Book Review: Bellies, Bowels and Entrails in the Eighteenth Century

39973288Review by Burcu Alkan

Although not quite the “grand seat of consciousness” like its counterpart the brain, the stomach, with a massive nervous system of its own, is long deemed a kind of a second brain. This “gut” of the gut-feeling and the neighbouring viscera is the focal point of Bellies, Bowels and Entrails in the Eighteenth Century (Manchester University Press, 2018), edited by Rebecca Anne Barr, Sylvie Kleiman-Lafon, and Sophie Vasset. As this collection of essays show, the eighteenth century intellectual world was very much preoccupied with the bowels, the stomach, and other internal organs within the abdominal cavity in pursuit of a form of self-knowledge expressed in the materiality of the body. The texts discuss grotesque, non-heroic, ailing, and deformed bodies against the celebrated “ideal,” through literary representations, political encounters, critical caricatures, and anatomic drawings in order to underscore “the darker side of the Enlightenment” (5).

The book comprises of four parts, each of which have thematically linked essays. There are fifteen chapters in total that explore the relationship between the organs and functions of the digestive system and their cultural connotations in the long eighteenth century, a period that roughly begins in the last decade of the seventeenth century and ends in the first decade of the nineteenth.

The first part, “Urban congestion and human digestion” revolves around both literal bodily functions and symbolic representations of the stomach. For instance, in their respective chapters, Gilles Thomas and Sabine Barles & André Guillerme examine the functions and the transformation of the residential, commercial, and underground structures of Paris and liken the deleterious world of dirt, dead, saltpetre and excrement that sustains the city’s socio-economy to the bowels of an organism. Ian Miller moves up the digestive tract and details out what the changing understanding of the stomach means for both medicine and the perception of the self. Miller notes that it was in the eighteenth century that the stomach was dethroned from its position as the “seat of the soul” (63). Instead, it began to be portrayed as a potent organ that dissolves, ferments, and putrefies. It is a beastly organism but one that has a complicated system of its own, ensuring the dissolution of only food matter and not itself, and thus, maintaining the survival of the whole body.

The essays in the second part, amusingly titled, “Excremental operations,” focus on the attention paid to faeces in the eighteenth century. The artists and intellectuals of the era seem to have had rather interesting engagements with the matter. Amélie Junqua explores the relationship between the state of the paper industry and the literary worth of poetry, united in the common denominator of bowel movements and their outcomes. Her examples from Jonathan Swift, John Dryden, and others are both informative and entertaining at the expense of bad poets. Jennifer Ruimi’s work on French comedy is an equally informative and entertaining look at the use of faecal matter as a form of parodic social critique and burlesque erotica. In their own gleeful ways, both the English and the French of the century facilitated the mundane world of bowel movements as a revolt against decorum. Essentially, that the world has evolved towards a definitive privacy in that department renders the practices of and concerns regarding excremental affairs quite alien but fascinating to the modern reader.

The third part, “Burlesque Bellies” is particularly interesting as the preoccupation with the innards of the human body and its processes, which is itself a result of the Enlightenment, turns against the Enlightenment. Guilhem Armand looks at the parodies of “pompous knowledge” and the pedantic scientific productions of the era. Once again, the French satire proves highly comic in terms of the relationship between “farting” and certain types of scholarship. Sometimes literature does prove timeless and discourses of flatulence could probably speak to today just as well. Similarly, Clémence Aznavour examines Pierre de Marivaux’s works along the lines of the deflation of representative values in epic narratives. The contrast “between the image of the hero and his physiology” (219) is highlighted through the uncontrollable functions of the body and its ailments, such as constipation, diarrhoea, flatulence, and the like. While the parodic nature of the texts is amusing in their own right, they also underscore the prevalent push towards the recognition of the materiality of the body.  

The final part focuses on the visual representations of the viscera. Barbara Stenz begins with the interconnection between the ideal, healthy body and the deformed, ailing body. She notes, “During the Enlightenment authors of all persuasions – doctors, men of letters, philosophers, theoreticians of art – based many of their observations and assumptions on a model of the body whose balance and fine proportions served as a foil to a growing obsession with degeneracy” (274). Irrespective of political inclinations, the adversary was caricaturised as big bellied, underlining -often wrongfully acquired- excess. Moreover, another key element of the Enlightenment attitude towards science, reason, and knowledge became manifest in the emergence of anatomic drawings. The artists were introduced to a new way of seeing and understanding the self through the matter of the body. Dorothy Johnson explores how the Enlightenment instigated “a reconceptualisation of the body itself” through “a literal and metaphorical carving out, a disembowelment and dismemberment that was no longer proscribed or confined to medical practice but instead was on public view” (295). However, as befits the Enlightenment spirit, these liberations in science and arts regarding the “knowledge of the body” were paralleled by contrasting religious discourses. Jacques Gélis discusses how this type of knowledge of the body was appropriated accordingly to the spiritual needs of the rural people in the form of representative saints.

There are many other essays in Bellies, Bowels and Entrails that are equally interesting and fascinating, such as laymen’s epistolary correspondences with expert physicians and the connections between appetite, health, and desire in the notorious pornographic texts of John Cleland, marked by an understanding that the  body is “an eloquent object” (229). In fact some of the chapters are so interesting that their shortness does not do them justice. For instance, Micheline Louis-Courvoisier, in her chapter “The Soul in the Entrails” examines the tradition of epistolary-diagnosis in relation to how the people of the eighteenth century related to their ailing bodies. However, their relation to the concept of the soul as such is not explored adequately. Likewise, the handling of anatomic paintings in Johnson’s piece is highly engaging but it is not treated quite enough.

The editors state that the book was born out of a conference held in Université Paris-Diderot in 2014. That some of the essays feel brief for the expectations they raise might be an outcome of such conversion. Another consequence as such is probably the limited focus of the essays to German, French, and English examples. Accordingly, the collection, like many similar others, is firmly situated within the boundaries of nuclear western academia. Still, as the editors note in the introduction, Bellies, Bowels and Entrails might not be “for delicate stomachs” (17) but it is a rather interesting read nonetheless, revealing another Enlightenment.

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