Flatus Vocis: Somatic Winds


Essay first presented at the Uncommon Senses conference, Concordia University, April 2000.

Related project: South Winds.

Published in Aural Cultures, ed. Jim Drobnick, Toronto: YYZ (2004). A revised version of the essay appears in the Sonic Somatic book.

The onomatopoeic fart in Jarry meets the glossolalic pet in Artaud at that “other” end of the mouth-anus axis and give the flatus its voice onto the page. Amplified, it mows down the page like a machine gun, it rips the pages, it breaks open the book with a somatic wind. Flatulence rarely enters the discourse; scatology, its cohabitant offers more substance, more disgust, more metaphors. Flatulence is insubstantial, it does not produce an object, it assaults the ears, it offends the nose and then dissipates. It is a safer excretion, there are no sewers for farts. Yet flatulence contains properties and particularities of interest. As with any undertheorized subject its delimitations are unfocused, they permeate into disparate territories. This essay reflects this effusiveness.

The essay utilizes Artaud as a protagonist in a series of excursions where flatulence is theorized: “the body without organs” and its variant “the body as organ” (Diderot, Loktev, Deleuze & Guattari); the role of wind on temperament (Burton, Gertrude Stein); incontinence/transgression (Erasmus, Elias, Lévi-Strauss, Beckett, Césaire); and somatic immanence (Artaud, Wintz, Merleau-Ponty).

Other contributors: Philip Auslander, Robert Bean, Elmer Birkbeck, Jodi Brooks, Gabor Csepregi, Robert Desjarlais, Dave Dyment, Kevin Ei-ichi deForest, Daniel Fisher, Jennifer Fisher, Wes Folkerth, Raymond Gervais, Ann Hamilton, Susan Hiller, Charles Hirschkind, David Howes, Mary Horlock, Lewis Kaye, Martin Kersels, Georgina Kleege, Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren, Komar and Melamid, Richard Leppert, Christian Marclay, Andra McCartney, William McClelland, Christof Migone, Shirin Neshat, Daniel Olson, Claire Savoie, Peter L. Schmunk, Santiago Sierra, Don Simmons, Sherry Simon, Kim Sooja, Su-Mei Tse.

Pa Pa Pax Pa Pa Pa Pax Pa Pa Pa Pa Pax!
Anonymous, L’Art de péter, 1776 1

… pet, a-mor mor, oc-cu-pet, cu, pet, a-mor oc-cu, semper nos amor occupet.
Alfred Jarry, 1898 2

to petar
e tanta fetura
ta fetura
e fula fetra

ra ta

re de pina

ta petar
ta feta

Antonin Artaud (O.C. XXII, 54) 3

The onomatopoetic fart in Jarry and in L’Art de péter meets the glossolalic pet in Artaud at that “other” end of the mouth-anus axis and give the flatus its voice onto the page. Amplified, it mows down the page like a machine gun, it rips the pages, it breaks open the book with a somatic wind. Flatulence rarely enters the discourse; scatology, its cohabitant offers more substance, more disgust, more metaphors. Flatulence is insubstantial, it does not produce an object, it assaults the ears, it offends the nose and then dissipates. It is a safer excretion, there are no fart sewers. Yet flatulence contains properties and particularities of interest. As with any undertheorized subject its delimitations are unfocused, it permeates into disparate territories. This text will reflect this effusiveness.

The anus enters social discourse via two principal routes: humour and insult. It is a difficult subject to discuss with sobriety, perhaps this is precisely its forte. Freud in his foreword to John Bourke’s infamous Scatalogical Rites of All Nations remarked that “anyone who studies such things is regarded as scarcely less ‘improper’ than someone who actually does improper things.”4 In the case of flatulence, the situation is puzzling, everyone actually does it, but the one who studies it potentially faces the tag of impropriety. This text will not eschew the comic, there will be nudging and winking, but it will also attempt to coalesce this material into a base from which to draw critical observations of how the social body prescribes the flesh body—with Antonin Artaud as lightning rod.

The fanfaron
The body is a noisy place. It emits and transmits, it cannot contain itself, it has no built-in muffler. Its only silencer is willed, and as we shall see later on, to retain a fart is sometimes just as ill advised as to expel it. The orchestral renderings of our innards are rarely appreciated for their musicality. Rather, they are consistently considered as an affront or offense in Western mores. In particular, anything related to the anus brings embarrassment and is frowned upon. Yet, Peter Ostwald, a clinician, found the analogy of the orchestra to be a useful way to account for the body’s sound emissions:

Among the internal organs of the body which make noises, the digestive tract is probably the most musical, a sort of miniature band. The mouth, a kind of trumpet, can hiss, blare and chomp. The esophagus, like a bassoon, produces gulps, burps, and belches, which, when properly timed can produce considerable hilarity. The stomach, akin to a French horn, gurgles, growls, and groans. The intestines, resembling nothing so much as a glockenspiel, tinkle during peristalsis. The trombone-like colon zooms as it leisurely churns away at semisolid gruel. Now and then its noises, especially the sudden high pitched beeps and bloops embarrass the band director. Tuba-like ‘brummps’ indicate the deposit of feces in the rectum in anticipation of the final discharge to the accompaniment of a fanfare of noises.5

