All the durable truths that have come into the world within historic times have been opposed as bitterly as if they were so many waves of smallpox.
In You Will Die: the Burden of Modern Taboos, Robert R. Arthur has written an important book which is danger of not being recognized as such for the simple reason that it is extremely entertaining. As one of my intellectual heroes, Murray Rothbard, wrote in a tribute to another, H.L. Mencken:
It is difficult for Americans to understand a merger of high-spirited wit and devotion to principle; one is either a humorist, gently or acidly spoofing the foibles of one’s age, or else one is a serious and solemn thinker. That a man of ebullient wit can be, in a sense, all the more devoted to positive ideas and principles is understood by very few; almost always, he is set down as a pure cynic and nihilist.
While Arthur never reaches the heights of Mencken’s virtuosic wit, nobody will quite mistake him for a cynic either (a heretic, almost surely). And although his book is well-researched, it is free of the jargon that has become the shibboleth (or stigmata) of modern scholarship. It is directed at the general reader. It includes cartoon illustrations on almost every page. Each section is introduced with funny anecdotes of admirable candor from the author’s personal life. It is chock full of odd and gross facts and stories from history ancient and modern. Among Arthur’s complaints, as a former teacher, is that we prevent students from learning by sanitizing knowledge, both making it boring and falsifying it in the process.
But enough preliminary stuff already, what is the book about? Well, to put it directly, it’s about sex, drugs, and excrement. Are these vital issues of our time? In fact they are, Arthur argues. These are the essential taboos of our society, knowledge of which is relegated to the shadowy areas of our public consciousness. His book intends to bring them into the light. He cautions however, that “The intent of this book is not to advocate all tabooed activities and beliefs, but to present them truthfully so that readers can make their own well-informed decisions.”
A taboo is a topic that a culture prevents its people from discussing freely. The population has been subtly taught from birth that the prevailing view on the subject is natural, unquestionable, and correct. Taboo can also refer to the thing or action suppressed.
Arthur begins his discussion of taboos with a graphic recounting of the Aztec practice of human sacrifice, which led to the death of “250,00 people a year, or roughly 1% of the population.” Cannibalism in the Aztec priesthood and compulsory vegetarianism among the proletariat was perhaps necessitated by recurrent famines and the fact that the Aztecs had hunted all large herbivores into extinction without domesticating them. But of course it could not be admitted, even to the cannibals themselves, that these were the reasons. It had to be demanded by the gods, incorporated into the religion, and seen as vital to the survival to the society itself (which, in a way, it might have been). And questioning these sacred traditions could not be allowed. We can readily see the existence and function of taboo in such a primitive society, but tend to deny such things in our own. We are modern, progressive, rational. We have banished the superstition of our silly forebears and entered the enlightened End of History.
Sorry, not even close.
You Will Die proceeds to examine each of our taboos, starting with the relatively innocuous and progressively upping the ante to take on the most fundamental taboos, which are perhaps as foundational as Aztec cannibalism, and almost as deadly their repercussions. The first two chapters are on nasal mucus (short story: everybody picks their nose; everybody feels bad about it, and some to the point of neurosis) and excrement (Americans don’t poop properly, and haven’t had an innovation in toilet technology for over a hundred years, and area where we lag behind the industrious Japanese). The bulk of the book is dedicated to the taboos concerning sexual behavior and drug use.
In part the story of modern taboos is the progress of “manners” and “hygiene”. For the first, Arthur relies on the highly regarded History of Manners by German sociologist Norbert Elias. Elias is associated somewhat with the Frankfurt School, an intellectual group whose politics I have numerous problems with, but it is not within the scope of this review to discuss them. Arthur uses this and a number of other texts on taboo (often primary sources such as period books on etiquette) throughout Western history to tell a convincing story of how we got civilized. Much was gained in the process, but at great cost. As for “hygiene”, Arthur says it “is a popular defense for taboos concerning the body, but it usually has nothing to do with their development.” So what does? Often, hygienic etiquette is part of the development of class society. For example:
Hankerchiefs for cleansing the nose were first used by the “young snobs” of the Italian Renaissance. In the beginning they were expensive luxury items and were seen as a status symbol. “He does not blow his nose on his sleeve,” was a way of saying a man was wealthy. As hankies became more affordable, more people were able to acquire this prestigious item and distinguish themselves from the riffraff.
