No Pollution & No Purity

The title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.
                                William Burroughs, Introduction to The Naked Lunch

That book seethed up from forgotten shallows while I watched a recent episode in the third season of House of Cards. Robin Wright’s character, Claire Underwood, wants to avenge herself on a male diplomat who has slighted her. In a previous scene, he scanned her body, and told her how good she looked in the dress she was wearing. It was no compliment. It was a sneer: she was a woman playing at a man’s game.

Scorned, Mrs. Underwood—First Lady and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations—determines to act like a man. She invites the offender into the ladies’ room to negotiate just the way real men apparently do, at the urinal. Unequipped to stand, she sits on the toilet with the cubicle door open, conversing all the while. Door still open, she pulls up her pantyhose and smooths her skirt. Dead pan. Unselfconscious. After all, urinating is just another one of those natural things women do, like dressing well.

Denise Colomb. Student with Chamber Pot (1954). Médiathèque de l'Architecture et du Patrimone, Paris
Denise Colomb. Student with Chamber Pot (1954). Médiathèque de l’Architecture et du Patrimone, Paris

A pillar of sang froid, the First Lady walks to the sink to wash her hands and dismiss the embarrassed man. The scriptwriter intends us to cheer the bold Mrs. Underwood, who looks as good with her pants down as up. She humiliated the smug s.o.b., did she not?

The scene made me wince. I had just watched something corrupting, something not meant to be seen. I felt like washing my own hands and was grateful to be watching it alone. The sense of violation was visceral, a spontaneous and instinctive recoil. The last time I flinched so reflexively to a filmed moment was when I saw Luis Buñuel’s camera slide a razor across an eyeball in the silent classic Un Chien Andalou.

Now, this morning, I read Marilyn Penn’s review of Map to the Stars, the latest film by Toronto director, David Cronenberg. Amid other vignettes crafted for us sophisticated moderns, Julianne Moore appears on the toilet. She defecates while bellowing instructions—just like a man?—to her assistant.

Max Beckmann. Medea (1949-50). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
Max Beckmann. Medea (1949-50). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

When Medea sought revenge, she killed. Modern woman takes to the potty. One was tragedy; the other .  .  . travesty? low camp? We are meant to witness the second as an advance for women. An empowerment. The sight levels the playing field between men and woman. It is a liberating assault on regressive sex distinctions. I want to think that Ms. Wright and Ms. Moore have given us anomalous spectacles, a freak coincidence, not signals of a looming trend. But I am not so sure.

We have been watching men at the urinal on TV and in the movies for years now. We have become quite used to it, forgetting that an earlier generation of actors would never have been filmed at a toilet. Rarely does any plot require a men’s room scene. (Dinner Rush, with murder on its mind, was an uncommon exception.) Yet, somehow, male characters are routinely viewed, back to the camera, at a urinal. American Standard tethers good guys to bad, shoulder to shoulder. A plumbing fixture reduces hero and anti-hero to the same bodily reality, the same exposure. Here’s looking at you, kid.

Is it girls’ turn now? We cannot imitate the male stance but we can shed our mortifications. Stuffy relics of prudish, bourgeois attachment to privacy are the last obstacles to full surrender of shame. There is no getting back to Eden until we rid ourselves of taboos of concealment that every society until our own enacted and secured to mark the boundary between man and animal.

Pier Ghezzi. Monk with Carrot & Woman with Chamber Pot (18th C.). ©Metropolitan Museum of Art
Pier Ghezzi. Monk with Carrot & Woman with Chamber Pot (18th C.). ©Metropolitan Museum of Art

In her groundbreaking study, Purity and Danger: an Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (1966), social anthropologist Mary Douglas took the techniques of research into non-Western cultures and applied them to her own. Dame Douglas, a practicing Catholic, warned against modernity’s lust for the abolition of taboos that accompany a sense of the sacred. Building on a vibrant body of anthropological material, she argued for the social necessity of boundaries between what is public and visible and what demands to be shielded from view.

Not only is that separation fundamental to an ordered society—the crux of social justice as the term was traditionally understood. To Douglas, it is also the bedrock of meaning itself:

An unstructured society leaves us prey to every dread. As all the veils are successively stripped away, there is no right or wrong. Relativism is the order of the day.

Her essay “Environments at Risk” acknowledges that relativism is the summons offered by our times. It is an “invitation to full consciousness” that we cannot avoid. We are compelled to accept:

But we should do so knowing that the price is William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. The day when everyone can see exactly what is on the end of every one’s fork, on that day there is no pollution and no purity and nothing edible or inedible, credible or incredible, because the classifications of social life are gone. There is no more meaning.

In a world bereft of reticence, intimacy vanishes together with shame. And alongside them both, goes all coherence in our common life. At the end of our forks is disarray. And absurdity.