?

Log in

No account? Create an account

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
Farts: Benjamin Franklin answered
Signature
come_to_think
1.  A letter by Benjamin Franklin, 1781

To the Royal Academy of * * * * * [Brussels]

G E N T L E M E N,

  I have perused your late Mathematical Prize Question, proposed in lieu of one in Natural Philosophy, for the ensuing year, viz. "Une figure quelconque donnée, on demande d'y inscrire le plus grand nombre de fois possible une autre figure plus-petite quelconque, qui est aussi donnée."  I was glad to find these following Words, "l'Académie a jugé que cette découverte, en étendent les bornes de nos connoissances, ne seroit pas sans UTILITÉ", that you esteem Utility an essential Point in your Enquiries, which has not always been the case with all Academies; and I conclude therefore that you have given this Question instead of a philosophical, or as the Learned express it, a physical one, because you could not at the time think of a physical one that promis'd greater Utility.

  Permit me then humbly to propose one of that sort for your consideration, and through you, if you approve it, for the serious Enquiry of learned Physicians, Chemists, &c of this enlightened Age.

  It is universally well known, That in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind.

  That the permitting this Air to escape and mix with the Atmosphere, is usually offensive to the Company, from the fetid Smell that accompanies it.

  That well-bred People, therefore, to avoid giving such Offense, forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind.

  That so retain'd contrary to Nature, it not only gives frequently great present Pain, but occasions future Diseases, such as habitual Cholics, Ruptures, Tympanies, &c, often destructive of the Constitution, and sometimes of Life itself.

  Were it not for the odiously offensive Smell accompanying such Escapes, polite People would probably be under no more Restraint in discharging such Wind in company as they are in spitting, or in blowing their Noses.

  My Prize Question therefore should be, To discover some Drug wholesome and not disagreeable, to be mix'd with our common Food, or Sauces, that shall render the natural Discharges of Wind from our Bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreeable as Perfumes.

  That this is not a chimerical project, and altogether impossible, may appear from these Considerations.  That we already have some Knowledge of Means capable of Varying that Smell.  He that dines on stale Flesh, especially with much addition of Onions, shall be able to afford a Stink that no Company can tolerate; while he that has lived for some time on Vegetables only, shall have that Breath so pure as to be insensible to the most delicate Noses; and if he can manage so as to avoid the Réport, he may anywhere give Vent to his Griefs, unnoticed.  But as there are many to whom an entire Vegetable Diet would be inconvenient, and as a little Quick-lime thrown into a Jakes will correct the amazing Quantity of fetid Air arising from the vast mass of putrid Matter contain'd in such Places, who knows but that a little Powder of Lime (or some other thing equivalent) taken in our Food, or perhaps a Glass of Limewater drank at dinner, may have the same Effect on the Air produced in and issuing from our Bowels?  This is worth the Experiment.  Certain it is also that we have the Power of changing by slight Means the Smell of another Discharge, that of our Water.  A few stems of Asparagus eaten, shall give our Urine a disagreeable Odour; and a Pill of Turpentine no bigger than a Pea, shall bestow on it the pleasing Smell of Violets.  And why should it be thought more impossible in nature, to find a means of making a Perfume of our Wind than of our Water?