A similar but more vindicative formulation is offered by Julia Loktev in her permutation of the famed “Body without Organs.” With Loktev, the BwO becomes “The Body as Organ” and it “is neither a conquest nor a transcendence of the body. It is the pleasure of it. The freeplay of the flesh. […] An ever-mutating improvisational instrument, the Body as Organ is entirely corporeal, finite, and musical.” This body is filled by Loktev to counter the truism found in the audio arts of the voice being disembodied. It would also seem to contradict the Artaudian BwO and more directly the Deleuze & Guattarian interpretation and extrapolation of Artaud’s BwO. The concepts, however, concur for they all posit the body as non-organism. That is, the body without organization, without rigidity, without arborescent structure. Deleuze & Guattari depict the full BwO as “the unproductive, the sterile, the unengendered, the unconsumable”; Loktev describes the body as “chaotic and volatile.” Both versions conceive of the body as potential, as flux, as unbridled. A body primed for flow, in a state “which hesitates between gas and water.”

According to these concepts the body would seem to be indigestible to itself, or perhaps this is precisely the only function it can fulfill. It can digest, but otherwise it remains fully incomprehensible. It can digest, only because in that migration south it accumulates chaos, it amplifies its affective powers, it intoxicates itself—for our discharges are toxic gifts. Joseph Pujol, the legendary Petomane, called his gift “the principle of intoxication.”10 We shall pay attention to Le Petomane in a short while, but of interest here is the correlation between flatulence and intoxication, for the latter is sine qua non with madness. Issues of control, and particularly self-control accompany discussions of flatulence, and also permeate Antonin Artaud’s writings. As a prelude, Diderot in Le Neveu de Rameau offers a salient example which precedes Artaud and amplifies the Ostwald digestive tract orchestra we sounded earlier. This is an encore where the whole body tunes up. Or perhaps detunes would be more fitting, for this orchestra is delirious. Rameau’s nephew is the prototype of a jukebox which has derailed; he is a dj with innumerable turntables and as many arms:

And off he went, walking up and own and humming some of the tunes from L’Île des Fous, […] and now and again he raised his hands and eyes to heaven and exclaimed: Isn’t that beautiful! God, isn’t it beautiful! How can anyone wear a pair of ears on his head and question it?’ He began to warm up and sang, at first softly, then, as he grew more impassioned, he raised his voice and there followed gestures, grimaces and bodily contortions, […] He sang thirty tunes on top of each other and mixed up: Italian, French, tragic, comic, of all sorts and descriptions, sometimes in a bass voice going down to the infernal regions, and sometimes bursting himself in a falsetto voice he would split the heavens asunder, taking off the walks, deportment and gestures of the different singing parts: in turn raging, pacified, imperious, scornful. […] He relents, wails, complains, laughs, never losing sight of tone, proportion, meaning of words and character of music. […] Everything was there: the delicacy of the air and expressive power as well as grief. […] sometimes leaving the vocal line to take up the instrumental parts, which he would suddenly abandon to return to the voice part, intertwining them so as to preserve the connecting link and unity of the whole. […] With cheeks puffed out and a hoarse, dark tone he did the horns and bassoons, a bright, nasal tone for the oboes, quickening his voice with incredible agility for the stringed instruments to which he tried to get the closest approximation; he whistled the recorders and cooed the flutes, shouting, singing and throwing himself about like a mad thing: a one-man show featuring dancers, male and female, singers of both sexes, a whole orchestra, a complete opera-house, dividing himself into twenty stage parts, tearing up and down, stopping, like one possessed, with flashing eyes and foaming mouth. […] What didn’t he do? He wept, laughed, sighed, his gaze was tender, soft or furious: a woman swooning with grief, a poor wretch abandoned in the depth of his despair, a temple rising into view, birds falling silent at eventide, waters murmuring in a cool, solitary place of tumbling in torrents down the mountain side, a thunderstorm, a hurricane, the shrieks of the dying mingled with the howling of the tempest and the crash of thunder; night with its shadows, darkness and silence, for even silence itself can be depicted into sound. By now he was quite beside himself. Knocked up with fatigue, like a man coming out of a deep sleep or long trance, he stood there motionless, dazed, astonished, looking about him and trying to recognize his surroundings. […] ‘Well, gentlemen, what’s up? What are you laughing at?’ […] ‘Now that’s what you call music and a musician.’

