Dennis Vannatta

One day a propos of nothing that I was aware of, a quotation began rattling around in my otherwise unoccupied noggin:  “A man ain’t nothing but two holes connected by ten yards of guts.”  Who had written it, though?  Why there is evil in a world created by a loving god; will the universe continue to expand or will it contract into another Big Bang; do we exist in any form after death?—these are questions over which I lose no sleep; but a quotation whose attribution alludes me will have me calling acquaintances at all hours for help.  Or at least rifling through my books until my thumbs are blistered and Googling until my mouse curls up and dies.  I rifled; I Googled.  Finally it came to me:  a character in one of my stories had said it.

This is just one more example of the way my memory increasingly fails to function properly and not in itself worthy of note.  What I find problematic in retrospect, though, is my use of the quotation to conjure up the essence of a soulless, loveless, life-denying character.  Not only had I intended the sentiment expressed by the character to have negative connotations, I’m fairly certain virtually all readers would take it that way.  Now, however, I can’t help thinking that there is no logical reason the sentiment (save for the judgmental “ain’t nothing”) has to be seen as anything other than an objective observation, especially since it is obviously true, in an anatomical sense, at least.  What I find most interesting, though, is that the subject addressed in my character’s statement, while as fundamental to a human being as any other that man can isolate for analysis, is seldom noted outside a doctor’s office, and hardly ever in literature.

This is especially true in reference to what happens at the nether end of that alimentary canal:  defecation.  Heart problems, lameness, blindness, insomnia, hair color, baldness, stature, posture—all have been used again and again by authors as sign, symbol, or metaphor.  Why not constipation?  Or diarrhea?

More to the point, why is defecation so rarely even mentioned?  Proust may have explored as profoundly as anyone what it means to be a human being, but in all the seven fat volumes of In Search of Lost Time is there a single defecation scene?  I don’t recall one, and while I wouldn’t bet the house on my faulty memory, I’d at least wager a double-cheeseburger and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol on this one.  In all the marvelous, ghastly sickness and death scenes in Dickens, does anyone ever shit the bed?  In The Iliad Homer may have set a standard for battlefield realism rarely subsequently challenged, but no soldier ever takes a dump.  This curious lacuna extends to nonfiction.  David Eggers, in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, for instance, illustrates the visceral horror of his mother’s dying by describing, off and on for pages, her nose bleed.  I would assume at a certain point she could no longer control her bowels, and the result for her care-givers had to be at least as distressing; but this does not come in for such lavish attention from Eggers.  Why not?  I imagine he would consider it a violation of sorts.  And so would we.

I do not claim that defecation is never mentioned by writers.  Rabelais fairly luxuriates in all bodily functions, including defecation.  In Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich, the act of defecation is not described, but the servant Gerasim demonstrates his compassion and (perhaps ironically) spirituality by disposing of Ivan’s stools without qualm or hesitation.  Tolstoy is, of course, one of the master realists of literature, so acknowledging this “real” aspect of life should not surprise us; yet from my recollection few other of those great nineteenth-century realists do.

In the twentieth century, Joyce has a charming reading-and-defecating (they are hardly distinguishable) scene in Ulysses; Nabokov alludes hilariously to “the good Grunter” in Pale Fire (but without going into the messy details); and Maxine Kumin has her delightful “Excrement Poem.”  I’m sure there are more examples, probably many more.  But I’m equally certain that taken altogether those examples would comprise a puzzlingly small body of references to one of the few functions that is truly vital and universal among humans.

But why?  One could point out that referring to bodily functions of any sort has always been frowned upon in “polite society,” and that writers have simply followed this stricture. But this doesn’t bear up to even casual scrutiny.  Sex is also a bodily function once taboo for writers, but that taboo has been so frequently and variously violated that it is now no more than a sort of historical curiosity.  Mozart was a randy young man, we are told, and we may find this information interesting but hardly cause for even a raised eyebrow; but the fact that he and his mother were fond of exchanging letters in which they described in loving detail their bowel movements, well, we just don’t know what to do with that.  Joyce’s “dirty letters” to Nora we might find interesting or even titillating, but what shocks us is the great man’s fascination with Nora’s bowel movements; it’s not the sex that’s “dirty” but the sex-plus-shit.  

