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(Copyright 1999 Al Aronowitz)


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In the 1973 Mel Brooks film Blazing Saddles, there is also a humorous scene about cowboys sitting around a campfire eating beans and farting. These are not real farts we hear. They are Hollywood generated sound effects. It's like making the sound of a galloping horse by pounding on your chest. In the movie, Ski Patrol, we likewise hear some Hollywood generated farts from a dog who has a gas problem. His farts are heard and commented on by the characters in the film, but most of the jokes are cheap shots. 

The farting dog also plays a role in a 1992 film called Kuffs. In a review of the film titled When In Doubt, Have The Dog Break Wind, Scott Collins remarks, "The makers of Kuffs are pleased to bring you another proud moment in American cinema: Trapped in a basement where a bomb is about to explode, our young hero turns to his dog for help, at which point the pooch loudly passes gas." It seems the dog had a bomb of its own. 

It is by cheap shots like those above that Hollywood constantly deceives the public. They are almost as bad as the joke which asks what's the difference between a gay man and a refrigerator? The questionable answer is that the refrigerator doesn't fart when you take the meat out. With humor like this you can understand my disappointment when I heard about the film, Backdraft. Expecting an illustrated history of the fart in technicolor, the movie turned out to be just another story about firemen and fires. 

It is not only Hollywood that uses farts as a cheap shot in movies. The Europeans are catching on to the symbolic and comic effects of farts in feature films. In the 1990 film, Evenings, by the Dutch director Rudolf Van den Berg, we come to hate the father of the hero because of his bad habits of farting and not using the sugar bowl properly. There is no way, however, to tell from the credits if the farts we hear on screen are real human farts imported from Europe or just ordinary sound effects. 

America On Line, the computer service accessible by modem and telephone line, offers its subscribers many files and programs that can be downloaded free of charge. Among them are a HyperCard cartoon of a farting man and various fart sounds that can be incorporated into the programing of the Macintosh computer. Such sounds as MegaFart, Relieved and Big Fart Noise are available. Each takes about a minute or two for downloading, depending on the speed of your modem, and is digitized for use at home. They can be incorporated into documents to give an editorial opinion, used as an alert when a program is running,
or best of all, as a start up sound. 

Just imagine, turning on your computer and hearing a fart. This might just be the safety device those with flatulence in a crowded office need to divert attention from their moment of crisis. Nevertheless, all we get from the computer is the noise; the smell must certainly wait for further advances in computer science. Furthermore, because these are computer generated sounds, we have to leave it up to the listener to decide if they carry all the tone, resonance and impact of an actual live fart. 

The ever changing vocabulary of farts has also reached the computer age. There is now a new use for old terms. Consider the following definitions available through the Internet's online dictionary of computer terms. 

memory farts: n. The flatulent sounds that some DOS box BIOSes (most notably AMI's) make when checking memory on bootup. 

old fart: n. Tribal elder. A title self-assumed with remarkable frequency by (esp.) USENETters who have been programming for more than about 25 years; often appears in {sig block}s attached to Jargon File contributions of great archeological significance. This is a term of insult in the second or third person but one of pride in the first person.

The only media record of a real human fart I know about is one that occurs in the second of a series of male porno films produced under the "Old Reliable" label. In that video there is recorded an off-screen fart by one of the male models. Outside of that, TV, film and radio producers are reluctant to incorporate the sound of real farts in broadcasts. 

Farts in public 
are permissible if you hold a match 
to the farter's ass

I suspect they subscribe to the general etiquette that the broadcast fart is a loud fart. They argue that a fart heard is a fart too loud. No TV producer wants to be the first to break with convention on this one. Maybe when they do get the courage, they can begin coverage of farting by what I consider to be one of the most notable exceptions to the rule prohibiting loud farting in public. As one would suspect, this exception takes place at the seat of learning, that is to say, on many American university campuses. There it is permissible to fart in public, if it is done as part of that primitive fraternity ritual called simply "lighting a fart."