Et puis le voilà qui se met à se promener, en murmurant dans son gosier, quelques-uns de ses airs de l’Ile de Fous, […] et de temps en temps, il s’écriait, en levant les mains et les yeux au ciel : Si cela est beau, mordieu! Si cela est beau! Comment peut-on porter à sa tête une paire d’oreilles et faire une pareille question. Il commencait à entrer en passion, et à chanter tout bas. Il élevait le ton, à mesure qu’il se passionnait davantage ; vinrent ensuite, les gestes, les grimaces du visage et les contorsions du corps […] Il entassait et brouillait ensemble trente airs, italiens, francais, tragiques, comiques, de toutes sortes de caractères ; tantôt avec une voix de basse-taille, il descendait jusqu’au enfers ; tantôt s’égosillant, et contrefaisant le fausset, il déchirait le haut des airs, imitant de la démarche, du maintien, du geste, les différents personnages chantant ; successivement furieux, radouci, impérieux, ricaneur. Il s’apaise, il se désole, il se plaint, il rit ; jamais hors de ton, de mesure, du sens des paroles et du caractère de l’air. […] Tout y était. Et la délicatesse du chant, et la force de l’expression ; et la douleur. […] s’il quittait la partie du chant, c’était pour prendre celle des instruments qu’il laissait subitement, pour revenir à la voix ; entrelacant l’une à l’autre, de manière à conserver les liaisons, et l’unité du tout […] Avec des joues renflées et bouffies, et un son rauque et sombre, il rendait les cors et les bassons ; il prenait un son éclatant et nasillard pour les hautbois ; précipitant sa voix avec une rapidité incroyable, pour les instrument à cordes dont il cherchait les sons les plus approchés; il sifflait les petites flûtes ; il recoulait les traversières, criant, chantant, se démenant comme un forcené; faisant lui seul, les danseurs, les danseuses, les chanteurs, les chanteuses, tout un orchestre, tout un théâtre lyrique, et se divisant en vingt rôles divers, courant, s’arrêtant, avec l’air d’un énergumène, étincelant des yeux, écumant de la bouche. […] Que ne lui vis-je pas faire? Il pleurait, il riait, il soupirait; il regardait, ou attendri, ou tranquille, ou furieux; c’était une femme qui se pâme de douleur; c’était un malheureux libré à tout son désespoir; un temple qui s’élève; des oiseaux qui se taisent au soleil couchant; des eaux ou qui murmurent dans un lieu solitaire et frais, ou qui descendent en torrent du haut des montagnes; un orage; une tempête, la plainte de ceux qui vont périr, mêlée au sifflement des vents, au fracas du tonnerre; c’était la nuit, avec ses ténèbres; c’était l’ombre et le silence; car le silence même se peint par des sons. Sa tête était tout à fait perdue. Epuisé de fatigue, tel qu’un homme qui sort d’un profond sommeil ou d’un longue distraction; il resta immobile, stupide, étonné. […] il s’écria dans le premier moment : Eh bien, Messieurs, qu’est-ce qu’il y a ? D’où viennent vos ris et votre surprise? Qu’est-ce qu’il y a? Ensuite il ajouta, voilà ce qu’on doit appeler de la musique et un musicien. 11

The scene deserved to be quoted extensively—delirium is diarrhetic. It overflows, it runs amok and renders every dry space leaky like a sieve. One might qualify the nephew’s madness as orchestral. He is the prototypical ‘one-man band.’ For our purpose, however, this one-man band has not yet tapped into the potential of the body as instrument to add to his array of available sonorities. Towards this, I would like to introduce a renegade instrument to this mad orchestra, one suggested by Loktev and Ostwald: the rectum. As the flute emerging out of the anus of a body in Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights suggests, this organ is both instrument and instrumentalist.12 It plays itself. Artaud succinctly confirms the musicality of that end of the digestive apparatus: “We fart, madmen, have you smelled the p of fa On pète, aliénés, avez-vous senti le p du fa.” (O.C. XXII, 283)

south winds
The euphemism ‘to break wind’ once reversed, alludes to the power of wind; its invisibility does not portend its all-too-visible ravages. Yet the devastation a high wind can reap on objects may be negligible compared to the damage it can cause to our psyche. South winds not only reference the nether region of the body which is our focus here, but also the south end of the Hexagone—more precisely, Marseilles. Birthplace of both Antonin Artaud (1896-1948) and Joseph Pujol (1857-1945), Marseilles is in the path of the infamous Mistral, a wind which “has the ill-natured habit of scattering roof tiles about, knocking down chimneys, blowing small children into canals, [and] tumbling walls onto the unsuspecting natives.”13 Greek geographer Strabo describes the Mistral with similar awe, “an impetuous and terrible wind which displaces rocks, hurls men from their chariots, breaks their limbs and strips them of their clothes and weapons.”14 This brutal wind funnels through the valley of the Rhone bordered by the Alps to then do its damage on the French Riviera.

Lyall Watson concisely states “we are air conditioned,” in other words, we are at the mercy of air’s whims.15 We are under atmospheric pressure. Winds, as integral to climate, color the temperament alongside the myriad exterior forces which condition us: topography, architecture, family, neighbors, schools, economies, etc. Gertrude Stein expresses this in her inimitable manner: “anybody is as their land and air is. Anybody is as the sky is low or high, the air heavy or clear, and anybody is as there is wind or no wind there. It is that which makes them and the arts they make and the work they do and the way they eat and the way they drink and the way they learn and everything.”16 Wind can have soothing properties, even apotropaic effects, as Robert Burton expounds in the Second Partition, Sect.II. Mem.III ofThe Anatomy of Melancholy. Air can rectify, but it can also unhinge. An Englishman, Patrick Brydone in A Tour Through Sicily and Malta (1776) writes of being under the effects of the scirroco in the Neapolitan area, and recounts that when this wind is active “the spring and elasticity of the air seems to be lost; and that active principle which animates all nature appears to be dead. This principle we have sometimes supposed to be nothing else that the subtle electric fluid that the air usually contains; and indeed we have found, that during this wind, it appears to be almost annihilated.”18 Here the author is prescient in his allusion to electromagnetic fields, for recent studies confirm that ionization and sferics have physiological consequences. The electrical charges diffusing at a global level are tempting to correlate to Artaud’s submission to electroshock therapy. Electroshock as a high dosage of windy ions, a highly concentrated spurt of wind.

