- The Excremental Sublime: The Postmodern Literature of Blockage and Release
Once a famous Hellenic philosopher, [Aesop’s] master in the dark days of his enslaved youth, had asked him why it was, when we shat, we so often turned around to examine our own turds, and he’d told that great sage the story of the king’s loose-living son who one day, purging his belly, passed his own wits, inducing a like fear in all men since. “But you don’t have to worry, sire,” he added, “you’ve no wit to shit.” Well, cost him a beating, but it was worth it, even if it was all a lie. For the real reason we look back of course is to gaze for a moment in awe and wonder at what we’ve made—it’s the closest we ever come to being at one with the gods.
Now what he reads in this analecta of turds is rampant disharmony and anxiety: it’s almost suffocating. Boundaries are breaking down: eagles are shitting with serpents, monkeys with dolphins, kites with horses, fleas with crayfish, it’s as though there were some mad violent effort here to link the unlinkable, cross impossible abysses. And there’s some dejecta he’s not sure he even recognizes. That foul mound could be the movement of a hippogriff, for example, this slime that of a basilisk or a harpy. His own bowels, convulsed by all this ripe disorder, feel suddenly with a plunging weight, as though heart, hump, and all might have just descended there: he squats hastily, breeches down (well, Zeus sent Modesty in through the asshole, so may she exit there as well), to leave his own urgent message on the forest floor.—Robert Coover, “Aesop’s Forest”
For this relief much thanks...—Hamlet, I: i, 8
Dedicatory Epistle to the Reader
The paper hereby presented is, properly speaking, a treatise on evacuation. As such, its ideal location would be between Dominique Laporte’s Histoire de la merde and Pietro Manzoni’s Merde d’artista—works, in other words, secretly dedicated to friendly souls, or, as in this case, to the logorrheic interpreter of postmodernity. The author, but a humble hack, aims at the scholastic fame of having been able, if not to tap, at least to indicate a peculiar gap in postmodern criticism: for it appeared astounding to him that, among so many postmodernisms—“John Barth’s postmodernism, the literature of replenishment; Charles Newman’s postmodernism, the literature of inflationary economy; Jean-Francois Lyotard’s postmodernism, a general condition of knowledge in the contemporary informational regime; Ihab Hassan’s postmodernism, a stage on the road to the spiritual unification of humankind...” (McHale 4)—the one concerned with the sublimity of evacuation had been so absolutely neglected.
To single out a certain sense of the sublime in contemporary literature, it is mandatory to impose severe limitations on and some critical selecting of the otherwise too heterogeneous material at hand. First, this research will be limited to North American fiction. Second, the investigation will focus on one particular theme that seems to have grieved American literature since the fifties—a theme that goes under the name of “the crisis of consciousness.”1 What is intended here by “critical selecting” is that pre-Kantian form of judgement that constitutes the essence and very nature of the author’s critical method: “I like it, or I don’t.” On this basis, I have not the least intention to encompass within this reading the “fast-food fictions” (Pfeil 2) and minimalist melancholies of Jay McInerney or Susan Minot. They do not “fit,” and, moreover, they get on my nerves.
Of this critical scheme, the author is ready to admit that it is what nowadays seems to be the object of ridicule and scorn: it is, no doubt, a dogmatic scheme. It begins with an assumption about what contemporary American literature might be, and therefore it handles exclusively those works which “fit” into the scheme. In defense of this method, the author can only mention the innocence with which he is trying not to impose his assumption on any work.