The best scatological words are onomatopoetic. There. That sentence should remove any chance of sounding as gleeful as a fifth-grade boy who just learned to make his armpit fart. (Or should that party trick have a different name, as its toot arrives reeking only of boy body odor?) I tried using the medical definition first, but “flatus expelled through the anus” only makes me want to giggle, which takes us right back to fifth grade.
I was a gassy child, tormented daily by the fear that a squeak would escape. “Letting one rip,” the boys called it, far easier with the flesh than I. My poor mother, appalled by bodily functions but eager to raise a healthy child, made an effort to find pleasant euphemisms. She especially liked “breaking wind,” though I could not imagine a wind that fragile. Punch it hard, slap it or hurl it away from you, and it only kept blowing. An early lesson in implacable nature.
Today, I can laugh. I squeak, my husband squeaks, friends in yoga class squeak. Even the dog squeaks, darts a bemused glance at his hindquarters, then looks at us as though we did it. But when I was a child, these scandalous sounds and smells felt more like mortification than an impromptu symphony.
By the time I reached my teens, I was hotly defensive. Why did people act like passing gas was rude? (And why did they use “pass,” the verb of death?) Bodies have air inside, sometimes too much air. It is not our fault that this air smells like a rind of Limburger dunked in a sewer.
How much pain and frustration I could have saved myself, had I tossed aside Nancy Drew years earlier and picked up brainy Benjamin Franklin. Namely, a short anthology of his lesser-known writings, titled Fart Proudly. It opens with a rather awful poem that identifies its intended audience as “He that is conscious of/A Stink in his Breeches.”
Merrily, Franklin proceeds. He pens “A letter to a Royal Academy,” in which he reminds other enlightened scientists of the universal fact that “in digesting our common Food, there is created or produced in the Bowels of human Creatures, a great Quantity of Wind.” Fetid wind, offensive to others—especially after the consumption of “stale Flesh, especially with much Addition of Onions.” This causes the well-bred to “forcibly restrain the Efforts of Nature to discharge that Wind.” And the reward for their delicacy? Diseases, ruptures, and tympanies (?) “often destructive of the Constitution, & sometimes of Life itself.”
That might sound melodramatic, had I not just glanced at the questions on Google: “What is in a fart?” “Why do I keep farting?” “Why do my farts smell so bad?” Kind children’s authors are now easing anxieties with Freddie the Farting Snowman and Frank the Farting Flamingo: A Story About a Flamingo Who Farts. For adults, pandemic lockdown brought the creation of a tongue-in-cheek website for the Invisible College of Experimental Flatology, complete with a clever slider that lets you create dramatic new fart sounds. Angst lingers in the air, however: one article notes a distressing connection between loudness, odor, and humidity, observing that farts redolent of hydrogen sulfide tend to be both louder and wetter.
And with that, let us return to Franklin, who proposes a Prize Question as a challenge to his pretend Academy. Discover a wholesome drug that can be mixed with food to render the wind as agreeable as perfume. After all, he continues, a few Stems of Asparagus can change the scent of our Water; why not find a way to alter our Wind? He defends his proposal staunchly, pointing out how many people it would ease. “Are there twenty Men in Europe at this Day, the happier, or even the easier, for any Knowledge they have picked out of Aristotle? What Comfort can the Vortices of Descartes give to a Man who has Whirlwinds in his Bowels?”
With his customary flair for society, Franklin sketches a future in which a host, after inquiring whether his guest preferred Claret or Burgundy, would then ask whether they prefer “Musk or Lilly, Rose or Bergamot, and provide accordingly.”
I close the book smiling. Soon I will break wind, and I will do so with majestic force, as Prospero summoned a storm in The Tempest. Flatus is “a blowing,” and why not let the winds blow through our bodies? The odor is indeed unfortunate, an unhappy reminder that eye of newt and toe of frog might as well be stirring in the cauldron beneath our skin. But the esteemed Doctor Franklin has managed a bit of alchemy, not by inspiring a new pharmaceutical invention (we have so few), but simply by addressing this bit of human nature with a schoolboy’s relish.
To me, this seems the best possible use of celebrity. People we already admire can speak freely about what might otherwise shame us. Dreaded cancers in unspeakable places, icky and unfortunate quirks of the flesh, addictions and affairs and insecurities. Not only do we permit them to raise such topics, but we find it endearing, and their glow is not the least bit diminished in the aftermath.
We make them gods, and they help us to be mortal.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.