I  was present once at such a ritual and can describe it for you. The farter, usually a young man who has had too many beers, is first goaded by his brothers. They all then pass to a darkened room where he drops his pants and shorts and falls on his back with his legs spread and raised to a position with which many gay men are familiar. Either he or someone else holds a Bic lighter or a live match near his asshole and when he farts, methane, one of the chief components of a fart, ignites, creating a momentary blue flame to the joy and shouts of his comrades. Those who have seen this light in a darkened room say its color is a metaphor for love.

The lighting of farts does not often end with such insight. In Chuck Shepherd's column, News of the Weird," published in the Chicago Reader for September 6th, 1991, we read of a case where fart lighting lead to death. Arlene Evans argued before the Kansas Court of Appeals that her husband did not commit suicide. Though he was found in his bathtub, clothed and charred, she said it was an accident that he died. Her husband was a heavy smoker and had often burned himself. Her strongest argument was that he often struck matches after farting, to burn off the smell. The fire that killed him in fact started around his crotch. The court believed her and ordered the insurance company to pay up.

Heavy drinking and farting rituals, like those described above, sooner or later lead to farting contests. In the early sixties, Laugh Records issued a recording of a humorous sketch depicting such a contest. They titled it, "The Crepitation Contest." Copies of those recordings are still circulated, but the artists and writer remain anonymous. It is worth the effort to track down a copy of this record to discover the awful fate of Lord Windermere. On records like that, one may also hear such jokes as, "What do you get from eating a dish of baked beans and onions?" Tear gas.

There is another record put out by Natural Gas, Ltd., Box 566, Massean, New York, which goes much farther in documenting the musical qualities of farts. Besides referring to farting contests that go back to the reign of King George I in 1732, they actually include songs that have long since become famous. "Down at the Old Bull and Bush" is a good example. The liner notes claim this is a state-of-the-art recording using microphones designed by one of Germany's leading microphone manufactures. To capture the transient impact and overtone structure of live farts, a stereo microphone was placed at floor level. The recording location was the famous Maple Leaf Garden at Toronto, Canada. The site was chosen not for acoustical reasons but rather for the excellent ventilation and air circulating system used in the Garden.

There is no way of knowing for sure if the farts recorded on both records are actually "real" farts and not just sound effects. We just have to take them at their word. I like to think we are in the presence of real talent here. Just the fact that Natural Gas, Ltd., documented the feat that General Cornwallis held the record for the greatest number of fudgie farts in succession for nearly 100 years is worth the price of purchase.

Concerns over farting in public are not limited to college students and the young people who buy fart records. The other side of academia, the faculty, also suffers from the effects of public farts. Recently, at the college where the author teaches, an incident over classroom farts was blown all out of proportion. To quote from a letter sent to the Dean of Students by the concerned faculty member: "On Friday, while having 'Fun' in the classroom, he (a student in the class) in a very loud manner passed gas thereby creating a great amount of commotion and disruption. Passing gas in that manner was obviously funny to him because he smiled after doing it. (Ah, relief?) There is absolutely no sane reason why I or other students in the classroom should have to inhale someone's foul and stinking odor while indulging in the educational process. I have had enough, please deal with this matter immediately."

A meeting of the college disciplinary board was convened. The student involved in the incident came with a letter from his doctor establishing an intestinal disorder. The faculty member did not show up to press his complaint. The board concluded that to bring this student in contact with that professor was an explosive combination. Eventually, the board realized something was in the air, and the winds of compromise prevailed. The matter was dismissed with a warning to the student to be polite. So far, good manners have prevailed.

According to my informant about most things academic, Michael Cromley, this incident at the college represents just the tip of the iceberg. "There's more hot air where that came from," says Cromley. He has complied a unique collection of scatological documents over the years and will testify at length as to the peculiar interest academics have in the end products of students and other faculty members.

