July 14, 2010


As I backed out of our driveway this morning, a pickup and trailer zoomed past me, and I followed it almost all the way to work. The trailer was filled with manure ~ probably being taken somewhere for fertilizer ~ which got me thinking about shit as metaphor.

Excrement has a long history in literature. A couple of examples spring immediately to mind. James Joyce’s Ulysses created such a furor in its time because it dared to follow Leopold Bloom into the outhouse, among other reasons. But how daring! All facets of life can be fodder for great art, and Ulysses is undoubtedly great art. It’s experimental, it’s challenging, it references the icons of western literature, it is grounded in experience. I mean, what greater ambition than to make a day in the life of common men equivalent to the trials and tribulations of the Greek hero Odysseus. And to apply radical honesty to the narrative ~ rather than glossing over great parts of the human experience, it’s all there, practically unmediated.

It also reminded me of “Speaking of Courage,” a short story in Tim O’Brien’s iconic collection The Things They Carried. In it, a Native American man nicknamed Kiowa is hit by a mortar round and sinks beneath a fertilized rice paddy. Kiowa is sort of the conscience, or most human, of the company, if I remember right. Very quiet. But then that conscience is blasted to hell and drowns in shit. Talk about your metaphors. I heard an interview with Tim and he said, of all the things he experienced in Vietnam, that smell is the one the sticks with him.

The riveting book King Rat, by James Clavell, tells of World War II POWs in the Japanese camp Changi in Singapore. Men die of dysentery a lot in that book. Literally, their lives run to shit. The book is about how some men look out only for themselves and others, despite being on the edge of everything, try to take care of others and how what appears to be the right thing to do may not be the moral thing to do.

I’m sure there are many more examples that just don’t come to mind right now.

But what a great metaphor for writing itself. Excrement is the waste of life. It’s what’s left over from eating, obtaining the energy to go about the business of life. But it’s not just that. It’s also fertilizer that sustains life. So it’s also food in a different form. To explain the metaphor, we writers often take the shit of life ~ the horrible things people do to each other ~ and convert it into (what we hope is) art, which sustains the soul. So it is both our waste and our food. Rather than being depressing, this should be uplifting I think. Another way of saying, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade; when life hands you shit, make art.

What I’m Reading Today: More wonderful Finding Eden.

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