Of course, its not something one refers to in polite company. The subject is strictly taboo. Dictionaries that deign to mention so base an activity dismiss it with the peremptory verbal value judgement: vulgar. Indeed I blush to write the offensive syllable. Something beginning with F. A dirty four letter word. Any modest pen would be reticent to sully the page with such a seemingly unseemly obscenity, & yet no other appellation quite fits. If nothing else, the word is expressive in its forthright simplicity. Besides, why resort to euphemism to describe an innocuous natural phenomenon? Lets not bowdlerise our bowels. Enough of this circumlocutory Victorian prudery. Out with it: call a spade a spade, & a fart a fart!
The O.E.D. treats farting with rigorously pedantic academic detachment. The etymology of the verb to fart is traced back through Old English (Feortan), Old High German (Ferzan) to the Sanskrit pard is it merely co-incidental that we say pardon afterwards? One far-fetched linguistic speculation often leads to another. For instance, someone held in bad repute is said to be in bad odour. Could this be because they habitually fart? The word fart has an expressively onomatopoeaic quality: it fizzles & tuts, & the medial ah suggests a sense of relief & satisfaction after letting go of what has been held in. The synonymous break wind is long-winded in comparison. It sounds affected.
The venerable dictionary informs us that fart is not now in decent use, but this implies it once was. Thus
The aptly-named Grose in his 1811 'Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue', (splendidly subtitled 'A Dictionary of Buckish Slang, University Wit, and Pickpocket Eloquence), has fun with some disreputable definitions:
FART. He has let a brewer's fart, grains and all; said of one who has bewrayed his breeches.
I dare not trust my arse with a fart: said by a person troubled with a looseness.
FART CATCHER. A valet or footman from his walking behind his master or mistress.
FARTING CRACKERS. Breeches.
FARTLEBERRIES. Excrement hanging about the anus.
evolution of linguistic usage can reveal changing social & moral attitudes. Moreover, there are racial & national as well as historical differences. Etiquette is culturally-specific. What is considered bad manners here is not so in all societies. This point is instructively illustrated by Allen Edwardes in his pornographic masterpiece, The Jewel in the Lotus :-
Breaking wind (zirt, fart), like belching (itkerreh), was considered by Arab and Hindoo as an act of purification; for it sought to drive all evil spirits from the body. Zirteh, a loud discharge was highly civil and proper in the company of others; but insidious fesweh (fizzle, creeper), with stench, was regarded as an insult. Many an Arab died because of it, especially when vented in the presence of royalty. Such an individual was termed Fezwaun (Fizzler) whereas his counterpart, a man of purity and esteem, was venerably entitled Eboo-ez-Zirteh (Father of Farts). Simojeh-el-Hewweh (Breaker of Wind) was the appellation granted an Egyptian bean-eater who could break wind in tune, a favourite accomplishment of fellaheen boys.
Deyyer (to let fly a loud flatus) became a popular word in Arab tales, and nothing aroused more laughter than this: He let fly two great farts, one of which blew up the dust from the earths face and the other steamed up the gates of Heaven. Among the Bedewween, one of the most familiar and popular tales of the Arabian Nights, is How Eboo-Hessen Brake Wind. It recounts the humorously lamentable story of a young man who, upon his wedding night, let fly a fart, great and terrible that shamed him into abandoning his bride and house full of startled guests. Thereafter zirt, for its sanitary and respectful nature, acquired such attention that records were kept indicating the first time a person of distinction was heard to break wind. Thus, in conversation with a stranger, it was not uncommon for an Arab proudly to say: I was born on the very night that Eboo-Hessen farted!
You had an arse full of farts that night, darling, and I fucked them out of you, big fat fellows, long windy ones, quick little merry cracks and a lot of tiny little naughty farties ending in a long gush from your hole. It is wonderful to fuck a farting woman when every fuck drives one out of her. I think I would know Nora's fart anywhere. I think I could pick hers out in a roomful of farting women. It is a rather girlish noise not like the wet windy fart which I imagine fat wives have. It is sudden and dry and dirty like what a bold girl would let off in fun in a school dormitory at night. I hope Nora will let off no end of her farts in my face so that I may know their smell also.
in a private letter addressed to
It is only to be expected that Literature, in so much as it faithfully reflects Life, has had its fair share to say about farting. Though Literary Decorum undoubtedly excluded any mention of so suspect a subject from the works of more straight-laced uptight writers, those with an earthier, Rabelaisian humanism relished the comic possibilities of the humble fart. Medieval readers must have chortled over Chaucer in his saucy Millers Tale: He was somdel squaymous Of fartying, This Nicholas anon let flee a fart. Likewise Shakespeare, who had something new to say about most things under the sun, puts in his pennyworth of wit too. Not the theme of one of his great soliloquies, this little sop to the groundlings must have set them rocking in the aisles: A man may break a word with you, sir; and words are but wind; Ay, and break it in your face, so he break it not behind. (Comedy of Errors III i 75-76) Shakespeares old buddy, Ben Jonson, was even more direct: I fart at thee (The Alchemist). Manys the fart that these two rival dramatists & drinking companions must have heard of an evening at the Mermaid Tavern.
