Stop pretending that we have lost our prudishness

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The Independent Online

I've been reading Saint-Simon's memoirs of the court of Louis XIV, which I'd always imagined to be a stiffly brocaded book of propriety and good taste. It turns out to be a complete riot, full of stories of duchesses getting into fist-fights and all sorts of ceaseless bad behaviour. But what's struck me is how interested he is in what is still a distinctly embarrassing subject; worse than interested, how prepared he is to write about it. I'm talking about shit.

One funny story after another revolves around the lavatory. The Duc de Richelieu scuppers an immense argument about precedence because he had had a lavement that morning, and "asked in a great hurry to go to my closet, where he left an action of such colossal proportions that the bowl could scarcely contain it". Twenty years later, he crops up again, demanding to be let out of a session of Parlement to go to the bog; "I began to tremble for his breeches, and even more for my own nose."

Though the Princesse d'Harcourt "never denied herself the use of the convenience on leaving table, she sometimes allowed herself no time to reach it at leisure, leaving a dreadful trail behind her". After the Battle of Oudenarde, the Duc de Vendome sacrifices the respect of his men by "letting down his breeches and there and then planting his stools quite close to the troops as he watched them go by".

Quite an eye-opener if you thought of the court of the Roi Soleil as a high point in civilisation. But it's made me wonder about the neglect of the subject by literature. Children are often greatly puzzled, when they first come to read a book, that no mention is ever made of anyone going to the loo. And it remains an astonishingly rare event in fiction. No one ever goes to the lav in Jane Austen - how did they manage, that long afternoon on Box Hill in Emma? Perhaps, like Lady Montdore in Love in a Cold Climate, they "go once in the morning and that is that - I don't have to be let out like a dog at intervals".

Until we accompany Bloom into the privy in Ulysses, there is almost no comment on the matter in English fiction. When the frumenty-woman in The Mayor of Casterbridge denounces Henchard in the courtroom, she is being prosecuted for "committing a public nuisance", and that is that. Proust talks about it, as he talks about everything, of course; there is a very Proustian, though rather disgusting, page about the lift-boy's sister in "Sodome et Gomorrhe", who has become "a fine lady" and "never leaves a hotel without relieving herself first in a wardrobe or a drawer, just to leave a little keepsake with the chambermaid who'll have to clean up".

You can see why the demands of propriety kept 19th-century novelists from including the most ordinary fact of life from their pages. What is odd is that it remains a very powerful taboo. The fact that it is a cultural taboo, and not a universal one, is shown by the fact that writers from other cultures include it quite ordinarily. Tanizaki's The Makioka Sisters concludes with the observation, offered as a delicately ironic joke, that "Yukiko's diarrhoea persisted through the twenty-sixth, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo".

Even now, novelists do not and, seemingly, will not talk about it. The occasional novel that does include the subject, such as T Coraghessan Boyle's The Road To Wellville or Paul Theroux's Millroy The Magician, is apt to strike the reader as wildly eccentric. Novelists feel themselves free to talk about the facts of sex in clinical detail, but they shrink from other facts. Feminists have told us for decades that menstruation is a fact of the foremost interest, but how many novelists have written well about it since Thomas Mann's traumatic The Black Swan? Freud taught us that shit is not a trivial or uninteresting fact; it is something which formed the infant's mind, and goes on informing psychology. And we don't write about it.

I'm not necessarily recommending that everyone makes a conscious effort to write about it. I mean, if one only talks about these matters in the most intimate domestic circumstances, if at all, it isn't going to be easy to read or write about them. And yet they are interesting, if disgusting, and it does no good to pretend otherwise.

What I am recommending, is a frank recognition of our hypocrisy and squeamishness, and an end to our pretence that, if we don't mind talking endlessly about sex and death, we have lost all of our 19th-century prudishness.

We may be prudish about odd things; we are prudish about talking about money, about shit, about all sorts of things. It does no good to pretend otherwise; and if we got rid of those taboos, the odd human desire to be prudish would roam around restlessly until it found some other thing, some even odder thing, that we could all agree not to talk or write about.