Knee-Deep

Knee-Deep
Knee-Deep

The fate of a Slovene Communist revolutionary serves as a perfect metaphor for the twists of Stalinism. In 1943, when Italy capitulated, he led a rebellion of Yugoslav prisoners in a concentration camp on the Adriatic island of Rab: 2000 starving prisoners disarmed 2200 Italian soldiers. After the war, he was arrested and put in a prison on Goli otok (‘Naked Island’), a notorious Communist concentration camp near Rab. While he was there, he and other prisoners were detailed to build a monument to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the 1943 rebellion on Rab. As a prisoner of the Communists, he was building a monument to himself and the rebellion he’d led. If poetic injustice means anything, this is it. The fate of this revolutionary was surely the fate of the people as a whole under Stalinist dictatorship: the millions who overthrew the ancien régime, and were then forced to build monuments to their own revolutionary past.

Timothy Garton Ash would appreciate this tragicomic accident: it comes close to the spirit of ethically engaged irony that permeates his best work. Although he is my political opponent, I always consider him worth reading for his wealth of precise observations, and as a reliable source on the vicissitudes of the disintegration of Eastern European Communism. In Free World he has taken the same perspicuous and bitterly witty approach to the conundrums of the recent tensions between the key Western European states and the US. His aperçus about the relations between the UK, France and Germany often recall the gentle irony of a novel of manners, giving a new twist to the old topic of the ‘European trinity’.

In a famous scene from Buñuel’s Phantom of Liberty, the roles of eating and excreting are inverted: people sit at toilets around a table, chatting pleasantly, and when they want to eat, sneak away to a small room. So, as a supplement to Lévi-Strauss, one is tempted to propose that shit can also serve as a matière-à-penser: the three basic types of toilet form an excremental correlative-counterpoint to the Lévi-Straussian triangle of cooking (the raw, the cooked and the rotten). In a traditional German toilet, the hole into which shit disappears after we flush is right at the front, so that shit is first laid out for us to sniff and inspect for traces of illness. In the typical French toilet, on the contrary, the hole is at the back, i.e. shit is supposed to disappear as quickly as possible. Finally, the American (Anglo-Saxon) toilet presents a synthesis, a mediation between these opposites: the toilet basin is full of water, so that the shit floats in it, visible, but not to be inspected. No wonder that in the famous discussion of European toilets at the beginning of her half-forgotten Fear of Flying, Erica Jong mockingly claims that ‘German toilets are really the key to the horrors of the Third Reich. People who can build toilets like this are capable of anything.’ It is clear that none of these versions can be accounted for in purely utilitarian terms: each involves a certain ideological perception of how the subject should relate to excrement.

Hegel was among the first to see in the geographical triad of Germany, France and England an expression of three different existential attitudes: reflective thoroughness (German), revolutionary hastiness (French), utilitarian pragmatism (English). In political terms, this triad can be read as German conservatism, French revolutionary radicalism and English liberalism. In terms of the predominance of one sphere of social life, it is German metaphysics and poetry versus French politics and English economics. The point about toilets is that they enable us not only to discern this triad in the most intimate domain, but also to identify its underlying mechanism in the three different attitudes towards excremental excess: an ambiguous contemplative fascination; a wish to get rid of it as fast as possible; a pragmatic decision to treat it as ordinary and dispose of it in an appropriate way. It is easy for an academic at a round table to claim that we live in a post-ideological universe, but the moment he visits the lavatory after the heated discussion, he is again knee-deep in ideology.

[Extract. Appeared in London Review of Books on September 2nd 2004.]

Tell us what you think...