Zavod Sploh

Mladen Dolar: That Other Music

That Other Music

In the beginning was a split, a breach, a rift, a division – between spirit and body. This split, it would seem, goes back as far as memory, probably to the very beginnings of humanity and history, and it seems that, without this cut, we could not be humans. But whichever way we conceive of it, it never really adds up. The spirit would like to become independent, separate, and affirm its dominance and autonomy, but the body keeps exacting revenge and does not let itself be disavowed or suppressed. The issue here, however, is not merely the bodily functions, which, compared to the spirit, seem sordid and base, but also an ambiguity in the spirit itself, as evidenced in the Slovenian language by the other meaning of the word ‘duh’ [spirit], which is odour or stench.[1] Spirit is like a breath, which animates, becomes dematerialised and rises beyond this-worldly bodily troubles, but it is also like an odour of the bodily, and the bodily remains and persists, if nothing else, as an odour that cannot be eliminated and deodourised. The body smells bad and stinks, it emits smelly vapours – but why smelly if nature does not contain this dividing line placing everything bodily on the other side and issuing an anathema of aversion, repulsion and disgust against it? The spirit is a deodorant that never manages to cover the traces.

In this opposition, the opposition of spirit and body, stands the fart as the most evocative epitome of corporeality, its embodiment, as it were, and precisely inasmuch as it is dematerialised, bodiless, it can more strongly evoke the body, its essence, low triviality, baseness, vileness and ineliminable filth. A bodiless embodiment of the bodily. The body exacts revenge and, with a fart, it does so most crudely and unstoppably, irrefutably and doggedly and, despite its temporal transience, persistently and unshakeably. On the one hand, as the elusiveness of smell/stench, the most intangible of all the senses, and, on the other hand, as a perversion, a perversity of the voice, of making sounds. The voice has always been the herald of the spirit and the soul, it is through the voice that we have language and thus, as rational beings, exceed others, and it is also through the voice that we have music as the highest embodiment of the spirit. Voice is a “sound made by an animate being,” said Aristotle (De Anima, 420b, 5), but what then does the other voice testify to? To the fact that, in an animate being, something creaks and produces indecent voices? (Or even that “two souls, alas, dwell in my breast,” as Goethe says (Faust I, v. 1112)? Only that he did not have that in mind and not in the breast exactly.) The voice is already subject to its perversions; in addition to language and music, it can downright basely fail and produce burping, hiccupping, coughing, harrumphing, horselaugh, snoring, screaming, shrieking, yelling, groaning and all kinds of involuntary and uncontrolled outbursts, but it receives its true counterpole only at the other, opposite end, where it quite shamefully loses its respectable name.

Of course there are histories of all sorts of things[2] (and many others on top) and so there is no reason that farting should not have its history too, no less than a cultural history of the fart.[3] And if anyone asks how come that something so uncultural can have a cultural history, it is because unculture has always been an inherent part of culture, its internal counterpole, its nemesis and its secret ally, if not even its secret ‘transcendental condition’ without which it could not be culture. The opposite of culture is not nature, which, after all, is external and indifferent to it, but unculture as its internal pendant, its intimate other, the internal representative of nature and thereby a paradoxical agent of perversity. This is first manifested by the fart appearing as the body’s protest against spiritual loftiness, as a moment of profanation, which stood up against the haughty worshipping of the spirit and its striving towards the higher and the holy. The fart was the most direct opposite that was supposed to dishonour and humiliate the conceit of the striving that wanted to detach itself from its bodily basis, the smelly filth of pleasure. Carnival is probably as old as culture, carnival as the perversion of the high and the low, while the fart is a carnival activity par excellence.

Historically, such a carnivalesque protest was comedy, which emerged immediately after the creation of theatre as the counterpole to the high pretensions of tragedy. Aristophanes, its first great master, never for a moment wavered over using the lowest of devices, the entire anal scatological arsenal. At the beginning of his comedy The Frogs, we see Dionysius travelling with his servant Xanthias, who is carrying a heavy load. The first line is Xanthias’: “Now am I to make one of those jokes that have the knack of always making the spectators laugh? … Do you want some other drollery? … Then what witty thing shall I say?” Dionysius is sceptical, but Xanthias does not back down and what could be a bigger hit with the audience than: “May I not at least say, that unless I am relieved of this cursed load I shall let wind?”[4] What else could more reliably achieve an immediate and prompt success, gales of laughter after the first lines even before any action? If one has to begin a comedy with a wink to the audience, then there is nothing better than a fart.

