I want to relate an experience I had today and that has exhausted my battery of expletives. It is as banal as it can be: The flushing mechanism of the toilet in my apartment broke. At first, I scoffed at it, remembering that a friend once told me, “if it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown, well, one problem at the time.” But this type of problem doesn’t magically go away, nor does our digestive tract take into account the condition of our water closets. Soon enough I was flushing with buckets and the shower head tucked in the toilet bowl and my head clouded with self-pity.
So I headed to the store and explained the situation in my best Korean to a friendly lady, who eventually explained to me that they had replaced the old-fashioned floater with a new system. I gladly bought into that system and rushed home, borrowed a wrench and installed the system. The reservoir filled as I watched breathlessly. I had fixed it! But when the reservoir was full the device I had installed began to shake back and forth, continuously opening the water inlet so that the water kept flowing in short intervals, producing a maddening sound. I grabbed the new plastic with my hand, wiggled and turned it around hoping a little adjustment might solve the problem.
It didn’t, of course. I pulled back my hand, blue from the gooey stuff we put in the reservoir to prevent odor. Disgusted, but determined, I continued manipulating the flimsy device. How idiotic! Remember the movie Idiocracy? The reality is far worse! Here I was, sitting in my toilet, trying my best to fix a system that uses precious drinking water to flush down our excrements.
The idea that we have to “flush down” our excrements is the epitome of our refusal to understand nature. Treating our human waste in specialized faraway facilities has the advantages as it can be scaled up and properly managed, but detaching us from what comes out of our bodies reinforces a culture that reviles some vital parts of the human body – and I see a structural or Gestalt parallel between that attitude and the way we treat the body politic or the planet we inhabit.
I will keep raging against the water closet, perhaps smashing one to pieces like the German actor Klaus Kinski famously did. I understand the dynamics of rage and how our inner fuse blows if circumstances force us to repair a system that we utterly and existentially disagree with, be it fascism or the water closet.
I appreciate the invention and register its contribution to the fight against diseases like cholera and typhoid. But our inability to move beyond a 19th-century Victorian technology in treating our bodily waste shows that we are far more stuck in old ideas than we realize. The old adage, that necessity is the mother of invention, holds true. We can only hope that this necessity will not come in the form of irreversible harm to our environment and the only physical body our culture inhabits.
A defining characteristic of any civilization is how it treats human waste, and I would like to see the day when we understand how full of shit we are.