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 Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?

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nordmann
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PostSubject: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Sun 24 Jun 2012, 12:56

Having read Valerie Allen's excellent examination of the role of farting in medieval culture, "On Farting", I am now almost totally convinced that our sqeamishness at entertaining the notion that flatulence should even be discussed, let alone examined critically as an engine of cultural progress, is one of the saddest and most debilitating inheritances we apparently have acquired from what is sometimes referred to as "Victorian values" (since I also believe that Victoriana is as accurate a euphemism for unbridled licentiousness and lascivity as it is for repressed sexuality I use the phrase with extreme caution). However it is undeniable that the advent of the 19th century saw the humble fart demoted in stature and appropriateness according to the precepts of common sensibility to the point that what once had been a major contributor to literature, drama, and even philosophical theory, became a subject culturally reduced to sly reference invoked for the purposes of humour only, and then only humour as epitomised by the childish bawdishness of music hall comedians and their TV and cinematic derivatives and, well, children.

How different this once was! From Marcus Aurelius's contemplations of the divine fart and its role as educator, through Dante's employment of a solemn discourse on Barbariccia's great fart and the nature of hell, down to Chaucer's and Rabelais' use of farting to delineate character and plot, flatulence was once not only an expected and important element of our most cherished narratives but also a veritable launch-pad of philosophical theory which, due to its commonality and ease of recognition, was therefore one of those great keys of comprehension with which the great majority could unlock the most central of life's mysteries and gaze deep into the nature of man, the universe, and God.

And nor was its stature confined to literary spheres. In the "real" world it also enjoyed a central role, and in ways in which we now can only guess as to the true importance and meaning, so far have we strayed from the inclination to apply intelligent analysis to so common and accessible a phenomenon. What was Iyl of Braintford thinking in the 12th century, for example, when she solemnly bequeathed "a score of farts" in her last will and testament? Or for that matter what of Roland le Pettour (whose house was called "Fartlands") and his annual Christmas dance of great renown which celebrated the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ and in which he would "puffe up his cheekes making therewith a sound, and besides let a cracke downeward", according to the great Elizabethan antiquarian William Camden? Were these gestures of mockery? If so they were lost on their audiences, who ascribed serious respect to these gestures as is appropriate for a dying matron's last wishes and religious devotionary entertainments of the day.

Was St Augustine bordering on blasphemy when he contemplated flatus as an inversion of the Spiritus Dei? Was Hippocrates deviating from his medical brief when he contemplated the fart as just one of our expirata with which we inject our own death into life around us and of no less significance than the other two? Were all those who saw it as evidence of that great symphony of Musica Mundana which (literally) underscores our earthly tenure simply taking puerile detours from their otherwise scholarly theory?

Yet here we are now in our so-called "modern" age, self-congratulatorily convinced that we have long left Victorian hang-ups behind us, unable to fathom a simple medieval will or Christmas devotion or, for that matter, a Roman philosopher-emperor's learned and considered opinion on where true insight lies - in recognition of that state between past and future, between unseen and seen, between innermost and out, between when the fart is simply a sensation private to our bowels and when it exudes often unexpectedly into the realm of common apprehension. Fart as revelation.

Once we thought we had a lot to learn from farting. Once we held it to be so important that we passed our farts on to our offspring. Once farts mattered.

What went wrong?


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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Sun 24 Jun 2012, 13:15

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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Sun 24 Jun 2012, 14:20

That one was so good it's worth putting up front in the thread:

The Censure of the Parliament Fart (1607)

Never was bestowed such an art
Upon the tuning of a fart.
Downe came grave auntient Sir John Cooke
And redd his message in his booke.
Fearie well, Quoth Sir William Morris, Soe:
But Henry Ludlowes Tayle cry'd Noe.
Up starts one fuller of devotion
The Eloquence; and said a very ill motion
Not soe neither quoth Sir Henry Jenkin
The Motion was good; but for the stincking
Well quoth Sir Henry Poole it was a bold tricke
To Fart in the nose of the bodie pollitique
Indeed I confesse quoth Sir Edward Grevill
The matter of it selfe was somewhat uncivill
Thanke God quoth Sir Edward Hungerford
That this Fart proved not a Turdd




However this poem is evidence of the fart's sad decline into scatological humour in terms of popular literary usage. My own paean was to an earlier era when it was spared such ignominy and was right up there with inspiration, anatomy and physicism as an essential ingredient in the philosophical process of understanding our universe through observation of the human condition. We know it has come down in stature since then and can chart its downfall reasonably accurately - but why did it fall?
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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Sun 24 Jun 2012, 15:10

