Incontinence

This is a line from Catch-22, from Yossarian’s critique of God: “What in the world was running through that warped, evil, scatological mind of His when He robbed old people of the power to control their bowel movements?”

Certainly incontinence is objectively bad, insofar as any loss of ability is bad, but Yossarian is persuasive here in his argument precisely because incontinence seems particularly bad. It is a humiliation. Surely it is a coup of superfluous cruelty for God, or nature, to rig it so that the old soil themselves.

yydino

Not literally “always.”

My reply to indignant humanity is, as Kipling would say, “only thyself hath afflicted thee.” This is always the answer; it is always our fault.

Pooping yourself is inconvenient, because feces is poisonous and can get everywhere. But most of the cruelty of fecal incontinence is based on societal taboos. Soiled pants are mortifying because we made them mortifying. God or nature robbed the old of the power to control their bowel movements, but it is Yossarian himself and the rest of hit culture that made this fact “warped” and “evil” (“scatological,” in Yossarian’s sentence, is merely redundant).

If we did not decide to consider incontinence humiliating, it would be still be worse than the inability to read without glasses, but not as bad as the inability to eat without an IV. In fact, I would say that we are looking at things backwards: old people are not humiliated by incontinence; rather we chose to consider incontinence humiliating because it happens to old people (and infants, to classes we have traditionally not been keen on flattering). That may be going too far.

Luis Buñuel, in The Phantom of Liberty, depicts a society in which people gather around a table to defecate together. Then one of them excuses himself to skulk into a little room and, yyphantlib.pngembarrassed, eats a furtive meal.

The scene is funny, like most of The Phantom of Liberty, but it’s not quite a puncturing of arbitrary bourgeois values (as I assume it’s supposed to be). We don’t isolate bathrooms arbitrarily; we isolate them because they breed disease. We eat together because eating, unlike pooping, can take advantage of “economies of scale,” such that preparing a meal for three, say, is not three times as difficult as preparing one meal. I have never found defecation to share in this virtue.

But Buñuel is correct in pointing out that being ashamed of the bathroom is an arbitrary bourgeois value.

Every once in a while I have the stray thought, “I could almost affirm the world if it weren’t for all the ugliness and bad taste” — when the ability to perceive ugliness and bad taste is something happening completely in the eye of the beholder. What I am really saying is that I could affirm the world if I had not chosen to see it a certain way.

What a marvelous world this would be if the old didn’t soil themselves, or if they did and yet I didn’t care!

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2 comments

  1. Notington Tinfoilhatter · · Reply

    On the upside — it seems as though we drop those taboos once they begin to inflict (what we expect to be permanent) harm to our self-conception:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2796797/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This study is very interesting, but I can assure you that self-conception, as hard as I’ve tried, does not work.

      Like

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