A Letter to a Royal Academy, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, biological arguments, Book Review, Carl Japikse, Catch-22, Essay, Family Guy, fart jokes, Fart Proudly, farting, fathers, Founding Father, Founding Fathers Purity Myth, history, Literature, Mouse Trap, On Rhetoric, Playboy, Playboy Interview, Playboy September 2009, Satire, satisfaction, Science, Seth McFarlane, The Oath, Walter Isaacson
A title like Fart Proudly grabs you immediately and you realize that you not only need to read the book, you have to own it. The fact that it’s written by Benjamin Franklin and actually taught in college classrooms is just the way you defend it when you mother tsk tsk’s you when she catches you reading it. Your mother anyway, my mother loved the book and wanted to read it herself.
I read Fart Proudly in its entirety during graduate school when I needed an early American Lit course and decided to spend my semester reading famous American speeches, and while that semester was largely spent reading and dissecting Native American oratory, I made sure that Fart Proudly was on the reading list. My professor laughed, but didn’t object, for she often used the book when teaching the class to undergraduate students and in her own words, “The title just beckons.” I hadn’t come across the book through her class I’m ashamed to admit (she had a reputation as being one of the most difficult professors and so I pussied out), but actually through a friend who was taking the class. She had her books spread out over one of the tables in the writing center, a not uncommon sight for everyone did this at some point, and because I am the self-declared book whore I had to see what she was reading. Dr. Beebe had been right, the “title just beckons,” and so I picked the book up while my friend worked on her paper and I read a few of the passages.
I mean this without hyperbole, I actually laughed out loud. This is a rare occurrence, for while I have found several books funny, there’s only been two or three times a book has actually made me laugh out loud, the other two being Catch-22 and Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace. Fart Proudly is a book of rich and deep humanity, because it tries only to poke fun at day to day life, including its more morose moments. Take for instance the small poem The Oath:
Luke, on his dying Bed, embraced his Wife,
And begged one Favour: Swear, my dearest Life,
Swear, if you love me, never more to wed,
Nor take a second Husband to your Bed.
Anne dropt a Tear. You know, my dear, says she,
Your least Desires have still been Laws to me;
But from the Oath, I beg you’d me excuse;
For I’m already promised to John Hughes. (30).
It’s passages like this that remind me I want to go back and pursue my degree in American history, for it would provide me plenty of excuse to study Benjamin Franklin. Growing up in America the Founding Fathers are figures of contention for when you’re young the typical indoctrination is that the writers of the Declaration of Independence were perfect beings, devoid of flaws or human weakness. This image becomes contrasted as you age and experience the first “real” history teacher, who begins to show chinks in the armor of these ideal beings, and then eventually students will encounter teachers who will teach them that these men were slave owners, drunks, and hypocrites. Before the reader assumes I’m going to side with any one of them, I have to disappoint because my position is that all of these interpretations hold value. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson did in fact own slaves, and John Adams was boring at parties (seriously who wants to play Mousetrap at a kegger? The damn game never works). These are facts that can’t be denied, but I would remind the reader that there is nothing so suspect as judging people in past with contemporary standards. I’m not excusing or condoning the owning of slaves, I’m just asking the reader to remember that the idea that slaves were people too was a paradigm that was slowly gaining in traction.
My aim isn’t to discuss the complexities and nuances inherent to studying and arguing about Colonial American historical discourse, because like the title suggests, this article is about the noble art of farting. I just want the reader to understand what model of man I’m working with here before I get into the book.
Benjamin Franklin is the troublesome founding father for many Americans, for while pundits on Fox news try desperately to pretend like the man doesn’t exist, and while Liberals try to turn him into some kind of enlightened genius plagued by rumors of his sexual voraciousness, Benjamin Franklin, the man tends to get lost. Just the other day I decided to begin a biography of Franklin, not his autobiography which I started once and had to stop because of school and Fraggle Rock (it was a weird weekend), but instead Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. Two chapters in and already the book is proving to be one of the best financial decisions of my life, and when approaching the life of Franklin Isaacson offers up what is in my mind, one of the best examples of what good biography should do:
Benjamin Franklin is the founding father who winks at us. George Washington’s colleagues found it hard to imagine touching the austere general on the shoulder, and we would find it even more so today. Jefferson and Adams are just as intimidating. But Ben Franklin, that ambitious urban entrepreneur, seems made of flesh rather than of marble, addressable by nickname, and he turns to us from history’s stage with eyes that twinkle from behind those newfangled spectacles. He speaks to us, through his letters and hoaxes and autobiography, not with ortund rhetoric but with a chattiness and clever irony that is very contemporary, sometimes unnervingly so. We see his reflection in our own time. (2).
