Between Two Stools: Scatology and its Representation in English Literature, Chaucer to Swift, by Peter J. Smith

David Palumbo pooh-poohs any suggestion that ‘shiterature’ has no place in academic study

October 4, 2012

The first thing a reader notices about Peter Smith’s Between Two Stools is the pleasure the author took in writing this book. The preface opens with a delightful anecdote detailing a clash of disciplines familiar to most academics who have tried to explain the value of their research to colleagues from other departments. Smith separates the academy into two distinct categories, or “stools”: those disciplines “only really interested in the production of income, ‘grant capture,’ or the commercial exploitation of research” and those disciplines - such as literature - that express “an unmitigated dedication to…non-income-generating subjects”.

This opening prepares the reader for the primary trope of the book - “the two stools” - that represents “two broadly distinctive attitudes towards scatological writing”: one, associated with Chaucer and Shakespeare, emphasising the “carnivalesque [and] merry”, the other expressing “self-disgust [and] withering misanthropy”. John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, and Jonathan Swift figure importantly in the second category. Throughout this book, Smith laments the loss of a perspective on scatology (available to medieval and Renaissance authors and readers) that understands and encourages interaction of the “two (very separate) stools” that have dominated scatological discourse. But (if only for a moment) back to the pleasures of Smith’s prose style and subject. He alludes, in his analysis of Chaucer’s The Summoner’s Tale, to the linguistic version of IBS, or irritable bowel syndrome: “There is a blustery imperative, as it were, behind the selection of this psalm [Psalm 44], while the eructive grunt itself is symptomatic of irritable vowel syndrome” (IVS - italics mine). And concluding a chapter that brings together and differentiates Rochester’s and Swift’s approach to scatology, Smith leads readers on a “voyage into the Fart of Darkness”.

Between Two Stools traces representations of scatology in English literature from the Middle Ages to the 18th century, and locates a definitive shift in attitudes towards scatology in Rochester’s poetry. This poetry embodies a refiguration of the “character of the Cavalier - a term which denotes a level of courtly sophistication but which has come to connote…haughtiness, nonchalance, disdain, even superciliousness”. Smith, aligning himself with scholars such as Peter Porter, Gordon Williams, Vivian de Sola Pinto and David M. Vieth, finds the motivation for Rochester’s bleak visions of scatology in the anxieties of dislocation and political failure that haunted the Caroline Restoration.

Some of the interpretive highlights in this chronologically organised book include a precise analysis of the terms “queynte” and “pryvee” in the interactive tale-telling between the Knight and the Miller in the narratives that begin The Canterbury Tales; a thorough reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s use of names for “his low-life characters” - Shakespeare does not, Smith argues, name these characters “with lurid contempt”; and an argument for the cultural significance of John Harrington’s 1596 A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called The Metamorphosis of Ajax, which was extremely popular and was an important source text for a number of authors, including Shakespeare.

Referencing the influence of Harrington’s text, Smith dedicates an entire chapter to an original interpretation of “the box-tree scene” in Twelfth Night. Smith is very thorough in his presentation of evidence in all the chapters, and I think he does a good job accounting for the shift in attitude towards scatology in chapter 4.

His chapters dealing with Swift present readers with a good introduction into the world of Swift’s scatological poetry, although Smith’s support of the conclusion that “anality in Swift does not connote contamination, but rather genuineness, accuracy, even precision” requires more complex analysis. In particular, Fredric V. Bogel’s work on satire offers a reading of the collapsing subjectivities in Swift’s scatological poetry that would enrich chapter 5, and considering the darker implications of Carol Flynn’s The Body in Swift and Defoe would complicate the optimism of some conclusions in chapter 6. Finally, Dominique Laporte’s History of Shit, which includes analyses of texts relevant to Smith’s argument, would certainly contribute to the strength of an already strong book.

Overall, Between Two Stools is a pleasure to read and makes significant contributions to the field of “shiterature”. It is, in sum, good shit!

Between Two Stools: Scatology and its Representation in English Literature, Chaucer to Swift

By Peter J. Smith
Manchester University Press, 2pp, £65.00
ISBN 9780719087943
Published 20 August 2012

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