(An excerpt from an ongoing essay that will not be in the stage show)

We are profoundly ashamed by our bodily urges; acknowledgment of them is seen as perverse and suppression is seen as natural. While this affliction runs deeper in some of us than others, it is questionable whether any of us are free of it. Are we hardwired for this alienation?

First, we must recognize that some sense of estrangement from the body has probably been a feature of our species since the earliest development of language first permitted self-conscious thought. We identify our “selves”—our “egos”—with our voluble minds; we tend to see our bodies as dumb servants or mere vehicles.

Sigmund Freud speculated that the mind/body dichotomy began even earlier, at the stage when our primordial ancestors first stood upright. He reasoned that the horizontal orientation of animals’ bodies leave the sense organs of their faces at the same level as their fellow animals’ buttocks and sex organs, and so, all of those organs are equally familiar. (Of course, this is easily verified by observing any two dogs greet one another.) In contrast, our vertical posture creates a hierarchy in which the lofty executive mind literally looks down upon the lower “animal” functions and feels superior.

As servants, however, our bodies leave much to be desired. Even when in good health, they constantly nag our busy minds with itches, urges, twitches, and vexing somatic pains. Much of our minds’ attention must be devoted to keeping our vulnerable bodies out of harm’s way, and even worse, to tedious employments and regimens to provide for their needs. Yet, despite our best efforts, our bodies inevitably fail us: they plague us with periodic disease, traumas, and progressive debility almost inexorably leading to agony in our last rupture, and then, hideous decomposition. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, from 240 BCE, related that “When the life-force has departed… the bones crumble into a helpless mass and the flesh turns into fetid liquid.”

Perhaps so many people are disgusted by bodily effluvia because they recognize in these viscous substances the semblance of the ultimate dissolution of our bodies. Jean-Paul Sartre saw the viscous as a symbol of the formless void that underlies all existence, referring to a pervasive “Nausea” that “spreads at the bottom of the viscous puddle, at the bottom of our time—”

It might be argued that some effluvia are inherently offensive because of their intense odors, but this may be countered with the observation that our four-legged friends (and some people, too) receive these with great gusto. It once seemed possible to merely invoke human superiority to justify our prejudices, but now that we’ve made such a mess of our entire planetary ecosystem, can anyone take such a position seriously?

The pleasures of bodily discharge are threatening to some because, on a subconscious level, they are felt to diminish the self. The second century theologian Tertullian asked: “In that last breaking wave of delight, do we not feel something of our very soul go out from us?” [De Anima, 27.5] In a similar vein, the French often refer to orgasm as “la petite mort”—the small death. And, of course, Freud traced the compulsion for orderliness and control to the sublimated desire for excretory retention.

The issue of control brings up another significant failing of our bodies: no degree of epicurean contrivance or expense can guarantee sensual gratification. The reformed rake St. Augustine lamented:

“At times, without intention, the body stirs on its own, insistent. At other times, it leaves a straining lover in the lurch, and while desire sizzles in the imagination, it is frozen in the flesh; so that, strange to say, even when procreation is not at issue, just self-indulgence, desire cannot even rally to desire’s help—the force that normally wrestles against reason’s control is pitted against itself, and an aroused imagination gets no reciprocal arousal from the flesh.”—City of God, 14.17.

Analogous statements could be made for all other manners of corporeal gratification. We’ve all suffered frustrations from poor appetite, insomnia, constipation, and the like.

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker recently observed that excretions “have such an emotional charge that they figure prominently in voodoo, sorcery, and other kinds of sympathetic magic in many of the world’s cultures.” He cited linguists Keith Allan and Kate Burridge as noting that the unacceptability “of eliminating these substances from the body in public” correlates with the degree of unacceptability of the slang terms used to denote them: “shit is less acceptable than piss, which in turn is less acceptable than fart, which is less acceptable than snot, which is less acceptable than spit.” Moreover, Pinker conjectured that this same order correlates with the capacities of these products to spread dangerous pathogens. However, sociologist Norbert Elias, in his classic 1939 study, The Civilizing Process, belied such an explanation of the disgust reaction:

“It is well to establish once and for all that something that we know to be harmful to health by no means necessarily arouses feelings of distaste or shame. And conversely, something that arouses these feelings need not be at all detrimental to health. People who eat noisily or with their hands nowadays arouse feelings of extreme distaste without there being the slightest fear for their health. But neither the thought of reading by bad light nor the idea of poison gas, for example, arouses remotely similar feelings of distaste or shame, although the harmful consequences for health are obvious.”

Elias held that the norms of acceptability and disgust are socially conditioned. Pinker, though, makes the important observation that once taboos are implanted in the mind, exposure to their objects—or even the words that denote them— stimulate the most “ancient” parts of the brain, shortcutting the centers of rationality, and producing an immediate and involuntary reaction of disgust.

Even when the objects of our urges are regarded as wholesome, concerns over heath and wellbeing can dampen our appetites. The enticement of a tasty hors d’ouvre or sumptuous desert can be spoiled by the threat of fat-inducing calories. Sexual enticement can be quashed by threats of disease, unwanted pregnancy, unwise entanglement, or legal considerations. And so on. We trudge through our lives with the carrot of bodily pleasure constantly before our faces, but most of us will only occasionally crane forward for a bite. Then, too often, gratification slips from our mouths. When we are lucky enough to connect with profound bodily pleasure, after a brief euphoria, nothing is left but a fading memory. In result, some individuals become compulsive in seeking the next thrill. Others seek solace in the more reliable satisfactions of property, whether physical or intellectual, that can be revisited at will.


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