Thankfully, most of us never tell stories about farts or are called to testify before disciplinary committees about the farts we hear. Neither are we involved in farting rituals or contests, where we have to make sure our fart is seen and heard. After we fart quietly in public there is another rule of etiquette we try to follow, and that is: the quiet fart is also followed by the not-too-loud denial. After the fart, if anyone rudely asks, "Who farted? Did you fart?" The polite thing to do is to always say, "Of course not, not me, must have been that man with the umbrella."

If you notice a fart and don't want to call attention to it, you could politely say something like, "Oh, it's stuffy in here. I'm getting a headache. Let's open a window." Now I know your interest in honesty and straightforwardness may cringe at these suggestions. Some will even say we are not being truthful when we deny our own emissions or the emissions of others, but remember, you, who are so interested in being polite, also recognize that most manners are really small lies. When we are asked, "Do you like my new Spandex shorts," or "How do you like my new boyfriend," most of us are polite and say "Nice," or "He's just lovely," even if the former makes our friend look like he's wearing spray paint or the later is a Hollywood fashion queen into combat boots and Vanity Fair magazine. Whether guided by formal rules of etiquette or just navigating by the seat of your pants, being polite instead of radically honest saves many of us.

And speaking of seats, now is as good a time as any to comment on the slow but insidious transformation taking place with the theater seats of America. If you are troubled by loud farts, you ought to be doubly troubled by this outrageous decadence. At one time you could go to the theater and sit on a nice spring and fabric cushion. A velvet or tapestry cover would breathe as you shifted your weight, and most importantly, it absorbed farts.

Quite a few little Phantoms of the Opera are sent floating
into the atmosphere

In a theater that seats about a thousand, there are bound to be about one hundred farts every fifteen minutes or so. That's quite a few little Phantoms of the Opera sent floating into the atmosphere. Over the course of a three act play, opera or concert, a lot can be digested. All that methane, from an audience that just ate a rich meal, had many potent drinks or is nervous about being with the one they're with, escapes into a room. Those old fabric seats, however, had the advantage of absorbing all that gas and releasing it slowly enough so our collected noses hardly noticed a whiff. The newer seats of plastic and non-absorbent fibers create a surface that lets the farts slide right into the atmosphere. Their nonabsorbent surface probably doesn't cushion the sound as well. As soon as a fart is rent, it is spent. The willing suspension of disbelief is hardly possible in an atmosphere of squeaks, sputters and odors.

It seems, too, that these modern plastic seats are not just in theaters; you find them all over, on the bus, at the bingo hall, in bars, in classrooms, all over. I guess it's just another sign of what happens when we try to offer everyone the same standard product: we end up with everyone getting something inferior. Isn't it odd, how the consideration of the simple fart leads us to realize one of the flaws in liberal democracy? Because we are animals, we fart, and because we fart we realize human nature cannot be perfected through material means alone. The fart speaks to us a deep truth about our mortality and limitations. The low, bass voice of our guts has a language all its own, and its revelations are essential to an understanding of the human predicament. Consideration of the lowly fart points us to the portals of the spirit.

Any consideration of the fart in regard to our existential predicament leads naturally to a consideration of the fart in human history. Why, even prehistory ought not to be passed over lightly. For example, while we don't know if insects fart like humans, because they lack soft parts, some biologists argue that if it weren't for the methane that termites add to the atmosphere, the percentage of oxygen would be too great to support life as we know it. Then there are all the cows and gorillas and the other animals who ingest great quantities of vegetation and emit a veritable symphonic rumble in the forests and jungles at night to add to what we breathe. Some say the farting of elephants can be heard for miles. Is this not a type of air pollution that rivals the pollution from our cars and trucks choking city streets?

Many people do not dwell on the damage farts can do, but every once in a while there is shocking evidence. In a recent article by Habegger and O'Reilly in the Chicago Tribune for Sunday, March 3rd, 1991, they discuss the damage done to artworks in England. They write, "Scientists at the University of East Anglia give two major culprits in the deterioration of paintings, photographs and other works of art: fumes from the wet wool clothing worn by visitors to museums and galleries on rainy days and gas from flatulent art lovers. Do your part for the ages: Stay dry and avoid gas-producing food." One of the authors of the study, Peter Brimblecombe, a specialist in atmospheric chemistry, told the reporters, "If people have to go to galleries and museums, they should wear no clothes and control themselves."

