Article — From the May 1989 issue

Muck and its entanglements

Cleaning the outhouse

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In one of his books, Milan Kundera dismisses the idea of God because, according to him, no God would have designed a life in which shitting was necessary. The way Kundera asserts this makes one believe it’s more than a joke. He is expressing a deep affront. And such an affront is typically elitist. It transforms a natural repugnance into a moral shock. Elites have a habit of doing this. Courage, for instance, is a quality that all admire. But only elites condemn cowardice as vile. The dispossessed know very well that under certain circumstances everyone is capable of being a coward.

In spring I clear out and bury the year’s shit. The shit of my family and of friends who visit us. It has to be done once a year and usually, as last year, on a day in May. Earlier it might be frozen and later the flies come. There are a lot of flies in the summer because of the cattle. A man telling me about his solitude not long ago said: Last winter I got to the point of missing the flies.

First I dig a hole in the earth—about the size of a grave but not so deep. The edges need to be well cut so the barrow doesn’t slip when I tip it to unload. While I’m standing in the hole, Mick, the neighbor’s dog, comes by. I’ve known him since he was a pup, but he has never seen me there before him, less tall than a dwarf. His sense of scale is disturbed and he begins to bark.

However calmly I start the operation of removing the shit from the outhouse, transporting it in the barrow, and emptying it into the hole, there always comes a moment when I feel a kind of anger rising in me. Against what or whom?

This anger, I think, is atavistic. In all languages shit is a swearword of exasperation. It is something one wants to be rid of. Cats cover their own by scraping earth over it with their paws; men swear by theirs. Naming the stuff I’m shoveling finally provokes an irrational anger. Shit!

Cow and horse dung, as muck goes, are relatively agreeable. You can even become nostalgic about them. They smell of fermented grain, and on the far side of their smell there is hay and grass. Chicken shit is disagreeable and rasps the throat because of the quantity of ammonia. When you are cleaning out the henhouse, you’re glad to go to the door and take a deep breath of fresh air. Pig and human excrement, however, smell the worst because men and pigs are carnivorous and their appetites are indiscriminate. The smell includes the sickeningly sweet one of decay. And on the far side of it there is death.

While shoveling, images of Paradise come into my mind. Not the angels and heavenly trumpets, but the walled garden, the fountain of pure water, the fresh colors of flowers, the spotless white cloth spread on the grass, ambrosia. The dream of purity and freshness was born from the omnipresence of muck and dust. This polarity is surely one of the deepest in the human imagination, intimately connected with the idea of home as a shelter—shelter against many things, including dirt.

In the world of modem hygiene, purity has become a purely metaphoric or moralistic term. It has lost all sensuous reality. By contrast, in poor homes in Turkey the first act of hospitality is the offer of lemon eau de cologne to apply to the visitor’s hands, arms, neck, face. Which reminds me of a Turkish proverb about elitists: “He thinks he is a sprig of parsley in the shit of the world.”

The shit slides out of the barrow when it’s upturned with a slurping dead weight. And the foul, sweet stench goads, nags teleologically. The smell of decay and from this—the smell of putrefaction, of corruption. The smell of mortality, for sure. But it has nothing to do—as puritanism, with its loathing for the body, has consistently taught—with shame or sin or evil. Its colors are burnished gold, dark brown, black: the colors of Rembrandt’s painting of Alexander the Great in his helmet.

A story from the village school that Yves, my son, tells me:

It’s autumn in the orchard. A rosy apple falls to the grass near a cowpat. Friendly and polite, the cowshit says to the apple: “Good morning, Madame la Pomme. How are you feeling?”

She ignores the remark, for she considers such conversation beneath her dignity.

“It’s fine weather, don’t you think, Madame la Pomme?”

Silence.

“You’ll find the grass here very sweet, Madame la Pomme.”

Again, silence.

At this moment a man walks through the orchard, sees the rosy apple, stoops to pick it up. As he bites into the apple, the cowshit, irrepressible, says: “See you in a little while, Madame la Pomme!”

What makes shit such a universal joke is that it’s an unmistakable reminder of our duality, of our soiled nature and of our will to glory. It is the ultimate lese-majeste.

As I empty the third barrow of shit, a chaffinch is singing in one of the plum trees. Nobody knows exactly why birds sing as much as they do. What is certain is that they don’t sing to deceive themselves or others. They sing to announce themselves as they are. Compared with the transparency of bird song, our talk is opaque, because instead of embodying truth, we are obliged to search for it.

I think of the people whose shit I’m transporting. So many different people. Shit is what is left behind undifferentiated: the waste from energy received and burned up. This energy has myriad forms, but for us humans, with our human shit, all energy is partly verbal. I’m talking to myself as I lift the shovel, prudently, so that too much doesn’t fall off onto the outhouse floor. Evil begins not with decomposing matter but with the human capacity to talk oneself into.

The eighteenth-century picture of the noble savage was shortsighted. It confused a distant ancestor with the animals he hunted. All animals live within the laws of their species. They know no pity (though they know bereavement); they are never perverse. This is why hunters once dreamed of certain animals as being naturally noble—of having a spiritual grace that matched their physical one. It was never the case with man.

Nothing in the nature around us is evil. This needs to be repeated since one of the human ways of talking oneself into inhuman acts is to cite the supposed cruelty of nature. The just-hatched cuckoo, blind and featherless, has a special hollow like a dimple on its back, so that it can hump out of the nest, one by one, its companion fledglings. Cruelty is the result of talking oneself into the infliction of pain or into the conscious ignoring of pain already inflicted. The cuckoo doesn’t talk itself into anything. Nor does the wolf.

The story of the Temptation with the other apple (not Madame la Pomme) is well told: “And the serpent said unto the woman, Yeshall not surely die.” She hasn’t eaten yet. Yet these words of the serpent are either the first lie or the first play with empty words.

Kierkegaard (Shit!—half a shovelful has fallen off) knew what he was talking about when he defined diabolic discourse as prattle. Evil’s mask of innocence. “Such phraseology is needed,” said George Orwell, “if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

Perhaps the insouciance with which cows shit is part of their peacefulness, part of the patience that allows them to be thought of in certain cultures as sacred.

Evil hates everything that has been physically created. The first act of this hatred is to separate the order of words from the order of what they denote.

Mick the dog follows me as I trundle the barrow to the hole. No more sheep! I tell him. The previous spring, palling with another dog, he killed three. His tail goes down. After killing he was chained up for three months. The tone of my half-joking voice, the word sheep, the memory of the chain make him cringe a little. But in his head he doesn’t call spilt blood something else, and he stares into my eyes. Not far from where I dug the hole, a lilac tree is coming into flower. The wind must have changed to the south, for this time I can smell the lilac through the shit. It smells of mint mixed with a lot of honey. This perfume takes me back to my very early childhood, to the first garden I ever knew, and suddenly from that time long ago I remember both smells, from long before either lilac or shit had a name.  

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