The world is flatus

This Earle of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed, that he went to Travell 7 yeares. On his returne the Queen welcomed him home and sayd, ‘My Lord, I had forgott the Fart.  John Aubrey, Brief Lives.

… farts are a kind of language. They are inherently social in a way that defecation is not. They tend to take your companions by surprise. Furthermore, farts are an occasion for self-examination, for questioning the extent of our freedom and the nature of self-mastery. We can’t help farting; it is a question of need. So part of what the Middle Ages wrestled with when people were talking about farts was this constant reminder of the needs of the body. Farting carries this reminder that the body behaves on its own, and there is nothing you can do about it. It reminds us that our bodily freedom is limited.

Farts carry anxiety and humour and disgust. People see themselves in the reactions of others and are thus intensely aware of themselves in those moments when farts manifest themselves. When you smell somebody you are closer to them than when you are just looking at them, but you are farther away than when you are touching them. Farts can create these moments rich with insight. I think much of the humour of farting is located on this very ordinary, humble level. On Farting: Laughter and Language in the Middle Ages by Valerie Allen

 ______

Joseph Pujol was a singular character. When he was twelve he discovered that he had a unique talent. While swimming near Marseilles – he found that by contracting his abdomen muscles he could take water into his bowels and expel it in a powerful stream at will. He then stated practising with air instead of water and was able to make tenor, baritone, and bass fart sounds.

In 1892 Pujol began a stellar career at The Moulin Rouge in Paris with the stage name Le Petomane (The “Fartiste”). His show was pure spectacle. As well as thunder and cannons, he would imitate the farts of a little girl, a mother-in-law and a bride on her wedding night. He would then go backstage to put one end of a rubber tube into his anus. He returned to the stage and smoked a cigarette from this tube, which he used to play a couple of tunes on a flute. After removing the rubber tube, he would blow out some of the gas-jet footlights, before leading the audience in a rousing sing-along for the grand finale. The piece de resistance was his anal version of La Marseillaise, which would bring tears to the eyes of those watching. The Moulin Rouge is said to have hired nurses to deal with audience members who had laughing fits. His artistic talent has recently been commemorated in the musical “The Fartiste“, an Off-Broadway production.

Today I am going to be looking at farting. Flatulence, breaking wind, cutting the cheese, backdoor breeze, letting one rip and airbrushing your boxers – the act of expelling intestinal gases has been a rich source of language. The word “fart” is one of the oldest in English. Its immediate origins are in the Middle English word feortan, which itself is kin to the Old High German word ferzan.

The American comedian Sarah Silverman once commented that fart jokes are “the sign language of comedy.” In South Park they have been making them for nearly two decades. But Parker and Stone are in pretty exalted company. In The City of God Augustine mentions men who “have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at will, so as to produce the effect of singing“. Flatulent demons in the eighth ring of Hell make “trumpets of their asses” in Dante’s Divine Comedy. One of the most celebrated incidents of flatulence humour in early English literature is in The Miller’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer. The character Nicholas sticks his buttocks out of a window at night and humiliates his rival Absolom by farting in his face. Absolom gets his revenge by thrusting a red-hot blacksmith’s poker between Nicholas’s cheeks. In 1776 Benjamin Franklin found the time to publish a book of bawdy essays called Fart Proudly. The British explorer, and an outstanding linguist in his right, Sir Richard Burton wrote about a tribe of Arabian Bedouins who employed a subtle system of farts to transmit codes and warnings.

We like to think we are more sophisticated now. But we still find this kind of lavatorial humour funny. I Who can forget the scene from Blazing Saddles? The insult “I fart in your general direction” from Monty Python and the Holy Grail has become a classic n 2008, a farting application for the iPhone raked in nearly $10,000 in just one day. There are over 60 fart apps for the iPhone and iPod touch alone. Here are 31 of them:

The technical term for a fart is flatus. Farts contain variable amounts of nitrogen, hydrogen, carbon dioxide, methane, and oxygen in subtly distinct combinations and percentages, they blend to form the infinite olfactory variety of the human fart – in the words of Alan Kligerman a “gas smell is as characteristic of a person as a fingerprint.” Human flatus may contain hydrogen and/or methane, which are both flammable. If sufficient amounts of these gases are present, it’s possible to light the fart on fire. This is the stuff of YouTube videos and as far as I know there has not been any significant scientific research on the subject.