It’s this spirit of man who wrote the essays, letters, reviews, and poems found within Fart Proudly, and the reason why I return to the book again and again. Washington is a man made of marble and legend; Franklin as a man is as much a scholar as he is a vulgarian, and for this he earns my eternal respect.
Looking through the book the best selection to choose from, for it best represents the book as a whole and even provides the inspiration for the title of the slim tome, is A Letter to a Royal Academy. Franklin studied the natural world throughout his life, and these observations eventually lead to him becoming one of the best scientists of his generation. He often read and contributed to scientific societies and documents, and in A Letter to a Royal Academy, which was in fact a real letter to a friend, Franklin is able to demonstrate his passion for science, as well poke a little fun at the institution of the Academy.
He says, with tongue firmly in cheek:
It is universally well known, that in digesting out common food, there is created or produced in the bowels of human creatures, a great quantity of wind.
That the permitting this air to escape and mix with the atmosphere, is usually offensive to the company, from the fetid smell that accompanies it.
That all well-bred people therefore, to avoid giving such offense, forcibly restrain the efforts of nature to discharge that wind.
That so retained contrary to nature, it not only gives frequently great present pain, but occasions future diseases, such as habitual cholics, ruptures, tympanies, &tc, often destructive for the constitution, & sometimes of life itself.
Were it not for the odiously offensive smell accompanying such escapades, polite people would probably be under no more restraint in discharging such wind in company, than they are in spitting, or in blowing their noses. (15).
It’s hard to put into words painful and pleasant recognition. I often get into debates with friends and colleagues who argue that fart jokes aren’t terribly funny, and while there are individuals who legitimately suffer from medical problems that result in uncontrollable flatulence who understandably don’t find farts terribly amusing, most of the criticism of fart jokes, and likewise farts themselves, is that enjoying them is an indication of stupidity or immaturity. I’ve written at length about my love for the television show Family Guy, which relies on farts for a majority of its comedy, and my love for the show is often looked upon as suspect. Farts smell bad, sometimes, and Franklin tries to argue that the only reason farts bother people as much as they do is because of that smell. If farts possessed no odor at all, he argues, then farting would be no different than sneezing or coughing, though people would still probably tell you to shush in a movie theatre.
Franklin’s creative aim in the letter however is scientific and so he makes the following proposal:
My Prize question therefore should be, To discover some drug wholesome and not disagreeable, to be mixed with our common food, or sauces, that shall render the natural discharges, of wind from our bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreeable as perfumes. (15).
The idea of pills that make farts smell better at first sounds ridiculous until you remember that there are pills on the market designed to make penises stiffer. Letter to a Royal Academy is not mocking science so much as it is mocking the standards of “moral” or “proper” behavior. In many ways Franklin’s letter is akin to On the Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde, for the Letter is in essence a “comedy of manners.” Franklin is poking fun at humanity who regard farts as monstrous or unwholesome despite the fact that, scientifically speaking, there’s nothing inherently wrong with farting. In fact, as the previous quote demonstrated, farts are a natural and healthy part of every individual biology.
To return to Family Guy for a moment, I remember a time when I actually received Playboy magazine on a regular basis (before they decided to cut the nudity from their magazine and become, I don’t know what) and my favorite part of the magazine was actually the Interview. I still hold to this day the September 2009 copy because the interview was with Seth McFaralane, a man who has become not just as a formative influence upon my life, but who is also in his own way reminding me why I enjoy Rat Pack music so much. At one point in the interview he’s asked about his “emotional age” and this brings up the topic of fart jokes on Family Guy.
Playboy: What would you say is your emotional age?
