(Copyright © 1999 Al Aronowitz)


The first documented use of the word, "fart," in English is given as 1250 by The Oxford English Dictionary.  In 1386 Chaucer used it in his Miller's Tale, where he wrote, "He was somdel squaymous Of farting."  Chaucer then goes on to relate an incident that ends in tragedy.  Attempting to play a cruel joke on poor Absolon, Nicholas decides to fart in Absolon's face.  In Chaucer's words:

 Speke swete bird, I n'ot wher thou art.
This Nicholas anon let fleen a fart,
As gret as it had ben a thonder dint,
That with the stroke he was wel nie yblint:

Taken aback by this blast, Absolon applies a hot poker to  Nicholas' ass.  This leads to much consternation among all involved.  Here it seems Nicholas bit off more than Absolon could chew.

There is also another incident in Chaucer's, The Summoner's Tale, involving a fart.  Here we give Chaucer's in translation.  The English is modern, but the fart is the same as it ever was.

"Ha!" thought the friar. "Here lies good luck for me!"
 And quickly thrust his hand below the rift
 And full of hope that he would find his gift.
 And when the sick man felt this greedy friar
 Groping about, all eager with desire,
 Into the friar's hand he let a fart.

 No cart-horse, tugging strongly at his
 cart,Could ever let a fart that louder sounded.

Since Chaucer's time, the word, "fart," has been a favorite of English satirical writing.  Ben Johnson and others used it freely, but it is with the French that a taste for farting and its literary application developed to perfection.

For this evidence, we can look to none other than the French essayist Montaigne.  Although Montaigne had trouble with his kidneys rather than his bowels, in chapter XII of his Essays, Apology for Raimond Sebond, Montaigne writes, "Metrocles broke wind a little carelessly while disputing in the presence of his school and hid himself in his house for shame, until Crates came to visit him, and, adding to his consolation and arguments the example of his own freedom, starting to break wind in rivalry with him, relieved him of that scruple; and besides, drew him to his own Stoical sect, which was freer, from the more polite Peripatetics, whom he had followed till then."  The fart from that moment on was aligned with freedom and social revolution.  Since the days of ancient Greece, the fart has been the enemy of tyrants and dictators everywhere.

'Hitler Suffered
Greatly From
Excessive Gas. . .'

Farts have also accompanied tyrants wherever they went.  A short hop from France to Germany can make this point.  According to Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, in his book Inside the Third Reich, Hitler suffered greatly from excessive gas in the digestive tract.  Besides his regular doctor, Karl Brandt, Hitler consulted and took the advice of Dr. Theodore Morell, who, in his own book, describes the treatment he gave Hitler.  According to Speer, Hitler "often interrupted a conference because of his gastric pains and withdrew for half an hour or more, or did not return at all.  He also suffered. . .from excessive gas. . ."  It is ironic to think that the great orator, Hitler, also projected greatness from the nether regions.  Perhaps it is simply the case that great oration and great flatulence go hand in hand, or is it better to say tongue and cheek?

This little aside to Germany taken in stride, let us return to France and the examples she offers.  Besides Montaigne, the French also gave us Joseph Pujol, better known as "Le petomane."  He was born in Marseilles in 1857 and had the remarkable ability of controlling the muscles in his anus and stomach.  He could ingest through his anus great quantities of water and air and then release them under his own control.  Eventually, with such a talent, he devised a music hall act where he would imitate all kinds of farts such as the timid fart, the hearty miller's fart, the fart of the bride on her wedding night, etc. He could even play popular tunes with the help of an ocarina attached to a tube which he inserted in his rectum offstage. It is reported he could let a fart that lasted a full ten seconds. Some even say he could blow out candles and stage footlights with the force of his wind.  With this talent he became immensely wealthy and popular.

In their biography, Le Petomane, by Jean Nohain and F. Caradec, published by Bell Publishing Company, New York City, we learn that Le Petomane only farted in the best of places, and for considerable money.  As a star of the famous Moulin Rouge in Paris from 1892 to 1914, he drew gates of 20,000 francs, while Sara Bernhardt only managed 8,000 francs.