  For the Encouragement of this Enquiry, (from the immortal Honour to be reasonably expected by the Inventor) let it be considered of how small Importance to Mankind, or how small a part of Mankind have been useful those Discoveries in Science that have heretofore made Philosophers famous.  Are there twenty Men in Europe at this Day, the happier, or even the easier, for any Knowledge that they have pick'd out of Aristotle?  What Comfort can the Vortices of Descartes give to a Man who has Whirlwinds in his Bowels!  The Knowledge of Newton's mutual Attraction of the Particles of Matter, can it afford Ease to him who is rack'd by their mutual Repulsion, and the cruel Distensions it occasions?  The Pleasure arising to a few Philosophers, from seeing, a few Times in their Life, the Threads of Light untwisted, and separated by the Newtonian Prism into seven Colours, can it be compared with the Ease and comfort every Man living might feel seven times a Day, by discharging freely the Wind from his Bowels?  Especially if it be converted into a Perfume:  For the Pleasures of one Sense being little inferior to those of another, instead of pleasing the Sight he might delight the Smell of those about him, & make Numbers happy, which to a benevolent Mind must afford infinite Satisfaction.  The generous Soul, who now endeavours to find out whether the Friends he entertains like best Claret or Burgundy, Champagne or Madeira, would then enquire also whether they chose Musk or Lilly, Rose or Bergamot, and provide accordingly.  And surely such a Liberty or Ex-pressing one's Scent-iments, and pleasing one another, is of infinitely more Importance to human Happiness than that Liberty of the Press, or of abusing one another, which the English are so ready to fight and die for. --- In short, this Invention, if compleated, would be, as Bacon expresses it, bringing Philosophy home to Mens Business and Bosoms.  And I cannot but conclude, that in Comparison therewith, for universal and continual UTILITY, the Science of the Philosophers abovementioned, even with the Addition, Gentlemen, of your "Figure quelconque" and the Figures inscrib'd in it, are, all together, scarcely worth a F A R T-H I N G.

2.  From my journal, 17 June 1972

Once, at a meeting [at a commune I was about to join], it was mentioned that we could not plan to have a compost privy in the children's bldg until we had operated the one now being built for a while & satisfied ourselves that it did not stink.  I objected:  Assuming that the smell is not so strong as to be painful, why sh'd sane children be annoyed by a bathroom's smelling of shit, any more than by a kitchen's smelling of food?  The others ... wrinkled up their sophisticated noses at this suggestion, & opined that the smell of H2S and NH3 is inherently objectionable.  But I still think I am right.  Small children are so far from being repelled that they will actually eat shit if they are not prevented from it; the usual explanation is that their noses are insensitive, but it may well be the lack of a culturally acquired horror & loathing.  It is widely remarked among adults that no-one dislikes the smell of [his or her] own shit: & what self-esteem can achieve in the competitive world, mutual esteem shd be able to achieve in our cooperative one.  My guess is that the loathing of shit, like that of homosexuality, starts with a human instinct but is magnified (where it might better be attenuated) as part of puritanical society's apparatus for the prevention of intimacy.  In ourselves, its extinction must be very difficult, & is to be assigned a lower priority than that of more dangerous instincts such as competition; but I see no reason our children should not grow up with olfactory tastes as generous as their sexual ones.  Of course, shit is an important pathway for disease, & children should be taught to treat it with proper caution, but the emotions with which we respond to it now are beyond all necessity.

Also, as [Paul] Goodman points out, there is a connection & not merely an analogy with sexual liberation, for the propaganda of the "wholesome" school, that sex is not dirty, is a plain lie:  Inter urinas et faeces nascimur (Augustine), and love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement (Yeats -- another dirty old man); we can only go part way by making sex less dirty, and beyond that we must make dirt less horrible.

I have long intended to write an essay on this subject, in the form of a reply to B. Franklin's notorious Brussels letter --- the counterargument being that we could more easily & efficaciously get to like farts as they are than change their smell to that of violets.  And another point of it, wh. I w'd leave tacit, w'd be that the language of the 18th Century has not been much improved on as a medium for even the most radical & modern analyses of humankind.

3.  My reply at last

My Dear Dr FRANKLIN,

  It is easy to imagine that in your present Abode, the Research propos'd in your Letter to the Royal Academy at Brussels must be the Subject of occasional amusing Conversation, whilst you bear with heavenly Patience the Impossibility of further Experiment into the Matter, until the Resurrection of the Body.  Here on Earth, (as no Doubt you are aware) it is altogether neglected, whereas the Question actually propos'd by the Academy, being (as it anticipated) of commercial Importance, has been pursued with fair Vigor, and in our Day is even answer'd with the Help of electrical Contrivances.