Were Martin Luther and the Reformation responsible for its sad decline? Luther was a great farter apparently (would pass wind during his sermons) - but perhaps he overdid things with the idea of the fart as a useful weapon against Satan. Things just got silly then. All those woodcuts of peasants farting at the Pope. (Will try and find an example in a moment.)

http://www.conradaskland.com/blog/2007/04/martin-luther-on-farts/

What *is* confusing is that Luther acknowledged that the Pope was also a great farter and that at times the papal breaking of wind was pretty impressive: I think Luther likened it to a great thunderclap. "The pontifical acts are sealed with the devil's shit. It is nothing but a ghastly fart of the Pope."

And the early Protestant propaganda plays by John Bale usually featured a farting Pope or two.

Perhaps the fart was never taken seriously after that.


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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Sun 24 Jun 2012, 15:17

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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Sun 24 Jun 2012, 15:24

Ribald stuff, but also in keeping with Hippocrates' assertion regarding the nature, if not the purpose, of the fart. Galen was also a subscriber - bad breath, farts and the smell accompanying decomposition revealed the fact that we were, even when alive, bearers of our own mortality and the putrefaction that entailed. The fart as a weapon then assumes a significance way beyond just an obscene gesture. In fact it is not obscene at all - simply graphical wish fulfillment regarding someone else's demise if pointed in their direction.

In Gallo-Roman Latin there are fifteen discernible words for fart, each depicting a different aspect to its character. "Vasse" is the one which makes the least noise but which stinks the most. This was associated with demonic or satanic possession and taken as evidence that our bodies could be "hijacked" for divine or anti-divine ends without us having much say in the matter. Directional farting with a will was therefore a slap in the face for Satan as much as anything else and a sign that the farter took control of their divine wind seriously. No wonder popes learnt how to be good at it (or allowed people to think they did).
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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Sun 24 Jun 2012, 17:00

There's a story in the 1001 Arabian Nights, about Abu Hasan and his historic fart;

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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Mon 25 Jun 2012, 07:42

Abu Hasan's exile reminded me of the story - told by the antiquarian John Aubrey - of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford and Bard of Avon, and how he farted (while bowing - can't imagine anything worse) in front of Gloriana herself.

De Vere was so embarrassed that he left court for seven long years. On his return the Queen greeted him with the words, "My lord, I had forgot the fart."

But alas just another fart story, which is not what the thread is about.
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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Mon 25 Jun 2012, 10:39

Yes - rediscovering the literary fart which was not simply a vehicle to impart a story centering on embarrassment or shame is a very worthwhile exercise. If you take one of Martial's "insult poems" (Book IV, stanza 87) in its original Latin you get:

Infantem secum semper tua Bassa, Fabulle,
Conlocat et lusus deliciasque vocat,
Et, quo mireris magis, infantaria non est.
Ergo quid in causa est? Pedere Bassa solet.


A "modern" translation of this poem from the late 19th century in English goes:

Your wife Bassa always carries a baby by her side, Fabullus,
and calls him her darling plaything.
I wonder why, since she isn’t a nanny.
So, why then does she carry a baby? Because Bassa always farts


An even more modern one goes:

Fabullus' wife Bassa frequently totes
A friend's baby, on which she loudly dotes.
Why does she take on this childcare duty?
It explains farts that are somewhat fruity


The first translation sticks closer to the original. However both change the punchline - the first to imply that the baby is being used as a decoy by Bassa to disguise her own farts, whereas the second takes an even greater liberty and adds character to Bassa's embarrassing flatulence. This change makes Martial's poem humorous in a modern sense, since that is exactly what we expect of a fart story. It's a variation of the joke in which the dog under the dinner table gets a kick every time the father lets out a rasper.

But thats's not what Martial wrote. His punchline is a pun, and a very good one. "Pedere Bassa solet" reads "To fart Bassa is accustomed to", which still seems to indicate a decoy baby. Except "pedere" is a silent fart. Moreover "Bassa" without the capitalisation, as one would hear the line spoken aloud, means low in pitch. Audible, but low in pitch. The line therefore would have been heard as "To silently fart yet low in pitch and audible is it always". Bassa is betrayed by her own name in the telling.

Which is a very different joke. The humour is not just in that Bassa is using the baby as a decoy (for the smell, not the noise) but that she is failing since it is still audible. This is an attack on Bassa's stupidity, not her flatulence.

