‘Whoever heard of such a thing before?
To everyone alike, an equal share—
You tell me. It is impossible, it can’t be done!
The rumbling of a fart, like every sound,
Is a reverberation of the air,
No more, which little by little dies away.’
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales: The Tale of the Melibees, circa1386-1395
We take ourselves way too seriously. My friend Q says she draws the line on silliness, however, at farting in public. I think most people around the whole world agree with her. You hardly ever hear the expulsion of intestinal gas during a public or social gathering and when you do it’s usually some old person who can’t help it. Like me. But we all know there’s plenty of it around. We’ve just been told that letting it escape in the presence of others isn’t nice. Maybe it isn’t. Q’s Rule, as we’ll call the socially accepted boundaries on flatulence, seems to be observed by nearly everyone. Hoodlums, children over the age of four, motorcyclists, terrorists, foreigners and atheists, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and men and women of all socioeconomic classes will, as a rule, avoid squeezing the cheese in public. Not everyone; but as a rule.
Yet while the Q Rule does model polite behavior that surely enhances the well being of any society, at the same time it cannot be denied that it also deprives us of an awful lot of free laughs? I believe this is equally true for both men and women in spite of the differences in their approach to adolescent shenanigans. Boys are pretty up front about their enjoyment and fascination with farts. They get into the variations of sound and aroma. They take pride in volume, duration and stench. Most of them, I believe, are beyond mustering the fortitude required to resist the temptation of executing, at least once in their lives, what is known as a Blue Whizzer; a remarkable feat accomplished by rolling onto their back, pulling their knees toward the chin and holding a lit match or lighter where a blue tongue of flame will leap towards the sky as they release methane under pressure. It really is awesome and very funny. This is best done through denim trousers as a precaution against dangerous back draft. There was a kid who nobody actually knew, but everybody had heard about, who wasn’t careful and blew up his anus.
I don’t think too many girls get that carried away. I think that’s because by the time their old enough and clever enough to get a hold of matches and lighters they’ve already begun to learn the importance of ladylike behavior and their responsibility to carry on the myth that ladies never fart. In the words of Minnesota Fats: “gimme a break.” But I will admit, executing a Blue Whizzer is most unladylike even in Southwest Virginia and Arkansas. In the Muslim world it’s would call for a stoning at the village gates.
At least as far back as 1386 we know that people found farts to be both amusing and funny. In The Miller’s Tale of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, we see a blindfolded Absalom seeking a kiss from his lady love when Nicolas, the miller plays a trick on him. Absalom says “Speak sweet bird, I know not where thou art.” And “At this Nicolas lets fly a fart as loud as it had been a thunder clap.” Chaucer had further fun with farts by having one divided into twelve equal parts. In Chaucer’s Tales of the Melibee this miraculous feat was unabashedly performed by twelve monks who each positioned themselves at the outer end of a spoke on a horizontally balanced wagon wheel. A well fed monk whose belly was tight with gas positioned himself under the wheel at its hub where he let one rip, thereby providing each of the twelve monks with “an equal portion of the savor and the sound.” Chaucer clearly enjoyed the multifaceted humorous possibilities of the fart and obviously believed his audience did as well. I think the old boy was right.
Closer to the modern days, in 1968 I had my own experience with the amusing side of farting. While a student at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia two friends and I went to hear then Republican vice presidential candidate Spiro T. Agnew deliver a speech in the college gym. In those days “liberal” was not a dirty word and Christianity was not synonymous with the politics of the extreme right. So, although as first time voters my friends and I were not inclined to support the Nixon – Agnew ticket, we wanted to listen to what the man had to say. It was a time when we could do that because we didn’t have Rush Limbaugh and a plethora of preachers encouraging people to despise those whose opinions and perspectives differed from their own. Those were strange days. Back then the very idea of an unmarried man and woman openly living together was considered to be quite controversial. And the only means of birth control were condoms and the rhythm method. They were interesting times, but different.
Although my friends and I found ourselves disappointed with the rapidly concluding Johnson administration, Spiro T. said nothing to swing us over to Nixon’s camp. So, with our seats conveniently near the back exit, we listened, then made our way to an expedient departure after the speech by coming out onto the back alley that would start us in the right direction for the walk back to our rooms. Following my uncomfortable though strict observance of the Q Rule during the entirety of Agnew’s lengthy speech, I had built up enough intestinal pressure to blast the chrome off a trailer hitch. To my great personal relief, I did just that just as soon as we were on that back alley. What I didn’t know, though my two friends saw it, was candidate Spiro T. Agnew’s simultaneous exit along with two secret servicemen not ten short feet behind me when I let go with my own Chaucerian “thunder clap.” There was no way that Republican vice presidential candidate Spiro Agnew didn’t get an equal portion of the sound if not the savor. My two friends immediately doubled over laughing at the two secret servicemen and Spiro T. who turned in defensive posture in our direction. We were not arrested or detained for questioning. They evidently concluded there was no weapon present more threatening than my ass, which was probably damaged in the blast. Over the years, however, we’ve often wondered if the incident was ever discussed within the White House when Nixon, Agnew and the boys were getting sloppy reminiscing over old campaign trail stories.
Farts also possess the potential, in the succinctness of their usage, of a potent statement of critical disapproval or rejection. For that reason alone I think the Q Rule has at least the intent of providing some socially redeeming value. A well timed fart such as the one seen by some as a response to Spiro T. Agnew can be a pretty blunt rejection. But let’s be honest, fart sounds are almost always really funny; especially those long drawn out ones that change pitch three or four times while reaching a crescendo then trailing off in a sustained diminish. With a simple fart simulator cup I’ve seen the bubbling sound of a really wet one bring tears of hard laughter to the eyes of ladies who otherwise present themselves as models of respectful deportment. The Thunder Clap, the remarkable staccato of the Machine Gun fart or the reluctance of the Shy Debutant playfully trying to get past an unwilling sphincter; farts sounds make us laugh. And though the Q Rule might have us believe ladies never, ever, ever fart, we all know better.
Yet I would not discard the Q Rule though I see no need for redressing those who break it. We all slip at one time or another and we’ve all found creative ways around the rule when soft furniture or noisy environments come available during times we find ourselves under the pressure of urgent need. I think what I think is that because farts are so funny and so distracting, it is best we keep the Q Rule for its encouragement of polite behavior; but, just for one day a year every year we should all, each one of us, be encouraged to celebrate and enjoy Nature’s gift of the fart by letting them rip and squeezing them out with reckless abandon all day. Free farting everywhere around the world for one day a year. I think it might help us take ourselves a little less seriously. The following day would be quite soon enough to return to our stogy and distorted views of self importance.