Leaked documents detailing urine-play in a hotel in Russia are spattering the reputation of Donald Trump. It’s been a while since “night water” has been in the news, but historically the topic of urine has bubbled up from time to time in literature and satire. Donald is not the first to suffer the ravages of scatology.
Among the earliest writers to realize its potential was the 15th century Renaissance physician-cleric Francois Rabelais, whose five-book legend of the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel is widely considered the precursor to modern literature. Taking advantage of a whole range of scatological references, bodily functions and assignations, Rabelais entertains the reader with tales of war punctuated by the landscape-transforming power of Gargantua’s bladder and the copious amounts of urine it contains. His penchant for dismissive and insulting names for characters, even when translated from French, do not lose their punch; thus we find Lords Tickledingus Touchfaucet, Kissarse, and Bumfondle, also Captains Krapp and Tripefart Tripet. In this way, he pokes fun at royal power, and through relentless satire reduces the host of human affairs to little more than elaborations of biological and emotionally-driven needs.
Jonathan Swift, the Irish Dean and author of Gulliver’s Travels, explored much the same territory in his poems and books. Littered with scatology, Swift’s works spanned the 17th and 18th centuries, a period dominated by the expansion of empires and the exploration of the world. Like Rabelais, Swift loved the power and humor of satire, and packed his tales of Gulliver with numerous episodes and accounts of bodily function, using it as humorous metaphor to depict the foolishness and arrogance of society’s powerful but ignorant – scientists, clergy, and royalty were his frequent targets. In Gulliver’s visit to the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent horses, humans are reduced to primitive “Yahoos”, cavorting like monkeys in the treetops and treating passers-by to generous helpings of turds and urine from above.
In 1917, the artist Marcel Duchamp famously turned a porcelain urinal on its back and signing it “R. Mutt” titled it “Fountain,” thereby upending the art world (see photo above). More recently, urine played a primary role in the career of New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who, had 9/11 not taken place, may well have gone down in history for reasons other than a terrorist attack. Titled “Piss Christ”, artist Andres Serrano’s photograph of a crucifix immersed in a tank of Serrano’s urine provoked an outraged Giuliani to block the city’s funding of the Brooklyn Museum unless the artwork was removed. His censorious action in 1989 outraged the art community, and Serrano’s piece survived to continue to generate a chamber-pot’s worth of froth in subsequent exhibitions.
It was Sigmund Freud, of course, who markedly brought the west’s attention to the importance of bodily functions and sexuality in human affairs. His idea that early fixations on bodily functions remain embedded within a subconscious realm, influencing and coloring feelings and thought, outraged many at the time, but we cannot deny how culturally significant sexual imagery and “vulgar” ideas have been and continue to be.
Suddenly the topic of Golden Showers has risen to the top of the news cycle. In a way it’s reassuring that we cannot escape our most basic and earliest experiences and the effects they convey into our present. If Rabelais, Swift and Freud were correct, civilization repeatedly mirrors our bodily obsessions and fixations; that such matters have yet again become topical, not to mention fodder for Alex Baldwin’s Pee-Pee talk on Saturday Night Live, testifies to the political power of piss.