My fascination with fart descriptions in literature began in graduate school when a fellow fart-loving classmate and myself began to ponder the seeming lack of flatulence in serious literature. Why don’t writers describe farts? Or do they? I decided to be on the lookout.
Thankfully, I soon found this stunning sentence in William Styron’s 1967-Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner from the POV of Nat Turner, the imprisoned black revolutionary describing being interviewed in prison by his white lawyer:
“I saw Gray stir uncomfortably, then raise one haunch up off a fart trying to slide it out gracefully, but it emerged in multiple soft reports like the popping of remote firecrackers.”
James Joyce, as with so much else in 20th century fiction, blazed the trail in the opening sections of Ulysses with the description of Leopold Bloom “asquat the cuckstool…seated calm above his own rising smell.”
Be careful what you look for, because soon I found this staggering love letter of sorts to farts, from a Joyce letter addressed to “my sweet little whorish Nora”:
“You had an arse full of farts that night, darling, and I fucked them out of you, big fat fellows, long windy ones, quick little merry cracks and a lot of tiny little naughty farties ending in a long gush from your hole. It is wonderful to fuck a farting woman when every fuck drives one out of her. I think I would know Nora’s fart anywhere. I think I could pick hers out in a roomful of farting women. It is a rather girlish noise not like the wet windy fart which I imagine fat wives have. It is sudden and dry and dirty like what a bold girl would let off in fun in a school dormitory at night. I hope Nora will let off no end of her farts in my face so that I may know their smell also.”
Who knew farts could be erotic? Apparently Philip Roth, who describes a fart-fantasy from Portnoy’s Complaint:
“When I fart in the bathtub, she kneels naked on the tile floor, leans all the way over, and kisses the bubbles.”
The Scottish writer Iain Banks has a fart-detecting/telepathic father in his novel The Wasp Factory, who can tell how much his alcoholic son has been drinking:
“‘Well, just you be careful, then. I always know how much you’ve had from your farts.’ He snorted, as though imitating one.
“My father has a theory about the link between mind and bowel being both crucial and very direct…. He has variously claimed that from farts he can tell not only what people have eaten or drunk, but also the sort of person they are, what they ought to eat, whether they are emotionally unstable or upset, whether they are keeping secrets, laughing at you behind your back or trying to ingratiate themselves with you, and even what they are thinking at the precise moment they issue the fart (this largely from the sound.) All total nonsense.
“‘H’m,’ I said, non-committal to a fault.
‘Oh, I can,’ he said as I finished my meal and leaned back, wiping my mouth on the back of my hand, more to annoy him than anything else. He kept nodding. ‘I know when you’ve had Heavy or Lager. And I’ve smelt Guinness off you, too.’
“‘I don’t drink Guinness,’ I lied, secretly impressed.””
And later in the novel:
“‘Brap!’ said my anus loudly, surprising me as well as my father…I could see his nostrils flex and quiver.
“‘Lager and whiskey, eh?’”
If you think about it, farts have incredible literary potential in terms of drama, plot, and sensory details.
The famous essayist Montaigne sagely observed the anguish of a suppressed fart:
“God alone knows how many times our bellies, by the refusal of one single fart, have brought us to the door of an agonizing death.”
And the poet W.H. Auden connected the egotistical component of writing with flatulence:
“Most people enjoy the sight of their own handwriting as they enjoy the smell of their own farts.”
Even as early as the 1600s, the philosopher and writer John Aubrey invoked the inherent drama and tragedy of a slipped fart with a simple anecdote that I’m sure cemented The Earle of Oxford’s reputation:
The Earle of Oxford, making his obeisance (meaning he bowed) to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to Travell 7 years. On his return, the Queen welcomed him home and sayd, ‘My Lord, I had forgotten the fart.’
In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the last line of Inferno Chapter XXI reads: ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta. In other words: “and he used his ass as a trumpet.”
Writing about Farts, of course, can mean far more than farts. Don Fartinanado Puff-Indorst, Professor of Bumbast at the University of Crackowow, published “The Benefits of Farting and Arse Musica” in pamphlet form in 1722. Its real author, however, was Jonathan Swift, though you will search mostly in vain through biographies to find any reference to the fact.
Swift’s fixation is not merely scatological but religious and political, the title itself a parody of the most celebrated religious writer of the previous century. Swift describes four types of farts, and how to produce them. They are:
First, the sonorous and full-toned, or rousing fart;
Second, the double fart;
Third, the soft fizzing fart;
And fourth, the sullen wind-bound fart.
By identifying fifty-two women in Arse Musica for their “prowess in farting,” a Swift biographer contends that Swift is claiming an intimacy with these women that included sex. Their names are hidden by suggestive pseudonyms that are difficult for the modern reader to decipher but which were obvious to Swift’s contemporaries.
Swift ends by proving not only that the suppression of farts leads to Quakerism, but also to excessive talkativeness in women.
But not before showing the fart as a great equalizer and liberator—a triumph, if you will—which is how I will end my essay, invoking you, as Swift did, to:
“Fart away, then, my brethren, and let farting be in common among you. Vie with each other in producing the sonorous, full-toned, loud fart.”