Pujol died in 1945 at the age of 88. If anyone has ever worked their way from the bottom up, surely he did.  As of today, neither the French, nor anyone else, has resurrected this example of civilization for stage or screen.  Perhaps it is for the best.  How are you going to keep them down on the farm after they've heard Pujol?

Of course when it comes to French farts, probably the most famous was the one cut by Pantagruel.  We may read about this exploit in The Histories of Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais.  Chapter twenty-seven of Book II, in the J.M. Cohen translation, reads: ". . .with the fart he blew, the earth trembled for twenty-seven miles round, and with the fetid air of it he engendered more than fifty-three thousand little men, misshapen dwarfs; and with a poop, which he made, he engendered as many little bowed women, such as you see in various places, and who grow, except downwards like cows' tails, or in circumference, like Limousin turnips.  'What now,' exclaimed Panurge. 'Are your farts so fruitful? By God, here are fine clumpish men, fine stinking women.  Only let them be married together, and they'll breed horse-flies.'  So Pantagruel did, and called them pygmies."

Could there be a fart more powerful than Pantagruel's?  For an answer to this question we must turn to Native American mythology.  Dr. Wendall Wilson, a Jungian enthusiast, showed me an article by Paul Radin on the exploits of the Trickster in North American Indian societies.  Here we can read about the adventure of the Winnebago trickster-hero, Wakdjunkaga.

Radin writes, "So he takes the bulb and chews it to find that he does not defecate but only breaks wind.  This expulsion of gas increases in intensity progressively.  He sits on a log, but is propelled into the air. . .he pulls up trees to which he clings, by their roots.  In his helplessness he has the inhabitants of a village pile all their possessions upon him. . .And so now the whole world is on Wakdjunkaga's back.  With a terrific expulsion of gas he scatters the people and all their possessions to the four quarters of the earth."

. . .Soldiers Could Pass Such Gas
That It Would Blow
Up The World. . .

I doubt if there ever has been or will be a fart to match that one by Wakdjunkaga.  Neil Simon suggests in his play, Biloxi Blues, that one of the soldiers could pass such gas that it would blow up the world, but this is in the context of a barracks discussion of what one would do with their last week on earth.  In this case, the fart is introduced as a destructive element.  Pantagruel's and Wakdjunkaga's farts are just the opposite; they are fruitful and resonate with such implications for history and cultural evolution!  Then again, if you had a bad day and are on a crowded elevator, an ordinary fart let by that unsavory type way in the back may seem as loud and pregnant as the fart that ended the world.

Many poets and philosophers have given their attention to the fart.  Buried deep in the bowels of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit is a pointed but obscure reference to it.  After discussing the differences between the universal and individual consciousness from the point of view of utility, Hegel writes, "The beyond . . . hovers over the corpse of the vanished independence of real being . . . merely as the exhalation of a stale gas, of the vacuous Etre suprême."  Ah, Hegel, what a way with words---spoken like a true German.

If the translation of Rainer Maria Rilke by Stephen Mitchell is correct, even that poet fell prey to the fundamental  German interest in ends as opposed to beginnings.  Mitchell translates the phrase, "die warm in sei hineinvomieren, und blasende Gesäbe, die ihnen Gefallen tun," from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, as "and faces that warmly vomit onto them, and windy buttocks that offer them satisfaction."  What kind of satisfaction could those windy buttocks offer, I wonder?  Does this have anything to do with the fact Germans often put the engines in the back of their cars or are overly fond of food resembling fecal matter, like sausages?