A fart humiliates anyone subjected to it. In his comedy The Clouds, Aristophanes does his utmost to make fun of Socrates and among the many low blows is also the following, in which Socrates’ disciple reports on his theories about gnats: “He said that the gut of the gnat was narrow, and that, in passing through this tiny passage, the air is driven with force towards the breech; then after this slender channel, it encountered the rump, which was distended like a trumpet, and there it resounded sonorously.”[5] In short, Socrates is presented as a great expert on the farts of gnats, which is the real truth about his wisdom and an object befitting his philosophy. And this is how master Socrates explains thunder to his disciple Strepsiades: “Take yourself as an example. When you have heartily gorged on stew at the Panathenæa, you get throes of stomach-ache and then suddenly your belly resounds with prolonged growling. Strepsiades: Yes, yes, by Apollo! I suffer, I get colic, then the stew sets a-growling like thunder and finally bursts forth with a terrific noise. At first, 'tis but a little gurgling pappax, pappax! then it increases, papapappax! and when I seek relief, why, 'tis thunder indeed, papapappax! pappax!! papapappax!!! just like the clouds. Socrates: Well then, reflect what a noise is produced by your belly, which is but small. Shall not the air, which is boundless, produce these mighty claps of thunder?” (ibid.) From gnat to the cosmos, from micro- to macro-farting, that is the business of philosophy. (Tomaž Grom (‘grom’ means thunder), hm – nomen omen?)

Carnival culture, whose quintessence, voice and aroma is the fart, originated in antiquity and burgeoned through the Middle Ages all until the Renaissance. Bakhtin wrote it a great hymn, epopee and epitaph,[6] while, for our particular topic, we can consult the excellent work by Valerie Allen, written in this spirit (odour?).[7] With the beginning of the modern age, however, it seems we got past carnival laughter, which, at the most, survived subterraneanly in popular culture.[8] We became serious, began devoting ourselves to science and progress, while capitalism does not really have a feel for carnival (except insofar as we might consider capitalism as the highest sort of carnival where every expense serves a profit – is not Debord’s society of the spectacle, for example, precisely the carnevalisation of capitalism? Only that there no fart goes to waste.) If the time of carnival culture is cyclic, if order and disorder and the high and the low exchange in eternal circling, then the time of capitalism is linear and progressive and, as progressive, subject to constant colossal acceleration. Within this, the carnival might obtain a new function – but more on this at the end.  

Of the entire carnival culture, let a few examples suffice as a sample. In the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales (1387–1400), a work exceptional on all counts, in which there is no lack of farting. In “The Summoner’s Prologue”, a friar dreams about descending into hell, where an angel leads him around, showing him infernal torments. Because he sees no other friar there, he assumes that they are not in hell, but in that other, blessed place. But the angel orders him to wait and finally takes him to the devil himself, who is asked to lift his bushy tail. And, in that moment, twenty thousand friars come flying out of the devil’s arse like bees out of a hive[9] – the devil farts them out, as it were. That is where they were hiding and that is where they belong – in all of carnival culture, the representatives of the church are the most affording object of ridicule, while the fart, by its nature, sticks to the devil as its essential appendage, as the devil’s wind (recall the evocative paintings by Hieronymus Bosch a good century later), as the devil’s contrary voice opposite God’s voice. That was the prologue, while, in the tale itself, the corrupt friar John tries to extract money from Thomas. In summary: Thomas reveals to the friar that he has some money hidden in his bed and that he will hand it over to him if John bends down behind his back and finds it. The friar does as he is told, but Thomas lets out such a fart that the friar almost breaks his back.[10] The story ends with the problem of how to equally divide the fart among the virtuous friars. Etc. One wonders how such literature was even possible and allowed in the supposedly dark Middle Ages, in which it spread with lightening speed, but the Middle Ages were a time of pure contradiction in which the highest spiritual strivings directly co-existed with the lowest ones. – It is similar and even more spread and exuberant in Rabelais a century and a half later (1543), during the rise of the Renaissance. Let the following suffice: Pantagruel farted and “with the fart that he let the earth trembled nine leagues about, wherewith and with the corrupted air he begot above three and fifty thousand little men, ill-favoured dwarfs, and with one fisg [11] that he let he made as many little women, crouching down…”[12] A fart is thus the source of fecundity, but also a failed, deviant breeding, a surplus of life, which is at the same time a deviation of life.  