There are many possible reasons why some people fart more than others; two of the most important are swallowing air when you eat or eating a lot of carbohydrates. If the gas results from the former the chemical composition will approximate that of air. If the fart is produced by digestion or bacterial production, the chemistry will be more varied. Foods that contain a high amount of indigestible carbohydrates include many of the usual suspects:

apples

artichokes

beans

broccoli

brussels sprouts

cabbage

cauliflower

lentils

prunes

pulses

raisins

Health conditions that can cause symptoms of flatulence include constipation, lactose intolerance, irritable bowel syndrome and coeliac disease. This last one is a common digestive condition which involves intolerance to a protein called gluten, which is found in wheat, rye and barley.

The gastrointestinal tract works like a factory production line breaking everything down so that it can enter the bloodstream. Once food reaches the stomach, all nutrients are broken down into smaller components, amino acids, fatty acids and glucose, which are absorbed in the small intestine. Flatulence occurs when a food does not completely break down in the stomach and intestine. This undigested food arrives at the large intestine. When the bacteria break this material down, they produce a variety of gases in a process analogous to when yeast produces carbon dioxide to leaven bread. The principal culprit of the odour we associate with flatulence is hydrogen sulphide. Anyway, these gases have to go somewhere. And that’s when the problems begin.

In January 2011, the Malawi Minister of Justice, George Chaponda, said that air fouling legislation would make public flatulence illegal in the southern African country. After being subjected to media ridicule the minister withdrew his proposal. Chaponda obviously went too far, but there is no doubt that flatulence is a constant source of embarrassment. Walking away is not a good solution the odour follows us, pulled along in the farter’s direction by air currents. Moreover, the smell gets caught in the clothing, and diffuses out slowly. You can always blame the dog. But that doesn’t cut the mustard. Surely in the 21st century there must be a solution.

This search for a cure has been joined by a number of unsung heroes. No article about farting is complete without a reference to Dr. Fart. Michael D. Levitt, of the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis, is the world’s leading authority on flatulence. He has produced 34 papers on flatus. He notes that if you have on average more than 22 separate flatulent occurrences a day. This contrasts with two male patients who farted more than 140 times a day. It turned out that they were both lactose-intolerant; once dairy products were cut out of their diets, they returned to the normal range.

Buck Weimer, a retired Colorado psychologist designed fart-proof underpants for his wife Arlene, who suffers from Crohn’s disease, which causes bad-smelling gas. “You’re lying in bed with your wife and suffering but you don’t want to divorce a lady for body gas – it doesn’t look good on your resume; – so you start looking for solutions,” said Weimer talking about what motivated him. After a number of failed prototypes, he would eventually perfect and patent a filtration system. And the rest is history. Arlene’s social life was transformed and everyone in her bowel disease support group was demanding a pair. The Weimers now sell their Under-ease anti-flatulence underwear online. The website proudly proclaims:

revolutionary patented underwear recommended by doctors for offensive gas“. Their strapline is “wear them for the ones you love.” This consideration will set you back some $30. They have been a success and they are now on their second generation.

You also have this alternative, Check out this infomercial for a blanket:


This is high-tech stuff. According to the manufacturer its layer of activated carbon fabric is the same technology used by the U.S. army to protect against chemical weapons.

There are, however others for whom the farts are not a problem. Just like everything else there are fetishists. The infatuation is called flatulophilia. Flatulophiles are usually male, and there is an important niche market for porn to cater for this group. I normally do extensive research preparing for my blog. I am fascinated by all manifestations of human behaviour. But fart porn is too much even for me.

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One Response to The world is flatus

  1. Alberto says:

    Definitely original!

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