08 March 2006

The heavy on medieval farts

In our anal-retentive times, farts are sprinkled like Bacos into comedy. Cheap and nasty, there is no thought of doing something with them. Their existence is enough, and they produce sniggers rather than thought. Yet farts were raw meat to the story chefs of other times, and fart comedy rose to great heights in the Middle Ages. Take Chaucer, who adored working with farts. In "The Summoner's Tale", the fart let into a greedy friar's hand rivals a stallion's for its sound. Yet the fart is not the comedy, nor the plot. It is only an element, like a golden ring. The friar has the weighty problem now of dividing the fart equally amongst the other friars.

Indeed, farts were treated so creatively in the Middle Ages that the topic is worth writing about. I'm no expert, so I began to look, and lo! I found the title that said it all: On Farting: Bodily Wind in the Middle Ages, by Valerie Allen and John Thompson, listed for September 2005 release by Palgrave.

Here's the publisher's synopsis:
The study of the fart in medieval culture participates in the widespread and productive contemporary study of the body, its practices and its hermeneutics. As a consequence of the cultural materialist interest in the quotidian, recent criticism has moved away from an abstracted conception of selfhood toward an appreciation of how the concrete daily regimens of bodily "habitus, generally taken for granted, shape the horizon of our cultural and individual consciousness. The fart, in its parodying of language and its logic of affinity, leads us ultimately to the problem of hermeneutics, of the art of interpretation itself. Although much of the medieval preoccupation with flatulence originates from the aesthetic of comic inversion, whereby farts "sing" or parody human language or are mistaken for departed souls, it also reflects a more serious interest in bodily health. A multifarious typology of the fart will permit a better understanding of the phenomenon's protean wealth of meaning.

Now this is one book that deserves a public reading.

The synopsis reminded me of a recent letter in Nature titled "Pressure also leads to worthless publications" in which Lindomar B. de Carvalho from the International Center for Condensed Matter Physics asked, "Are you wasting your time any more reading something fraudulent than reading something worthless?"


Adam Browne said...

I do like the idea of 'a multifarious typology of the fart', though. Ever since I was a kid, I was frustrated by the thought that there's no way to write down the sound of the fart.

Strange kid, I know.

anna tambour said...

Ha^&^*><&!! But maybe we have ignored the obvious, for there is a way to write down the sound of a fart — though not its exact pitch and timbre any more than one can specify except in crude words: "music for the bladder-pipe" or my other favourite instrument, the serpent; or Stalin's electrified love, the theramin; or the classic crumhorn (piccolo-high or bass). The Way is (for those of us who know how) to write musical scores. I am not one of those of us, and I don't know if Le Pétomane, the world's most famous flatulist, ever wrote original pieces or could read music. But maybe, if you, also, are not one of those of us, you could aspire to being a librettist for flatulism orchestras and fart ensembles, from chamber orchestras to barbershop quartets. Now that we only listen to most performances, the fart's range and infinite possibilities remain untapped talent ready to fire imaginations of the creative, who can play their part in producing thrills for the masses and a measure of enjoyment experienced by the discriminating few.

Adam Browne said...

Of course! It's a music! When my daughter was younger, I was sure she'd grow up to ornament the wind section of an orchestra... But the theremin - that's an inspired suggestion...

I know Erewhon features a short musical score - maybe other prose could too - expressions from the fundaments of the various characters.

(Is it a Bosch or a Breughel figure who is playing the fart-whistle?)

anna tambour said...

Does your daughter get her musical talent from you? I hope she hasn't lost it. If so, you should feel guilty. Many parents ruin their spawn by poor feeding. I prescribe more broccoli! And great slabs of pumpernickel (which means "goblin that breaks wind", according to "Dr. Fart", Stephen G. Bloom). Modern artificial sweeteners are the most versatile aids to art of all, for they help you to play music while you paint from the same instrument. You might think of yourself first, though. You've got it in you, don't you? You don't even need to hold a tune or paint a portrait to hole an exhibition in the Tate.
You're right on both counts re the painters.

But find out that and more from the witty and erudite Who Cut the Cheese?:A Cultural History of the Fart by Jim Dawson —with its gorgeous cover detail from "Thirty-Six Faces of Expression" by Louis Boilly — the perfect book for any coffee table.