For God's sake, let's not spit upon the ground

Click to follow
The Independent Online

How long is it since we discussed Norse mythology in this column? A year? Two years? Shows what a powerful distraction from matters of true importance world events can be. This would seem to be a good week, anyway – with paltering and equivocation all around us – to return to the eternal verities. As for example, spitting. Not just spitting as it is performed by a Liverpool footballer who doesn't like what rival supporters have been shouting at him, but spitting in a wider context. Which takes us back to Norse mythology.

How long is it since we discussed Norse mythology in this column? A year? Two years? Shows what a powerful distraction from matters of true importance world events can be. This would seem to be a good week, anyway – with paltering and equivocation all around us – to return to the eternal verities. As for example, spitting. Not just spitting as it is performed by a Liverpool footballer who doesn't like what rival supporters have been shouting at him, but spitting in a wider context. Which takes us back to Norse mythology.

Weary with war, the gods sit down and spit into a bowl. This is one of the ways Norse deities signal a truce. (Perhaps some day the French and the Americans will sit down together and spit. Into a bowl, I mean.) Out of the agglomerated god-spit, meanwhile, arises the giant Kvasir, a symbol of peace and harmony.

Move on a little in the narrative and Kvasir is murdered by the dwarves Fjalar and Galar, who have things they want to do with his blood, given its origin in divine spittle. Mixed with honey, bottled and fermented, Kvasir's juices become a mead for both gods and poets. When the gods drink it, which is tantamount to drinking themselves, they become quickly inebriated, and no sooner do the poets sip than they are inspired to verse.

Thus does spit lead at last to art.

There is considerable wisdom in this. We do not achieve greatness by escaping our bodily condition but by accepting it. We are holy by virtue of what makes us base. It's all in Dostoevsky. It's all in Philip Roth, too. There is a remarkable scene in Roth's great novel Sabbath's Theatre, in which the hero urinates and later masturbates on to the grave of a woman he deeply loved. A shocking conceit. Blasphemy and adoration yoked in the most disturbing manner. As though to remind us that the fluids in which we have our being, and through which we know and love, are themselves the springs of our sacredness, the means whereby we most approximate to gods.

So far so good. And the difference between Kvasir and Mickey Sabbath on the one hand, and El Hadji Diouf of Senegal and Liverpool on the other? Spirit. The difference between sacrament and spite.

Altogether, sportsmen spit too much. I understand the justification. Phlegm. You run up and down a lot, in the main to no effect, so you need to clear your pipes. But I have seen cricketers in the current World Cup spitting even though they haven't moved a muscle for an hour. And the act never looks anything but aggressive, a summoning up of spleen, an evacuation of bile – the expulsion of every bad thing in your body. It goes with the sledging and the glaring and the pointing opponents back to the pavilion.

"Ah, now it's getting interesting," the commentators say, as though cricket isn't really cricket until the abuse starts. We don't do this in table tennis. We say "well played", smile, pat one another on the back, and try, if we possibly can, to lose. It's polite to lose. It means you are keeping within yourself, where it belongs, the poisonous avidity we call wanting to win. But you can win too, if you have to, and not feel the need to spit. The two are not mutually dependent.

Spitting is culturally determined. Footballers spit because they think they should. It goes with shaving your head and taking your shirt off when you score. You exist to be an affront. Watch a football match up close and you will observe, during a lull in play, all 22 players having a practice spit. Sometime the referee as well. Occasionally the linesmen. It is a moral infection. The real mystery is that they don't get around to spitting at the crowd more often, since spitting on the ground in public is no more than a metaphor for spitting in someone's face.

This, I take it, is one of the reasons spitting is illegal in Singapore. Readers of this column – free-spirited and well-travelled – will no doubt wish to remind me that everything in Singapore is illegal, but that's a calumny. In the main, providing you are wearing clothes befitting your sex, you will be apprehended in Singapore only for smoking in a public place, throwing litter, importing chewing gum, failing to flush a toilet after use, and spitting in the street. And what possible exception can you take to any of those prohibitions? A man may be as libertarian as he chooses, but if his chewing gum or his spittle ends up on my shoe, no punishment is too severe for him.

I do not, notice, say "her". By and large, women are not spitters. This may be because they have no penises and are therefore born without the impulse to spray. I am in no position to judge. But they clearly understand the ill-intentionedness of spitting and eschew it.

Whether that has always been the case on mainland China I do not know. But there, too, despite China's differences with Singapore, attempts have been made to persuade citizens to keep their phlegm to themselves. The Four Beauties and Five Stresses linked spitting to social degradation. In order to beautify the mind, you must stress courtesy and decorum, and spitting is not decorous.

Last week, on television, I watched a group of women slow hand-clapping the Prime Minister, for no other reason than that on the subject of Iraq he didn't feel as they did. A gratuitous discourtesy to him personally, I thought, and to the office he holds. Not quite spitting (they were women, after all), but the intention was similar – to asperse. And was the more shocking given the high-mindedness of those who did the aspersing.

Spitting together in a bowl for peace, expressing anguish by pissing on a grave – these start low and finish high. Those who proceed from a high idea of themselves, however, invariably finish low.

We should remember what we are made of.

Comments