The wind by itself is the disembodied epitomized, it necessitates the body of the earth to incorporate. Like a voice awaiting its speaker—be it human or electro-magnetic. Wind is 5600 million million tons of air in motion, it is the earth’s breath. The cover to Christian Marclay’s fart audio piece (7” 45rpm “Untitled”) materializes the somatic wind at this scale: one side a cloudy sky, the other a field with furrows and agricultural workers.19 Marclay’s metaphor is explicit: the wind of the fart is fertile, it is earthed air, soiled sky. Evidently, air circulates through every register but the heavenly. In several languages, the word for breath and wind are the same; it is the same air in motion, in constant circulative corporeality. Breath or wind, a mere difference of scale. As Aristophanes states in The Clouds, “Thunder is nothing more than a fart.”20 Madness is perhaps also a question of scale, it is as if Artaud inhaled the Mistral whole. Le Mômo marseillais. His fury is fueled by the Mistral—a force which evacuates all in its path and in its past, “I have no father, no mother, the real and nature are definitions, concepts, which I will no longer enter. I come from the total and absolute NOTHINGNESS of myself Je n’ai ni père ni mère, le réel et la nature sont des définitions, des conceptions, on ne m’y fera plus entrer. Je viens du NÉANT total et absolu de moi-même”(O.C. XV, 338). This absolute is the swallowed infinity of the wind, constantly blowing up the insides. His insides; Artaud’s carnality is measurable only in terms of infinity. André Roumieux followed up his first book, Je travaille à l’asile d’aliénés, with a study on Artaud. In it he notes how, even in his teens, Artaud seemed to breathe the unconditional:

My dear mommy,
Pardon, pardon, I beg of you a guilty son, a repentant heart. Oh! mommy, I love you more than anything, I love you and I am tortured by the remorse at my wrongdoing, I am crazy. I am a monster, but forgive me. What fury compels me to perpetrate such acts.

Ma chère maman,
Pardonne, pardonne je t’en supplie à un fils coupable, à un coeur repentant. Oh! maman, je t’aime plus que tout au monde, je t’aime et le remords de ma faute me torture, je suis fou. Je suis un monstre, mais pardonne. Quelle furie me pousse à accomplir de tels actes. 21

Pujol, le Petomane, also ingested an entire geophysics, in his case it was the Mediterranean. He discovered his gift (of intoxication, as we saw earlier) following an experience he had when bathing—“the sea had come in through his anus.” Once he substituted water with air, and learnt to control his ‘gift’, his career was born. “When the gas comes out with enough force and with a certain degree of tension from the sphincter, noises are produced of intensity, timbre and of great variety. At times these are genuinely musical sounds. Although as it is almost impossible to obtain given notes these turn out to be common chords or, what is more extraordinary, recognizable tunes.” The Body with Organ, indeed. Pujol embodies a particularly interesting reversal of the ingestion to digestion to excretion path. In him “the intestine plays the role of the chest in storing air and the anal sphincter that of the vocal chords, the throat and the mouth.” The body turned upside down. If the anus can sing, then how much closer is it to the sacred and pure? Or is it voice and song that is now sullied? Artaud’s answer to that question elevates flatulence to a science and with it he posits an alternate consciousness:

There is a science of mephitic gases, more commonly known as farts. And a consciousness is based on this science, that is it is born from it. The mephitic gas is a spirit, cultivated by very fine initiates, and it is one of the ways which is learnt by which the most harm is done to life. The madmen ignore this, but in them are some very high (and very perfect) spirits which take advantage of their madness, but what psychiatrist has understood this?

Il y a une science des gaz méphitiques, communément appelés des pets. Et sur cette science une conscience est basée, je veux dire qu’elle en est née. Le gaz méphitique est un esprit, que de très fins initiés cultivent, et c’est l’un des moyens appris par lesquels il est fait le plus de mal à la vie.
Les aliénés n’en savent rien, mais il est en eux de très haut (très parfaits) esprits qui se servent de leur démence, mais quel est le psychiatre qui l’a compris? (O.C. XXII, 305, translation mine)

Le Petomane was doubtlessly unaware of the loftiness his gift could have aspired to. He was of a lineage which confined itself mostly to the frivolous. But it is a lineage which works to undermine the predominance of the mouth as sole site of expression. Here are references to several Petomanes avant la lettre: In 430 A.D. St. Augustine wrote in The City of God, “There are those that can break wind backward so artfully you would think they sang”; Edward I in 1331 granted land to ‘Roland le Fartere’ for “making a leap, a whistle and a fart”; a German at the court of Maximilian (ca. 1500) “could rehearse any song whatsoever with his tail.”25

An arsehole who breathes is one by which the animus can pass. Breath, wind, animal, spirit, life, air, all circulate in this passage. The inclusion of such essential elements alongside, and inside, the anus might be difficult to reconcile with “civilized” mores. Yet the etymology, mythology and history of farts might help one reconsider this difficulty, as Beckett said “we underestimate this little hole, it seems to me, we call it the arsehole and affect to despise it. But is it not rather the true portal of our being and the celebrated mouth no more than the kitchen-door.”26