The Poets Rhyming Dictionary lists no fewer than 38 possible rhymes for fart. Its a pity that none of the major poets availed themselves of this happy circumstance to produce a definitive ode on the matter. We must content ourselves with this paltry offering from Sir John Suckling, in which the divine afflatus is bathetically reduced to metaphorical flatus:
Love is the fart
Of every heart;
It pains a man when tis kept close
And others doth offend when tis let loose.
It would be no surprise to learn that some earnest American scholar is, at this very moment, exhaustively researching a doctoral thesis on The Fart in English Literature.
The Symbolism of the fart is presumably cognate with that of Wind, which is the fecundating principle, the creative breath, but also suggestive of the violent eruption of the unconscious elements into the unguarded psyche. According to one esoteric Creation Myth, life on earth began when God the Farter first broke wind. This image of the Almighty Cosmic Fart can be interpreted as a primitive version of the Big Bang Theory.
Improbable as it may seem, some religious traditions have seen farting as a spiritual exercise, a way to God:
Goze (flatus, eruction, belch) was practised by Indian Yogees in their feats of concentration, in ridding the flesh of all evil & achieving annihilation of hurtful consciousness through union with the Supreme Being (Nirvana). Belching & forcing wind from the buttocks, in rapid sequence, the yogee chanted: Glory to those keen ebullitions which escape above & below! (Allen Edwardes: The Jewel in the Lotus)
From an orthodox Christian point of view perhaps this seems blasphemous. But even the most zealous exponents of Christs teachings could not claim to be altogether untainted by such a venial bodily weakness.
For Martin Luther, moving force behind the Reformation & an heroic martyr to constipation, breaking wind was a means of getting his own back on the devils to whom he attributed his hellish anal tortures: That ones for Beelzebub & thats for Mephistopheles, he would thunder triumphantly as he let fly a holy broadside. (Hence the origin of the ironic phrase, an angel spoke, to denote a rumble from our nether regions.) He was unpretentiously down-to-earth, without any trace of the odour of sanctity. No Papal Bullshit for him!
Another infamous son of the Vaterland, old Adolf Hitler, also suffered from severe flatulence. In his case, apparently, it stemmed from an excessive fondness for beans. Third-Reich scientists, investigating Chemical & Biological warfare, were quick to grasp the devastating explosive potential of common or garden pulses & were working on a secret weapon, which, had it been developed before D-Day, could well have altered the course of World History. British Tommies in World War I had already experienced the deadly use to which gas could be put. One shudders to think what those Bosch boffins would have come up with under the influence of their furious farting Fuhrer.
Politicians are notorious for talking a lot of hot air. The well-known French gourmand, Charles de Gaulle, blamed his farts on a delectation for dishes prepared from offal, & its true they were damned awful! The unsavoury closet confessions of other leading statesmen, if they ever came to light, would make fascinating reading & might well necessitate the rewriting of history. Certainly there have been cover-ups. Exactly how much has been suppressed we can only guess at. One suspects its not a rat we smell but a fart.
From time to time, there emerges from the common mass a freak of nature, an evolutionary quirk: either the exception that proves the rule or a precursor of some latent human potential. One such bizarre case was an enigmatic Frenchman, born in 1857, Joseph Pujol (an accent on Pu might have been appropriate), popularly known by his stage-name of Le Petomane, (from the French Pet meaning a fart & maniaque), Fartist Extraordinaire. By dint of long, hard & often painful practice he had gained such astonishing control over his sphincter muscles that he could play a passable rendition of the Marseillaise through his arse, like some flatulent flautist. [It must have been something of the sort that Shakespeares clown was thinking of when he punningly referred to the podex - or arse musica - as a wind-instrument (Othello)] This was not his only accomplishment. Another trick was to emit farts with sufficient force to extinguish lighted candles at a distance of several metres. His repertoire included an imitation of the San Francisco earthquake & an authentic-sounding 21 gun salute. Not surprisingly, his spectacular prowess made him the sensation of the Parisian Music Hall. From 1892, he starred at the Moulin Rouge, where he out-grossed (pun intended) even the legendary Sarah Bernhardt & became the highest paid performer of his generation. Among his audience were King Leopold II of the Belgians, Edward Prince of Wales, & Sigmund Freud (who went on to develop the theory of anal fixation.) During a court case involving a rival fraudulent female farter, who had tried to steal his act, he even gave a demonstration of his unlikely art in front of a judge.
The sight & sound of a grown man farting loudly on stage proved so utterly hilarious, many members of the audience were convulsed with hysterical laughter to such an extent they had to be helped by trained nurses who were fortunately on hand to pass round the smelling salts. It was perhaps only a rumour put about by the management that ordained priests would be on standby to administer Last Rites to those who died laughing.
