The worthy metaphor of the flush-toilet?—a few thoughts before the twinning of our new loos

READINGS:

Matthew 7:3-5 (trans. David Bentley Hart)

Jesus said:

And why do you look at the straw in your brother’s eye, yet do not perceive the beam in your own eye? How is it you will say to your brother, ‘Let me take that straw out of your eye,’ and look: The beam is in your eye? Charlatan, first pluck the beam out of your eye, and then you will see clearly how to pluck the straw out of your brother’s eye.

—o0o—

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926)
from the poem The Man Watching

When we win, it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.

—o0o—

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006) lines from the prose poem called “Unconnected Sentences on Gardening”

Certain gardens are described as retreats
when they are really attacks.

Garden centres must become the Jacobin Clubs
of the new Revolution.

A liberal’s compost heap is his castle.

—o0o—

From an essay by Paul Kingsnorth (b. 1972) called ‘Learning What to Make of It’ which appears in “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist”, published by Faber, 2017.

The most exciting thing in my life at the moment is a five gallon bucket full of human excrement.

I should explain.

I recently tore the flush toilet out of our family home and replaced it with a compost toilet which I built myself. It is of the most basic variety: essentially, we crap into a big bucket and cover the crap with sawdust, then when the bucket is full I empty the contents onto a compost heap, where it rots down over the course of a year. At the end of that year, we should have a safe and nutritious compost to use on our fruit trees and bushes, on the fuel coppices of aspen and birch we’ll be planting this winter, and on the small native forest that we are planning to grow here for as long as we are healthy.

[. . .]

[On the other hand t]he flush toilet, to me, is a worthy metaphor for the civilisation I live in. It is convenient, it is easy, it is hygienic and it is wonderfully warm and dry. It is the most luxurious pooing experience known to man. You can do your business and never have to think about what happens next: never have to think about what happens to the faeces and urine you have just produced, just as you probably never thought about the origins of the food which created it in the first place. You can act, if you like, as if you have never produced it at all; as if you were far too civilised to have to engage in such base and primitive behaviour. You can sit in the warmth, reading an amusing light-hearted book, then you can simply press a button, and you will never have to deal with your own shit.

What happens to a society that won’t deal with its own shit? It ends up deep in it.

[. . .]

If a flush toilet is a metaphor for a civilisation that wants to wash its hands of its own wastes as long as they accumulate somewhere else, then a compost toilet is both a small restitution, and a declaration: I will not turn my back on the consequences of my actions. I will not hand them over to someone else to deal with. I will not crap into clean drinking water and flush it down a pipe to be cleaned with industrial chemicals at some sewage plant I have never visited. I will fertilise my own ground with my own manure, and in doing so I will control an important part of my life in this world, and that control will give me more understanding over it. I will claw something of myself back. Even in the rain, even in winter, I will deal with my own shit.

—o0o—

ADDRESS
The worthy metaphor of the flush-toilet?—a few thoughts before
the twinning of our new loos

I hope this Lent project to twin our four new loos with four new ones yet to be built somewhere in the world is a complete no-brainer for us. Given this, and the fact that after the service we will hear a few words from Rosemary and see a short film which makes the case better and more eloquently than I could, I don’t propose to make the subject of my address a simple reiteration of what is clearly a good project for us to support.

Instead, I want to use this opportunity to be self-critical about ourselves in an attempt to put into practice Jesus’ difficult and challenging call to remove planks from our own eyes before we engage in any attempts to take the straw out of another’s eye.

Let’s begin by considering the two images found in this blog post. At the beginning of this post is the logo of our chosen Lent charity toilettwinning.org. It shows a person sitting on a loo happily and safely reading a book. For many of us around the world this is a familiar representation of one of life’s great joys — a joy that combines the visceral and primal need to relieve oneself with another kind of deep need, namely of relaxing and educating oneself by having a good long read of a novel (comic or serious), a newspaper or magazine or, as is my want, some impenetrable philosophical tome. As Kingsnorth notes, the modern flush lavatory “is the most luxurious pooing experience known to man.”