Flatulence features predominantly in the context of self-control issues. Both Cicero and Plutarch deplored the restraining order that admonished the flatulent. Plutarch asks “Why was it ordained that they who were to live chaste should abstain from pulse? Or rather was it because they should bring empty and slender bodies to their purifications and expiations? For pulse are windy and cause a great deal of excrement that require purging off. Or is it because they excite lechery by reason of their flatulent and windy nature?” Thus flatulence here performs a role in sexual mechanics. There is abundant literature which links flatus with erection and ejaculation. Artaud: “I ejaculate this good for nothing fart j’éjacule ce pet foireux” (O.C. XX, 172, translation mine). In terms of diet, the equation was: food which cause flatulence aid in the production of semen. At the other end of the spectrum, “anaphrodisiacs are foodstuffs that do not engender semen, but dry it and dissolve flatulence.” Flatulence here functions as an engine translating aphrodisiacs (beans figure prominently) into sexual fuel. Of note, this abetment is gender-specific for, as Clement of Alexandria comments, the eating of beans was outlawed because it was purported to make women sterile.

On the other hand, the literature of manners removes explicit references to sex from the equation, and merely seeks to regulate a proper way to digest. It accepts the inevitability of farts, but seeks for means to hide their occurrence—striving for the inaudible and aromatic fart. Erasmus referred to ancient proverbs to make his point: “let a cough hide the sound” and again “Listen to the old maxim about the sound of the wind. If it can be purged without a noise that is best. But it is better that it be emitted with a noise than that it be held back.” The general edict these formulations attempt to frame is one where certain forms of behavior and bodily activities are acceptable in public and certain others should be relegated to the private realm. When bodily functions such as flatulence arise so do the difficulties, for one is not always in command of their flatus. What our bodies do despite ourselves has always been source of anxiety and fascination. Incontinence is a fear on par with madness, in fact often a synonymous fear. We are attracted by these fears as spectacle when exhibited in others and compelled by them when they overcome us. As Guy Scarpetta states “Nothing is more erotically charged than bringing one’s partner to overcome his or her distaste.” One would imagine (and hope) that a statement from the perspective of the subject overcoming this barrier would be even more erotically heightened.

The last paragraph began negating sex and ended permeated by it. Despite the earlier correlation made between flatulence and arousal, an erotics of farts seems to be absent from the common repertoire. Flatulence does not appear in the vocabulary of seduction, as say, oysters might. It is only through a discussion of incontinence and its opposition to retention that flatulence attains a level of discourse beyond the jocular. Flatulence by itself, principally appeals to the puerile imagination. There are several examples, from Benjamin Franklin’s excursions in scurrilous texts; to Howard Stern’s radio fart contests; to the video American Flatulators, a horrendous spoof of American Gladiators (horrendous enough on its own); to Austin Powers and South Park. Farts as gag are by no means undeserving of critical attention, they illustrate a desire to debase, even deprave. The only reservation is that this line of indulgences tends to supersede and thus obscure other threads where the desire might be the same but the tack differs. Pujol’s career is not dissimilar to the above examples, his was not an avant-garde project. Aristocrats and celebrities who attended his show were slumming, and often went incognito. Nevertheless, Pujol’s stint at the Moulin Rouge in the midst of turn-of-the-century Parisian cabaret life made for interesting cross-pollinations. The most unusual to mention here is that in the assemblage of curios one finds in Freud’s consulting room is none other than a picture portrait of Le Petomane.

In La Potière Jalouse, Claude Lévi-Strauss traces an Amerindian creation myth featuring flatulence as protagonist. In the tale’s climax a nightjar blows up a giant rock by the violence of its farts. The rock is shattered into many pieces and this is said to be the origin of all the stones one now sees in the world. Lévi-Strauss contrasts this with the role of the sloth in Central and South American native cosmologies. In the myth, the sloth has never been observed eating, it is thus speculated that the sloth takes its nourishment solely from the air, as it is often seen with mouth agape in the direction of the wind. The corollary of this perceived idleness is that the sloth is reputed to have no anus (the sloth excretes just once every six to eight days). There are all sorts of variants on these myths, but suffice it to say that these are two examples which lead Lévi-Strauss to propose a schema depicting mythology and its relationship to the oral/anal opposition. “[Orifices] can be open or closed, and whether they are in either position they can fulfill three different functions: closed it retains, open it absorbs or evacuates. Thus, six options are possible: oral retention, oral avidity, oral incontinence; and anal retention, anal avidity, anal incontinence.” The schema does complicate the oral/anal binary, but it remains reductive in comparison with the Body without Organs, which is the formulation of the infinite multiple. If one were to retain the Lévi-Strauss structure for a moment, one would note a progression from full control to full lack of control, from retention to avidity to incontinence.

Flatulence consistently figures under the rubric of incontinence. However, the expulsive force of flatulence also translates into instances where flatulence is wielded. The nightjar, for example, exercised its power. French playwright, Valère Novarina also uses flatulence as sign of will: “The gas God produced in farting the world when he produced it, I wonder, if he himself hear it? Le gaz de Dieu fit en pétant le monde quant il le fit, je me demande, si lui-même il l’a entendu?” Presumably this points to a form of incontinence which is particularized by a willingness to be unable to restrain oneself. In other words, a disdain for self-restraint, and a relish for lack thereof. Both Louis Althusser and Aimé Césaire recount virtually identical stories which illustrate this point. Althusser, in his memoir, narrates this episode:

All of a sudden, I noticed my great-grandmother […] standing bolt upright and did not say a word as a loud spurting noise issued from beneath her long black skirt. A clear stream ran past her feet. It took me a while to ‘realize’ that she was peeing standing up […] I was astounded to discover there were women-men, unashamed of their sexuality, who went ahead and pissed in front of everybody, without shame or modesty, and without giving any warning whatsoever!