The first problem of carnival literature, as can be seen from the few examples (randomly picked among thousands), is that it quickly becomes long-winded. No amount of magnificent and slam-bang farts can save it from repetitiveness, while, after their initial entertainment and perhaps shock value, all bodily excesses (which the fart might best encapsulate and represent, I could almost say embody) quite quickly begin going round in circles. But precisely herein lies the point of cyclic temporality, that is, in persistent repetition, so we can also understand this point in the sense that their vital power tilts into the expression of powerlessness and exhausts itself in repetition. The second and an even greater problem is that, at the end of the day, the carnival itself, despite its radical appearance, is not really subversive insofar as, in its circularity, it serves the reproduction of the existing state of things. For a certain time, things are derailed and show their excessive other side, but only to the extent that they can again get back on track, while carnival outbursts, however exuberant and picturesque they might be, in the end provide an outlet for perversion (in the etymological sense of perverting), which is re-inscribed in the order it is supposed to pervert. Everything is allowed, but only under the condition that it all remains the same and keeps turning; the ridiculed bigwigs in no way undermine the order in which they are bigwigs.   

Farts dishonour and degrade the ones subjected to them as their object and there is practically no worse humiliation than being exposed to farting, no better method of knocking down any conceit and destroying a person’s dignity. But farts also degrade the one they escape from because the person proves to be someone who cannot control their bodily functions and is thus unworthy of culture. Here, too, degradation is magnificent and irreparable. Two stories should suffice for the illustration of this point; the first is apocryphally anecdotically true, the other is fictitious. Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, once unfortunately farted while bowing before Queen Elizabeth I. That brought such shame on him that he left England for seven years. When he returned, the Queen kindly received him by saying: “My Lord, I had forgot the fart.” Everything is forgotten, but that – in its fleetingness and quick transience, the fart is as if engraved in stone, indelible, while the Queen’s reply brilliantly demonstrates the impossibility of negating the fart. By the way, Edward de Vere is the most frequently mentioned alternative candidate for the possible author of Shakespeare’s works – we will return to Shakespeare later. – The second story is from One Thousand and One Nights (more precisely from the 410th night) and it talks about how, at his lavish wedding festivities, Abu Hasan released a “loud and thundering” fart, which immediately disqualified him as the groom, annulled his wedding and completely excluded him from decent society. Desperate, he wandered the world for ten years and when he secretly incognito returned, he accidently overheard a girl asking her mother about the circumstances of her birth and her mother replying: “Dear daughter, you were born the night Abu Hasan farted.” Both on the side of the object and on the side of the subject, the shame of farting is transcultural and eternal.   

If farting is a direct opposite of the voice as the bearer of language and music, then, between the two extremes, we can imagine a synthesis of sublimation or conceive both as united. In the famous passage of De civitate Dei, St. Augustine discusses the fall of man, the original sin and free will. Before the fall, he says, body and spirit were one, man could perform and control all bodily functions intentionally, with will and reason.   
“Then man himself also may have once received from his lower members an obedience which he lost by his own disobedience … We do in fact find among human beings some individuals with natural abilities very different from the rest of mankind and remarkable by their very rarity. Such people can do some things with their body which are for others utterly impossible and well-nigh incredible when they are reported. Some people can even move their ears, either one at a time or both together … A number of people produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from the region.” (De civitate Dei, XIV, 24)

