Full of Shit: The excremental visions of Swift and South Park

Satire is the art of reducing the sublime to the commonplace through mockery and criticism, this can take many forms but I will argue that the purest is the excremental vision. The excremental vision is the filter through which mankind, the highest of all living things, creator of society, culture, art, science and philosophy, is reduced to merely an animal which creates waste along with the abstracts mentioned. The excremental vision is the memento mori of humanity, the reminder that mankind is bound together by animal biology, and no matter what advanced heights we as a species may reach, what unites us all is our physical presence, the ultimate creation of which is faeces and the ultimate end of which is death.

The excremental vision was coined as a term in reference to Middleton Murry’s perceived neurosis of Jonathan Swift by[1]. Murry, recognising the abundance of scatology in Swift’s work, believed it’s prevalence to be a symptom of an ill mind and dismissed it as such. It was not until Norman Brown that the true significance of the excremental vision was appreciated. In ‘The Excremental Vision’, Brown’s 1964 essay on Swift, he notes that any attempt to categorise Swift’s fixation as a Freudian neurotic state serves to strengthen its importance, not negate it[2].

The anality of mankind is a process through which we all pass, it binds us as one, and so by bringing this to the fore in his work, Swift is making the satirical edge of excretion more pronounced. He is high lighting mankind’s neurotic relationship with anality, not merely suffering from it, and in doing so he satirises all mankind in its attempts to advance itself beyond the primal, base animality of its nature. The excremental vision has persisted into the post-Freudian, postmodern age in the work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park, attesting to its significance as the ultimate satiric voice and showing is it not just a neurosis.

The excremental vision in Swift is the ‘horrified sense of anality as the physical substratum in which man is trapped’, although it should not be regarded as a window into the mind of the author for there is an ironic distance and a ‘detached view of the sublimation of anality (and sexuality) as the basic source of ‘civilised’ behaviour’[3]. That is, Swift recognises this feature of mankind and exposes it to ridicule rather than succumbing to the neurosis himself and inadvertently creating art around it. It is not a window into Swift but a mirror he holds to mankind; himself included[4].

In Cassinus and Peter the excremental vision is the driving force of the narrative. The poem is centred on two Cambridge undergraduates, the future lifestyle that this status affords them is central to the excremental vision. These are two young men who upon graduation will advance into the upper echelons of professional society; they represent the imminent height of mankind’s achievement. Yet they live in the squalor befitting undergraduates, demonstrating the humans status as animalium regum while recognising that we are still animals[5]. The poem goes on to show a despondent Cassinus wishing death upon his lover because of some shameful secret he has just discovered, ‘Is Celia dead?’/ ‘How happy I, were that the worst’[6]. The satiric element in Cassinus and Peter comes in the revelation that the dysphoria that Cassinus feels is because he has just discovered that Celia defecates, ‘”Nor wonder how I lost my fits;/Oh! Celia, Celia, Celia shits”’. Better his idealised woman was dead than a mere animal.

This demonstrates the inherent idea that mankind is above biological processes because of our mental capability. The degree students studying to advance mankind and having a breakdown because the love interest defecates, an apparently unfeminine act but one so entwined with mankind. Here Swift satirises not just these two men but all humanity for its pretensions to greatness while being mired in the physical world.

The importance of the excremental vision to satire is evident from its longevity. Two centuries after Swift, it appeared in popular culture in Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park. One of the first examples of the excremental vision in South Park was in the character of Mr Hankey, a human waste by-product come to life . As Emily Whitaker wrote,

Mr. Hankey is something that everyone has in common.  Each person in South Park had the ability to connect with Mr. Hankey, since he was representative of a very natural bodily function[7].

Emily Whitaker

The excremental vision of Parker and Stone is crystallised in the episode ‘More Crap’, and shows how they utilise the vision differently to Swift[8]. While Swift’s vision has excrement as a disgusting, humiliating aspect of human kind, especially when applied to women, Parker and Stone celebrate it.

