Getting to the Bottom of It All

Article excerpt

David Palumbo pooh-poohs any suggestion that 'shiterature' has no place in academic study.

Between Two Stools: Scatology and its Representation in English Literature, Chaucer to Swift

By Peter J. Smith

Manchester University Press

272pp, Pounds 65.00

ISBN 9780719087943

Published 20 August 2012

The first thing a reader notices about Peter Smith's Between Two Stools is the pleasure the author took in writing this book. The preface opens with a delightful anecdote detailing a clash of disciplines familiar to most academics who have tried to explain the value of their research to colleagues from other departments. Smith separates the academy into two distinct categories, or "stools": those disciplines "only really interested in the production of income, 'grant capture,' or the commercial exploitation of research" and those disciplines - such as literature - that express "an unmitigated dedication to ... non-income-generating subjects".

This opening prepares the reader for the primary trope of the book - "the two stools" - that represents "two broadly distinctive attitudes towards scatological writing": one, associated with Chaucer and Shakespeare, emphasising the "carnivalesque (and) merry", the other expressing "self- disgust (and) withering misanthropy". John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, and Jonathan Swift figure importantly in the second category. Throughout this book, Smith laments the loss of a perspective on scatology (available to medieval and Renaissance authors and readers) that understands and encourages interaction of the "two (very separate) stools" that have dominated scatological discourse. But (if only for a moment) back to the pleasures of Smith's prose style and subject. He alludes, in his analysis of Chaucer's The Summoner's Tale, to the linguistic version of IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome: "There is a blustery imperative, as it were, behind the selection of this psalm (Psalm 44), while the eructive grunt itself is symptomatic of irritable vowel syndrome" (IVS - italics mine). And concluding a chapter that brings together and differentiates Rochester's and Swift's approach to scatology, Smith leads readers on a "voyage into the Fart of Darkness".

Between Two Stools traces representations of scatology in English literature from the Middle Ages to the 18th century, and locates a definitive shift in attitudes towards scatology in Rochester's poetry. This poetry embodies a refiguration of the "character of the Cavalier - a term which denotes a level of courtly sophistication but which has come to connote . …