Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Splendor in the Ordinary: The Bathroom

“We are exiles… we have lost that lovely naturalness and simplicity and freedom that were ours in Eden. We have botched the whole business. We snatched at an illusion, thinking to trade off our innocence for a knowledge only the gods can handle, and it all went to smash in our hands. We would have perished forthwith unless Mercy had clothed us and exiled us from the stark splendor of this godlike knowledge
There is nothing very splendid about the bathroom, it would seem..   Though necessary, it is almost below ordinary.    If there is any place where we close doors and put up a front between outside and inside, that is where it is.    Most books don't even talk about this place where we spend a very regular percentage of our lives.   In conversation we use euphemisms or indirect references to refer to it, or sometimes, if we don't use the common euphemisms, it falls like a sort of shock on the conversation.   In fact, openness about private functions is often a sign of disrespect, of transgression of boundaries. 

Why are we naturally so private about these things?    Some of it is cultural.  You can tell something about a culture by its cleaning and toileting habits.   But the argument of Howard's book is that culture is not just random habit but a reflection of how we think about things, what is deepest in us, so deep that it doesn't reside just in books but in our daily way of life. 

Clothes are a boundary.  And so is privacy for bathroom functions.   Where you see exceptions, you usually see telling reasons for the exceptions.   Military recruits, Howard says, do most of their personal care without privacy.  But he points out that as soon as they get seniority and ranking, they get privacy, too.   It also occurred to me that recruits aren't really showering or getting dressed "in public" (certainly not in the sight of the enemy, for example!)  but rather among their fellow recruits, which is somewhat different, in the "band of brothers" sense.  .   

I read once that King Louis XIV did his cleaning, dressing and other bathroom things "in public" -- his court was invited to be at his ablutions, and it was considered a privilege to be part of this ceremony.  But note that he didn't take his bath in front of the populace.  And that it is particularly mentioned of him -- it wasn't a common habit of kings or people in general.   It was sort of a symbol of his absolute power and pride.  And that it was very ceremonious, which is sort of inappropriate in itself, but sort of shows that even in this lack of privacy there was a certain amount of covering up or clothing the actual processes.

Howard points out that cleaning and other bathroom habits are essentially very regular and inevitable in our human state.   
“There is always something collecting on us or in us that should not stay there, and the task of removing it is a perpetual task. As the priests had to be forever washing and purifying themselves and everything else, so we find that we have to be at it morning and night and innumerable times in between. If we stop for very long, something gets matted or grimy or clogged. It is a fight, and it goes on to the bitter end.”
It is one of those tasks which is always with us.   
“Uncleanness and decay, mortality and chaos are there, tirelessly assailing the garden (the body as a walled garden is an old idea), reminding us of our frailty and vulnerability and shame. … Just as the greatest saints have to return daily to their spiritual ablutions, so even the healthiest among us have to be daily at our physical ablutions”
And why is that?  Because
"our relations with other people are so high and holy that we must be as pure as we can for them.” 

There is a kind of shame and privacy that is not unhealthy, but a sign of respect for others.   And a kind of regularity that is not obsessive, but good and proper, because it is an acknowledgement of the mundane realities of life.

As with ourselves, our bathrooms get dirty fast, and have to be cleaned regularly.   It's easier now in the days of running hot water and sterile porcelain and storebought soap and cleaning products, but still a task that no one enjoys.   Plus, there is a balance there.  You want a bathroom to be clean -- perhaps cleaner than any other place in the house, for the very reason that it is naturally more filthy.    But you don't want to be hyper-obsessed to the point of making your bathroom equivalent to a hospital bathroom, Lysol stench and floor drain and all.  

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