Rants from the Hill: Such Sweet Sorrow

An Airy Meditation on Flatulence and Independence.

 

Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

One of the best reasons to celebrate Independence Day is that it reminds us to ask anew what it means to be truly free. This question is especially important for Westerners, since our region has so often been viewed as the nation’s symbolic repository of liberty. In the American cultural imagination, to head west has meant to journey out into unfettered country, into a landscape where individuality trumps social convention. Among the many signs of freedom and independence in the Intermountain West, I’d count our intense individualism, the fierce beauty of our public lands, and our disdain for repressive social constraints. And no social constraint is more repressive than the widespread public prohibition against flatulence. That is why, as a small celebration of independence, I offer this Rant in defense of the fart.

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Political humor, in flatulent form, from 1798.

Farting has long been associated with freedom from societal constraint, which is why flatulence is so often associated with humor, another form of attack on institutional authority and social conformity. In fact, it has recently been discovered that the oldest joke in recorded history, which appears in cuneiform script on a Sumerian tablet dated to 1900 BCE, is a fart joke. We’ve been writing fart jokes for at least four thousand years, and there’s no telling how long backdoor breezes have been blowing in the humor of oral traditions from around the globe.

Classical literature is rich with flatulence humor. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the final line of Inferno chapter 21 reads: ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta. Translation: “And he used his butt as a trumpet.” In Chaucer’s “The Miller’s Tale,” the poor student, Nicholas, blows a bean before the parish clerk, Absalom. (Urban Dictionary lists 261 synonyms for fart; I’m taking pains to use as many as I can in this Rant.) Chaucer writes that Nicholas “let fly a fart as loud as it had been a thunder-clap, and well-nigh blinded Absalom, poor chap.” And it’s easier to find a Shakespeare play that features a fart joke than to locate one that doesn’t. Act three of The Comedy of Errors contains my favorite of these Elizabethan breeches burners: “A man may break a word with you, sir; and words are but wind; Ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind.” In other words, better to break a promise than to break wind. In the Arabian Nights’ “Tale of Abu Hassan” a man flees in embarrassment after letting rip a fog slicer during his wedding. He returns from his self-imposed exile a decade later to discover that his vaporous transgression has become so famous that it’s being used to date events in the recent history of the country. “Verily my fart has become a date!” the man exclaims. “It shall be remembered forever!” 

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This title page of “The Benefit of Farting, Explain’d” (1722), attributed to Jonathan Swift, is loaded with double-entendre F-bombs.
Eighteenth-Century Collections Online

There has also been plenty of comic celebration of gas on this side of the pond. The greatest of American poot humorists is Benjamin Franklin, whose wonderful open letter “To the Royal Academy of Farting” suggests wryly that the discovery of a means to convert flatulence into something more pleasing would represent a monumental contribution of science to humanity. In Moby-Dick, Melville gets to the fart jokes in the novel’s opening chapter, where Ishmael explains: “I always go to sea as a common sailor, because of the wholesome exercise and pure air of the forecastle deck. For as in this world, head winds are far more prevalent than winds from astern (that is, if you never violate the Pythagorean maxim).” Ishmael here refers not to the Pythagorean Theorem you vaguely remember from eighth-grade math class, but rather to the Pythagorean maxim, which is the injunction to avoid eating beans because they invariably fire up the trouser trumpet.

It is exactly this Pythagorean flatuphobia that Edward Abbey, the patron saint of environmental humorists and desert rats, denounces in the work of Henry David Thoreau. In “Down the River with Henry Thoreau,” Cactus Ed first describes his own breakfast, then pivots to an incisive critique of Thoreau’s take on food and farting:

Scrambled eggs, bacon, green chiles for breakfast, with hot salsa, toasted tortillas, and leftover baked potatoes sliced and fried. A gallon or two of coffee, tea and—for me—the usual breakfast beer. Henry would not have approved of this gourmandising. To hell with him. I do not approve of his fastidious puritanism . . . . Thoreau recommends a diet of raw fruits and vegetables; like a Pythagorean, he finds even beans impure, since the flatulence that beans induce disturbs his more ethereal meditations. (He would not agree with most men that “farting is such sweet sorrow.”) 

In referencing flatulence in this comic send up of a romantic line from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Ed Abbey invokes the material reality of the body to simultaneously challenge Thoreau and parody Shakespeare—no small accomplishment. Abbey knows not only that farts are funny, but also why. Flatulence has been a staple of literary comedy for millennia because of the remarkable power of a fart to explode human pretensions. And that is why we humorists keep comic farts in the neighborhood of high culture—because a healthy bull snort is an attack upon oppressive cultural authority and a powerful assertion of freedom and independence.

If the literary history of flatulence is distinguished, the natural history of farting is enthralling. Fart gas is composed of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and, for only about a third of us, methane—as well as small amounts of the mercaptans and hydrogen sulfide that give butt burps their notorious smell. When we squeak one out, the vapor we release is produced by the air we gulp, gas diffused into our intestines from our bloodstream, and, most importantly, gas produced by the bacteria that inhabit our intestines and digest much of our food for us. In this sense every fanny bleat is the product of an amazing symbiotic, interspecies collaboration without which we could not survive. The poet Galway Kinnell offered the scatological insight that “Those who don’t poop, don’t live, but those who do do do do do.” (That’s a paraphrase.) The same might be said of flatulence. As a mammal, every one of us is living a Fart or Die existence.

