I can still recall thinking that if Wharhol had signed it, it would have been a PostMo work of art. At that time, I was a college student coming back from the movies on some Wednesday night when the unexpected assaulted me as a wild lion, as a savage anagnorisis at the end of a Greek tragedy. As we walked along the street and discussed the film trying to sound smart, I bore witness of what I still consider one of the most representative acts of human cowardice. It was one of those images that give a full meaning to the notion of fascination, which cannot be totally described as an experience; a vision of the unutterable since it already expressed all that could be said about itself. Wittgenstein would say that what cannot be said must be silenced, yet I would like to try, attempt at least a description, if not an interpretation of that sublime.
There, on the ground, right opposite me, challenging me to understand it in its stasis, there it was. It was a huge, soft, light brown, cream-cake like, arrogant shit standing untrodden on the middle of the street with. . . Oh!—could it be true?—a firecracker stuck on it in the fashion of a birthday candle! A vertiginous series of linked metaphors leading to allegorical conclusions burst into my head like a spring fountain. And lots, lots of unanswered questions. Whose shit? Why, when on the middle of the street? Why the firecracker? Same person? Why not light it? No matches or too dangerous? And there stood the answer, a three-dimensional silent signature, a Someone-Was-Here ontological statement that transcended its own (e)sc(h)atological reference by far. A sculpted graffiti exposed on the ground; shit on concrete, suspense added by the latent threat of the firecracker.
A Shrine to Shit
This was certainly a remarkable vision with no little transcendental implications and statistically scarce possibilities to ever occur again. Yet, there must be something of this fleeting unutterability that pertains not to the particular circumstance of that performance, but to the essential mysticism at the core of the experience. I mean shit, of course. One only has to read M. Bakhtin on the grotesque (or Freud on the Unconscious) to realize that there is something mystical in the human experience of shit that mesmerizes us. And yet, there are ways, though partial and insufficient, to the transmission of or reflection about such experience.
As if it were a pagan religion or heretic deviation, the cult of shit has produced its own commandments (Thou shall not throw your sanitary towel/tampon/condom to the toilet), rituals (hand washing and lipsticking) and shrines that all of us respect and even worship in secret like Jews rejecting their erratic destiny. First, shit is the taboo word that must be silenced—like Yahweh’s name—but is continuously invoked—like Satan’s. We daily bend our knees to its worship (though not to kneel down, but to sit). Instead of publicly having communion with the rest of a congregation, we expulse residual substances in private. We walk in procession to the toilet and meditate about our lives within it, we read cryptic texts on shampoo labels, and concentrate on our inner self as it circulates towards its final exit.
Private Confessions of a Public Goer
But the toilet, as the shrine of shit, must be analysed in its double variant; the private and the public one. For the private toilet, like a homemade altar, is less official, more domestic, lax, less mysterious and fascinating than the open temple of shit that is the public toilet. In the private toilet, for instance, you have private, intimate, individual, safe, manual or digital sex with no other purpose than the suicidal end of barren orgasm, whereas in the public one, you always have sex in company, either dual or orgiastic, before or after dinner, with or without other substances, but always dangerous, voyeuristic, exhibitionist, erotic, difficult sex. The private toilet is the family toilet, whereas the public one is the social one, where the social pact is signed that you will always pull the chain (no matter how many criminals might break that rule).
The cult of shit adapts to the circumstances and facilities of different cultures and social strata. There is for instance, the simple Zen public toilet that can be found in Morocco, where you can practise your shot at a hole in the ground, or the richly adorned pseudo-public toilet of a Paris four-star hotel, where—like in a Catholic cathedral—you often admire the decoration more than the service. There is the Olympic public toilet like the one I found in a disco in Seville, with swimming pool, water skiing, and obstacle race combined in the pre- and post-peeing practices. Or the forever heard about—but never really used—Australian toilet with its water circling on the opposite direction. The water within US toilets is so high that shit can touch it before leaving your body and when you pull the chain, the whole brownish mixture bursts threateningly up before it is definitely swallowed by a sudden gurgling.
Time for Reading
But most of all, I prefer library toilets; and I do not mean toilets within libraries, but those toilets that include so much literature on their walls that can be shamelessly classified as libraries. The owners/administrators of these toilets must doubtlessly be radical environmentalists since there is a systematic shortness of toilet paper—an obvious paradox in a library toilet—in them. Their literature can be organised by subject—never by author, since it is usually anonymous—or date (usually included at the end of each individual piece). Thus, you can read existentialist philosophy (“Adam was here”), dialogical pieces asking for impartial advice—a doubtless precursor of online chats—(“My boyfriend wants to make it but I’m not ready yet/He will wait if he really loves you”), telephone guides and sexy ads (often combined to play a dirty joke on some ex-girlfriend), popular poetry of poorest quality but doubtless ethical use (“If you cry because you cannot see the sun, your tears will not let you see the stars”), and a long etcetera as diverse as contributors and inspiration can be.
On the other hand, what could be classified as unlettered toilets (those where literature is pitilessly washed off or—even worse—never written) do always have toilet paper that is mysteriously white and forever wanting its definitive deflowering. Of course, civilised public toilets-for-tourists in Turkish restaurants include paper protection against the anonymous aggression of previous users (a device you only notice once you have already used the toilet unprotected). Unlettered toilets do only include polite, normative literature (never handwritten, like lettered ones) that is not always as cold as you would expect, like “Consider I have to wash this toilet and be merciful,” or “We remind you that we have toilets at your disposal, so we pray you not use the showers.”
And finally, all toilets without distinction, are at least gender segregated and homophobic, and most of the times, also insultingly sexist. How long will institutions try to prevent heterosexual relationships by gender segregating toilets? How long will the same institutions hypocritically ignore the fact that gay and lesbian relationships do occur in public gender-segregated toilets?—not that I am particularly against the latter, but being a heterosexual woman, I just claim for the same rights! And then, isn’t this liberty ideologically contradictory with prohibiting transsexuals’ access to toilets whose sign on the door they can perfectly identify with? Or, why aren’t there facilities for nappy change in men’s toilets? Why are there thong vending machines in women’s toilets whereas you only have condom ones in men’s? And why should you have camphor in men’s toilets (and not in women’s) if men are better endowed with means to control the direction of their pee than women?
Compared to the everyday complexity of this Toiletology, the simplicity of my vision in the street gains in mystical grandeur as time alienates the current me from my past experience. Sometimes I wonder if it was really as obscene as I recall it and then I consider the firecracker with both its ends—the debased, soaked, inserted one and its free, proud, dry and challenging antagonist—and I guess it was. However, like the fable of the freezing mouse whose life was saved by the sudden falling of a warm bullshit only to be later rescued from the same hardened shit by a cat that eventually devoured it, the moral of these reflections is ambiguous enough not to fall into Manichaean distinctions. Yet I hope they were at least, pleasing to read.