This is the first installment of “Human Resources,” an advice column from The Point written by Anastasia Berg.
Dear Human Resources,
My boyfriend will occasionally walk in on me while I’m on the toilet—to grab a toothbrush or floss, or take a quick shower, or just to show me a funny meme. I hate this. But when I tell him so he just laughs and says it’s no big deal. He sees his ability to be in the bathroom at the same time as a relationship accomplishment—for him it’s a sign of how comfortable we are together. But it makes me feel gross! I don’t think it’s just out of self-consciousness that I think bathroom time should not be a couple’s activity. Is this a fair boundary to draw—or am I just afraid of intimacy?
This is not only a fair boundary to draw, but a necessary one. I recommend you not only outlaw all such visitations but ban conversation across the bathroom door altogether, as well.
Your boyfriend’s ideas are of course not unfamiliar. A few years ago, I arrived in Cambridge to take up a postdoctoral fellowship. Within days, colleagues at my new college hastened to lend me books. Since I was a philosopher, the master of the college gave me Wittgenstein’s Poker, and because I was born in Odessa, the bursar lent me The Hare with Amber Eyes. But the ancient philosopher—less concerned with my background than my successful assimilation—introduced me to Kate Fox’s Watching the English, a book about the habits of the locals. Watching the English had, predictably, a lot to do with all the ways in which class distinctions make themselves apparent in English society. One detail in particular stood out: in a section called “The Rules of Bogside Reading,” Fox writes about the differences in how the various classes deal with bathroom reading. It is common, she writes, to find books and magazines piled up or even organized in a special rack or bookcase next to “the loo.” Almost everyone does this: the working classes, the upper-middles and the upper classes—the only difference lies in the content of the reading. The exception, as is often the case, are the lower-middles and middle-middles. They, Fox writes, do not like to advertise their reading habit by “having a permanent bogside collection, which they think might look vulgar.”
This is a running theme in the book: the aspirational middle classes, insecure about their social position and desperate to appear refined, adopt language and practices which inadvertently expose them as anxiously aspirational (for another example, instead of placing “napkins” on the side of the plates, the middles might fold their “serviettes” into overelaborate shapes). The anxiety runs so deep when it comes to the bathroom that “females of these classes,” Fox writes, “may be reluctant to admit to reading on the loo at all.” Almost literally uncomfortable in their own human skin, the middle classes project misguided fantasies about sophistication and refinement, and in this they betray themselves—setting themselves apart from the practicality, matter-of-factness and comfort of their fellow countrymen.
For those of us who are not English, and who are therefore not accustomed to furnishing our bathrooms with libraries, the English middle classes’ behavior might appear perfectly reasonable: it’s bad enough we must all place our bums on the same seat, must we also all leaf through the same pages as we do so? But it isn’t in fact obvious that admitting that one reads on the toilet should be thought of as common or uncouth: After all, why shouldn’t the commitment to reading, at any time and place, be taken as a sign of education and sophistication? The answer of course is that the problem with admitting to reading on the toilet isn’t with the tacit admission to reading per se as much as it is with the tacit admission of being engaged in a particular activity that happens to give one time to read.
Now, it is easy, W.C., to read into your reluctance about your boyfriend’s bathroom visitations an anxiety of a similar order: perhaps it is, too, merely a pretentious, bourgeois insecurity, a desire to appear refined that amounts to an embarrassment about the most basic facts of life. And while it may be necessary to stand on ceremony and maintain such facades in public, insofar as our romantic relationships are meant to serve as a refuge from the tyranny of empty social conventions, an open-door bathroom policy might indeed seem, as it does to your partner, like a “relationship accomplishment” or a sign of “comfort.”
But this line of reasoning is based on several confusions. The first is the confusion of the ideal of the good romantic relationship with the conditions of the vital erotic exchange. It is true that what we think of as a good relationship today—cohabitation, successful partnership in household management, coordinating travel plans—tends to be promoted through the cultivation of comfort. It is also true that we think of lovers as allowing one another to enter where others may not, whether literally or figuratively. But the relation between comfort and eroticism is complicated. Yes, when it comes to sexual affairs, we say we want to make sure that our partners are comfortable with what we are doing, we want them to care about whether or not we’re comfortable with what they are doing—but that is because we recognize that there is something intrinsically uncomfortable about the erotic exchange, at least potentially. And part of the kind of discomfort we have in mind has to do with the ways the erotic touches upon things we are in the habit of keeping to ourselves. This is where the tension between the domestic partnership and the erotic partnership lies: if a “good relationship” depends on transparency and openness, the erotic exchange often depends on the thrill of exceptional revelation. Consequently, throwing off the norms of concealment altogether may limit the occasions for such excitement. To summarize: while it is undeniable that eros calls for a certain overcoming of shame, it doesn’t follow that every overcoming of shame is erotic, or erotically conducive.
This is not altogether an unfamiliar point. And it might even be met with irritation—it smacks of conservatism. Is this encouragement to “cover up” not just a version of the old patriarchal demand to oppress women with the norms of modesty? Or of the hope of the bourgeoisie to culturally oppress the working classes with their norms of civility and decorum? Such questions point to the larger, and perhaps today more difficult, question of whether there is anything objective in our circumspection about the bathroom business. Is there any good reason for us to send persons into the bathrooms on their own?
“The psychology of seizing and incorporating, like that of eating in general, is still completely unexplored.” This is how Elias Canetti opens Section 5 of his almost entirely sui generis (read: somewhat bizarre) masterpiece Crowds and Power. This section, appropriately titled “The Entrails of Power,” neatly divides the book into two, and serves as the hinge connecting his discussion of crowds and his discussion of power.
We do not, Canetti points out, merely feed as the other animals do. Before eating, we become conscious of an “empty space” within ourselves and seek, procure, manipulate, bite into and digest things in the world. In eating them, we annihilate whatever identity they had before entirely—we interrupt the plant’s growth and reproduction, we snuff out the life of the animals. In eating, we transform our food, our prey, into ourselves. This is “an act of power.”
We underrate the significance of the process because we do all of this automatically, far “beyond consciousness,” but this does not change the essential nature of the act: it is “an act of power.” We come face to face, so to speak, with the evidence of our deed only at the conclusion of the process: “The excrement, which is what remains of all this, is loaded with our whole blood guilt. By it we know what we have murdered. It is the compressed sum of all the evidence against us.” Canetti continues:
It is remarkable how we isolate ourselves with it; in special rooms, set aside for the purpose, we get rid of it; our most private moment is when we withdraw there; we are alone only with our excrement. It is clear that we are ashamed of it. It is the age-old seal of that power-process of digestion, which is enacted in darkness and which, without this, would remain hidden for ever.
This description is not meant simply figuratively; the experience of defecation does not have a merely metaphorical significance. Or perhaps it is better said that as the minded beings that we are we cannot but take in the metaphorical implications of our natural existence as real.
Dearest W.C.: We do not have to go as far as Canetti does to begin to see the point. All of this is meant only to persuade you that there is more to the idea that we should let people engage in bathroom business on their own than is suggested by the interpretation of these taboos as mere regressive conventions. The discomfort that you feel might therefore be the expression not merely of your shyness, but of an incipient awareness of a deeper truth. For the following seems undeniable: that which we cannot assimilate into ourselves, of which we rid ourselves in the toilet, bears witness to the process by which we suck the world dry, by which we grind it down to its mere matter. This is something strange and difficult. Perhaps we are right to be embarrassed about it. And if it all gets a little much and we must distract ourselves from the weightiness of the moment, I suggest we do as the English do, and admit only the company of a good book.
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