  Now I doubt not, that the Success of your Project would be a great Boon to many.  I knew, indeed, a sometime Atheist (an old ****, as the vulgar might call him in our Day) who, being at length convinc'd of his Error, first employ'd the Opportunity, to thank his new-found _Maker_ for the continual Consolation of breaking Wind, and only secondly thought to express Gratitude for the timely Grace that had (he might hope) sav'd him from eternal Torment.  There is scarce any of the Disasters of Life, he us'd to say (except perhaps a Marriage-ceremony), that is not somewhat mitigated by a resounding ****.  What is Life, he would go on, but what a Body does, to fill the Time between ****s?  And what Luxury can match that of a sudden ****, whereby we enjoy the Relief of a Pain, without having suffer'd sensibly the Pain itself?

  Nor do I doubt, that the great Progress of Physiology in our Age, will presently issue in the Possibility of altering the Chymistry of our Gut for the Pleasure of our Guests or Hosts.  Indeed, so exquisite does our Understanding promise to become, that I dare say Persons already born may, in their Life-time, hope to afford, for an Evening's Hospitality, an entire Body thin or fat, male or female, bare, hairy or downy.  But before we put ourselves to the Expence of any such Contrivance, ought we not in all Prudence to consider how far it will actually go to increase human Happiness?

  It is common Experience in the Practice of Hospitality & Conviviality, that Effort in divining & satisfying one's Fellows' Desires, tho' important, must not be made the entire Height of our Ars-spirations, but will beyond a Point become wearying, and be better spent by each in cultivating Amusement at his own & others' Ars-sperities (perhaps with the Help of a little Drink).  How many little Burdens, indeed, are laid on us by those who are eager to please, and how many we are reliev'd of by those who are easy to please!  Might the Labour of Reformation be spent more economically on altering our Perception of our Neighbor's Wind, than on altering the Composition of our own?

  And that this Project need not be chimerical, is shewn by the Fact (so well remark'd, that it must only be from Delicacy if Poor Richard has not set it down) that no Man mislikes the Smell of his own Discharge, though it be of the same Composition as another's, and stronger through greater Propinquity.  Now what natural, or Self Love accomplishes so easily and certainly, might not artificial, or Christian Love accomplish with some Regularity, if Society seconded that Love with its Approbation (as it sometimes does in other Departments of Life), instead of turning up its Nose at so benign a Project?

  As a first Trial, suppose that, on detecting another's wind, one essayed imagining it to be one's own, and practic'd till that alter'd one's Perception of the Odor --- perhaps with a Modicum of divine Assistance, which might be sought with the Help of a little Prayer along the Way.  Might one not, in all Piety, have Hope for the Success of so charitable an Experiment?

  Such an Application of Science to Art, and oF ART to Courtesy, will surely go FAR To improve the Amenity of social Intercourse.

Yours faithfully,

  • 1
(Deleted comment)
Of course, I was having fun --- as was Dr Franklin.

Bathing is one of a number of things that used to be luxuries but that civilization has converted into duties or necessities. Ascetics used to abstain from it as they abstained from fancy food, etc. Now that cleanliness is next to Godliness, I suppose they must instead take cold showers in the winter & hot ones in the summer.

As I mentioned in passing in my reply to Franklin, the taboo on shit and other dirt has been enormously valuable in enforcing sanitation, which has arguably done more to improve health that the whole medical profession has. Kipling memorializes, in "Natural Theology", the time when cleanliness & Godliness were at opposite poles:

My privy and well drain into each other
After the custom of Christendie. . . .
Fevers and fluxes are wasting my mother.
Why has the Lord afflicted me?

IIRC it wasn't just saints: ordinary monks took pride in such things. Russell says, in his description of 4th-century monasticism: "Cleanliness was viewed with abhorrence. Lice were called 'pearls of God,' and were a mark of saintliness. Saints, male and female, would boast that water had never touched their feet except when they had to cross rivers."

  • 1