On Farting: Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages Valerie Allen

1488073“So encompassing an animate presence has air that we find ourselves never alone, even though no one else is around. In a world where we guard jealously our personal space from invasions by other bodies, pongs, and sneezed microbes, this companionable air attends us continually, sustains us in breath, and makes a community of one. Creaturely in itself, the air rearranges subject/object relations as a continuum, and causes our selfhood to expand and contract with the elements” (37).

“Galen’s description of bodily waste as an ‘alien load’ demonstrates how even before one’s shit and farts put into question the relation between self and one’s neighbor, they have already rendered one’s own bodily product a stranger, already changed identity into difference and made an object out of a subject” (46).

“Continuous and without boundary, odor throws into disarray the lines of space and decorum between selfhood and otherness, lines that seem self-evident and indisputable to eyes that can see only two separate bodies” (43)

A rebuke to Charlotte Allen’s infamous scorn for the interest in scatology at the 2008 Kzoo, a rebuke to the refusal of laughter (which Allen “reinscribe[s] … at the center of an epistemological relationship with the world that allows neither any safe distance between subject and object nor the collapse of distances between them” (5)), Valerie Allen’s expansive, capacious, frequently hilarious study shows what we can do with a fart. The quotations above should at least hint at what V. Allen offers phenomenologically minded thinkers. Touching (like Mr Hanky: begin at 8m please) on everything, Allen concentrates, naturally, on the Miller’s, Summoner’s, and Canon Yeoman’s Tale, on Malaconda’s butttrumpet, on Rabelais, but she also works through land tenure records, fabliaux and farces (of course), chronicle, political treatises, doctrinal anthologies, and the sound transformation rules by which we realize the link between the French pet and the English fart, which perhaps even takes us back to the Latin patior, whose deponent status reminds us, at least in this context, of nothing so much as the English “to smell,” which is at once active (I smell something) and passive (I smell of something).

I would have liked to have seen more attention to medieval sensory science, where seeing is a form of touching and of being touched, and I would have liked to have seen more attention to the erotics of the anus, but, with such loving attention to La Farce du Pet, to Roland, who paid for his land tenure with a simultaneous whistle, jump, and fart, and to teasing out farts in so many places–earthquakes, erections, and tragic recognition (which is a kind of explosion of the self)–to complain strikes me as asking to be overfed.