When I was in high school, I had to read J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye.  Salinger writes: "All of a sudden this guy sitting in the row in front of me, Edgar Marsalla, laid this terrific fart.  It was a very crude thing to do, in chapel and all. . .."  Of course a loud fart in church by definition seems funny, but what interests me in this description is the use of the phrase "laid this terrific fart."  The expression, "to lay a fart," now seems outdated.  Most people I know use the expression, "to cut a fart," as in the question, "Who cut a fart?"  I think this is more popular than "laid a fart," because it makes reference to the euphemism, "To cut the cheese," where the relationship between the odor of certain cheeses and farts no doubt is firmly established in the popular mind. This reference to cheese notwithstanding, perhaps the expression, "to lay a fart," is related to the idea of laying an egg.  The feel of a fart and the feel of an egg, as they leave their respective bodies, may be similar.

Just recently, the English poet Philip Larkin made reference to the fart.  He composed these lines in a poem called, The Card-Players.

Dirk deals the cards.  Wet century-wide trees
 Clash in surrounding starlessness above
 This lamplit cave, where Jan turns back and farts,
 Gobs at the gate, and hits the queen of hearts.

Larkin writes in another of his poems, Posterity, about a man assigned to write the biography of a poet.  The biographer is seated in his "air-conditioned cell" of the library and worries, "I'm stuck with this old fart at least a year. . ."  Andrew Motion thinks this line is predictive of Larkin's own opinion of those who will one day write his biography.

A Saga
A Farting Medieval Ghost

In a story Larkin and his friend Kingsley Amis wrote when they were young men, Larkin displays his gift for apt metaphor.  The story was called, The Tale of the Jolly Prince and the Distempered Ghost, and was a saga about a farting medieval ghost.  The text of this saga seems to be lost, but a fragment remains: "and then the ghost made a fart like the breaking of an apple branch under the weight of good fruit."  Isn't that the most delightful of images?  Just imagine what the rest of the text must have contained!  And to think this was all the work of a ghost.  Ghost farts are a new area to explore.  Unfortunately, this essay must limit itself to the human fart.  Farts from beyond the grave must remain another subject for another day.

Not to be outdone, on the other side of the ocean, the American poet John Ashbery, writing in his book, Flow Chart, remarked, "Excuse me while I fart.  There, that's better.  I actually feel relieved."  Poets can be so polite, even if their verse is free.

Sometime entire works of poetry are dedicated to the fart.  The Chicago poet Shéree Anne Slaughter has written a poem called, May the Fart Be With You, the best lines of which are:

 When the boss is getting all on your case
 That's right, fart, he'll get out of your face.

Turning from poetry to prose, in a 1988 novel, Brothers in Arms, by Michael Carson, a book which a New York Times reviewer described as, "Cheeky, humorous. . .a young man's coming-of-age story with a twist. . .a book whose strength is ribald realism," we read of two incidents involving the fart.  The book's hero, Benson, has returned to his old school after a year away and is forced to read his essay on Hamlet to the class.  "That Hamlet does not see this, does not appreciate the Ghost, is probably a temptation of the Devil, says much for his woeful ignorance of the tenets of the Catholic Church.  Somebody farted."  Undaunted, he continues reading to the growing laughter in the classroom.  There is nothing like a fart to add humor to the most serious situation.  We must wonder also if the young man who interrupted the reading anguished over, to fart or not to fart, that is the question.

The second incident occurs later in the book when the same young man is picked up by an older man, and the two of them return to the older man's apartment to have sex.  As Benson allows the older man to felate him, "He moaned and listened to Andy's muffled moans and the fart-like slurps he was making with his embrace."  This is the first time I know of in English literature that the metaphor of the fart is used to describe oral sex.  Perhaps Publishers Weekly is right when they say the author has "A wicked eye for detail and an obvious familiarity with the milieu."

In a much praised book, Martin and John, by Dale Peck, the fart introduces us to the tragic perspective of AIDS and death.  Peck writes, "I was almost ready to help him out of the tub, when a long fart bubbled out of the water, filling the bathroom with sound and smell.  Didn't know you still had it in you, I said without turning, and I washed the shaving cream off my face."

Peck then goes on to meditate on the passing of life and a relationship.  In his prose, the fart become a key by which the author opens the doors of reflection.  Sic transit gloria mundi.  #



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