A Happening Thing
by Hillel Schwartz

Bumper stickers tell us that "Shit happens." Do we need another bumper sticker: "Fat happens"?


In previous months I have considered the repercussions of the discovery of a "fat gene" and the currency of images of fat people as indelibly consigned to, or condemned by, their obesity. This essay, however, is no summer rerun about fat and fate. Rather, I hope to make some sense of our culture's unsavory ideas about the origin of fat.

Shit, of course, comes of having eaten, and none should take offense at my invoking shit in the same paragraph as fat, for fat too, from a purely physiological perspective, comes of having eaten. No food or drink, no shit, no fat. This is (isn't it?) a neutral, unemotional, scientific statement.

The motto, "Shit happens," would also seem on its surface to be neutral, passionless, and if not purely physiological, then purely reportorial: shit happens, that's a fact, and that's that.

But you and I know that that's not that. The motto would lack all strength and staying power were "that" merely "that." In 1742 a thirty-three-year-old French inventor, Jacques de Vaucanson, produced a life-size mechanical duck that shat. Earlier he had constructed a life-size automaton flute player whose inner gears and bellows demonstrated elegantly how the flow of air through (artificial) lungs, windpipe and mouth could produce pleasing instrumental music. The exquisite mechanism of the flute player made Vaucanson famous across Europe. Next he built and displayed a pipe-and-drum player. Then-the third time is always magical-he set in motion his automaton duck, which drank, quacked, spread its tail, opened and flapped its wings, stretched out its neck to the ground to eat some grain and, a few moments later, excreted a wet greenish mass.

Highly popular and profitable, the mechanical duck was taken on tour from court to royal court around the Continent. What young Vaucanson was most proud of and what most excited his 18thcentury audiences was not the vigorous flapping of wings, not the quacking, not even the gobbling of the grain. It was the shitting. "The food is digested as in the real animal, by dissolution," wrote Vaucanson with the double pride of an engineer and a godfather. "[T]he material digested in the stomach is conducted by tubes, as in the animal by the bowels, to the anus where there is a sphincter which allows for its voiding."

The interior of the duck, unlike the interiors of those audioanimatronic figures found at Disneyworld, was left open to view, so that everyone could see the gears and pulleys, stomachbox and coiled tubes that stood in for the muscles, tissue, organs, and intestines of a real duck. Every spectator could thus be witness to the amazing process by which, schematically, food became excrement. Shit did not just happen; it was manufactured. The drama lay in the climactic turnabout, where the fragrant suddenly became the foul.

Vaucanson was exhibiting his duck at just that time when French scientists, engineers, physicians, philosophers, and public servants were beginning to catalogue, classify, and worry over industrial effluvia, odors, human waste, and offal. As historian Alain Corbin has shown in The Foul and the Fragrant, it would take sixty years and more for the French effectively to clean up some of the muck in which city-dwellers had been living for centuries. In the meantime, the essences of flowers and animal oils were dicocted and distilled for more potent perfumes, etiquette demanded more scrupulous attention to personal hygiene, and Vaucanson's unrelenting duck revealed (to some extent) the secret of the transformation of healthy grain into shit.

It almost had to be a Frenchman who produced such a duck. After all, it was the French who stuffed geese (and ducks) to produce oversize livers for their paté de foie gras. And it was the French gourmet, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who would write in The Physiology of Taste (1825), after a chapter on "shooting luncheons" where guests munched on paté and bagged duck, that "Of all corporeal operations, digestion is the one which has the most powerful influence on the mental state of the individual." Brillat-Savarin went on, "In this respect it would be possible to separate the civilized portion of mankind into three great divisions, namely, the regular, the constipated, and the lax." He elaborated: "According to my theory, comic poets will be found among the regular, tragic poets among the constipated, and pastoral and elegiac poets among the lax."

I know of no other philosophy which puts such weight upon the final stage of digestion. There may be a few scopophiliacs among us, and hunters have learned to read bear scat, but no one else has gone so far as to divide the literary or civilized world into those who do and do not need to use laxatives or Preparation H. Around 1900, Sigmund Freud began considering what we have come to call the anal-retentive personality, and in the 1960s the neoFreudian Erik Erikson would center his psychobiography of Martin Luther upon Luther's conversion experience while defecating and Luther's conflation of money with shit, but such scatological fixations are, to psychoanalysts, rather a problem than a noteworthy solution. Around 1900 also, Horace Fletcher, "the Great Masticator," and his disciple John Harvey Kellogg (of the original Corn Flakes), bragged of personal digestive powers so efficient as to reduce their evacuations to dry odorless pellets, but even they neglected to construct the world of poets or politicians in terms of the ease and regularity of bowel movements.

A wealthy and widely admired country judge who had been chosen to the Parlement on the verge of the French Revolution, BrillatSavarin may have been waxing extreme. No matter: his love of flourishes, like his love of fine broths, points up the import of Vaucanson's duck. The cultural significance of the digestive system during the Enlightenment derived from its marvelous though entirely mechanical/chemical reduction of the edible world into what was essential and what was inessential. The essential it absorbed, invisibly; the inessential it expelled-in a form recognizable (by 1800) as useless and repulsive: disagreeable odor, disagreeable color, disagreeable texture. Shitting was the last sequence of the process by which matter was masterfully transformed by the digestive tract: the expulsion of dross.

