We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
“Were I a coprophage, I would swallow W—— G—— whole, as he is the most putrid, nut-studded shitloaf of a professor I’ve ever had the misfortune of taking.” Thus began the last teacher evaluation I’d ever write, my envoi to the storied student life. I’ve kept track of that sentence for more than a decade. At times I’ve been proud of its fitness for the task at hand (no esprit de l’escalier there!), at times dismayed by its meanness and immaturity. But on the whole it offers a coded glimpse of the cuspy moment when I would soon angrily, fearfully divest myself of five-and-a-half largely wasted years of schooling and discover, with an avidity that equally bespoke thirst and ignorance, what things there were outside the lab and what words there were to describe them.
Now, along comes Scripps Institution of Oceanography marine biology Professor Ralph A. Lewin to cast my modest bit of scatography in a different light. “It has been calculated,” he writes in Merde: Excursions in Scientific, Cultural, and Socio-Historical Coprology, “that human feces retain some 8 percent of the calorific value of the food originally ingested, but this of course depends on the diet of the excreter.” Assuming that my pedagogical dung-golem weighed 170 pounds, was indeed formed of human waste, in fact was made from the soil of a hypothetical diner who favored Bush’s Best Baked Beans Original Style above all other sources of nutriment (let’s forget those pesky nuts), that these beans, “Seasoned with Bacon and Brown Sugar,” produce caloric retention according to the 8 percent ideal, and that there exists a 1-to-1 correspondence between mass of food ingested and mass of ordure produced (untrue unless a detour was made around the bladder, but theoreticians are accustomed to this sort of simplification), he would offered up roughly 7,000 units of caloric life. Gulping him at one go would have thus netted me (discounting the energy expended in enacting such a feat) the caloric equivalent of roughly five McDonald’s meals, each consisting of Big Mac, Super-Size Fries, and a 32-ounce Coke. Consider, though, that I’d have ingested an entire person worth of “dark matter,” and it’s clear that Dr. G. would be the ideal diet food, “hot lunching” soon to become the eating disorder of the new millennium.
I think it’s fair to say that if you followed that little Gedankenexperiment or, worse, have returned from the pantry, can in hand, and are attempting to check the math, you may number yourself among Lewin’s potential readers. It may be, as “Leonardo da Vinci once pointed out, cynically but probably correctly, that for most people their only useful contribution to society is to their local cesspit,” but only a few will want to ponder the exact nature of their donation and where it fits into the grand scheme of biological ejecta.
A friend of mine used to get together with some local-drinking, global-thinking associates and debate geographic extremes. A favorite topic: What body of water would you least like to be thrown overboard into? Options were weighed, predatory and climatic dangers were debated, but consensus was reached: the Bay of Bengal at the mouth of the Ganges. Lewin knows the reason: “It is estimated that, even today, some 230 million gallons of raw sewage enter the Ganges daily, with inestimable detriment to those who use the waters for their religious or sanitary ablutions.” A striking figure, to be sure, but is this datum even among the top quartile, in terms of cocktail-party value, of facts and anecdotes in a book that lets drop such gems as “[A] coprophilous (and perhaps nearsighted) cane toad has been filmed in Australia earnestly trying to copulate with a horse dropping” and “[A]mong the most fragrant coffees of Java are reputed to be those made by roasting beans that have passed through the intestinal tracts of civets” and “Llama dung…is still used to fire the motors of a steamer plying the waters of Lake Titicaca in Peru” and “In some places, [seabird] guano deposits may be more than 200 meters thick”?
Lewin’s book isn’t a treatise so much as a carefully sorted, brightly written index-card dump. He ranges from “Terminology and Cultural Attitudes” to “Myths, Legends, and Holy Ordures,” stopping to examine “Territorial Markers and Toilet Areas,” “Toilet Papers and Other Abstergents,” and more than a dozen other cubbyholes in his desk. We learn from Lewin’s late colleague John Isaacs why a marine biologist would take an interest in the subject: “[A] major part of the ocean’s business [is] converting wastes into living creatures.”
In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera observed that excretion is a theological issue, noting that “the great Gnostic master Valentinus resolved the damnable dilemma [between uncleanliness and Godliness] by claiming that Jesus ‘ate and drank, but did not defecate.’” The novelist goes on to adapt a ninth-century thinker’s argument about sex in the Garden of Eden to the problem of shit in the Garden of Eden, reasoning that before the Fall, Adam and Eve
didn’t look askance upon their issue, concluding, “Not until after God expelled man from Paradise did He make him feel disgust.”
As a natural scientist, Lewin is interested in down ‘n’ dirty biology not as a corrupt reflection of a prelapsarian ideal but as the mechanism and symbol of everything that draws breath. He prefers to laugh at the bats in the sanctuary of Mattersey, Nottinghamshire’s, All Saints Church, which “tend to distribute offerings on the altar and elsewhere.” His theology of shit is pantheistic, having no room for moralizing. Precisely because his innate disgust is revoked by his wonder and curiosity, Lewin succeeds in fashioning from the basest material a clear-eyed vision of the resistant multitudinousness of life and a winking meditation on the appetite for knowledge and the limits of human striving.
No shit. CP