Law and Ordure: Scatalogic Rites of All Nations (1891)
No matter how “repellent” the subject matter of this book, John Gregory Bourke (1846–1896) believed it to be “none the less deserving of the profoundest consideration”. Marked as “not for general perusal”, its topic is the use of human and animal excrement in religious and medicinal rites (or, “Filth Pharmacy”), and the survival of sanitized rituals into the present day. To arrive at his conclusions, Captain Bourke consumed a bizarre mélange of anthropological learning, from “The Urine Dance of the Zuñis”, through the “Tolls of Flatulence Exacted of Prostitutes in France” (mostly collected at bridge crossings), to Christian Stercorianism, which held that the blessed sacrament is processed into ordure like ordinary food stuff.
Little, it seems, does not lead back to excreta — a category that, for Bourke, includes the expected bodily waste, fingernails, and ear wax, but also the social expulsion of sacrificial objects. The colorful Easter eggs of children’s hunts, for example, are here a “survival” of the Wendish and Celtic “worship of the chicken-god”, who “remains to this day in his proud position, whence the first missionaries were unable to dislodge him, at the summit of the sacred tree or spired of the village church”. To expel disease and evil from their communities, these ancient believers scapegoated cocks, with hens’ eggs becoming the economical substitute at a later date. Leaning heavily on James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890), much of Bourke’s discussion makes use of the sympathetic magic of similarity and contact. According to Peter Beveridge, another well-absorbed source in Bourke’s text, certain forms of Aboriginal spells used “excrement sausages”: an enemy’s waste wrapped in opossum skin and lubricated with kidney fat. When this “roll” was then consumed by fire, its human source would be devoured in turn.
Shot-through with nineteenth-century prejudices against so-called “primitive man”, Scatalogic Rites of All Nations pairs disgust for its subjects with perverse attention and descriptive care. As Benjamin Breen observes, Captain John Gregory Bourke seemed to embody “a distinctly American paradox”: serving in the Indian Wars on the Western frontier, he was “an unrepentant jingoist”, whose early diaries were “unabashedly genocidal”. And yet, just a few years later, Bourke would begin to observe and record the peoples and cultures he had “once worked to exterminate”, writing books on The Snake-Dance of the Moquis of Arizona (1884) and The Medicine-Men of the Apache (1892). Bourke’s pivot from eradication toward gestures of cultural preservation parallels a larger settler fascination with sanitized images of indigeneity, propagated through frontier mythologies, dime novels, pulp magazines, and Western films.
One of Bourke’s favorite writing techniques is to alienate his audience (and himself) and then work to normalize the source of this discomfort. In Scatalogic Rites, he devotes a good deal of time to implying that “nations of high enlightenment” are not much less coprophilic than “primitive” societies. Soon after discussing the use of poisonous mushrooms in “Ur-Orgies”, wherein psychoactive urine is consumed and then expelled into the next participant’s cup — supposedly intensifying the effects with each “distillation” — Bourke turns his mind to Blighty. “Though we have not this custom among us, I foresee that if it were introduced, we might have many a toad-eater in England ready to drink from the wooden bowl on these occasions, and to praise the flavor of his lordship’s liquor”. What appears first as ritual, recurs in anecdotes of cloacal secular practices. We hear: stories of the Berlin cheesemonger who procured “the urine of young girls” to make his product “more piquant” (when he was exposed to the press, “people went, bought and ate his cheese with delight”); rumors of “love-sick maidens in France” who fill cakes for their paramours with philters of “human skull, coral, verbena flowers, secundines, or after-birth, and a copious flow of urine”; and the exploits of wives in England, seeking to “rekindle the expiring flames of affection in the hearts of husbands”, who kneaded dough with their “posterior”. That last tradition, thinks Bourke, has survived in a children's song, sung while wobbling to and fro on the floor: “Cockledy bread, mistley cake, / When you do that for our sake.”
In his Histoire de la merde (1978), Dominique Laporte describes how “human excrement, like the soul, carries the ‘noxious’ trace of the body it departs”. An analogous trace is carried by each of the cultural practices under consideration in Scatalogic Rites. More than noxious, these repellent stories total into something profoundly human. During his 1913 preface to a German translation of Bourke’s text, Sigmund Freud lamented how “Civilized men . . . . deny the very existence of this inconvenient trace of the earth, by concealing it from another, and by withholding it from the attention and care which it might claim as an integrating component of their essential being.” In the shame, power, and curiosity that Bourke attributes to his subject matter, we find the promise of comparative anthropology in a surprisingly unadulterated form: a truly universal aspect of human life.
February 28, 2023
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