With Césaire incontinence is featured as a release, an escape which is sought, desired: “this strange crowd which does not pile up, does not mix : agile in discovering the point of dis-insertion, of flight, of escape. This crowd which does not know how to be a crowd, this crowd which we realize […] has the suddenly serious animality of a peasant woman, urinating while standing, legs spread apart, unbending cette étrange foule qui ne s’entasse pas, ne se mêle pas : habile à découvrir le point de désencastration, de fuite, d’esquive. Cette foule qui ne sait pas faire foule, cette foule, on s’en rend compte, […] à l’animalité subitement grave d’une paysanne, urinant debout, les jambes écartées, roides.

alienated gas
Artaud, in the passage espousing the powers of the mephitic gas quoted earlier, also attributed a will to incontinence. In his case he pointed to nefarious spirits as the scientists in control of this new science. The science of incontinence; a science with a learning curve: “To have slept 9 years amongst the noise and smell of the farts of madmen is a unique learning experience that no doctor has ever known Avoir dormi 9 ans dans le bruit et l’odeur des pets de fous est d’un immense enseignement que nul docteur n’a jamais connu.” (O.C. XXII, 101) Artaud was immersed in this greenhouse environment, his body was no barrier to the onslaught. But the greenhouse was already rampant inside Artaud before the asylums: the swallowed Mistral, the suspected hereditary syphilis, the neurasthenic adolescence, the addiction to opiates. He was persecuted on all fronts, from the inside out to the outside in: “I have never ceased to think that more and more I could silence enemy and foreign thinking and swallow it in my interior fire […] Why are beings which are not in me moving inside of me? Je n’ai jamais cessé de penser que je pouvais de plus en plus faire taire la pensée ennemie et étrangère et l’avaler dans mon feu intérieur […] Pourquoi des êtres qui ne sont pas en moi bougent-ils en moi?” (O.C. XXII, 105) A science of possession where the possessor is possessed, where there is infinite retention alongside infinite incontinence. Desire and repulsion fluxing between the two. Artaud’s possession takes the form of an impossibility: he is a bloated body sieve, infinity infinitely passing through. Passing through a negation, or a negation containing all possible negations, “no anatomy, no physiology, no psychology, no physics, no cosmic law, des gris-gris. I am the earth and of the earth […] I love neither the air nor the light, but the infernal night of my ass and of all asses for I am the voluminous assassin, the depth of my being is the volume of my body pas d’anatomie, pas de physiologie, pas de psychologie, pas de physique, pas de loi cosmique, des gris-gris. Je suis la terre et de la terre […] Je n’aime ni l’air ni la lumière mais la nuit infernale de mon cu et de tout cu car je suis le volumineux assassin, le fond de mon être c’est le volume de mon corps.”(O.C. XXII, 308)

One of the concrete manifestations of the voluminous was Artaud’s abundant fecal production (O.C. XXVI, 58). Conversely, Artaud’s passages pertaining to flatulence are not of his own production but are attributed to the generic plural “des aliénés” and the lowercase “dieu.” These passages take the form of invectives tempered with awe: “there is nothing like madmen for farting, I have heard the peyote sorcerers fart but I must say that in this domain they are no match for even the least of the madmen car il n’y a rien comme des aliénés pour péter, j’ai entendu les sorciers du peyotl péter mais je dois dire que dans ce domaine ils n’en savent pas aussi long que le dernier des aliénés” (O.C. XXII, 304) and “While you, god, fart in your clouds, incapable spirits sprung from the tomb of my ass, I flip over the angels’ box in my double cracking grave Pendant que tu [dieu] pètes dans tes nuages, espèce d’incapable esprit, sorti de la tombe de mes fesses, […] je retourne la boîte de l’ange dans mon double tombeau craquant.” (O.C. XX, 170-71). Thus, Artaud was more affected by consistency, by the soil and soiled, by what festered and not by what dissipated. Therefore, he might have concurred with Merleau-Ponty’s line of questioning: “Where to assign the limit of the body and the world, since the world is flesh? Where in the body can one place seeing, since, by all evidence, our body is no more than a ‘darkness stuffed with organs’?”

Again here the extremes of infinitude coincide, the body is synonymous with the world: open, open wide; and the body is also opaque, sealed and stuffed: closed, closed shut. Monique Wintz sets a scene in which these two states enact their paradox, “In his tomb, Antonin grinds his teeth and pierces through earthworms with jabs of his jaw. He is beside himself.” Artaud, posthumously vehement and vociferous. He is beside himself, he is forever. Beside himself, as in sublimated, not in the psychoanalytical sense but in the alchemical sense. His solids have become vapor. He is gas. He is spirit and its negation.