Now to the right is a similar image made many years ago by a friend of mine in his factory’s health and safety department. He knew my habit of perhaps over-indulging in this luxurious experience and made this sign for me as a humorous Christmas present. Ho, ho, ho, how we laughed and, to this day — as visitors to the manse will know — this sign is proudly mounted on the door of our toilet.

But this week, as I sat on the loo one morning contemplating our plan to twin our toilets whilst reading the essay by Kingsnorth from which you heard an extract earlier, to my horror I suddenly realized that there was another, far from humorous way of interpreting the warning this sign might be delivering up to me personally. The message could be interpreted, not as comically alerting some unsuspecting visitor to the manse of the ever-present danger that they might stumble upon the minister sitting upon the loo doing some preliminary reading for the coming Sunday’s address but, instead, as proclaiming directly to me that as an otherwise, intelligent, responsible representative man, in pooing into a flush-toilet without ever giving it a second-thought I was, in fact, a real and pressing danger to the health and well-being of the world. “Danger. Andrew Brown” indeed.

Suddenly, thanks to the juxtaposition of our toilet-twinning project and Kingsnorth’s essay I suddenly became aware of a huge plank in my own eye.

As Kingsnorth makes absolutely clear, I was able to sit there, day after day, able to do my business without ever having to think about what happens next. I simply never needed to think about what happens to the faeces and urine I’d just produced, just as I all too often didn’t think about the origins of the food and drink which created them in the first place. In fact, how many times in my life had I been living as if I had never produced any poo and wee at all, acting as if I were far too civilized to have to engaged in such base and primitive behaviour?

It was a truly salutary moment to realize Kingsnorth was right, the flush toilet is “a metaphor for a civilization that wants to wash its hands of its own wastes as long as they accumulate somewhere else.”

Please, don’t mishear me at this point. I’m not engaging now in some piece of misplaced, liberal, post-colonial, self-flagellation here by thinking everything about our European and North American civilization is rubbish. That would be insane and wrong. All I am saying is that there exists an increasingly pressing need to become much, much more aware that in the life-cycle of every entity — whether amoebas, individual human beings or whole civilizations — in order to produce things we consider good and sustaining there is always created, as a byproduct, certain poisonous and destructive things and that our civilization’s sickness is not precisely found in that it produces toxic waste per se (though I think there is a huge problem of concerning our production of unnecessary toxic waste) but, rather, that our culture hasn’t for centuries given a damn where its own waste goes as long as it is flushed far away from us so we cannot see, small or touch the consequences directly. Of course, the consequences of our deluded, irresponsible behaviour are now increasingly coming directly seen and felt by us as the problem comes home to roost decades upon decades after we flushed away the problem to be dumped upon others. 

Whether I like it or not I have no choice but to plead guilty of playing my (often unselfconscious) part in this and I have now no choice but to own up to the deep truth contained in the warning: “Danger, Andrew Brown”. In so far as I continue to be a representative type of thoughtless modern European person I remain a danger to the well-being of the world.

Although in the final analysis you must choose yourself whether or not to do this, if my message today is properly to hit home, I suggest that each of us should consider, penitently placing our own names after the word “Danger”. I can’t tell you to do this but I can invite you to think long and hard about the increasingly pressing need to do this.

So what might offer up to us the beginnings of an answer to this? Well, I can start with the two short quotes with which Kingsnorth begins his essay. The first is by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) from the poem “The Man Watching”:

When we win, it’s with small things, and the triumph itself makes us small. What is extraordinary and eternal does not want to be bent by us.

Rilke’s words suggest we will win by paying attention to small things — such as toilets — and that our triumph will serve to make us small. What does he mean? Well, I take him to be saying that victory in these small things helps remind us of the need not to succumb to the sin of hubris and to see the wisdom in learning the need to become ever more modest and simple in our everyday living—making a smaller impact on the environment . He seems to be saying we must leave behind the hubristical dreams of thinking we might eventually have control over — bend, as he has it — any extraordinary and eternal things and to recognize that our human task and mission is humbly to get right the normal, small scale, everyday things that make the life of every mortal creature better — things like, today, the provision of safe toilets. But, and it’s a huge “but”, it matters greatly what kind of toilets we make because the ones we build, and/or the way we use them, must never be of the kind that continue to cause us to forget the need to deal with our own shit.