I know of no recent automata, and certainly none on public view, that proceed through each of the digestive motions and offer up, at the end, a wet turd. Most contemporary literary and cinematic fictions about automata, however, draw upon Mary Shelley's Frankenstein of 1818, a story which is all about transformation and expulsion. Dr. Victor Frankenstein's creation is monstrous in part because, thinks Victor, the transformative act has gone awry, and dead flesh has been given life without soul. A figure of size, proportion and (perhaps) texture disagreeable to human society, the creature suffers a series of expulsions, ending up alone in the frozen reaches of the arctic.

Shelley knew of Vaucanson's automata and of later automata designed in Switzerland, where, on vacation with her husband, the poet Percy Bysse Shelley, she wrote her "ghost story." Like a true Romantic, she reversed the polarities of these Enlightenment automata and rendered mysterious and terrifying the vivifying, transformative acts that Vaucanson had presented as rational yet surprising, natural yet mechanical, comforting yet intriguing.

What does any of this have to do with shit happening? First off, it has to do with predictability: if all went well inside the duck, shit would happen. Secondly, it has to do with those paradoxes which modern philosophy now associates with being natural: it is "only natural" for a duck who has eaten (even a mechanical duck who has gone through the motions of eating) eventually to shit; shit happening validates the mechanical duck as an imitation of Nature and, paradoxically, as a lively, nearorganic system. Thirdly, it has to do with the mystery of reducing things to their essences: during digestion, bad substance is removed from good substance by some complex chemistry which Vaucanson neither understood nor attempted to reproduce; what was crucial for audiences to observe, at last, was that shit did happen.

I want to propose that fat happens in our society in much the same way as shit happened in Vaucanson's duck. First off, people seem to think that fat is predictable: you eat too much, you exercise too little, you fail to heed the nutrition pyramid and nutrient labels on cereal boxes and ice cream lids, and you get fat-or, more precisely, fat gets you. Fat happens to you. Inside every thin person is Fat, just waiting to happen.

Secondly, people imagine fat as paradoxically natural and unnatural. It's human biology for excess nutrients to be stored as fat, and it's natural for humans to store fat in anticipation of seasons of dearth and famine, which not long ago were frequent and severe. Nonetheless, fat is unnatural because it doesn't really fit in with the pace of modern life-so, spurned, it gangs up on you, clogging your arteries, blocking your lungs, infiltrating your heart, dragging you down.

Thirdly, people seem to believe that protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals are invaluable essences, but that fat is an excrescence which must be pummeled, pounded, diluted, broken up or impounded and then eliminated. You don't want to see any fat in you or on you; you want to see it shed.

I also suspect that fat happens in American society in no less an incomprehensible if natural way than shit happened in Vaucanson's duck. Few lay people in 1996 can explain the physiology of fat, explain how it happens, trace the paths by which it settles where it does, or detail its chemical versions, monoglyceride, diglyceride, triglyceride, saturated, unsaturated, polyunsaturated . . . What's crucial is to see it to its end.

Finally, following up the argument in my previous column, I would suggest that fat, internal and external, has been assigned many of the sensory qualities we have for two centuries been associating with shit: disagreeable odor (from sweat or the propensity of fat people to fart, or by analogy to certain animal and vegetable oils like cod liver oil and rancid cooking oil); disagreeable color (the paleness, yellowness, or puffy greyness of fat); disagreeable texture (stringy as suet, messy as maggots, mushy as bad porridge, or greasy as a cheap pomade).

In the 18th century, remedies for obesity implied that one could get rid of fat in the same manner as one expelled urine or feces, so diuretics, enemas, and laxatives, already in fashion for other complaints, were prescribed as fat-reducers along with horseback riding and the taking of drastic purgatives. Today, many of the same remedies remain in popular use, along with miracle drugs or herbs whose selling-point is the promise that deliciously fatty foods will be passed directly along to the colon so that no calories or fats will be absorbed. Dieters hope their binges may pass as swiftly out as they came in.

Only if we dare to consider the cultural equation of fat with shit are we likely to appreciate the depth of feeling that lies beneath attacks upon people who are "overweight," "chubby," or "obese." Brillat-Savarin, for all his delight in food and his admiration for a "perfect degree of plumpness," regarded his own paunch "as a redoubtable enemy." "I have beaten it and reduced it to majestic proportions," he wrote in 1825; "but in order to beat it I had to fight it, and whatever merit this work contains, I owe to a struggle of thirty years duration." His battle, however, was engaged on behalf of a genial table well furnished and delicately served. So long as he was regular, some plumpness was nothing to be ashamed of, it was perhaps his due.

Now, in the 1990s, fat happens as a sort of revenge. The bumper sticker, "Shit happens," is simultaneously a warning, a consolation, and an assertion of bravado. A warning-that it is inevitable. A consolation-that it is inevitable. An assertion of bravado-that nevertheless one goes on. Fat happens in a nastier mode, ostensibly punishing a man or woman with ugliness, immobility, loneliness, and death. Indeed, "shit" may no longer be so fearsome a word or so dreadful a substance as "fat." After all, "no shit!" is an expression of wonderment, admiration, or confirmation, and shit itself has been implicated in the more positive aspects of recycling. Fat may well be our new excrement.

No shit. ß


HILLEL SCHWARTZ received his Ph.D. in history from Yale University. He has taught history, religious studies, and dance improvisation at several universities, including the University of California at San Diego. He currently lives and writes in Encinitas, California. His book "Never Satisfied-A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat" is regarded as a milestone in the Size Acceptance movement. Dr. Schwartz' deeply philosophical perusings of size issues are a treat to those who appreciate true brilliance.



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