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Tallis in Wonderland

The Riddle of the Sphincter

Raymond Tallis reflects on embodiment.

We are all familiar with the so-called ‘Riddle of the Sphinx’, or think we are. There is, however, something more mysterious than that riddle. It is the Riddle of the Sphincter, or, more precisely, the Riddle of the Two Sphincters. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Oedipus and the Sphinx
Oedipus & the Sphinx by Gustave Moreau. Both ‘sphinx’ and ‘sphincter’ come from the Greek for ‘strangle’, which is what the Sphinx would do to you if you couldn’t answer her riddle.

I am an ontological agnostic: in other words I don’t know what the fundamental stuff of the universe is. It is unlikely to be something like pebbles (materialism), because that would leave thoughts unexplained; or something like thoughts (idealism), because that would leave pebbles unexplained. Suggesting that pebbles and thoughts are two aspects of the same stuff hardly helps – they scarcely look like verso and recto. My agnosticism goes a bit further, though, to a principled opposition to the very idea that the variousness of entities – planets, chaffinches, hurtful comments – can be reduced to a single kind of stuff. Or even two kinds of stuff, such as matter and mind.

There is something else behind my ontological agnosticism: an awareness of the curious nature of human beings. We are ‘embodied subjects’, inseparable from our bodies, and yet not identical with them in the sense of being defined by their physical properties. I have sometimes characterised this first-person embrace of third-person (or no-person) flesh as ‘ am bodied being’. (No, this is not a misprint.) As Eric Matthews put it in The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty (2002), “our inner life as conscious persons necessarily develops out of the impersonal physiological life of a certain kind of organism.” Making sense of the relationship between the ‘I’ of the subject and the ‘it’ of the body is the essential challenge of reaching a philosophical understanding of human beings.

The emphasis on embodiment is unsurprising in someone such as your columnist, who has spent several decades as a physician intervening in the complex partnership between the ‘I’ of the person and the ‘it’ of the body, trying to load the dice in favour of the former. Day in and day out I had to confront our hybrid nature. This is why the body has loomed large in my philosophical writing. I have devoted books to the hand, to hunger, to the head, and even to the index finger. My approach to philosophical anthropology does not pretend to explain how the ‘I’ arose out of the ‘it’, but it does attempt to capture the many complex relationships between them. At least it unpeels – and, yes, celebrates – the mystery of our nature.

Physical & Philosophical Truths

Which brings me back to my beginning, to another approach to our hybridity – a route that is a little less elevated.

Readers familiar with the traditional Riddle of the Sphinx will know that it is rather disappointing. It could have come out of a Christmas cracker: ‘What moves on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?’ The answer is a human being, who begins by crawling on all fours, proceeds to walk on two legs, and ends by leaning on a third leg that is a stick. But there is a deeper riddle manifest in the Sphinx itself: the creature has a human headquarters and animal hindquarters. This is a compelling metaphor for the ambiguous beings that we are and justifies the pun (if anything can justify a pun) in the title of this piece.

The sphincters in question are the mouth and the anus – the former being described with characteristic charm by Samuel Beckett in Murphy (1938) as ‘the anus of the face’. They are the beginning and the end of one continuous passage, the alimentary tract. The one emits an estimated lifetime total of between 100 and 800 million words, and the other approximately 11,000 kgs of you-know-what in about 27,000 sittings. The difference in outputs could not be more profound. This asymmetry is in sharp contrast to what is seen in the symmetry elsewhere in the animal kingdom, for which what is going in at one end is not as fundamentally different from what is going out at the other.

The distance between the two sphincters can be measured in feet and inches, but the difference between the headquarters of the subject and the hindquarters of the body is of a different kind. It is not a simple case of spatial separation; nor is the difference captured by the contrast between (to echo Gilbert Ryle’s famous phrase) a ghost and a machine. The semantic output from the front end and the material output from the rear end belong to different orders of being. How is this possible?

Regular readers will know that I am not persuaded that electrochemical activity in the brain explains how flesh gives rise to conscious subjects experiencing that flesh as their very being. Similarly, nothing in the body as revealed to us through natural science explains the transformation of exhaled air into an account of the world in which the exhalers find themselves; and nor does it explain how The Stinker is also The Thinker, who not only wraps faeces in paper purchased for that purpose, but also encloses them in inverted commas. And this reminds me of a retort to those who, wishing to humble us, quote St Augustine’s anatomically correct observation that Inter faeces et urinam nascimur : ‘We are born between faeces and urine’. It’s true. But we are the only living creatures who articulate and reflect on this fact – and in Latin.