Which point brings me to the second quote Kingsnorth takes from a prose poem by the remarkable poet, writer artist and gardener, Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925–2006) called “Detached Sentences on Gardening”:

Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks.

What does this mean? Well, I take Finlay to be reminding us that the proper care and management required for the making of what we are tempted to call a healthy garden “retreat” in fact models for us something of the behaviour and practices we desperately need to use if we are successfully to attack our prevailing capitalist and consumer culture’s general ways of going about things, ways which continually, carelessly and dangerously produces needless, excess waste and which then seeks to flush it away so it doesn’t ever have to deal with it itself.

I cannot resist adding two more quotes from Finlay’s poem which are relevant here and which Kingsnorth might also have quoted:

Garden centres must become the Jacobin Clubs of the new Revolution.

and

A liberal’s compost heap is his castle.

At this point we conveniently arrive at the door of the convenience known as the compost toilet understood as both an actual thing and as a possible guiding metaphor for the better society we all wish to see come about.

As Kingsnorth points out, a compost toilet is both “a small restitution, and a declaration”, namely, that “I will not turn my back on the consequences of my actions” and that “I will not hand them over to someone else to deal with”. The compost toilet  — as an actual thing and as a guiding metaphor — allows a person to think about how they may and can fertilize the actual and metaphorical ground around them with their own manure which, in so doing, allows them also to begin to control an important, small part of their own life in this world which can bring with it some real measure of healthy, grounded understanding and wisdom.

Now, I fully appreciate that not everyone in a contemporary built-up urban environment — especially in Europe and North America can, or perhaps ever will, have access to actual compost toilets and that, therefore, some actual flush-toilet related solutions are likely to remain necessary for many of us for many years to come. But, if I have one strong criticism of the online toilet-twinning campaign materials, it is that — although they implicitly show us this in their films and pictures — they never  explicitly say that the majority of the toilets they help folk build are dry-earth ones, a type of toilet which includes compost ones. In fact, bizarrely and somewhat worryingly, in their poster offering a short history of the toilet, although they mention the flush-toilet (without noting any of the significant problems it also brings), they completely fail to mention the compost-toilet which in certain contexts and in so many ways is so much better, more healthy, ecologically appropriate and, therefore, “advanced” than its flushing cousin. 

Because of this, what I think is a significant oversight, we are danger of losing an opportunity to engage in some vital self-critical reflection because, unless we take the time and trouble to alert ourselves both to the differences that exist between these two types of toilet and their power to act as different metaphors for a culture then we will continue to fail to see the huge plank that is stuck in our eye which is stopping us from seeing that, in so many ways, our flush-toilet culture is far more unhygienic and underdeveloped than the compost-toilet cultures we claim we are attempting to help get going.

So, as we begin the important process of raising money to help build new toilets elsewhere in the world with which we will twin our own toilets, let’s not forget properly to heed Jesus call to remove the plank from our own eyes and let what we can then see goad us into taking care we will never again merely thoughtlessly flush any of our waste (biological or cultural) away and so fail to see that we always-already have real responsibility for where it is going and how it is going to be dealt with.

At the very least we could each commit to saying a prayer of gratitude every time we sit down on the pot and wash our hands afterwards. We could make it a prayer for the wisdom and strength better to deal with all our waste so that it can be composted in ways that help us, others, and all creation to grow more healthily and sustainably. We could make it a prayer which helps us see that dealing properly and healthily with our own shit, whether of the biological and/or cultural kind, is a penitential, transformative, restorative, sacred and holy work.

—o0o—

A minor postscript

After the service our culture's recent (and perhaps all too late) awareness to the horrors being caused by waste plastic was brought into the conversation and with it the important matter of biodegradability. I felt it was important to add that perhaps we should also ensure we tried only to hold ideas and beliefs that were themselves also capable of "biodegrading" healthily when their usefulness had ended. Too many of our old religious and philosophical ideas and beliefs seem to me to be rather too much like waste plastic . . .

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