Petomania could well have been the unacknowledged precursor of Beatle-mania. Indeed, he made phonographic recordings & these early examples of what would nowadays be called novelty records sold in their thousands. However, the First World War put an abrupt end to his act, when loud explosions lost popularity.
Sadly he has passed into unjustified obscurity, gone with the wind as it were. Such a prodigiously-gifted farter must be rare if not unique & he is surely worthy of a place in the pantheon of the all-time Greats, not to mention the Guinness Book of Records.
Few can aspire to such glory. But what is normal? The eponymous hero of Becketts Molloy says:
Three hundred & fifteen farts in nineteen hours, or an average of over sixteen farts an hour. After all its not excessive. Four farts every fifteen minutes. Its nothing. Not even one fart every four minutes.
Quite what the statistical average is one can only surmise. As far as can be ascertained, no survey has yet been carried out. The results would surely prove interesting, though their accuracy would be hard to substantiate.
Farting is a field ripe for exploration, indeed it is over-ripe. What is needed is a Natural History of the Fart. A small start has already been made. As mentioned earlier, the Arabs (to whom we owe many scientific discoveries) distinguished between a loud discharge & a fizzle. Writing in 1825, Thurlow showed how much the state of the fart had advanced: There are five or six different species of fart (Essays, Wind). With the information now at our disposal, this seems to be an underestimate. In fact, there are so many variables that, though it may fall into certain broad categories, each fart is truly unique. A whole new vocabulary is needed to do justice to the full range of manifestations subsumed under the generic term fart.) For instance, the measurement of a farts force would require some equivalent of the Beaufort scale (eg a gale-force fart) or the Richter scale (an earth-shattering fart). Moreover, frequency, blast, & duration are not the only relevant criteria. Humidity (a dry or wet fart) & odour should also be taken into account. Just as wine has a distinctive bouquet, so does a fart. Smelly is a blanket-term which does little to reveal subtle olfactory nuances. How smelly: very smelly, extremely smelly, overpoweringly smelly, or only quite smelly? And what sort of smell: the bad egg, sulphur dioxide, stink bomb variety or the rotten, fruity kind? Certainly, there is more to the fart than meets the eye (or rather the nose)!
So, what exactly is a fart? What causes farting? And, putting it crudely, why do farts smell?
According to the latest scientific research on the matter, gas in the large intestines is produced by no less than 49 strains (cf Heinz 57 Varieties) of anaerobic microbes, dirty little buggers. Doctors warn that gasses should on no account be suppressed because, if held internally, they are converted into toxins such as cadaverine, putrescine, scatole & indole. Sounds ghastly & smells worse.
It has been known for a long time that certain foods are particularly fart-making. No-one needs to be told about beans: Pease and beans are flatulent meat (Blount Glossogr, 1674-81). What is less well known is that cooking beans with a herb called Savory helps to reduce flatulence. Other foods have a bad reputation: Eaten in quantity it (beet-root) often proves flatulent (M.Donovan, Domestic Economy 1837). No doubt different foods (& combinations of foods) affect individuals differently. Considering the quantity & variety of comestibles that we stuff into our stomachs, its hardly surprising that explosive reactions occasionally occur. Perhaps this could explain the mysterious phenomenon of spontaneous combustion in human beings, for what else is a fart but natural gas? In the retort of the stomach unpredictable chemistry may take place.
Now, why is it that there seems to be something inherently funny about a fart? Ever the occasion for immature schoolboy mirth, even in later life farting may cause a guffaw. Often we laugh to cover our embarrassment, as we might titter at the mention of sex or death. The callous snigger at anothers misfortune. To cough during a solemn silence is bad enough, farting loudly is a thousand times worse. Blowing a raspberry, which imitates the sound of a fart, is a sign of disapproval, indicative of fartings negative connotations in the popular imagination. We think its rude. Yet there is an element of hypocrisy in our social behaviour. In public we fart furtively, while in the privy of our own homes we just let rip without restraint.
Who among us has not, at some time or other in their lives, broken wind? The question is rhetorical, for if a survey were conducted & only a minority of people owned up to it, the majority would almost certainly be lying.
Farting is one of the ills that flesh is heir to. Ciceros nihil humanum alienum mihi est must surely have included farting (the Romans were great gluttons in their latter, decadent days). The fastidious may not like to admit it but, for better or worse, farting is a Fact of Life. It afflicts the famous, rich & powerful as well as ordinary mortals. Everybody does it, royalty included. The purest lady-on-a-pedestal, the immaculate macho film hero, none are exempt. Like death, farting is no respecter of rank. It is truly egalitarian, the great leveller. To paint an accurate portrait of humanity, warts & all, means acknowledging the foibles we prefer to hide. In the final analysis, we are as we are, farts & all, human, erring & condonable. Farting is the nemesis that deflates our vain pretensions & proves our human fallibility. In the inarticulate speech of the fart we can hear our lower nature striving to express itself. Rude it may be, but at least its honest.