You heard me right, all mammals fart. From packrats to mountain lions to whales. Turtles have exceptionally fetid farts. Termites are prodigious farters. Some herpetologists can locate snakes by the unique stench of their farts. But among mammals farting is absolutely universal. Have you ever scanned the boggling diversity of the class Mammalia, that vast clade of endothermic amniotes, and wondered what unites us all? Well, I can tell you. It is the expulsion of intestinal gas through the anus. If you’re a mammal, you’re in the Guild of Flatus. You fart.

And if you’re a human mammal you fart a lot. On average, we produce a half liter of gas each day; scientific consensus puts the average daily numerical fart count at 14. And, ladies, don’t blame guys like me for peeling the paint. Although we men generally expel a greater volume of gas than you do, your flatulence has a higher concentration of the most odoriferous gases, so it all evens out in the end, so to speak. 

The impressive frequency of human intestinal gas release—not to mention its telltale acoustic and olfactory potency—is obviously at odds with widespread social prohibitions against public farting. Never mind burning rubber in church or freeping during your own nuptials. Pretty much any gas expulsion—even popping a wee fluffy—is seen as rude in almost all social situations. So much so, in fact, that public farting leads to a difficulty known as “the problem of attribution.” In a cowardly attempt to shift the blame we pin our poofs on the dog, or even poor old grannie. We cough or scrape a chair leg to disguise the sound; we sidle away from the scene of the crime to flee responsibility for the stench. The problem of attribution has led to myriad—and for some reason always rhyming—fart blaming phrases. We all know “He/she who smelt it dealt it,” but I prefer “he who deduced it produced it.” If I’m in a casual mood I go with “the smeller’s the feller.” When I’m feeling intellectual I opt instead for “he who inculpated promulgated.” Of course there are also a variety of witty rejoinders to this kind of fart blaming. I’m partial to “whoever rhymed it crimed it.” 

When our first daughter, Hannah, came of age for instruction in basic social etiquette, we taught her to say “excuse me” whenever she produced a benchwarmer. But she didn’t understand what we grownups know, which is that you say “excuse me” only once the cat is out of the bag. If you fart silently and can get away with it, then all etiquette bets are off. Not knowing this unwritten protocol, Hannah went around saying “excuse me” aloud all the time, which, because her flatulence was so quiet and inoffensive, was usually a mystery to other folks, who politely ignored her. One day, however, my sister-in-law, Kate, asked in reply to one of Hannah’s requests for pardon, “Excuse you? What for, honey?” “I tooted, Auntie,” she replied, without a touch of shame or guilt. 

Kate’s husband Adam, my brother-in-law, was so surprised by the frequency of Hannah’s entreaties for forgiveness and so impressed with her unabashed candor that he suggested to Kate the brilliant idea that for a single week the two of them try the experiment of asking each other for forgiveness every time they did the one-cheek-sneak, whether detectible by others or not. Adam specified that this obligation would remain in force whether they were together or apart. Always a gamer, Kate readily agreed, and an oath was sworn. During the ensuing week there was a slew of gaseous emissions and admissions, the latter of which were duly confessed in person, by phone or email, or in text messages that read only “excuse me.” It was a long week, and that is because Kate and Adam had to beg forgiveness for something on the order of 200 farts. After all, if it weren’t for checking text messages, flatulating would be the thing we do most often in a day. Adam and Kate learned by experience what every gastroenterologist knows: we vent a lot of steamers, and it is not only normal but in fact imperative that we do so. Farts are an inevitable byproduct of our humanity.

Our social mores deem it perfectly acceptable for a person to take out a paper-thin tissue and publicly blow mucus out of their face holes. When we sneeze, which is far grosser because the mucus is being propelled at almost 100 miles per hour and can have a spray radius of up to five feet, people actually bless us. Why, if I am blessed for publicly detonating a high-speed snot shower, must I beg pardon for farting, as if it were a crime? So ingrained in the culture is this shame and embarrassment that it has given rise to “flatulence underwear,” the best-known brand of which is actually called Fartypants. The webpage advertising this $40 product reads as follows: “Harnessing the same technology found in chemical warfare suits, these powerful pants are capable of stopping smells 200 times stronger than the average fart.”

So here’s the question with which I conclude my windy sermon. Why do we allow a little backdraft to send us reeling off into repression and humiliation, into the buying of underwear made to withstand mustard gas? Why are we obliged to be ashamed of this fine reminder of the astonishing interspecies collaboration that is the human body, this small but important thing we have in common not only with each other but with kings and popes, and with every fellow mammal from aardvark to zebra? 

Benjamin Franklin's treatise on farting.

Thankfully, the emancipatory solitude of the Ranting Hill allows me the liberty to fart loudly, though I still find it impossible to do what Benjamin Franklin advised, which is, when in public, to “fart proudly.” If Uncle Ben were alive today, he’d blast his butt bugle and then fist-bump everybody around. I know better than to take his advice on this one, so when I’m in town I begrudgingly conform to socially enforced fart suppression. But as a desert rat and a grateful denizen of these high, dry wilds, I’ve learned to appreciate that the sound of a ripper is still a small anthem to freedom and independence.