I also find it curious that a bodily function closely related to defecation—I refer to urination—is much more common in literature and far more openly discussed in our culture in general.  My very religious mother-in-law will say “pissed off” without batting an eye, but I can’t imagine her using the word shit.  (It was, though, my equally-religious mother’s one obscenity, rarely employed; she had to be really pissed off to utter it.)  An episode of the British sit-com As Time Goes By ends when, in the midst of a discussion that has taken a sweetly romantic turn, the man says, “I have to pee.”  We smile.  It’s inconceivable that that same scene could have ended with the man saying, “I have to shit.”  By coincidence, while working on this essay, I have been reading a novel, House of Sand and Fog, by Andre Dubus III, that contains a scene where a young woman goes to a house to complain to the owner.  Before she can lodge her complaint, however, she is so overcome by the need to urinate that she has to ask the owner if she can use the bathroom, the delay heightening the tension in the scene.  Why doesn’t Dubus have the woman be overcome with the need to defecate?  If he did, it would be a misstep.  Why?  Because then the scene would almost certainly be comic, and this would violate the somber tone already established in the novel.

Why are defecation scenes, the few times we see them, generally comic?  The very name of Nabokov’s “good Grunter” is comic partly because it’s a pun and we smile at puns but mostly because it draws our attention to “grunting” in the act of defecation.  Later in the novel we are treated to Gradus and his erupting bowels, surely the great diarrhea scene in literature and certainly comic despite the fact that Gradus is only moments away from committing murder.

But why are grunting and diarrhea and their musical accompaniment, farts, almost invariably seen as funny?  (Almost.  Jean Genet in Our Lady of the Flowers takes a quite sensual and serious delight in his farts.)  Perhaps we laugh for the same reason that a junior high class will explode in red-faced squeals of laughter at even the vaguest reference to sex:  laughter releases tension, and junior-highers are brittle with tension and uncertainty over sex.  But there’s a difference:  sex is a new world they are entering, one whose rules and expectations they only imperfectly understand; but we are born mastering defecation.

Sort of, anyway.  Right from the crib, defecating we can handle, no problem.  Defecating where and when we’re “supposed” to, though, is another issue.  It is, in fact, perhaps the very first skill we are taught, have to be taught because it is unnatural.  Other animals don’t hesitate to let fly wherever and whenever the urge arises.  Now, mercifully, most child psychologists encourage parents not to force the issue (in contrast to my mother’s generation for whom it was shameful if a child was not “potty-trained” by age one).  Even so, for all parents and all children it is an issue, one that if not mastered to the satisfaction of our parents and culture is fraught with emotional consequences.   (In what must surely be my earliest memory, I am leaning over, looking down into a child’s plastic potty where lies one perfectly-formed turd.  The ambience is not noisome or in any way distressing.  In fact, it is a pleasant memory.  I feel good.  Proud.  Obviously, the turd is mine.  I’ve put it where it belongs.  My mother hovers in the background.  Look, Mama.  Look at what your big boy did!)

I well remember (with a chuckle, predictably) a student of mine being late to class and realizing he had missed a quiz.  He looked at me guiltily and said, “I shit the bed, didn’t I?”  Yes, James, you shat the bed.  For an adult to wet the bed without some predetermining physical condition is a sign of a psychological problem of some sort.  But to shit the bed?  It’s almost unthinkable.  Even most serious illnesses don’t lead to this outcome.  (Sorry; puns are irresistible.)  No, for most adults, the only time they’ll ever shit the bed is when they’re dying.