Complicating this story is the fact that the very Japanese toilets that Arthur praises as healthier and more rational are likely to be used by the upper class, such as a businessman who has been to Japan, while the rest of us plebes sit on outdated crappers.
Another factor in the development of bodily taboos is the triumph of Judeo-Chrisitan religion over the pagan nature-worship of the classical world.
Judeo-Christian religions have demonized excrement. This disdain dates to the creation of the Jewish religion when rival tribes of the Jews worshipped an array of nature-related gods, among them the dung god, Baal-Peor. Worshippers of Baal-Peor reportedly defecated before the idol’s mouth, which resembled an anus. To clearly distinguish itself from the nature religions it abhorred, Judaism established itself as strongly scatological.
Satan, originally a lowly functionary in Yahweh’s cosmic bureaucracy, became the central bad guy in the Christian mythos, and took on characteristics of Baal. Hell was imagined as being in the “bowels of the earth”. The popular “hell’s mouth” plays of the middle ages were full of scatology, as were late-medieval artists who dealt with hell, such as Dante and Hieronymous Bosch. Insofar as this mythology survives in the modern mind, shit and evil are united, and the fact that “everybody poops” reinforces the notion that we are all sinners. But Camille Paglia has written about the war between paganism and Judeo-Christianity, arguing that the latter has never quite triumphed, and romanticism, pop culture, and the visual arts have kept the flame alive for the former.
The surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel made a movie called The Phantom of Liberty, which included a notorious scene of a dinner party whose attendants sat on toilets for chairs and defecated in public. When it was time to eat, they retired to private booths, as manners dictated. You might think this was just an inversion for shock effect, proving nothing. But it is not too different from the actual practices of ancient Rome.
Wealthy Romans used to have their chamber pots brought into them at their feasts and would defecate in front of everybody without pausing their frolic. . . . In classical restrooms dozens of people would sit next to each other, male and female, defecating into troughs with no dividers. Each public latrine had community sponge sticks soaking in buckets of salt water with which the Romans would use to clean their hindquarters.
But that was the Romans, infamously cruel and militaristic, who also crucified their enemies, had slaves, and a series of Emperors who staged neverending orgies at the public expense. Surely we should prefer to have our Christian-influenced mores over Roman pagan ones. Well, it turns out that the Christian middle ages (its anti-scatological religion notwithstanding) was far less perturbed by feces than us moderns. They lived with shit, animal and human, as a fact of daily life. Arthur quotes a book of manners from as late as 1609 which instructs that,
It is far less proper to hold out the stinking [turd] for the other to smell, as some are wont, who even urge the other to do so, lifting the foul-smelling thing to his nostrils and saying “I should like to know how much this stinks,” when it would be better to say, “Because it stinks do not smell it.”
This one surpasses even Buñuel. We are all glad, no doubt, to have our modern sanitation, rather than the crap-strewn streets of the medieval city or Roman salted sponges. But with this “civilizing” process and growth of technologies which allow for more privacy in excretory functions comes the taboo, which means anxiety over natural aspect of our bodies which we all share, as well as a lack of basic information about them. And there is a genuine hygienic reason to practice cleanliness here. The problem here is that the religious roots of our manners so often has us conflating medicine and morals, something which will become more serious when Arthur begins to discuss sex, and quite deadly in the chapters on drugs. I suspect some with weak stomachs may not make it past the early chapters of this book. They should persist, or maybe even skip past them, because the latter sections are well worth the price of purchase.