Tuesday, February 06, 2007


I find the Germanic toilet disturbing, as I'm sure do many others; rather than collecting one's stuff under a water seal as is common elsewhere, the Deutscher-toilet has a shelf that takes up most of the surface area of the commode, and on which one's deposit is retained, until flushing, as if you were, erm, pawning it. Lest I betray an unhealthy fascination with the subject by going on any further I will hand it over to the great Slavoj Žižek for this analysis, which first surfaced a few years back in his book The Fragile Absolute but which he has since taken great pleasure in recycling a few times. Masterly, though I don't really see any fundamental difference between the French toilet and the 'Anglo-Saxon' one (or certainly not the Irish one, which is, of course, racially and culturally different from the Yank-British model):

"In a famous scene from Buñuel's Phantom of Liberty, the roles of eating and excreting are inverted: people sit at toilets around a table, chatting pleasantly, and when they want to eat, sneak away to a small room. So, as a supplement to Lévi-Strauss, one is tempted to propose that shit can also serve as a matière-à-penser: the three basic types of toilet form an excremental correlative-counterpoint to the Lévi-Straussian triangle of cooking (the raw, the cooked and the rotten). In a traditional German toilet, the hole into which shit disappears after we flush is right at the front, so that shit is first laid out for us to sniff and inspect for traces of illness. In the typical French toilet, on the contrary, the hole is at the back, i.e. shit is supposed to disappear as quickly as possible. Finally, the American (Anglo-Saxon) toilet presents a synthesis, a mediation between these opposites: the toilet basin is full of water, so that the shit floats in it, visible, but not to be inspected. No wonder that in the famous discussion of European toilets at the beginning of her half-forgotten Fear of Flying, Erica Jong mockingly claims that 'German toilets are really the key to the horrors of the Third Reich. People who can build toilets like this are capable of anything.' It is clear that none of these versions can be accounted for in purely utilitarian terms: each involves a certain ideological perception of how the subject should relate to excrement.

"Hegel was among the first to see in the geographical triad of Germany, France and England an expression of three different existential attitudes: reflective thoroughness (German), revolutionary hastiness (French), utilitarian pragmatism (English). In political terms, this triad can be read as German conservatism, French revolutionary radicalism and English liberalism. In terms of the predominance of one sphere of social life, it is German metaphysics and poetry versus French politics and English economics. The point about toilets is that they enable us not only to discern this triad in the most intimate domain, but also to identify its underlying mechanism in the three different attitudes towards excremental excess: an ambiguous contemplative fascination; a wish to get rid of it as fast as possible; a pragmatic decision to treat it as ordinary and dispose of it in an appropriate way. It is easy for an academic at a round table to claim that we live in a post-ideological universe, but the moment he visits the lavatory after the heated discussion, he is again knee-deep in ideology."

The full article can be viewed here. Austrian Railways, I am pleased to report (but was dismayed to discover) employs the same useless spindle dispensers of powdered hand soap that have been Iarnród Éireann's hallmark for the last thirty years. But their rolling stock is better; I suppose, unlike Ireland, Austria's rail gauge has correspondents other than South Korea, thereby increasing the sources of its material.


The History said...

I read an article with an excerpt from the same work you quote in Playboy last month. Pretty funny stuff.