And maybe that’s why shit is seen in literature and life in mostly negative terms.  That ten-yard-long alimentary canal houses a process that moves in only one direction.  Shit is what has been left over after the life-giving nutrients have been extracted for use by our bodies.  True, manure enriches the soil from which life springs anew; therefore it is an arc in the endlessly repeating cycle of life.  And so it may be in reference to Life with a capital L.  Lives, though—yours, mine—are not repeating cycles or arcs except in the sense of growth to maturity being one half an arc that inevitably descends to termination of the arc.  Or, as a friend of mine puts it, “Death is the ass-end of everything.”  Quaint phrasing, but I get his point:  death is pretty shitty.

*

That’s only at the end, though.  We’re good at ignoring how the story is going to turn out.  In fact, we spend a lot more of our time concerned with the beginning of the alimentary canal:  eating.  Although no more essential to staying alive than defecation, eating occupies a far greater place in our consciousness, conversation, and art.  There are whole television networks devoted to eating, for goodness’ sake.

Literature offers a veritable smorgasbord of eating scenes.  Predictably, perhaps, some of the same authors who acknowledge that man is a defecating animal also address their characters’ appetites.  Rabelais takes top honors in both.  (I myself have a gargantuan appetite.)  Thomas Wolfe—take a look at his photo; you know he was a first-class trencherman—is nearly a match for Rabelais.  Joyce’s “The Dead” may conclude with a meditation on last things, but equal time is given to the pleasures of the table at the Morkin sisters’ party; then too, one of the great set-pieces in all of Joyce’s fiction is the Christmas dinner scene in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

If one looks more closely at the Joyce examples, though, one notices that while food is listed (“The Dead”) and served (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), the actual eating is given short shrift.  In fact, the most memorable descriptions of eating in Joyce do not whet our appetites but cause us to recoil.  Stephen Dedalus’ fall from grace in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is dramatically manifested in his visit to a prostitute at the end of Part II, but his continued apostasy is signaled in Part III by his gross over-indulgence of another sort:  “He hoped there would be stew for dinner, turnips and carrots and bruised potatoes and fat mutton pieces to be ladled out in thick peppered flourfattened sauce.  Stuff it into you, his belly counseled him.”  It is in “The Lestrygonians” section of Ulysses, though, that the act of eating is shown at its most repugnant:  “A man with an infant’s saucestained napkin tucked around him shoveled gurgling soup down his gullet.  A man spitting back on his plate:  halfmasticated gristle:  no teeth to chewchewchew it.  Chomp chop from the grill.”  On and on it goes, enough to put you off your food.

I’d venture to guess that eating has negative associations in literature as often as positive ones.  Admittedly, this oftentimes results not from eating but from the frustrated desire to eat.  Knut Hamsun’s Hunger says it all in that regard.  Well, no, not all.  The trials of Hamsun’s hungry young man pale contrasted to the horrors faced by Tadeusz Borowski’s concentration camp inmates in This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen.  Columns of smoke from the Auschwitz ovens loom over the stories, and all varieties of abuse that one man can inflict upon another abound therein; but for this reader nothing is quite so horrible as the brain-eating scene in “The Supper.” Or, as one character says in “A Day at Harmenz,” “Real hunger is when one man regards another man as something to eat.”  Oh my.

Kafka has his own idiosyncratic take on the food/hunger issue.  (Anybody surprised?)  In two of his greatest stories, “A Hunger Artist” and “The Metamorphosis,” his protagonists starve to death with plenty of life-sustaining food available.  Readers who interpret the first story to mean that the Hunger Artist represents the dedicated writer, choosing his art over everything, even life, have gotten the chronology wrong.  The artist first of all rejects life:  “I couldn’t find the food I Liked.  If I had found it, believe me, I should have made no fuss and stuffed myself like you or anyone else.”  All he’s left with is art—a poor substitute.  In “The Metamorphosis,” Kafka eliminates the art angle, thereby reducing the issue to its essentials:  when Gregor is caged with his own self-loathing, he no longer wants to eat, and he starves to death.  Neither Gregor nor the Hunger Artist can find the food they want because it doesn’t exist.  They really just want death.

