 18th-century Britain. But a rhetoric of waste also allowed Swift to intervene in poetic traditions by means of his startling subject matter, and suggested memorable critiques of Enlightenment aesthetic and scientific pronouncements: ‘The epistemology of the fart raises nothing less profound than the question of “science”, in its etymological meaning of “knowledge.”’
All in all, Smith delivers a much needed, gripping history of literary excrement which lays solid groundwork for future scholarship – although it’s also a wonderful introduction to what even your most permissive English teacher probably left out. The history of this literature in some ways mirrors the history of our language. English has absorbed a myriad of influences, but our usage has tended to prioritise imported words over those of our Anglo-Saxon roots. In fact, our core profanities today derive originally from Anglo-Saxon words, which only became vulgar to use when French became the language of the court (this also explains why these curse words tend to be four letters long and have strong consonants). It’s not that those words – or these scatological topics – were inherently profane. It’s that we made them so by distancing ourselves from what use to be native.