We need bodies to become like God. But bodies are organs of passing.
Bodies channel what they can of the world through our narrow walls of flesh and bone. Bodies pass light through our eyes, sounds through our ears, smells through our noses, tastes through our tongues, food through our bowels, air through our lungs, blood through our veins, electricity through our nerves, words through our brains. These things all come and these things all go.
Our bodies borrow their living from the world. For both the eater and the eaten, this borrowing is costly and no matter how much our lungs or brains or bowels manage to sponge, there’s always a remainder. No matter how full we feel, our bowels will move again.
We could draft a taxonomy of theologies in terms of how they deal with these passings and their remainders. A short survey would likely suffice:
Q1. Is shit a regrettable, local, temporary phenomenon? Or is shit eternal?
If my body is an organ of passing, will a resurrected body bring all of this passing – all of this waxing and waning, this wanting and detesting, this flooding and emptying, this endless digesting – to an end?
Is the remainder real? Is it divine?
Take Adam and Eve in the garden. They are told not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. But they eat it. And then, after eating this fruit, they start to feel ashamed and rush to cover their nakedness. They need fig leaves.
It’s common to think their embarrassment has to do with sex. I can see that. But I don’t think that this pivotal revelation (a revelation that followed their having eaten fruit) was mostly about sex. I think it was about shit.
This may be less high drama and more low comedy (such, in truth, is life), but what other kind of revelation would inevitably follow when you’ve eaten too much fruit? Adam and Eve may have rushed to cover their nakedness, but they weren’t covering their sex. They were covering their bladders and sphincters. (Eve’s never wearing a top, after all, in any of those fig-leaf pictures.)
Whether they had been ingesting and digesting and egesting all along in the garden, we don’t know. But if they had been, it seems that they didn’t know what it meant. They didn’t yet know what it meant to be a body. And once they found out, they immediately wished they hadn’t.
Having eaten the fruit, they knew: though they’d chewed it up (and it was delicious), it wasn’t enough and they couldn’t keep it.
This is a hard thing to see. They wanted to run away. They wanted to hide. They didn’t want to face the fact of the passing that their own bodies gave body to. They didn’t want to deal with the dirt that composed them or the dirt expelled from them.
They wished with all their might for that not yet invented but originally sinful thing: a really powerful toilet. They wished for something to flush the truth away.
This edenic fantasy of flight and flushing finds its apotheosis in David Foster Wallace’s quasi-journalistic essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”
For seven days and six nights, Wallace carefully traces how all the tiny details of his luxury Caribbean cruise collude to promote the fantasy of a satisfaction that will (finally!) neither pass nor disappoint, producing a satisfaction without remainder.
The sales pitch is simple: on this luxury cruise, with its 11+ meals per day, all of your needs will be met. The meals, the massages, the entertainment, the weather, the pampering, the comfort, the company – all of it – will be, for once, enough.
This fantasy comes to a head in Wallace’s description of cabin 1009’s astonishing toilet:
But all this is still small potatoes compared to 1009’s fascinating and potentially malevolent toilet. A harmonious concordance of elegant form and vigorous function, flanked by rolls of tissue so soft as to be without the usual perforates for tearing, my toilet has above it this sign:
THIS TOILET IS CONNECTED TO A VACUUM SEWAGE SYSTEM. PLEASE DO NOT THROW INTO THE TOILET ANYTHING THAN ORDINARY TOILET WASTE AND TOILET PAPER [SIC]
Yes that’s right a vacuum toilet. And, as with the exhaust fan above, not a lightweight or unambitious vacuum. The toilet’s flush produces a brief but traumatizing sound, a kind of held high-B gargle, as of some gastric disturbance on a cosmic scale. Along with this sound comes a concussive suction so awesomely powerful that it’s both scary and strangely comforting – your waste seems less removed than hurled from you, and hurled with a velocity that lets you feel as though the waste is going to end up someplace so far away from you that it will have become an abstraction . . . a kind of existential-level sewage treatment. (304-305, ellipsis original)
The fantasy we’re being sold (again and again) is of an “existential-level sewage treatment,” a treatment whose awesomely powerful suction will convincingly comfort us with the sheer concussive force of its shouted denial: there is no passing here!
Now, again, we might critique this kind of idolatry in one of two ways – and the difference hinges on how we respond to that survey question.
On the one hand, we might say that this vacuum sewage system is a false god because only God can actually deliver on the promise of a satisfaction without passing and without remainder.
On the other hand, we might say that this toilet is a false god because God intends us to have (and keep) bodies that, like his, are fundamentally organs of passing.
You’ll have to decide for yourself.
But, in closing, I want to note how that story in the garden ends.
The story begins with God planting a garden and then gathering that garden’s rich and fragrant humus into the shape of a human. Then, with a kiss, he breathes life into it. After eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge and hiding their bodies (from each other and from God), God sorts the mess by commanding Adam to spend the rest of his life growing a garden of his own. Adam needs to be taught a lesson and to learn it he’ll have to spend his life up to his elbows in dirt, the smell of soil always on his hands.
By design, Adam’s job is to spend his life learning what that magic ingredient is that will make his garden grow.