In short, with a strong will and extreme discipline, one can make music by farting, but nowadays only the rare few are able to do it in extreme cases, whereas before the fall, in paradise, we were all able to do it, since the spiritual will and the material body were not yet separated. The body obeyed the soul and was one with it. And if we draw the conclusions of this argument, then we can say that the music of farts is heavenly music par excellence, a testimony about the time before we carelessly abused our free will and thus fell into sin, which is why our bodies stood up against us and began escaping our will and farting in their own way. (For St. Augustine, the best example of this is, I add in parentheses, human sexuality and especially the ‘phallic function’, which we cannot control and manage, so it follows its own autonomous logic of desire, which is beyond the reach of rational free will. But a fart is also something that ‘escapes’ us; it can no longer sing a sweet-sounding heavenly tune.)

If we jump many centuries forward, we can think of Mozart, the one who perhaps came closest to writing sublime heavenly music. Heavenly Mozart, they say. And it is precisely in Mozart that we come across the direct and naïve juxtaposition of both, the coexistence of heavenly music and farting. In Mozart’s letters (especially to his mother and cousin), we find a direct counterpole to his heavenly music – a counterpole that put many readers and biographers into a great predicament. To get a taste, here is his letter to his cousin Maria Anna Thekla Mozart (5 October 1777):

“Now I must relate to you a sad story that happened just this minute. As I am in the middle of my best writing, I hear a noise in the street. I stop writing—get up, go to the window—and—the noise is gone—I sit down again, start writing once more—I have barely written ten words when I hear the noise again—I rise—but as I rise, I can still hear something but very faint—it smells like something burning—wherever I go it stinks, when I look out the window, the smell goes away, when I turn my head back to the room, the smell comes back—finally My Mama says to me: I bet you let one go?—I don’t think so, Mama. yes, yes, I’m quite certain, I put it to the test, stick my finger in my ass, then put it to my nose, and—there is the proof! Mama was right!” [13]

From St. Augustine to Mozart, from Mozart to Tomaž Grom. [14]
In Slovenian, we do not have any official sounding, courteous, expert or at least neutral expression for farting. The word itself is already indecent. In English, they have, in addition to the somewhat vulgar (Anglo-Saxon) fart, also the neutral expression flatulence, which they imported in the 18th century from French (of course), with the French word (like in other Romance languages) deriving from the Latin flatus, which means blowing, gust, puff, breeze, wind. There is nothing indecent about the expression and insofar as it has retrospectively obtained a whiff of that other meaning, it seems like a euphemism that has always already concealed its other side. The expression has its philosophical pedigree, having played one of the main roles in the long dispute over universals, especially in medieval philosophy, in particular as flatus vocis – a blowing of the voice, vocal blowing, a breeze. Very shortly and schematically, in the dispute over universals two camps opposed each other: on the one side were the realists, who claimed that universal concepts had their basis in things and that universals therefore have ‘objective real existence’; on the other side were nominalists, who claimed that universals are only in words and thus ultimately only flatus vocis, a vocal blowing, a breeze, while, in their existence, things are singular and without universality, which is produced only by our voice. The expression flatus vocis originated in Roscelin (11th century), the first radical nominalist, and was then persistently repeated throughout the entire complicated and difficult discussion. If we look through the prism of this other, later context, it seems that, in nominalism, universal concepts are thereby subjected to an additional deflation (from the same root, literally to let the air out) and can be degraded to the blowing of the voice as philosophical farting, as it were, the disavowed vulgar basis of the universal. The philosophical dispute might thus appear in a completely different light, where, within one voice, there is another, while universality cannot be detached from the most vulgar physicality insofar as it is enabled only by the ambiguous blowing.   

In English, there is another relatively polite expression – breaking wind. In The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare, whose work never lacks vulgar undertones (quite a few allusions to farting have been noted), puts the following lines in Dromio of Ephesus’ mouth: “A man may break words with you, sir; and words are but wind; / Ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind.” (3.1.75–76) In these verses, we can sense precisely the echo of the discussion on flatus vocis, on words as empty wind, which inexorably evokes the breaking of the other wind. Words are like the wind – but from which end? And their windy use serves both the establishing of the universal range and a crude insult, the two opposite ends of language connected by flatus vocis.

