Bodily functions rarely get the spotlight in fiction and poetry. But for some writers, they drive action and help create indelible characters.
Alfred Hitchcock once told François Truffaut he wanted to make a film that would examine a city entirely through food and, unusually, waste. He would show the arrival of meat and produce into a metropolis, “its distribution, the selling, how it’s fixed up and absorbed. And gradually, the end of the film would show the sewers, and the garbage being dumped out into the ocean.”
Samuel Beckett expressed this artistic vision on a more intimate scale. “Dish and pot, dish and pot, these are the poles,” his narrator says in “Malone Dies.” The dish, we discuss freely: Food, in literature and elsewhere, is part of what we talk about when we talk about culture. The pot, at the other end of the alimentary canal, remains a transgressive topic.
Not enough is written, in this critic’s estimation, about how our eliminations are described and theorized, and loved and loathed, in fiction and poetry. Their “here we are again” inevitability adds chaos, comedy, disgust, shame, irony, urgency and anguish to narrative. They drive action. They are life, as much as sex is life — maybe more so, because people’s sex lives dwindle but this need does not. Fiction that avoids or denies feces, Milan Kundera has written, is kitsch.
The English journalist Rose George called elimination “the big necessity.” She also wrote, in an observation that’s keenly felt when one is writing for a linguistically conservative newspaper: “There is no neutral word for what humans produce at least once a day, usually unfailingly. There is no defecatory equivalent of the inoffensive, neutral ‘sex.’” But we will do our best.
There has been, for sure, scatological writing from the start, or at least since Don Quixote asked, in the funniest moment in what is arguably the first novel, “What noise is that, Sancho?” The flatulence in Chaucer is renowned, as is the weaponized feces, flung by the Yahoos, in “Gulliver’s Travels.”
The work of Rabelais, de Sade, Céline and Genet would nearly collapse without excretory adventure and observation. In “Ulysses,” Bloom employs a “prize story” as toilet paper. Proust wrote that the scent of asparagus in urine transformed a “humble chamber pot into a bower of aromatic perfume.”
There’s a case to be made that the first great postmodern toilet scene appears in “Gravity’s Rainbow” (1973), Thomas Pynchon’s World War II mock epic. It occurs early on, when Tyrone Slothrop goes down, and then further down, a toilet in Boston’s Roseland Ballroom in search of his lost harmonica, while the young Malcolm X shines shoes up above. (Pynchon’s influence is felt in Danny Boyle’s film adaptation of “Trainspotting,” when Ewan McGregor takes a similarly otherworldly excursion into “the worst toilet in Scotland.”)
They’re very different writers. In Moshfegh’s fiction, the contents of her character’s stomachs and colons are flamboyantly revealed and detailed. These are moments of protest, and of disgust and depravity, nestled beside both everyday life and glamour.
In her novel “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” for example, a woman has an angry, vandalizing bowel movement in a New York City art gallery. Indeed, Moshfegh has said about reading her work: “It’s like seeing Kate Moss” defecate in public. Going to the bathroom is a potent act of resetting the cosmic balance. In a typically perceptive scene from her novel “Death in Her Hands,” Moshfegh writes:
The toilets flushed with such power it was as if they’d been intended to do something other than just eliminate human waste — to disturb the pressure of the air in a room, to suck out some of the energy, to wash out one’s mind space even.
Knausgaard is, on the other hand, a master of the mundane. The bathroom scenes in his work have pathos and they reverberate, but he tends toward plain-spokenness. In his two–part North American travelogue, published by The New York Times Magazine in 2015, a long set piece begins this way: “I hadn’t gone since I arrived in America, so the result was significant.” The toilet clogs. He makes a gallant attempt to clear it out. It is a very Knausgaardian moment: understated but laden with life’s tragic absurdity.
Jonathan Lethem has said that when you hear a writer on morning radio, he or she is usually holding in a bowel movement. The stress of having to go, or not being able to go, is clarifying; it replaces the noise of our obligations and desires with a single, unyielding need. On the other side of it, if the going isn’t too tough, is catharsis.
Count on Gary Shteyngart, in his fiction, for electric moments of gastric distress and relief, as well as for status details that bend toward comedy. (From “Lake Success”: “He peed his heart out into a Porcelanosa. The hand soap was by Molton Brown.”) In Michael Ondaatje’s novel “Coming Through Slaughter,” a character advises that, if you want God’s own proto-Goop cleanse, stop eating for two weeks. One day, at last, you will release “all the packed in stuff that never comes out.” It will feel like “someone removing a poker” that has been in you all your life. “It’s fantastic.”
When that time comes, pray that you’re not stuck in a house with someone like W.H. Auden, who, when he shared a Brooklyn brownstone with Carson McCullers and other artists in the 1940s, sternly instructed them that “one square of toilet paper should be sufficient for each bathroom visit.”
The trouble, of course, is that the payoff is never final. The clock resets, the urge returns. Committed readers, Ali Smith suggested in her novel “Summer,” can feel they are in a similar sort of cycle. “Some of the finest words in the world have passed through me,” her narrator observes, “and out again like so much excess vitamin C.”
But the big necessity, in literature at least, can be transformative. Sharon Olds’s poems often observe and investigate our soiled nature, especially her “Ode to a Composting Toilet,” that magic chamber “where what we make … turns to arable waste — waste no longer.” When we are in love, especially newly in love, we embrace every aspect of the other person, as Toni Morrison wrote in “Sula”: “You love the ground he pee on.”
The English writer Jenny Diski has lamented that, in certain trying situations outdoors, like spending a night in a tent, she lacked “a distance-spraying organ.” But the simplicity of this Sylvia Plath diary entry, from 1956, is earthy and appealing: “Urinated on sidewalk; ate greasy good last of tuna sandwich.”
Where and how a person goes says a lot. When I was in my early teens and attending my first rock shows, I stood in terrified awe of the hippies who, in the men’s room, would rip open their Levi’s and relieve themselves into the sink. Was this a thing? Reading taught me that it was.
In his memoir “Kafka Was the Rage,” set in the 1940s, Anatole Broyard describes being told by a lover to do so. (Her toilet was in the hallway and required a key.) He found the going difficult, “because the idea excited me.” A character in Cormac McCarthy’s recent novel, “The Passenger,” complains, “Sink’s so full of dishes you got to go outside to take a leak.”
I find myself more on the side of Robert Stone, who wrote in an autobiographical essay that once you’ve gone “in the sink of your bathless double, you belonged to the fallen world around you.” (Not as fallen as Patrick Bateman, the narrator of Bret Easton Ellis’s “American Psycho,” who confides: “This has been a bad week. I’ve started drinking my own urine.”)
The antithesis of going into a sink, for a man at any rate, is sitting down to go. It’s macho’s opposite. The narrator of Sheila Heti’s novel “Motherhood” dates a man who does this, and she says: “I think it’s not very manly.” In Kenneth Tynan’s diaries, it’s a betrayal when the actress Jill Bennett, who was married to the playwright John Osborne, tells people that Osborne was a sitter.
The older I get, the more I am in sympathy with the aged literary fellows with iffy kidneys who tell me that they, too, like to sit. As the poet A.R. Ammons wrote, “it takes old guys half an hour to start” and “the rest of the day to finish.” Women have known it all along: Sitting, there’s time to get some reading done.