December 2008

Richard Wirick

nonfiction

The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters by Rose George

My 14-year-old son is now old enough to watch his four-year-old sister in the car while I run into the store for a bag of groceries. When I return I invariably ask her what they talked about, and, batting her eyelashes, she invariably says “Pooping.” My son shrugs sheepishly, not denying the subject of conversation, but letting me know he was certainly not the initiator. When does this taboo begin, and why? Why, in particular, the conversational prohibition? Shit has more euphemisms in most languages than Yiddish contains for penis, and that’s a lot. “I’ve often wondered why people are less willing to discuss poo than, say, getting up and going off to urinate,” says Rose George, author of the delightful, erudite and finely pitched new history of human waste, The Big Necessity.

Freud and Dr. Spock saw excrement as our first creations, fondly regarded and a source of primitive, gutteral pride. Martin Luther’s scatology-permeated language was an expression of the spirit’s battle against the bodily Adversary, Satan, who he saw as a “clutcher or souls” and a “flinger of shit.” (The vocabulary of Reformation propaganda was, if anything, incendiary.) Luther’s excremental idiom was inflammatory while being taxonomial and precise, especially in categorizing sins, constructing a sort of moral chain of being based on solid waste olfactories. The sin of slander was thus described in a sermon:

A slanderer does nothing but ruminate the filth
of others with his own teeth and wallow like a pig
with his nose in the dirt. That is also why his droppings
stink most, surpassed only by the Devil’s...
When the slanderer whispers: Look how he has shit
on himself, the best answer is: You go eat it.

So there. And when Eric Erickson studied Luther in the greatest of all psychohistories, Young Man Luther, Erickson saw affirmation of his own rigidly staged cycles of development -- the anality phase: infatuation with cloaca, the oneness of waste with the creating body, the "abundant and early extruded product."

One answer to George’s query about the taboo is simple: feces became a more repulsive phenomena when writ large, removed from one’s own loo and amassed in rivers and highway ditches as populations converged in cities during the Middle Ages. When Londoners commonly held cut oranges to their noses against the stench of the Thames, enough was enough. The elimination of human refuse in congested residential centers became one of humankind's biggest engineering agendas. It is in just these settings that George’s book takes flight as a sort of world tour of our -- along with sex and burial of the dead -- most unifying and pressing of ongoing construction projects. Her first person accounts of these are worthy of John McPhee, or the industrial designer and essayist George Petroski.

George starts above ground, in India, with a vividly tragic profile of the scavenger caste, the Dalit. “We carry excreta on our heads; of course we are unclean,” says a member, though Ghandi, when his wife balked at housecleaning and said “Only the untouchables clean toilets,” answered her by saying “There are no such people.” Here perfidy and cruelty percolate into the fecal economy: three Dalit are murdered a day in India, and women are raped en masse. We then shoot up to China for an examination of the fabled Biogas Management Unit or “Digester,” an appliance that turns fecal methane into usable gas for illuminating the Kitaj countryside. Containing nitrogen and phosphorous, human waste is also a widely-used plant food there, keeping the farm sector a consistent and vital part of the economy.

Boxcars of offal later, it is to India we return, to latrine-less Ossia, where the villagers hide their faces and squat like dogs before passing streams of traffic. India is moving mountains to eradicate this, given its people’s “cultural aversion to feces.” In Mumbai, the third world city du jour, the neighborhood of Shanti Nager progresses slowly toward inside toilets, sharing a “community toilet block.” It is a profound, transfiguring source of pride, arriving modestly, opening “slowly as a rose,” but bestowing a kind of enlightenment on users as they move from the hole in the road to the “flushed and plumbed world.”

In places like Dar Es Salaam, George takes us through the most richly imagined sanitation arrangements, more innovative than much else in the society: countless variations of latrine design; countless variations of waste-water treatment methods; sewer robots and reverse-osmosis membranes. She describes, with a sort of Updikian luxuriance of object, ultra-light wilderness toilets that can be borne on the back, and Tanzanian masons and tinkerers, meticulous craftsmen who chisel and tap out floral and mythical designs on concrete squatting slabs. Some of the best sections introduce us to sewage treatment at its most rarefied and unworldly. We get a tour of Japan’s TOTO factory, which built the first “active bidet” toilet, one which washes and dries you and then puts the lid down when you get up (a feature called the “marriage-saver”).

Sooner or later, as one would expect, we are forced to descend. Ms. George studied classics at Cambridge, and ever mindful of underworld paradigms, takes us Aeneas-like into the terraced water-world infernos of the London and New York sewers. Donning a Tyvek suit, linked to her guides like so many rapellers, she learns of the architectural and engineering efforts -- all mid-Nineteenth Century -- that led to piping systems as sophisticated as any subway or suspension bridge. The sanitation engineers who play Virgil to her Dante are sketched out with lively, affable detail, and they show her not the legendary alligators but far stranger, largely inanimate exotica. We get the archaeologist’s thrill: the shock and exultation of exhumation.

As Simon Winchester said of this book, it promises to make the unspeakable irresistible. It delivers on that promise, in spades. George is a magazine writer prodigiously gifted at sifting the gold from overwhelming masses of data and re-casting it with the clear, insightful composure of a sort of miniaturist painter. It becomes many books in one. It reads as smoothly as a realist novel, because she knows what everything feels like, how everything sounds. [Indian women at a roadside latrine are “chatty and assertive and pristine.”] It is psychology (Freud infra) and sociology and a tolerable dash of political economy. It is travel writing of the very highest order. More than anything, it is pure, wry, Orwellian essaying, showing identity in difference, commonality in diversity: the story of the one thing we all make, are anxious to destroy, and simply cannot stop thinking about, whether or not it remains unsaid or said.

The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters by Rose George
Metropolitan Books
ISBN: 0805082719
304 Pages