In Slovenian, there is no polite expression that could be used in public just like the thing itself cannot be used in public. It is thus the more unusual that Slovenian poetry began not with the sublime Prešern, but precisely with his greatest antipode. In 1801, before Vodnik and Prešeren, Pavel Knobl (1765–1830) published the first collection of Slovenian non-religious poetry entitled Štiri pare kratkočasnih Novih pesmi – Od Pavla Knobla skovane inu Krajncam za spomin dane [Four Pairs of Entertaining New Poems – Composed by Pavel Knobl and Given to Carniolans as a Memento],[15] where, in the place of honour, we can read the poem “Od prdca [About a Fart]”, which contains the following verses: “Those who let a prisoner out are greatly praised the world throughout. We all have a prisoner at home, his name is fart, oh let it out! Let’s tighten our bassoon and fart everywhere soon, so we may honour Tiberius thus, as he sanctioned it for us!” Etc. The entire Slovenian literary history is embarrassed, they would just like to forget this beginning of poetry and sweep it under the rug (with rare exceptions), even though, on the quiet and in private, everybody knows about this national shame and with perverse joy confidentially shares it; the fart spreads by word of mouth. But that is how it is – Slovenian poetry began with a disavowal of the fart, which then nevertheless persistently subterraneanly and secretly spread. From Pavel Knobl to Tomaž Grom.

Let me conclude in a more sceptical and critical ‘spirit’. The organisers of this project invited a number of people to participate and urged them to record their own farts. People’s reactions to such an invitation were schematically divided into two camps: Some thought it so indecent that not only would they not want to participate, but the very idea repulsed and exasperated them, saying they could not see in the matter anything but cheap vulgarity, an uncultured and base provocation. Others, though not wholly without reservations, found the matter fun, subversive, intriguing and transgressive and many happily joined the carnival glorification of the body in all its low aspects, revelry and the foregrounding of everything that in our culture is a matter of suppression and disavowal and if not oppression, then at least disdain. I myself cannot really join either camp; I think there is something wrong with both reactions. I cannot identify with the puritanism and the prissiness that so often sticks to what I otherwise argue for, namely the establishment of good manners and decorum. But, in view of that, I also cannot follow the logic of the carnival, which so often slides into a seeming subversiveness and liberation ('let’s shake off the oppressive shackles and fart freely’ etc. – that is more of a quasi-liberation from the quasi-shackles that bind farting). I cannot simply follow the democratic materialism of the body based on the premise that all people fart – as a counterpole and corollary to the infamous and famous supreme premise that all people are mortal. Let us admit to ourselves that we are all just flesh and blood, bound up with our bodies even in their lowest functions, with the expectation that pointing out and detabooing that fact will save us, that bodily freedom will also give us spiritual freedom. But there’s the rub. It is politically worrying not that the oppressive culture does not let us fart or publicly speak about something so indecent, but rather that, with the new indecency established in the last decade and more, the equivalent of farting in public has become acceptable and desired. Transgression has stopped being subversive and we have come to the point when the people in power practice transgressive excesses much better than alternative artists.[16] I myself see nothing emancipating in farting in public and if I were invited, I would not participate in it.[17] In addition, I am today worried less about the oppression of the body and more about the lack of spirit. Nevertheless, I would still like to understand this project in the sense of it holding a mirror up to the authoritarian and growing equivalent of farting in public and it drawing on the reflection that carnival logic is today the dominant one. And thence an even more far-reaching reflection would be needed about how capitalism first suppressed the carnival, then adopted it and, in the perversion of perversion itself, as it were, globalised it.[18]
If I began with the split into spirit and body, which entails the rebellion of the body, its protest farting, then it is not enough that, in this opposition, we affirm the body, including farting, rather we have to remain loyal to that in the split, in the opposition, which never adds up. It is herein that lies the difficult task of materialism, which also has its political consequences.

