THE EXCREMENTALISTS

an annus horribilis tale

We had yoga pants made of recycled plastic, Tik Tok, and the military industrial complex, which meant we had nothing, not even ourselves. We’d been wrong about the beginning of the world. Eden was not on earth, but on the plains of heaven, and while Adam and Eve had indeed wanted to taste the forbidden fruit, they had also been wrong about the fruit’s nature. The apple didn’t confer wisdom. It was the only fruit in paradise which did not, when tasted, dissolve. Yet this first human couple had both illicit hunger and intestines in a paradise with no toilet. An angel pointed to what he claimed was the bathroom of the universe and promised, once they ate the apple, he would take them there.  First they ate --then they rode the wings of the angel to the toilet. Later, while they were doing their business, the angel flew away from them, never to bring them back to paradise. The toilet was earth. It is from this first couple — the excrementalists — that all of us have descended.

After eating the forbidden fruit, everything the first humans consumed turned to shit: the tender insides of mollusks, the bloody flesh of wild boar, the grains ground into mush, the milk of the ungulates, the berries growing on brambles. When the first children were born, too, both Cain and Abel were bathed in fluid tinged with their own waste. This waste, called meconium, formed in each human fetus thereafter in the twelfth week of gestation, the same week the fingernails grew from the nailbed and the sex organs emerged. The triumvirate of human folly — shitting, fucking, and fighting — arrived in its embryonic form to each embryonic concurrently, and still does. Full of shit, sometimes even eating it before their first gasping breath of air, all the descendants of this first pair were born, also, mixed up in the waste of their mothers, human life always emerging from the same place the shit comes out.

Unsurprisingly, encomium — an ancient term for a flattering speech — is an anagram of meconium — the shit we are full of at birth. All the great of our species have been excrementalists. Lao Tsu, Socrates, Gertrude Stein — each was the attendant of turds! All the nameless saints and rebels — shit’s consorts and companions! The most noble of all of us is born full of shit, born amongst shit, and shits most days of their life. The wretched and the mediocre do, too. The only non-shitters on the historical record were those, who like the Ancient Israelites had for a time, subsisted temporarily on the angel food of manna, or opium enthusiasts, or those who having grown fatally bored with this world of shit, refused to eat. Only a heretic would believe that Jesus himself — either before or after the resurrection — could save humanity without ever once squatting. Even the last supper most likely moved through someone’s bowels. Those who believe that God and shit are incompatible have a meager understanding of both.

We developed technologies for our waste: trowels, holes, hand sanitization. We issued edicts concerning it. It co-mingled — the shit of both high and low — in gutters and sewage plants, landfills and trash heaps, the major and minor waterways. We made bathhouses to clean ourselves — the water sometimes heated with pages torn from the books of our great libraries. There were bidets, outhouses, vault toilets, flush toilets, water closets, urinals, and holes dug with spades. I do not know of a book that could, no matter the dazzling elucidations of its interior, resist serving a future function as toilet paper.

Once fully settled into our earthly home — this terrestrial grandstand, the megacosm’s toilet — it was not only the food that our species ate that turned into waste: all we touched appeared to do the same. We were born so helpless, so adorable and adoring, and we remained that way so often throughout our lives, that we compensated for our constitutional weakness by acquiring for ourselves and those we loved the materials of the earth, not just at its surface, but deep within its gills. Our industries digested all the earth as we each digested our food. We mined, drilled, harvested, slaughtered, and concocted until we could fill the holes we had dug back up with the waste we made from what we dug from them. Even now this project — to let nothing go untouched by human hands, unseen by human eyes, or undevoured and undigested by the gargantuan cupidity of the fallen first couple disembarked to their earthly toilet — goes on.

The cursed descendants of the first excrementalists have always desired to subject the earth to manufacture as a moth desires a star. In the hands of our species, the snow becomes snowmen. The flowers become wreaths. The sheep becomes its skin. The planet’s veins of gold become a chain around a rich man’s neck. One of us then signed a urinal — the apex of our arts. We more often gave the shape of waste to the art we made than giving it the shape of life, which itself appeared mainly to be waste in waiting. Before conception was the pre-dung hour, and after death, the post-twilight of the ordure.  

As our species grew in number and sophistication, our waste became more noxious than feces, and more enduring — spent fuel rods, diaper bins, carbon emissions, glyphosates, nano-plastics. We made ruins and built future ruins upon these ruins, and future ruins upon those. The songbirds smashed themselves against our high-rise windows. The deer broke their necks via the hoods of our cars. The other animals choked on our aluminum tabs, smothered themselves in our plastic wrap, found themselves bereft and adrift as their habitats became strip mines and strip malls. There was nothing too cruel for us to invent out of the materials of the earth — our shit was deadly and complex.

The ancient philosopher Heraclitus, who knew he couldn’t stand in the same river twice, died in the manner of one who had eaten the true fruit of wisdom, the one that landed us in this outhouse, the earth:

“…he laid himself out in the sun and ordered some boys to smother him in cow shit. On the next day, he died stretched out in that way, and was buried in the agora. Neanthes of Cyzicus says that because he was unable to get it off, the shit remained on him; because of this change in his appearance, he was unrecognized, and was eaten by dogs.

“O Sacred, Wise, and Wisdom-giving Plant,” the first tempter whispered in front of Milton’s Eve, and our own Eve — requiring no serpent — probably whispered the same to the tree of corporeality. As silkworms make silk from spit, so it is that Karl Marx declared that Milton made Paradise Lost. Every epic of the fall — however strange and dazzling — is testimony to our species’ endless excretion, for it is not just shit we learned to excrete when we ate our forbidden fruit, but all of our orifices — pores, nostrils, eyes, genitalia — became founts of waste, each of different viscosity and purpose.

Having been banished to the bathroom of the cosmos, “shit” or its variants is a word that fell easily from our mouths. When caught red-handed, when breaking an ankle, when setting off a land mine, when crashing the van, we exclaim “shit!” and its myriad, multi-lingual synonyms. It is possible that “shit” is one of our species’ most popular last words, vying for first place with “god.”

As we are born, so we die, and though the future of our souls remains uncertain, eventually our corpses become — like Paradise Lost itself, and also Paradise Regained — just another excretion of the worms. And when we have too much of anything — too many problems, too many plastic lids, too many sorrows, too many long hours on the clock and hard days on the calendar — we gaze upon this too muchness, vexed and exhausted, and pronounce to ourselves or to any who can hear: I can’t deal with all this shit!

So it is that to declare a whole year shit — as many of us have done in 2020 — is kin to an act of enlightenment, for to declare the year shit is for humans to declare it, with pure candor, the logical consequence of ourselves.