‘More Crap’ is about the struggle to create the world’s largest excreta, and this achievement is recurrently held to be as honourable as humanitarian awards like the Nobel Peace Prize and as respected as popular culture awards like the Grammys. The character of Stan Marsh is shown frequently lauding his achievement in bowel movements, ‘Look what your old man made’, ‘Sharon this is important’. By equating the process of excreting with the efforts involved in being awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, Parker and Stone are deliberately diminishing the prestige of these awards to remind their audience that no matter how mankind celebrates their historic achievements, they are ultimately animals, and the same creature that can bring peace to a conflicted world is that which also has to evacuate its bowels. This element of the excremental vision of personified in the personal invective accorded to Bono in which his humanitarian efforts for peace are acknowledged while at the same time saying he is a figurative and literal ‘piece of shit’.

A further correlation between Swift and Parker and Stone is the concept that excreting is a fundamental un-feminine act. In Swift this comes in the form of the male characters being repulsed by the idea of women passing solids, in South Park it comes from the female characters not understanding the male’s obsession with defecation, ‘Why are men so obsessed with how big their crap is?’. It is further cemented with the parallels made between childbirth, an intrinsically feminine act, and defecating. Stan Marsh undergoes an ultrasound while constipated and is told that he will be able to see ‘the faeces growing inside [his] belly’. The excremental vision being a vehicle for exploring the creative process of humanity and the manner in which it has advanced us and its combination with the function of excreting comes in an exchange between Randy and his son, Stan.

This was something I made, something that came from me, was a part of me; the only thing I ever made that was any good.

Randy Marsh

The importance of the excremental vision is clear. It cuts away any superfluous forms of satire and homes in on the essential absurdity of humanity; our pretensions to greatness and our ties to baseness. It is the proto-Darwinian concept that humans are raised from animals but remain intrinsically part of the animal world. Excreta are used as signifiers for this animality, the fact that we defecate binds us to the monkeys that fling their waste at passers-by in safari parks and to the Houyhnhnms of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels[9].

The excremental vision has persisted for centuries and crossed media from prose and poetry of the eighteenth century to television of the twenty-first, so strong is its power to chasten mankind’s pretensions to superiority over the animal world. The excremental vision feeds into the universal insecurity that mankind feels over its place in the world and into the Freudian neurosis we all pass through as we develop mentally and physically. It is this combination and conflict of the mental superiority we have over animals and the physical restraints we share with them that ultimately creates a need for us to recognise our inherent baseness and this we do through the excremental vision. We are all born inter urinas et faeces, and there we remain all our lives, no matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise.

[1] Steig, 1970. ‘Dickens’ Excremental Vision’, Victorian Studies, 13(2), p. 339

[2] Brown, 1964, ‘The excremental vision’, in Tuveson, E. (ed.) Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays p. 37

[3] Steig, 1970. ‘Dickens’ Excremental Vision’, Victorian Studies, 13(2), p. 339

[4] Brown, 1964, ‘The excremental vision’, in Tuveson, E. (ed.) Swift: A Collection of Critical Essays, p. 38

[5] Greene, 1967, ‘On Swift’s “scatological” poems’, The Sewanee Review, 75(4) p. 674

[6] Swift, 1967, ‘Cassinus and Peter’ in Davis, H. (ed.) (1967) Swift’s Poetical Works

[7] Whitaker, 2006, Scatology, South Park and Gulliver’s Travels.

[8] South Park, ‘More Crap’, 2007

[9] Swift, 2003, Gulliver’s Travels.

3 thoughts on “Full of Shit: The excremental visions of Swift and South Park

  1. Joke from my childhood: a little boy asks his mother where he came from; she indicates the position of the vaginal canal. The little boy is shocked – “bloody hell, another inch and I’d have been a turd!”

    Liked by 1 person

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