A subtle difference, but a hugely important one in the literary history of the fart, I would suggest.


EDIT: And almost forgot to add - it is an insult directed at Fabullus for marrying such a silly woman, not at Bassa herself. The modern translations, in concentrating on the wrong aspect to the fart, actually imply that Fabullus has married a clever one of sorts - which would have annoyed Martial tremendously, I think, having worked so hard to get the pun into the line.
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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Mon 25 Jun 2012, 13:54

Some more examples of the serious literary application of farts which is now considered merely ribald humour;

As late as the 17th century the fart was still fulfilling its literary function as a metaphor for much that would later be "said with flowers". Romantic love is not now a subject we necessarily associate with flatulence but in the early years of that century Sir John Suckling (one of the "cavalier" poets - and incidentally the inventor of Cribbage) could write the following and engender instant empathy towards, recognition of, and respect for his sentiment from an audience for whom the fart had yet to descend into mere toilet humour:

“Love is the fart
Of every heart:
It pains a man
when ’tis kept close,
And others doth offend,
when ’tis let loose. “




However the fart's days as poesy were numbered. One generation later, Jonathan Swift (writing as Don Fartinando Puff-Indorst, Professor of Bumbast at the University of Crackow), no doubt in lamentation at this sad decline, was moved to utilise flatus in one last great emulation of Marcus Aurelius as a philiosophical symbol of human aspiration, this time as a simile for how a desire for self-control must not be allowed lead to harmful repression of emotion:

“A Fart, tho’ wholesome, does not fail
If barr’d of Passage by the Tail,
To fly back to the Head again,
And, by its Fumes, disturb the Brain:
Thus Gunpowder confin’d, you know, Sir,

Grows stronger, as ‘tis ram’d the closer;
But if in open Air it fires,
In harmless Smoke its Force expires.”






In fact Swift's "The Benefit of Farting Explain'd" seems to mark the turning point. Like much else that this genius wrote it was perceived as mere "humour" even in his own day and its satire therefore completely misunderstood, the target of which was often actually those very people who mistakenly presumed that the subjects suggested by the author were in fact the targets.

I am finding it difficult to locate reference to subsequent literary examples which do not depend on allusions to embarrassment for their point, which is thereafter always "humorous" in the toilet sense that we employ today (to our immeasurable intellectual impoverishment). The fart's long and illustrious career as a valid philosophical simile seemed to die with Swift.

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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Mon 25 Jun 2012, 17:16

Wasn't Swift having a go at women then? I thought that he wanted women to fart more as it would mean they would talk less. It would also make them less moody and tiresome.

I'm baffled by the title of the poem "On Miss V***e's F***t, in Philippic Style." Philippic means an angry and virulent outburst, doesn't it? Was Swift referring to the poem or the fart?

And who on earth was Princess Arsimini?

There's a good blog article here - talks about how Rabelais used the fart as "an emancipatory gesture".

http://pifasprg.blogspot.co.uk/2007/07/bodily-noises.html

Was that what Swift was encouraging women to do - fart more, talk less, but shake off the shackles? I'm genuinely confused, but then I haven't read "The Benefits of Farting". But he really did find women revolting, didn't he (that comment about the female body as a "nauseous, unwholesome carcass" was a thoroughly unpleasant thing to say, but I'm sure he meant it.) But I've always thought Swift hated everyone, not just women.

My sister-in-law once had a boyfriend who forbade her to fart in his presence (not that she would ever have dreamt of doing such a thing). He actually told her, "You must never fart because you are my princess."

Swift mocked Celia for shitting; was she allowed, even encouraged, to fart?


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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Mon 25 Jun 2012, 17:36

Here's Benjamin Franklin (mentioned in the blog) - "To the Royal Academy of Farting":

http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/index.asp?document=470
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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Mon 25 Jun 2012, 22:54

What a pity Gilgamesh's not around, he might have explained to me the reputedly oldest known joke, that Sumerian side splitter "Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap.". He might even have been present on that occasion.

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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Tue 26 Jun 2012, 05:33

I didn't get that joke/proverb when I heard it either ferval, I thought it may have lost something in translation? But, of course, humour always differs between cultures and time.
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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Tue 26 Jun 2012, 14:53

To my delight I've found a political musing on wind from Thomas More - In Efflatum Ventris 1518.

"Wind, if you keep it too long in your stomach kills you; on the other hand, it can save your life if it is let out properly. If wind can save and destroy your life, then is it not as powerful as dreaded kings?"