I’d be surprised if doctors didn’t tell us that eating disorders are far more prevalent among their patients than elimination disorders.  How rarely we mention a person being a “good eater” (except for those ludicrous “extreme eating” contests on “reality” TV); yet bad eating—eating too much or too little—at the very least contributes to how the world sees us and we see ourselves (Fatso; Bony Moronie) and at the extreme becomes a medical condition:  bulimia, anorexia, etc.

Before I ever heard the word bulimia, there was my Uncle Dud, who’d go out behind the house at family reunions and stick his finger down his throat in order to vomit up his dinner.  Was he bulimic?  No.  He came from a generation (born pre-World War I) of country people who valued food and didn’t always have enough of it; when he had a big spread of food before him (the Christmas dinner table in my Aunt Bessie’s basement was thirty yards long, I swear it was), he just couldn’t bear limiting himself to one go-round.  He loved food; bulimics fear it.

Like Uncle Dud, I love to eat.  I heard a comedian say that he knew he was getting old when he realized how much of his day he spent thinking about lunch.  I think a lot about lunch.  And breakfast.  And dinner.  The sad truth is that once you get to a certain age, one of the last pleasures left to you is eating—assuming your health will allow you to eat what you want.

It was not always the case that I viewed eating as an unalloyed pleasure.  Indeed, while I have no bad memories involving elimination—I was no bed-wetter, and potty-training apparently went well for me—the act of eating caused me considerable anxiety when I was young.  Partly because I was sick a lot as a child, I had what was called “a weak stomach”:  either I wanted to eat it or I could not eat it.  There was no willing myself or forcing myself to eat something my stomach said, Hey, get that outta here! This led to scenes that even now I’d rather not recall: sitting at the kitchen table with a glass of increasingly warm milk before me and my mother, arms folded, glaring, assuring me I’d not move out of that chair until I’d drunk it; the grade school cafeteria with its exit guarded by a teacher who’d examine our trays and send us back to eat what we so devoutly wished to dump in the trash.  (I’m still uneasy in cafeterias and empathize with Gregor Von Rezzori’s character in The Death of My Brother Abel, on a cafeteria line in post-World War II Nuremberg:  “The ladle shits:  brown cutlets—move on—a puke of piercing green canned peas—move on—a pile of pus-yellow corn—move on—the lymph of mashed potatoes—move on . . . .”)  These were humiliating, agonizing scenes for me, the whole disapproving world arrayed against poor little weak-stomached me.  But by God I won.  I won every one of those battles, not through strength but through weakness.  They could stand there disgusted and demanding until hell froze over; if I did not want it, I could not eat it, could not drink it.  My mother quit trying to force me to drink milk; eventually I was allowed to take my lunch to school to avoid the sadistic bastards guarding the cafeteria door.

My issues with eating weren’t behind me, though.  I didn’t like to eat in public unless I could be assured I wouldn’t be subjected to some food I didn’t like.  As much as I enjoyed sleepovers at friends’ houses, for instance, I dreaded meals there.  What would they serve?  Would it be something I liked?  I knew it was only polite to eat, and appear to enjoy, whatever was offered, but I couldn’t, I just couldn’t!  What if—gulp—they served milk that wasn’t absolutely ice-cold?  Erp!

I vividly recall a visit to my Aunt Agnes.  Wretchedly poor, barely able to feed herself, the kind old woman gave little Dennis all she had by way of a “treat”:  a glass of powdered milk mixed with tap water.  I glanced at my father and saw the look of dismay on his face:  he knew there was no way I could take so much as a sip of that stuff.  That great man saved me:  he distracted Aunt Agnes long enough to gulp down the noxious stuff himself.

Today I can eat basically anything that doesn’t eat me first.  Eat it and enjoy it.  How did this miraculous transformation occur?  I guess I’d have to credit Uncle Sam—the only goddamn thing I’ll thank him for after drafting me in 1969.  I refer of course to basic training.  “More P.T., drill sergeant!”  Run for miles, march for many miles more, no snacks—when mealtime came I ate whatever was in front of me, no such niceties as temperature, texture, or taste of the food a consideration.  Maybe it would have happened to me along about then even without the kind attentions of the army, though.  Maybe I was simply becoming a man.  Strange that out of all the rites of passage anthropologists and authors have pointed out to us, my coming of age is signaled more than anything else by the ability to eat food.  