exit wound
A first breath is the condition of possibility of a last breath. The anus as exit figures prominently in death. In a fourteenth-century farce by Le Muynier, a dying man is convinced that the soul leaves the body via the anus at the moment of death. A priest and his wife are upon his side, and as he approaches death they “place him in such a position that if the doctrine of the soul-departure via the anus be true, they may witness the man’s final performance. The phenomenon of rectal flatulence is now observed, when suddenly, to the consternation of the wife and priest, a demon appears and, placing a sack over the dying man’s anus, catches the rectal gas and flies off in sulphurous vapor.” In Marco Ferreri’s 1973 film La Grande Bouffe, Michel (Michel Piccoli) is a TV personality who suffers from a tenesmus of gas. He does manage to expulse a couple of times but he is engaged (with three companions) in a suicide pact by way of gastronomical and sexual excess which for him culminates in one long final double breath —one from the mouth, the other from the anus. In Rabelais’ Pantagruel, we witness another scenario adjoining flatus and death: inhabitants of the “Isle of Winds” die while emitting gases, and their souls leave the body via the rectum. Death by way of the anus is the great leveler, debaser. A folk legend recounted by Rabelais and Molière amongst others, starts with: “This is the court of King Petot, where all are equal.” All equal in face of finitude, the last incontinence.

The death fart is a clear example of how this alternate breathing circuit plays its role as universal leveler. It clears the field, much like a gale sweeping all in its path. Césaire has wind hissing through every nook of his Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, the wind of a return, of change, of leakage, of the night, of the apocalypse,… Winds here causing anaphoric phrases which are endless from the start. The body facing the wind is either obstacle or accomplice. A body incontinent is complicit, it gives in, “and it is not only the mouths who sing, but the hands, the feets, the asses, the sexes, and the creature entire which liquifies [again, alchemical sublimation] in sounds, voice and rhythm.”

Somatic winds are also endless from the start. For they are not all the same, they not only differ according to physiognomy and diet but also in terms of causality. A taxonomy of farts could begin with… there are slowpoke, cauliflower farts; there are thermodynamic and nuclear farts; there are wakeup farts, chocolate farts, elevators of shame farts, open air diffused farts; there are the rectal cancer farts of Artaud; there are the deathbed spirit farts, the blushing farts, the cow farts of planet methane; there are hardcore farts, loitering farts; there are the tiny skinny fart series which fall out like dominoes, the vociferous extroverted farts, the nefarious silent farts, the neverending air sucking farts, the minuscule prelude farts preceding an onslaught; there are the nonsequitor farts, the surprize party farts, the you-might-try-to-hold-me-in-but-I-am-coming-out-anyway farts; there are prank mouth farts, armpit farts, blame-the-neighbor farts, nasty revenge farts, almost angelic farts, innocent farts, cute farts, petite mort farts…

Rameau’s nephew, after his stint as embodied jukebox, advocates for the stage a frenzy to better reflect reality, “we need exclamations, interjections, suspensions, interruptions, affirmations, negations; we call on, we invoke, we shout, we emit, we cry, we laugh heartily.”

To this call I would add: We need incontinence; we fart.

Suddenly the toad’s descending colon thundered, and the nonalimentary bolus of pure fire took its usual path once more toward the pole of the devil Plural.


1. Cited in Orlando de Rudder, Ces mots qui font du bruit : dictionnaire des onomatopées, interjections et autres vocables d’origine onomatopeique ou expressive de la langue française, Paris: JC Lattès, 1998, 253.

2. Alfred Jarry, “Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustroll: A Neo Scientific Novel” in Selected Works of Alfred Jarry, trans. Simon Watson Taylor, eds. Roger Shattuck and Simon Watson Taylor, New York: Grove, 1965 [1898], 217. The onomatopoetia is followed by: “The white-bearded energumen concluded the coprolalic phrase with a throat cry and an obscene contortion.”

3. All quotes from Antonin Artaud found in the Complete Works (French edition by Gallimard) will be referenced within brackets in the text in the usual manner: Oeuvres Complètes (O.C.), volume number, page number. Of note, the last line of the four which immediately follow this quote could be said to make explicit a genealogical link between Artaud and Jarry: “Je hais les incantations,/les psalmodies,/les sorciers,/le décervelage.”

4. John G. Bourke, The Portable Scatalog, ed. Louis K. Kaplan, New York: William Morrow, 1994 [1891], 6. Original title: Scatalogical Rites of All Nations: A Dissertation upon the Employment of Excrementitious Remedial Agents in Religion, Therapeutics, Divination, Witchcraft, Love-Philters, etc., in all Parts of the Globe Based upon Original Notes and Personal Observation and Upon Compilation from over One Thousand Authorities.

5. Peter Ostwald, The Semiotics of Human Sound, The Hague: Mouton, 1973, 28.

6. Julia Loktev, “The Body as Organ” in Musicworks 53, 1992, 42.

7. Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, Capitalism and Schizophrenia, vol.1, trans. Mark Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane, University of Minnesota Press, 1983, 8.

8. Loktev, 40.

9. Artaud in Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, 89, trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale, ed. Constantin V. Boundas, Columbia University Press, 1990, 89.

10. Pujol in Jean Nohain & F. Caradec, Le Petomane 1857-1945, trans. Warren Tute, Los Angeles: Sherbourne Press, 1968, 10.

11. Denis Diderot, Rameau’s Nephew, trans. Leonard Tancock, Penguin, 1966, 102-104. Emphasis mine.
Denis Diderot, Le Neveu de Rameau, Gallimard (Folio), 1972, 105-8. Emphasis mine.

