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Is poop just poop ? The surprising philosophy and psychology of bowel movement

Updated on August 24, 2016
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During some of my diverse leisurely readings, I repeatedly came head-to-head with this idea : pooping has philosophical, psychological and even religious implications. I found this theme in fiction, nonfiction, and even poetry. And surprisingly, people living centuries apart shared a lot of these thoughts. Then, I thought it's only fair, given the universality of the toilet act, to spend few minutes reviewing and discussing some ideas on the subject. Of note, even if some theories may seem outdated - or even bizarre - to the modern reader, they provide valuable insight into what some great minds thought about the most mundane human function.

God does not defecate, according to this Gnostic

The subjects of theological debates, during the second century, were understandably different. But one of those, in particular, was fascinating. it was an attempt to answer the seemingly simple question : Does Jesus defecate ? No, he doesn't. According to the Gnostic Valentinus "Jesus practiced divinity, he ate and drank in a special way, without excreting his solids." Valentinus was later denounced as a heretic. But the fact remains, there seems to be a problem reconciling divinity and pooping. Milan Kundera, in his 1984 novel the unbearable lightness of being, echoed the same idea. "Without any theological training," He wrote ", I.. grasped the incompatibility of God and sh*t." Kundera found it hard to reconcile the theory that we were created in God's image with the biological, mundane act of pooping. This tension between the mundane - whose symbol par excellence, some argue, is defecation- and the divine will be examined in the coming chapter. Of note, I use the divine, later on, stripped out of its religious connotation - moving away from the debate in its classical form towards psychology- to denote that which is "higher" in us : the civilized, intellectual and cultural aspect as opposed to the bare biological necessity; The thinking animal as opposed the pooping animal.




Man's body/symbol duality
Man's body/symbol duality | Source

The thinking pooping animal

As we've seen before, both the Gnostic Valentinus and the novelist Kundera, found it impossible to reconcile the divine and mundane as expressed in the act bowel emptying. Psychoanalysts directed their gaze inwards, theorized that it is not about God vs. human, but human vs. human; the inability to reconcile the divine and the mundane is the inability to reconcile two paradoxical parts of our nature : the high, cultural, and civilized identity with the low, material, pooping, and decaying animal. We have a "symbolic identity that brings... [us] sharply out of nature," cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker stated, the human being is a "creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about... infinity ...Yet, at the same time," as he puts it ", [that being is ] a worm and food for worms." According to him, the anus represents physical determinism and the fate of all that is physical : decay and death. In this sense, no matter how high the human animal may go, the physical necessity is here as a reminder that we are just that : animals, and we cannot escape physical determinism and decay. "On the highest throne in the world," Renaissance French philosopher Montaigne stated ", man sits on his arse." But this is not necessarily depressing, in fact, this reminder can be exactly what we need, as we will see.




The poop equality

Thinking about poop led us to think about what it means to be human. Are we the civilized, thinking and space-exploring being? Or are we the pooping, decaying animal, inescapably stuck with our deterministic biology? I think we are both. And admitting this later part of ourselves can be humbling and even liberating. After all, we share this physical necessity with every other human being, we share it with most non-human animals as well. Montaigne, when explaining how a king sits on his bottom no matter how high his throne is, was talking about how we are all equal in this respect. The work of Italian artist Cristina Guggeri, showing world leaders in the act of performing their toilet "duty", echoes the same idea. In both, we find an appeal to our animal side as a way to champion equality. So the next time you get angry with your teacher, your boss or anyone of a superior social status, when they treat you unfairly, imagine them in the act of pooping and, I am sure it will give you that sense of equality and even some much-needed humor.


References

  • Milan Kundera : The Unbearable Lightness Of Being.
  • Ernest Becker : The Denial Of Death.
  • Michel de Montaigne : Of Experience.

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