Thinker’s Block

The Thinker
An improved angle

Humour plays with our ambiguous status as persons and as organisms. Back in 1900, in his essay ‘On Laughter’, Henri Bergson identified one of the key elements of comedy as the obtrusion of mechanism into the flow of our lives. Your columnist slipping on a banana skin and thus becoming a lump of stuff subject to gravitational forces would be such an instance, though he might not enjoy the slapstick so wholeheartedly as passers-by.

More to our present point is the familiar trope that places Rodin’s Thinker on the toilet. It seems unlikely that the sculptor would have appreciated the joke. He might, however, have been intrigued by a recent article, in that journal feverishly consulted by philosophers, Techniques in Coloproctology, published by Cleveland Clinic in Florida. It argued that the Thinker’s posture assists defecation by improving the anorectal angle.

It is possible that the protracted endeavour to defaecate may be good for thought. The toilet is typically sealed off from the flow of quotidian events: like abstract thought, it is seasonless and placeless. Secondly, you are not likely to be interrupted. Thirdly, there is something about concentrated thought that overlaps with the effort of defecation, as Rodin himself acknowledged:

“What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, his knitted brow, his distended nostril and his compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back and legs, with his clenched fist and his gripping toes.”

Which brings me naturally to the most famous of all constipated thinkers – a man of extraordinary strength of conviction and unimaginable courage whose influence on the history of the world, for good or ill, has been greater perhaps than that of any other individual in the last five hundred years. I am speaking, of course, of Martin Luther (1483-1546). His actions resulted in a profound split in the Church between Catholics and Protestants, which among other things led to the Thirty Years’ War – this conflict directly or indirectly killed about a third of the population of Europe (although the Peace of Westphalia ending the war established some of the principles embodied in modern international relations). Protestantism may also have been behind the rise of capitalism, whose ascent continues to engulf the globe. Whether or not that’s true, and establishing causation in history is a difficult business, there can be no doubt that Luther was in historical terms a giant.

In the light of this, his earthy, indeed notoriously scatological, sense of humour is surprising. Less so, perhaps, when we learn that he was a lifelong martyr to constipation. Just how much this affected him is illustrated by a letter to his wife, sent just days before he died in 1546, in which he praised hop-based beer for its laxative properties and announced with immense satisfaction the ‘three bowel movements’ he had had that morning. Famous last turds, perhaps.

So what has constipation to do with Luther’s role in shaping the course of history in the half millennium since he nailed his Ninety-Five theses to the door of the church of Wittenberg in 1517, and his star performance at the Diet of Worms in 1521?

Luther was entirely open about the many hours he spent in contemplation on the toilet. Indeed, when the lavatory in Wittenberg where he had spent so much time in solitary confinement was unearthed in 2004, Stefan Rhein, the director of the Luther Memorial Foundation, argued the importance of the find on the grounds that it was where the birth of the Reformation took place. I am tempted to say that Luther’s famous proclamation ‘Here I stand; I can do no other’ may have had its origin in ‘Here I sit; I can do nothing’ – the eternal cry of Homo constipatus. But I will resist this temptation. Nevertheless, to borrow and modify what the poet Philip Larkin said of himself, constipation may have been for Luther what daffodils were to Wordsworth.

Beginnings & Endings

My tentative circling round ambodiment, trying to ascend to metaphysics on a wave of schoolroom giggles, is haunted by the ghosts of Plato, Descartes, and Kant, all of whom gave a privileged status to the mind and distinguished the conscious subject from the animal body. Indeed, Plato’s immortal soul, Descartes’ ‘I’ who thinks, and Kant’s transcendental subject, seem in their various ways to be independent of the body. Incarnation comes to look like imprisonment, although in the body’s absence it would be entirely unclear as why or how Plato, Descartes, or Kant should have been located at a particular place (teaching in Athens, growing up in Touraine, lecturing in Konigsberg), or living at a particular time (fifth century BCE, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries CE).

As we move in the weightless element of metaphysical thought, it is salutary to remind ourselves of the indubitably weighty element of our bodies; to remember our beginnings as babies who, as Father Ronald Knox put it, are “A loud noise at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.” And our endings may not be much different. H. sapiens reaching for well-formed formulas leading to a satisfying conclusion, and H. crapiens hoping for a well-formed stool and a conclusive bowel action, are bound together in a shared fate.

If you are reading this on the toilet, you may need to absterge your podex, and you must, of course, wash your hands.

© Prof. Raymond Tallis 2021

Raymond Tallis’s latest book, Freedom: An Impossible Reality, will be published in September 2021.

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