12. For a study of sound in this work by Bosch, Sharon Brooks, “Silent Machines and Tortured Voices: Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights” in Public 4/5: Sound, 1990/91, 151-159.

13. S. Brown in Lyall Watson, Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind, New York: William Morrow, 1984, 36.

14. Strabo in Watson, 36.

15. Watson, 205.

16. Gertrude Stein in Watson, 45.

17. Patrick Brydone in Watson, 278-9.

19. Christian Marclay, Untitled, Greenville, Ohio: Robert Shiffler Collection and Archive, 1996.
Bourke, 91.

21. Artaud in André Roumieux, Artaud et l’asile 1.: Au-delà des murs, la mémoire, Séguier, 1996, 16-7. Translation mine.

22. Nohain & Caradec, 21.

23. Nohain & Caradec, 62.

24. Nohain & Caradec, 63.

25. The first and third examples are from Joseph T. Shipley, The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, John Hopkins University Press, 1984, 310-11. The second example is from Suzanne R. Westfall, Patrons and Performance: Early Tudor Revels, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, 91.

26. Samuel Beckett, “Molloy” in Three Novels: Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, trans. Patrick Bowles in collaboration with the author, New York: Grove Press, 1991, 80.

27. Plutarch in Bourke, 90-1.

28. Constantine the African in the entry under ‘flatulence’ in Gordon Williams, A Dictionary of Sexual Language and Imagery in Shakespearean and Stuart Literature, London: Athlone Press, 1994.

29. ibid.

30. Both quotes by Erasmus in Norbert Elias, The Civilization Process: The History of Manners and State Formation and Civilization, Oxford: Blackwell, 1994 [1939], 106.

31. Guy Scarpetta, “Variations” in Traverses 37: le dégoût, 27.

32. from video documentary by Igor Vamos, Le Petomane: Fin-de-siècle Fartiste (1998).

33. Claude Lévi-Strauss, La Potière Jalouse, Plon, 1985, 89. “L’opposition oral/anal intéresse des orifices corporels. Ceux-ci peuvent être ouverts ou fermés, et selon qu’ils se trouvent dans l’un ou l’autre état ils sont aptes à remplir trois fonctions différentes : fermés, ils retiennent; ouverts, ils absorbent ou ils évacuent. D’où un tableau à six communications : rétention orale, avidité orale, incontinence orale; et rétention anale, avidité anale, incontinence anale.”

34. Lévi-Strauss, 123-4.

35. Lévi-Strauss, 96.

36. Valère Novarina, L’Inquiétude: adaptation pour la scène du Discours aux animaux, P.O.L., 1993, 8. Translation mine.

37. Louis Althusser, The Future Lasts Forever, trans. Richard Veasy, eds. Olivier Corpet and Yann Moulier Boutang, New York: The New Press, 1992, 74.

Aimé Césaire, Cahier d’un retour au pays natal, Présence Africaine, 1983 [1939], 9-10.

38. Roumieux, 18-19. The author here does leave this open for speculation as he acknowledges that this diagnosis appears all too frequently in the period. In this early case, as in subsequent diagnosis, the treatment that Artaud was prescribed had no curative effect and often caused more damage. In this particular case, the mercury iodine injections he was given permanently damaged his dentition.

39. Merleau-Ponty in Jacques Garelli, Artaud et la question du lieu: Essai sur le théâtre et la poésie d’Artaud, Librairie José Corti, 1982, 128. “Où mettre la limite du corps et du monde, puisque le monde est chair ? Où mettre dans le corps le voyant, puisque, de tout évidence, il n’y a dans le corps que des ‘ténèbres bourrées d’organes’ […]?”

40. Monique Wintz, “Antonin le sublimé” in Recherches 36: Déraisonnances, 1979, 136. “Dans sa tombe, Antonin grince des dents et tronçonne les vers de terre à coup de mâchoires. Il est hors de lui.”

41. Bourke, 151.

42. Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky, Indiana University Press, 1984, 151n6.
Bakhtin, 264n41.

44. Césaire, 14. “Et ce ne sont pas seulement les bouches qui chantent, mais les mains, mais les pieds, mais les fesses, mais les sexes, et la créature tout entière qui se liquéfie en sons, voix et rythme.”
l wrote the initial list in French, as the translation is not meant to be exact, I am including the original here.
les pets : il y en a des lents, des choux-fleurs; il y en a des thermodynamiques et nucléaires; il y en a ceux du réveil, ceux du post gourmet chocolat, ceux des ascenseurs qui descendent, ceux du plein air qui disparaisse aussitôt, ceux d’Artaud qui avait le cancer au cul, ceux du moment de mort qui évacue l’esprit, ceux qui font rougir, sont des vaches qui font mugir et surcharge la planète de gaz; il y en a des purs, des durs, des retardataires, ceux en séries petits minces qui s’enclenchent comme des dominos, des vociféroces, des silencieusement néfastes, des interminables qui vous vide de tout air, des minuscules qui annoncent pire, des pets-surprises, des retenus qui éclates malgré tout, des vilains, des presque angéliques, des innocents, des charmants, …

45. Diderot, 109. “Il nous faut des exclamations, des interjections, des suspensions, des interruptions, des affirmations, des négations; nous appelons, nous invoquons, nous crions, nous émissons, nous pleurons, nous rions franchement.”

46. Jarry, 219.