Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

"The Untouchable: Bartók and the Scatological"

Academic journal article Studia Musicologica

"The Untouchable: Bartók and the Scatological"

Article excerpt

In his 2002 book entitled My Father Peter Bartók told stories about the composer that had never seen print before, although some had circulated among people who knew Bartók's idiosyncratic habits. Most surprising perhaps for readers used to the image of the rigorous, disciplined, uncompromising Bartók were his son's anecdotes about the composer's playful, obscene humor. Peter Bartók recalls that his father called a decorative pattern on the family's new tablecloth "ox-urine stitch," asked his son after his first dance class whether the girls "wiggled their asses," translated his treatment with penicillin into Hungarian as "faszocska kezelés" (treatment with little penis)1 and made fun of the name of the resort town Saranac Lake by pronouncing it the Hungarian way: szar annak (it's shit for him). This last joke remained untranslated in Peter Bartók's book, for, as the embarrassed author declares in a footnote, the phrase "has an unpresentable meaning."2 Bartók himself was less squeamish about presenting just such humor, as a childish drawing on the margin of his 1912 draft of Nine Rumanian Folksongs illustrates (see Figure 1).

Like Peter Bartók, scholars remain uneasy about the composer's peculiar humor. János Kárpáti's recent study on Bartók's humor demonstrates the discomfort. After quoting Béla Bartók Junior's statement about his father's preference for "tasteful humor," he recounts Peter Bartók's anecdote about the composer shocking a respectable company of ladies by reciting folk song texts such as:


Aládába szart a juh;

Amenyasszony kivette,

Avõlegény megette!

Oo, yoo....

Into the box shit the ewe;

The bride took it out,

The groom eat it up!

This hardly fits the category of "tasteful."3

What is missing from both Peter Bartók's affectionate reminiscences and Kárpáti's scholarly analysis of Bartók's humor is the acknowledgment that many of the quoted jokes are scatological.4 The word scatological derives from the Greek word for "dung" (stem skat-), and describes obsession with excrement and excretory functions. Scatological humor is built on civilized society's habit of treating this particular biological necessity as a scandal. Children in their anal phase revel in such humor, which parents try to control by assigning it to the "bathroom" (hence the expression "bathroom talk"). Adults are not immune to the effects produced by scatological humor either. The most famous example in music is Mozart, whose letters to family members are littered with excremental language, spiced with sexual allusions: "blow into my behind. It's splendid food, may it do you good," he wrote to his cousin Bäsle. "Forgive my wretched writing," he wrote her in another letter ,

but the pen is already worn to a shred,

and I've been shitting, so 'tis said,

nigh twenty-two years through the same old hole,

which is not yet frayed one whit,

though I've used it daily to shit,

and each time the muck with my teeth I've bit.5

Maynard Solomon explains Mozart's infantile vulgarity in psychological, as well as Bakhtinian terms. Such humor, he writes, is sexually liberating, for it accepts "the excremental without fear or disgust," and is "capable of loving the body's apertures of love and procreation." It is also "a strategy of carnivalesque uncrowning," Solomon argues, "a humorous debasement of hegemony and hierarchy of power and pomp, parody of rationality, cleanliness, and order."6 Mozart's verbal obscenity signals anger and a desire to revolt; in Bakhtinian terms it "brings kindling to...'the gay carnival bonfire in which the old world is burned.'"7

Drawing pleasure from scatological jokes does not necessarily indicate antagonism to social norms. "Scatological jokes and tales," Gershom Legman writes in his two-volume study on dirty jokes, "are among the most primitive and direct, requiring nothing more than the mere mention of the taboo object or action to achieve the effect of anger, terror, shock, offense, or laughter. …

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