PS I thought the Greeks had the oldest fart jokes?

PPS Just been reading bits of the Valerie Allen book mentioned in the OP. Gosh, she's clever.
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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Tue 26 Jun 2012, 16:00

Temp, you might appreciate this, I've been meaning to settle down and read it ever since it was recommended to me but I haven't managed yet but I will now, well not right now, the grass must get cut before the rain comes on.http://www.scribd.com/doc/24675266/History-of
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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Tue 26 Jun 2012, 20:04

Hi ferval,

Thanks for the link. I thought at first it was all a joke, but no - Dominique Laporte really existed and he did indeed write an influential History of Shit. Did he start this fashion for scatological studies then? But he was taking the - er - piss a little bit, wasn't he? To be honest, it's so hard to tell anymore.

It's all very clever and witty - and very nice work if you can get it. Meanwhile, back where I live:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOKswu7PVWM

But Roland the Farter did exist and Valerie Allen devotes a whole section of her book to him. The record of his reward (Hemingstone Manor in Suffolk) from the very impressed Henry II is here, in the original Latin - thankfully with a translation:

http://bedejournal.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/song-of-roland.html

I have to admit I liked this comment from the blogger: "Valerie Allen can't resist a bit of waffely postmodern analysis."

Mmm. Her paragraph beginning, "How then does the humble fart illuminate identity and social relation?" is a bit on the waffely side. But I'm only jealous. I wish I could waffle like that about farting, or anything really - especially if I got paid for it.

I do so miss Norman. His comments on this thread would be priceless.

EDIT: This thread has has 223 views already. Who on earth is reading all our nonsense?
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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Wed 27 Jun 2012, 05:41

I enjoyed the youtube link Temp, thanks. I suppose the humour for Henry in Roland the Farter's act of a hop a whistle and a fart, was it's simplicity and irreverence? Or was it merely an appreciation of cheap toilet humour? Or perhaps both?

PS I tended to agree with Valerie Allen though, that it is an indication that farting in public and particularly in front of the King was as much a faux pas then as it would be today. And I didn't find her waffley in the least and think the blogger is only arguing for the sake of arguing.
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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Wed 27 Jun 2012, 08:52

@Islanddawn wrote:
And I didn't find her waffley in the least and think the blogger is only arguing for the sake of arguing.

I know. I was just feeling a bit sour yesterday at the jolly things the clever folk at the universities get to write about these days.

This has obviously been a very fashionable topic in recent times. Here's another serious study:

http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9780754641162

The blurb is a bit waffley though.

Just a thought on Swift's "Philippic Style" - was it also a reference to Philippians 3:21 - vile bodies and glorious bodies? I was going to say something about vile bodies - knew it was from St. Paul, but didn't know where. When I checked, it struck me that the Philippian text was possibly relevant to Swift's satire. The various translations are interesting:

"vile bodies"

"humble bodies"

"body of our humiliation"

"body of our lowness"
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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Wed 27 Jun 2012, 09:14

ID: You have to be careful when you use the term "toilet humour" in relation to the days before the flush toilet. Despite superficial resemblance to the modern version it wasn't the same thing at all.

Prior to the advent of flushing, the toilet possessed a radically different character to that which it has today and was of necessity very much a communal function. Even those who had a "privy" could not escape the fact that what they deposited there required a team of people to dispose of. The toilet therefore served as a constant reminder of our baser animalistic nature and mortality itself for those who cared to think deeply enough about it.

We can flush our waste into a system which protects its and our anonymity and the privacy in which we consign it to anonymity lies at the basis of much of our modern version of toilet humour. Billy Connolly's "smiling jobbie" joke in which a "floater" is found in the bowl in a train lavatory depends completely on this attitude to be funny. But this would have been all but incomprehensible as humour a few centuries ago. Likewise, ancient jokes related to excrement and which hinge on its capacity to act as a social leveller, seem overblown to us now.

Toilet humour, like much else to do with body function-based commentary, belonged to a comparitively higher plain of philosophy than it does now.


