Saturday, 7 August 2021

Silly farts

Farting is not a subject polite society ever considers.  It is one of those inconvenient little reminders - like death - that we are not gods, however smartly we may dress and talk.  As a result, farting has become a subject colonised by children - who are in any case rightly fascinated by all the mysteries of the human body - secure in the knowledge that no adults will come along and start asserting their superior experience in this field as they do in most others.

When the fart occurs - in life or in literature - there is always a shocked pause, as if leaving space for it to pass.  In society, the instinct to pretend that the unpleasant never happened manifests itself as usual.  With art, which habitually comes freighted with explanations and interpretations, this is not so easy.  For example, in the thirteenth century round 'Sumer is icumen in' - a virtuosic essay in double canon, one of the earliest in music - there occurs the line which is usually translated as "bulls leap and bucks fart."  Despite valiant attempts at emendation, the phrase still crops up in books on medieval music and poetry.  Because of the work's historical importance, its text must, of course, be glossed - a task which leaves the rigorous but prim scholar appalled and red-faced.  At moments like these, art seems to be blowing a raspberry at the world and its prudishness.  And aptly: raspberry in this phrase is short for raspberry tart - cockney rhyming slang for a fart.  

But imagine for a moment a world which does not have this rather queasy Victorian attitude to what is, after all, just another bodily activity.  In this world people would be free to fart in public without embarrassment just as they might at home.  There would be nothing unusual about entering an office to be greeted with a rich and overpowering melange of such odours which would linger in your clothes and hair for days.  Sometimes special rooms would be set aside specifically for those who wished to indulge themselves in this way, and areas allocated in restaurants for those who felt the need to fart during meals.  

Because of the social acceptability of farting, we can imagine that organisations dedicated to widening the constituency of farters would mount advertising campaigns in magazines and on hoardings to encourage more people - and especially the young - to fart in public as well as in private.  There might even be fads associated with the activity: for example young men might consider it particularly cool to fart in a loud and demonstrative way, while the most refined and soigne of women might take up farting not for the pleasure it gives them, but purely as a sign of sophistication.

The idea of such a world is plainly ridiculous.  And yet we live in that world.  Substitute the word 'smoke' for 'fart' in the above description, and the fit is perfect.  Or nearly.  It must be conceded that for all the superficial similarities, there is one crucial difference between farting and smoking: breathing in someone else's fart, unlike breathing in someone else's smoke, does not give you cancer.  It is an interesting question as to who are the sillier farts in this situation: those who selfishly inflict their loathsome and lethal smoke on others, or those who let them.

(1988)

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