Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Powers of Ordure: James Joyce and the Excremental Vision(s)

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Powers of Ordure: James Joyce and the Excremental Vision(s)

Article excerpt

Why shit now? Or, to put my question somewhat less ambiguously (and so somewhat less scandalously): why this recent upsurge of interest in excrement and visions thereof?

Perhaps the interest has to do with Sigmund Freud, in that doctor's exemplary clinical attention to the body and its products. When participating in the French-led "return to Freud," we may find ourselves necessarily turning back to shit, inspecting this low matter with high seriousness. Another contributing factor may be the rise of cultural studies. One way of distinguishing between cultures is to consider their differing attitudes towards excrement. Is shit, to a given culture, a good thing? An evil thing? A sacred--both good and evil--thing? Also there are those theorists who concern themselves with categories of value in the post-industrial, post-modern era. Jean Baudrillard, for example, in commenting upon the "consumer society," describes how everything in that society "is finally digested and reduced to the same homogeneous fecal matter....a controlled, lubricated, and consumed excretion (fecalite) is henceforth transferred into things, everywhere diffused in the indistinguishability of things and of social relations" (34-35). What are we to make of a world where the coprophiliac Ren and Stimpy--indeed, the coprolaliac Beavis and Butt-head--have become our children's role models? Are we experiencing a "paradigm shift" toward all-pervasive Excrementality? Is this the advent of an age where shit will be golden (here I pun on the Renaissance term "goldfinder": a seeker-out of excrement)? Are we seeing a future in which Sterculius, Roman god of dung, will rise from the ruined cloaca and reign supreme?

It is, of course, extremely difficult to say. What we can say with some certainty, however, is that nowadays excrement appears to be functioning as a sort of cohesive between various disciplinary discourses. It behooves one, therefore--lest one be counted among the theoretically unhip--to know one's shit.

"The excremental vision," a now-familiar phrase in literary-critical circles, first appeared as a chapter title in John Middleton Murry's 1954 biography of Jonathan Swift. In that chapter Murry echoes a number of previous analysts (Dr. Johnson, Sir Walter Scott, D. H. Lawrence) in diagnosing Swift as suffering from a cloacal obsession--the best evidence for this diagnosis being Swift's scatological poems of the early 1730s, the thematic thrust of which can be summed up in the closing refrain of one of these, "Cassinus and Peter": "Nor wonder how I lost my Wits;/Oh! Caelia, Caelia, Caelia shits" (2: 597). Cassinus's lament Murry interprets as Swift's lament, and he goes on to deplore Swift's attitude as "so perverse, so unnatural, so mentally diseased, so humanly wrong" (440). In response to Murry's psychopathological reading, Norman O. Brown, in his 1959 psychoanalytic inquiry Life Against Death, argues that in his scatological verse Swift subtly solicits the processes of repression and sublimation in our culture. "The thesis of this chapter," Brown writes, "is that if we are willing to listen to Swift we will find startling anticipations of Freudian theorems about anality, about sublimation, and about the universal neurosis of mankind" (186). In reflecting upon Murry's and Brown's different readings of Swift's scatology, one comes to the realization that there is not one excremental vision, but rather multiple excremental visions--perhaps as many as there are visionaries.

In the essay that follows I wish to consider still other excrementalists and their visions. I will begin with an analysis of the attempts by an early ethnologist (John G. Bourke) and psychologist (Sigmund Freud) to inaugurate a scientific discourse of shit, then turn to a brief consideration of the "new emeticism" recently articulated by Ashraf H. A. Rushdy. After this I will compare Mikhail Bakhtin's vision of excrement to that of Julia Kristeva (cum Mary Douglas), then finally employ Kristeva's interpretive paradigm of "abjection" in an analysis of the excrementality of James Joyce. …

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