21 February 2007

A Theodicy of Shit

Filed under: Fiction, Genesis 1 — ktismatics @ 1:04 pm

I posted on The Unbearable Lightness of Being before. This time, following yesterday’s post on Nabokov and poshlost, we have Kundera on kitsch. Kundera is Czech: his fictional meditation on kitsch must be so well-known in Eastern Europe that Zizek, a Slovenian, can refer to it prominently in The Parallax View without even citing the source: Part II is entitled “The Unbearable Lightness of Being No One;” Chapter 3, “The Unbearable Heaviness of Being Divine Shit.” But back to Kundera’s book, which is a strange amalgam of fiction and nonfiction.

Early in WWII Stalin’s son Yakov found himself in a German prison camp, bivouacked with a group of British soldiers who resented his unsanitary latrine habits. Eventually the complaint was brought to the commandant. Unable to stand the humiliation of discussing his own shit with the arrogant German, Yakov, cursing loudly in Russian, threw himself onto the electrified barbed-wire fence and was killed.

Stalin’s son had a hard time of it. All evidence points to the conclusion that his father killed the woman by whom he had the boy. Young Stalin was therefore both the Son of God (because his father was revered by God) and His cast-off. People feared him twofold: he could injure them by both his wrath (he was, after all, Stalin’s son) and his favor (his father might punish his cast-off son’s friends in order to punish him)… Was he, who bore on his shoulders the drama of the highest order (as fallen angel and Son of God), to undergo judgment not for something sublime (in the realm of God and the angels) but for shit? …If the Son of God can undergo judgment for shit, then human existence loses its dimensions and becomes unbearably light…

Stalin’s son laid down his life for shit. But death for shit is not a senseless death. The Germans who sacrificed their lives to expand their country’s territory to the east, the Russians who died to extend their country’s power to the west — yes, they died for something idiotic, and their deaths have no meaning or general validity. Amid the general idiocy of the war, the death of Stalin’s son stands out as the sole metaphysical death.

The narrator of Kundera’s novel, who presumably is Kundera himself, remembers looking at pictures of God in a children’s Old Testament:

He was a bearded old man with eyes, nose, a long beard, and I would say to myself that if He had a mouth, He had to eat. And if He ate, He had intestines. But that thought always gave me a fright, because even though I come from a family that was not particularly religious, I felt the idea of a divine intestine to be sacrilegious. Spontaneously, without any theological training, I, a child, grasped the incompatibility of God and shit and thus came to question the basic thesis of Christian anthropology, namely, that man was created in God’s image. Either/or: either man was created in God’s image — and God has intestines — or God lacks intestines and man is not like him.

The ancient Gnostics felt as I did at the age of five. In the second century, the great Gnostic master Valentinus resolved the damnable dilemma by claiming that Jesus “ate and drank, but did not defecate.” Shit is a more onerous problem than evil. Since God gave man freedom, we can, if need be, accept the idea that He is not responsible for man’s crimes. The responsibility for shit, however, rests entirely with Him, the Creator of man.

Kundera the narrator goes on to wonder whether Adam and Eve had sexual intercourse in Paradise. Saint Jerome said “no” in the fourth century. In the ninth century Erigena said “yes,” but with the proviso that Adam’s erections were entirely voluntary, like raising an arm.

What the great theologian found incompatible with Paradise was not sexual intercourse and the attendant pleasure; what he found incompatible with Paradise was excitement. Bear in mind: There was pleasure in Paradise, but no excitement.

Erigenea’s argument holds the key to a theological justification (in other words, a theodicy) of shit. As long as man was allowed to remain in Paradise, either (like Valentinus’ Jesus) he did not defecate at all, or (as would seem more likely) he did not look upon shit as something repellant. Not until after God expelled man from Paradise did He make him feel disgust. Man began to hide what shamed him, and by the time he removed the veil, he was blinded by a great light. Thus, immediately after his introduction to disgust, he was introduced to excitement. Without shit (in both the literal and figurative senses of the word) there would be no sexual love as we know it, accompanied by pounding heart and blinded senses…

Behind all European faiths, religious and political, we find the first chapter of Genesis, which tells us that the world was created properly, that human existence is good, and that we are therefore entitled to multiply. Let us call this basic faith a categorical agreement with being. The fact that until recently the word “shit” appeared in print as s— has nothing to do with moral considerations. You can’t claim shit is immoral, after all! The objection to shit is a metaphysical one. The daily defecation session is daily proof of the unaccptability of Creation. Either/or: either shit is acceptable (in which case don’t lock yourself in the bathroom) or we are created in an unacceptable manner.

It follows, then, that the aesthetic ideal of the categorical agreement with being is a world in which shit is denied and everyone acts as though it did not exist. This aesthetic ideal is called kitsch… Kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and the figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable to human existence.

Yet again I find myself drawn back to Genesis 1. Perhaps more from Kundera on kitsch in the next post.


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