Sunday, February 23, 2014

this unhappy Manichean rag

Rabelais has a "prediliction for excrement," says Powys in Visions and Revisions. "This also, though few would admit it, is a symbolic secret. This also is a path of initiation. In this peculiarity Rabelais is completely alone among the writers of the earth. Others have, for various reasons, dabbled in this sort of thing -- but none have ever piled it up -- manure-heap upon manure-heap, until the animal refuse of the whole earth seems to reek to the stars! There is not the slightest reason to regret this thing or to expurgate it. Rabelais is not Rabelais, just as life is not life, without it.

'It is indeed the way of "salvation" for certain neurotic natures. Has that been properly understood?"

In 1915 he published those words, suffering regularly from constipation throughout his adult life, this vegetarian who didn't enjoy vegetables; and so he ate bread and milk and other items that tied knots in his bowels until in one memorable section of his autobiography he vomits an interior sewerage. The character of Porius in Porius thirty-six years later (published truncated in 1951 because it was so long, published unabridged in 1994, though note that I read the 1994 version and am only assuming that this appears in the 1951 version as well) will see a heap of excrement standing on the ground during a long scene:

The man who had eased himself there -- and he must have had bowels that badly required easing -- had partially concealed the red-brown heap, of which hosts of coloured flies were already aware, by throwing down a piece of rag upon it; but instead of concealing what he had done to these immemorial cross-ways, sacred to older deities than either Jesus or Mithras, this unhappy Manichean rag emphasized the sacrilege, neither discouraging the flies nor obliterating the disgust.

Shame, but shame exposed and revealed vulnerably, this is very Powysian and there are variations on that idea throughout his books, along with the invocation of mythical figures or notions, these things forced into intimacy with ordinary and often dirty objects, the "older deities than either Jesus or Mithras" being exposed and vulnerabilised here too, I suppose, by implication, majesty not brought low but transformed, or perhaps reformatted.

That note of noticing too, the introduction of excrement into a work of literature being maybe a signal of your willingness to notice, and I would even go so far as to say that it is a sign of your helpless enthusiastic capitulation to the act of noticing, because you are going to point out an object that most other writers will not point out; they will pass over the dung but you will point it out for the world as if to say that noticing must be done, even if it is strange like this, and even if we are noticing the thing that is supposed to silence us with shame until we are "throwing down a piece of rag upon it." We will embarrass ourselves by staring at a flower, says Ruskin, a little fragile temporary flower; we will embarrass ourselves by staring at our crap, says Powys, accepting that lesson from Rabelais. Our dear majestic glittering crap pile.


  1. The excrement in Rabelais is all for comedy's sake. Dante's excrement was about shame and punishment. Powys seems to be influenced by that, maybe?

    The excrement in Ulysses is for what? Shock value, or "realism's sake" or is it symbolic? Though you only get Poldy's movement of his bowels, not the actual feces. Writers are always willing to focus on animal excrement, but almost never on human excrement.

    In one of Gunter Grass's novels--I forget which but I'm sure it's one of the "Danzig trilogy"--a character (the narrator) habitually takes a good look at his stools in the toilet before flushing, because from them he gets his ideas for his art (he's a sculptor). If that ain't symbolism, I'll eat my head.

    I'm interested in Powys now, but I'll admit that I'm intimidated by the length of his books. I keep promising myself that I'll read short books this year.

    1. What I forgot to say is that I think you're right: breaking the taboo against including human excrement in a narrative sort of allows a writer to bring in all sorts of other things; it's a fingerpost to a (maybe) less-filtered observation of the world.

    2. Excrement for Joyce was sexually thrilling, if you believe his letters, which, why wouldn't you I suppose ("Does it give you the horn now to shit?" he asks Nora); and Powys was fascinated by bowelishness as well, though not so obviously sexually, and I suspect that in both cases it wasn't just a literary effect they were after but also the pleasure and frisson of bringing this lovely, forbidden idea into the public domain and expecting to be punished for it. I don't know if Dante influenced Powys in the crap department -- not that I know -- but his presentation of the excrement is not like Dante's in any English translation of the Inferno that I've read. Dante's excrement is comparatively sad and chaste. Powys' is (one of the words he loves) "protean." It's disgusting but it's also attractive, and soon Porius is going to start incorporating it into one of his daydreams. (I'll go into that in the next post, I think.)

    3. I always forget about those letters Joyce wrote to Nora. Maybe the privy scene and the masturbation on the beach from Ulysses were in some large way Joyce being naughty in public. He was a weird guy.

      Something about the Powys excerpt reminded me--in tone more than anything, I guess--of Dorothy Sayer's Inferno. But no, I don't see any actual connection between Dante and Powys there. Though now I want to re-read Inferno.

    4. I don't think the human brain should feel completely honour-bound to retain the memory of frigging Nora. I hope he felt naughty. It would be disappointing if he didn't.

      You might be right about Powys and Dante, now that I'm reading Visions and Revisions again, because the "ultimate gift" of the poet, says Powys, "is his pride and his humility," with "his power of heightening the glory and the terribleness of the human race."