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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Wed 27 Jun 2012, 09:57

We have also lost the appreciation of bodily waste as a commodity, as having a practical and economic value, and so its ambiguity as being both useful and disgusting. This then raises the nature of disgust, is it, as some suggest, a basic innate response or is it culturally constructed?
Certainly there are many parallels between the treatment of excreta and attitudes to the body in death; today we try to divorce ourselves as much as possible from the reality and materiality of both despite having largely discarded the view of the body as the site the baser elements of our humanity and the religious concept of the vile body or brother ass, replacing them with the worship of 'hygiene'.
The whole question of the materiality and significance of waste, of all types, is indeed being investigated by ethnologists, anthropologists and increasingly archaeologists and generating a considerable corpus of work.
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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Wed 27 Jun 2012, 10:10

@Temperance wrote:


Just a thought on Swift's "Philippic Style" - was it also a reference to Philippians 3:21 - vile bodies and glorious bodies?


Advice I received once on a literature course: When approaching Swift tread very very carefully. Swift's philosophy was sometimes anti-philosophical and intentionally so, and it got even more complicated when he intentionally neglected to advertise that he had assumed a viewpoint the opposite to his own.

Adducing Swift's attitude from his writings without recognition of which persona he had adopted for the piece in question is much like adducing Shakespeare's philosophy from the words and actions of his characters.
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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Wed 27 Jun 2012, 10:30

@nordmann wrote:
Prior to the advent of flushing, the toilet possessed a radically different character to that which it has today and was of necessity very much a communal function. Even those who had a "privy" could not escape the fact that what they deposited there required a team of people to dispose of. The toilet therefore served as a constant reminder of our baser animalistic nature and mortality itself for those who cared to think deeply enough about it.

This is pretty much what I grew up with in country Aust, only ours was a bit more up market as it was painted white, a single seater and had a door, even if you could see through the cracks. Being situated in the back yard and the lack of privacy that entailed lead to the affectionate naming of everyone's convenience as a thunder box.



Sadly the dunny men who came every week to cart the drums of waste under the seat away are a thing of the past. Now it is all sucked up into big trucks and nothing gets sloshed out along the way, but the poor dunny men were always the butt of ribald jokes as well.
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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Wed 27 Jun 2012, 11:08

@nordmann wrote:
@Temperance wrote:


Just a thought on Swift's "Philippic Style" - was it also a reference to Philippians 3:21 - vile bodies and glorious bodies?


Advice I received once on a literature course: When approaching Swift tread very very carefully. Swift's philosophy was sometimes anti-philosophical and intentionally so, and it got even more complicated when he intentionally neglected to advertise that he had assumed a viewpoint the opposite to his own.

Adducing Swift's attitude from his writings without recognition of which persona he had adopted for the piece in question is much like adducing Shakespeare's philosophy from the words and actions of his characters.

Good Lord, Nordmann, I'd never in a million (or so) years claim to understand Swift - he's far too deep for me. I think I made my confusion (which was/is absolutely genuine) quite clear above.

And my question about "Philippic Style", although probably a very stupid one, was also genuine.

But even though I find Swift a bit complicated, I do think he's very funny. I like "A Meditation on a Broomstick" very much. How clever he was.

http://bnreview.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Grin-Tonic/A-Meditation-on-a-Broomstick/ba-p/2080

Anyway, it's a nice windy day here and the sun has come out. I shall about my womanly duties and go hang out the washing.
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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Wed 27 Jun 2012, 11:32

It is impossible, as I found out, to fully appreciate Swift without at the same time becoming an expert on Anglo-Irish political minutiae of the period, something which I confess I never even attempted to become. But it is almost essential, when examining anything he wrote, to check the record and find out exactly what might have been bugging him at exactly that moment. He had two main agendas behind his writing - political deconstructionism (he abhorred the tribal aspect to party politics which was something that became a norm during his own lifetime), and also the welfare of his fellow citizens, especially those disadvantaged by circumstances which he saw correctly as first and foremost humanly devised. The latter meant that he often had to play ball with exactly the people he chose to pillory, and this in turn encouraged him therefore to adopt "disguises" - sometimes overtly using pseudonyms but not always.

A very complicated man.
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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Thu 28 Jun 2012, 23:20

@nordmann wrote:
Yet here we are now in our so-called "modern" age, self-congratulatorily convinced that we have long left Victorian hang-ups behind us
Good point.

In fact even the later Victorians appreciated the art (sic) of the likes of Frenchman Joseph Pujol - 'Le Petomane' - who entertained theatre audiences (including British and Belgian royalty) with his flatulist music during La Belle Epoque at the end of the Nineteenth Century.
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PostSubject: Re: Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?   Sun 05 Aug 2012, 23:57

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Farts in history - have we lost sight of a great tradition?

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Res Historica History Forum :: The history of people ... :: Customs, traditions, etiquette and ethics-