McFarlane: Maybe 97
Playboy: Really? It seems a lot more adolescent than that.
McFarlane: Yeah, it’s sort of a combination of 97 and 12. If somebody farts, I can get to laughing so hard I can’t breathe. But I sure do love the music of Nelson Riddle. I love Woody Allen movies, and I love watching Jackass. We’ve been criticized for being too crude and lowbrow on Family Guy. What in the world is wrong with that? That kind of laughter releases the healthiest endorphins. There’s something puritanical about people who object to fart jokes or shit jokes. It’s that puritanical idea that you shouldn’t have sex because it feels good—and that’s a sin. How can anything that makes you laugh that hard be bad in any way unless it’s harming somebody? Farts are good; they clean you out. (34).
McFarlane and Franklin come together beautifully then for both men advocate the release of farts, but more importantly the release of the elitism that surrounds farts. Rather than embrace biology, and laugh off what can be the most annoying and obnoxious part of our biology, there is a section of humanity that tries to ignore the cold (though sometimes hot if you’ve eaten spicy foods) reality of their bodies. The body digests food through a process of cellular respiration and during that process a fair amount of carbon dioxide and methane is produced, and because our species has yet to find a way to release that gas without producing funny smells and sounds, we’re all slaves to our biology which is rather loud, though sometimes sounds like Louis Armstrong’s trumpet. Rather than mourn this reality, or suggest that those who try to laugh off the pain of embarrassment are uncultured and immature, the only healthy approach is to laugh and remind yourself that life is absurd and ridiculous.
By purging your body of the fart, and the idea that there’s something wrong with farting, a real comfort arrives.
Franklin embraces this model of hedonism, and in fact explains it out as the more sage philosophic reality:
Are there twenty men in Europe at this day, the happier, or even easier, for any knowledge they have picked out of Aristotle? What comfort can the vortices of Descartes give to a man who has whirlwinds in his bowels. The knowledge of Newton’s mutual attraction of the particles of matter, can it afford ease t him who is racked by their mutual repulsion, and the cruel distention it occasions? The please arising to a few philosophers, from seeing, a few times in their life, the threads of light untwisted, and separated by the Newtonian Prism into seven colours[sic], can it be compared with the ease and comfort evert man living might feel seven times a day, by discharging freely the wing from his bowels? (17).
I am an avid reader, but I must concede to Franklin’s argument for the release of a fart has tended to provide more satisfaction to me than ever reading Aristotle. In fact, to be honest, between the choice of re-reading On Rhetoric again or laying a fart I would probably choose the fart. This is not because I don’t believe On Rhetoric has no merit as an intellectual product, but if my aim is to be happy and comfortable farting will honestly, realistically provide me with more comfort for afterwards I will probably laugh, move on with my life, and then eventually pick up On Rhetoric and learn about what makes Oedipus the King such an amazing play.
Fart Proudly offers up numerous essays that deal frankly with issues of sex, farting, and parodies of the seemingly endless rules and values of cultured society, and once again I look to Franklin the man rather than the “founding father.”
I’m a product of my time, for the last words always inspire distrust, because those people who talk about what “the founding fathers would have wanted” always come with their own agendas and the “fathers” are merely the justification for whatever action is desired. It all boils down to elitism and personal bias, and this is odious to me as an American because I am a patriot, and I am a man who understands that “fathers” tend to be human creatures; fathers are anything but ideal in this way. My father and grandfathers taught me plenty of lessons about life and liberty, but they also taught me the important lessons: like how to spit, where to pee in the woods, if you have to take a shit what do you use (or not use) to wipe your ass, and of course, what to say when you eventually fart. For the record I always taught to blame “frogs,” their croaks sounded suspiciously like the farts of a grown man who would laugh when mom sighed and told me grab him another beer.
Farting is a human act. It levels you in your reality and body and prevents you from developing an asinine elitism that is in fact only having your head up your ass. Fart Proudly, Franklin (really Carl Japikse the editor), argues, because there really isn’t any other way to that will keep you sane.
Because I like fart jokes, having a steady supply of them on hand is of a must and so I’ve provided a link below of one or two websites that provide the reader with all the fart jokes their hearts and gum could ever desire. Enjoy: