Monday, January 18, 2010

On Bathrooms and Books

When Jane Austen was struggling over some recalcitrant passage in her account of the romantic entanglements of the Dashwood sisters or Elizabeth Bennet, did she imagine, I wonder, that some couple of hundred years down the road, some appreciative reader would be perusing the results of that struggle wedged comfortably in a three foot nook between bathroom sink and wall, happily ensconced upon the porcelain throne. Would she blush at the image? Would she turn up her nose at the vulgarity? As an artist would it offend her either her sense or her sensibility?

I had an idea for a one act play.

Jay, an author–refined and elegant–enters from Phil’s bathroom. In his hand he waves a copy of his latest tome, a volume on which he has presumably toiled with loving care. He holds it up for Phil who is already on stage to see.

Phil: Your book.

Jay: In the bathroom.

Phil: I was reading–

Jay: In the bathroom?

Phil: Yes, I was–

Jay: In the bathroom.

Phil: Right. I was reading–

Jay: But the bathroom.

Phil: What’s wrong with the bath–

Jay: Well, it wasn’t exactly defecation entertainment I had in mind when I–

And so on.

Would Jane have felt the same sense of outrage to find a copy of “Pride and Prejudice” next to some squire’s chamber pot? Imagine a modern day Milton flush from his success in justifying the ways of God to man, emerging from the toilet with a copy of his “Paradise Lost.”
A Flaubert with his “Madame Bovary;” a Longinus with–well you get the idea. How offensive is it to think of some ur-reader “instresspassing” the sprung rhythms of Gerard Manly Hopkins dedication to his creator while engaging in the perhaps most human of bodily functions? Would that spark gash, gold vermillion?

I, for one, never if I can help it, enter the toilet unaccompanied by some literary companion–preferably whatever book I happen to be in the midst of at the moment nature calls (a collection of essays by the novelist John Barth sharing the honors most recently with Charles Dickens’ “Martin Chuzzlewit”), although any handy volume will do in a pinch. Over the years (I, having lived a good many years, have had more than my share of opportunity) I have been accompanied by a good many of the great and a great many of the good novelists, poets, philosophers, historians, biographers, literary critics and even a dramatist or two, to say nothing of the even greater number of mediocre and bad writers. Although it is arguable that, with this latter group at least, the toilet may well be the most appropriate place to meet. Reading in the bathroom has become habit with me, as essential as breathing, and it has never occurred to me to make distinctions between what might or might not be appropriate in those circumstances. Shakespeare or Stephen King–any port in a storm.

As an author, however–

On the one hand, having labored long and painfully–it is not without reason that the metaphor most often employed for the act of writing is that of birth, my book, my child, is the writer asking too much to hope for an easy chair by a roaring fire or a lamp lit table in the reading room of the New York Public Library? Any reader with any sense of decency would seem to owe the writer and his child some modicum of respect. On the other hand, should not the writer be thrilled that some fellow being is willing to spend even a few of the precious minutes that make up a life reading what comes from his pen, whatever the circumstances of that reading might be? To take offense at finding one’s work sitting on the hamper opposite the commode is either excessively squeamish or extremely vain. Or both.

In my unwritten play, I had intended to make Jay, my author, a pompous finicky sort, overly impressed with himself, a man guilty as charged of this kind of other hand ingratitude. After all were he to find himself in my house in need of the conveniences, he would more than likely emerge waving that copy of his tome. But as I was writing the “first hand” considerations began to kick in. I began to think that perhaps there is something graceless and crude about mixing beauty with excrement, the sublime with the gross. Perhaps my character would be wrong in attributing beauty or sublimity or even value to his own work, but the general principle would still be true: a place for everything, and everything in its place. Intentions being what they are, I found myself unable to continue.

As an author, I myself would be plenty happy, overjoyed to have someone reading my work, reading this, wherever the hell his or her backside happened to be squatting, even if I can also feel for my fellow writer filling every rift with ore and wanting something more from his reader. So I stopped writing my one act play, but with the law of conservation of energy in mind (as well as waste not, want not), I opted for this essay instead.

I am reminded of more than forty years ago when a professor of mine at New York University had published a three volume life of Lord Byron, his life’s work, only to find it sitting in the window of a remainder book store on West Eighth Street in the Village which he passed every day on his way from the subway to the school. I suspect that were I that professor, my own preference would have been to find one of those three volumes with a book marker at page 183 sitting on the cabinet of some avid reader’s bathroom sink. So for myself, dear reader, if you are reading this in your bathroom, thank you. If you are reading it in the unisex lavatory where you work, thank you. If you are reading it an outhouse next to a Sears and Roebuck catalogue, thank you.

And, by the way, if you are reading this on the internet, you are welcome to print a copy, take it to your toilet, drop your pants and enjoy. And if the paper you printed it on is soft enough–

But, remember, that’s just me.

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