*

Earlier in this essay I observed that “potty training” is perhaps the first learned skill human beings are required to master.  Reconsidering, I think it probably depends on the individual and culture in question, but many learn at least the rudiments of feeding themselves before they achieve bowel-and-bladder control.  One of my favorite photos of my daughter is of her on her first birthday sitting in her highchair eating a hamburger casserole with her own hands.  On her face is an enormously pleased grin and several ounces of casserole.  In the photo she is also wearing diapers.

I don’t know what child psychologists say about eating habits in the early years, but if they don’t say that eating habits suggest future personality, they’re missing the boat.  Today, our daughter and son could hardly be more different in personality; we could see the signs in how they held their bottles.  Christine was frenetic, always on the go, scooting all over the crib from the day she came home from the hospital.  She wanted (wants) to do it her way.  She didn’t much like to be held, didn’t want to be fed.  From the moment she could crawl she had the bottle dangling from her mouth, sucking on it as she went at top speed from one thing to another.  Matthew, on the other hand, never wanted to hold his bottle.  At an age when Christine was stuffing hamburger casserole into and all her face, Matthew would lie in his mother’s arms like a recumbent Buddha, hands down to his sides, happily refusing to hold that bottle.  Someone in the thrall of texts on child-rearing with tables showing at what age a child should have mastered certain tasks might have worried that Matthew was “slow.”  But he was just a very happy baby, quite content in his mother’s or father’s arms, no need to experiment with what works.  

Today Matthew has what most would no doubt call a conventional life as husband and father, but that is precisely the life he envisioned for himself even as a child, and he is content to have achieved his dream.  Christine is still on the go, hard to pin down, does it her way, and that way has occasionally been hard, but she could no more live Matthew’s life than he could hers.  Matthew has always been the steady one, the reliable one.  If we needed someone for the long haul, someone to be there day after day, years on end, it’d be Matthew.  But if I was trapped in a burning house, Christine would be the one, without an instant’s thought to her own safety, to kick down the door and carry me out.  And then run back in to save the cat.

More than anything else, I’ve admired her courage.  Once at a family gathering, her Uncle Serge fished a squid’s head out of her grandmother’s sumptuous paella.  Turning to Christine (maybe twelve at the time), he said, “I’ll give you five dollars if you eat this.”  Matthew, as picky an eater as I was as a child, would have begun to retch at the very thought of that squid’s head.  But Christine didn’t hesitate one instant; she popped that ghastly-looking thing into her mouth  and chewed and chewed and finally swallowed.  She never got her five dollars, either.  (Hey, Serge, pay up!)  But she earned my admiration.

*

The first and last things are the most important.  Our earliest efforts are directed toward mastering the arts of feeding ourselves and elimination control.  We are like infants again at the end, trying, and finally failing, to maintain control.  The man facing the gallows gets his last meal, and his last act as the rope brings him up short is to shit his pants.  

I’ve known, unfortunately, too many people who died long, wasting illnesses.  The final stage is invariably announced by the loss of a desire to eat.  The body is sending a message:  time to go.  

On April 6, 2001, I visited my mother, losing a battle with breast cancer and congestive heart failure, in her nursing home.  I took her a Diet Pepsi and a Hershey’s chocolate bar.  She lay, I could tell from the smell, in her own waste.  I told the nurse that she needed changing, and while I waited for someone to come, I held the straw to her lips, and she took sips of the Pepsi, and I broke off squares of the chocolate, and she ate.  It was a painful process because she kept struggling to take air into her lungs.  “I want to breathe,” she’d say, then take a rattling breath, then a sip of Pepsi, rattling breath, a square of chocolate.  “I want to breathe.”

She drank almost all the Pepsi and ate half the chocolate bar.  I folded the wrapper over the remains of the chocolate and said, “I’ll save this for you,” but she turned her face away and, a few hours later, died.