[1] There is an excellent book in Slovenian on the relation between odour and spirit: Simon Hajdini, Kaj je ta duh? K filozofiji vonja, Ljubljana: Analecta 2016.
[2] For example, Dominique Laporte, History of Shit, translated by Nadia Benabid and Rodolphe el-Khoury. A Documents Book. Cambridge: MIT Press 2002.
[3] Jim Dawson, Who Cut the Cheese? A Cultural History of the Fart, Berkeley: Ten Speed Press/Random House 1999. The book was a relative success and was followed by the sequel Blame It on the Dog. A Modern History of the Fart, Ten Speed Press 2006.
[4] Aristophanes, The Frogs, translated by The Athenian Society,
[5] Aristophanes, The Clouds, translated by The Athenian Society,
[6] Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, translated by Hélène Iswolsky, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 1984.  
[7] Valerie Allen, On Farting. Language and Laughter in the Middle Ages, New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2007. – In addition to the two scholarly books by Allen and the above mentioned Dawson, there is a series of books and booklets that are collections of anecdotes, piquant stories and fart jokes, mostly published by obscure publishers, for example: Benjamin Bart, The History of Farting, London: Micheal O'Mara Books 1995; Scott A. Sorensen, Fart Dictionary, Philadelphia: Running Press 2011; Jean Feixas, Histoire du pet: De l'Antiquité à nos jours, Paris: Jean-Claude Gawsewitch 2008.
[8] For an analysis of the tradition of carnival culture in contemporary popular culture, cf. Izar Lunaček, Ciklična vera popularne kulture, Maribor: Aristej 2011. Lunaček also practises it as a comic book artist.
[9] “Out of the develes ers ther gonne dryve/ Twenty thousand freres on a route,/ And thurghout helle swarmed al aboute.” (1694–6)
[10] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales,
[11] In French, there are two terms to distinguish between a loud fart (le pet) and a quiet fart (la vesse), with pet being mostly used in the general sense. Here, the first is intended for men and the second for women.  
[12] François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, translated by Sir Thomas Urquhart of Cromarty and Peter Antony Motteux,
[13] Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life, edited and translated by Robert Spaethling, London, New York: ‎ W. W. Norton & Company 2005, p. 88–89. I cannot help but remember, with fondness and great sadness, Ivo Štandeker, who translated some of those letters with pleasure, zeal and skill; and who was killed by a grenade a year later while reporting from Sarajevo. This context might seem inappropriate, but Ivo would be most pleased with it.
[14] On this musical journey through the centuries, we have to at least mention the main star – Joseph Pujol (1857–1945), celebrated under the name Le Pétomane (Fartomaniac), the most famous virtuoso of farting. He began his career in 1892 at the Moulin Rouge, where Freud, among others, listened to him, and withdrew after World War I. His infamous career inspired musicals (for example, The Fartiste, 2006) and films (for example, Il Petomane, 1983, with Ugo Tognazzi).
[15] It was reprinted by the local community of Orehek pri Postojni, 2015.
[16] Terry Gilliam, the founding member of Monty Python, said about Trump: “Not even the pythons in their pomp of the 1960s could match the surreal insanity of the presidency. The reality is funnier than anything one can do.”
[17] In this regard, I am betraying my teacher Lacan, who, according to testimonies, had no problem farting in public. The most entertaining of the relevant anecdotes talks about Lacan frequenting the restaurant Le Vivarois, where the chef was called Peyrot. He was convinced that, with his farting and burping, Lacan used a play on words to evoke his name by syllables (pet, fart, rot, burping – which in French pronunciation together makes Pey-rot). A chef with an exceptional ear for psychoanalysis. Catherine Millot, Life with Lacan, Cambridge: Polity Press 2018, p. 28. – Lacan was, perhaps surprisingly, an avid reader of Rabelais.
[18] For the social and political dimensions of farting in the 18th century and the time of the French Revolution, cf. the exceptional paper by Pierre Bourdin, “Le son du corps, ou l'âme en pet”, Annales historiques de la Révolution française, no. 361/July–September 2010, p. 65–90. It is a very complex text about the role of farting in the epochal time of the Enlightenment and revolution, based on a thorough research of numerous sources, whose numbers are astonishingly high. Unfortunately, I cannot go into this here.

Translated by Maja Lovrenov

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