It is not just art museums that are worried about farts. We can see the same preoccupations coming out of art schools. The F Newsmagazine of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago runs a regular column entitled "Who Farted?" It is billed as a look at who's passing gas in the art community. In it we read quotes and comments by known and unknown artists. I assume the point of all this is to deplete even more of the earth's protective ozone layer. I wonder if the editors know of the San Francisco based writer Richard Rodriques. He described the air above Mexico City as "brown, fungal, farted." I have seen galleries in Wicker Park where the art on the walls could be described the same way. Could this be the naked truth about modern art? It is ironic too that the only thing that separates "art" from "fart" is the sixth letter in the alphabet. But I digress; let me catch my wind and resume the course I originally set.

To talk about the fart in human history is often to talk about assholes. As far back as St. Augustine's City of God, we can read about people who could talk with their assholes. Could we be witnessing in our political oratory today a return of this phenomenon? Needless to say, if someone is going to speak with his asshole, he will need a source of breath. This is where the fart takes on a new fluency. The ability to control the fart, its pressure, length, etc., are indispensable in training the asshole to speak. I remember as a girl reading a novel in which one of the characters talked with his asshole. The problem was he could not control it. Things soon got out of hand. To mix a metaphor, he bit off more than he could chew. He ended up having violent arguments with his other end. They were so loud, he was eventually thrown out of his apartment and left to carry on the best he could in the streets. These were the days before Late Night with David Letterman, where he could probably have found employment, and the country would be richer for his talent. On a higher note, we should also remember that in days past, the term for poetic inspiration, the type of inspiration I hope guides my essay, was nothing other than Divine Afflatus. Is this how God talks to man? Although this term is much abused now and often considered an insult rather than a compliment, the divine afflatus has been credited with much that is great in arts and letters. Consider the French writer Jean Genet. He writes of smelling his own farts in jail. What better picture could we have of the self-centered, self-contained artists? Or consider Dante. Being much inspired while writing the Divine Comedy, Dante has one of the devils at the end of Canto 21 in The Inferno use his abilities to fart. This allows the visitors of hell to pass into a lower region. In the freely translated words of the bard, as they approached the bridge, "To announce we were going to pass, he made a trumpet of his ass."

In our time, the derivative monsters and devils of Stephen King reflect back to this moment in Dante. In King's book, It, there is also such a use of the announcing fart. Not to be outdone, the Devil may even have the last word in all this bantering. George Bernard Shaw has him remark in his play, Don Juan in Hell, that "flatulent philosophers" are not to be trusted.

The English poet Samuel Butler likewise considered the fart a source of poetic inspiration in his satire on Puritanism, a long mock-heroic poem called Hudibras. Here we find the inspiring lines:

He would an elegy compose
On maggots squeez'd out his nose:
In lyric numbers write an ode on
His mistress, eating a black-pudden:
And, when imprison'd air escap'd her,
It puft him up with poetic rapture.

Perhaps it is with the concept of the divine afflatus that we can pass from Augustine to Martin Luther. Who can forget Luther's famous remark, "If I fart in Wittenberg, maybe they'll hear me in Rome." It may be that those who see this statement as direct insight into the German soul, look at things from the wrong side up. Nevertheless, there seems to be something about German culture that brings out what is fundamental in us. Of course, farting was not the only preoccupation Luther had. He also had tight bowels. Maybe it is revisionist history, but some say if they had Ex-Lax then, we might not have had the Protestant Reformation! And if Max Weber is right, no Protestant Reformation, no capitalism. No capitalism, no modern world as we know it. It reminds one of that old song, "For the Want of a Nail." The fart is woven into the very fabric of our modern, urban, industrial civilization. The fart is venture capitalism, corporate takeovers, pork futures. To think of a world without farts is to think of a world without money. ##



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