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Eating Celia, Eating Excrement

Jonathan Swift’s discomfiting poem, “The Lady’s Dressing Room” tracks the progress of Strephon as he delves into the private inner recesses of the Lady Celia’s dressing room.  Confronted with the accoutrement of feminine artifice in the form of “Gallypots and Vials…some fill’d with washes, some with Paste, Some with pomatum, paints and slops” – Strephon, horrified by his discoveries, “swears how damnably the Men lie in calling Celia sweet and cleanly”.

          Yet for all of Strephon’s discoveries, none is so shocking as the discovery of Celia’s chamber pot:

 Why Strephon will you tell the rest?
And must you needs describe the Chest? 
That careless Wench! no Creature warn her
To move it out from yonder Corner;
But leave it standing full in Sight
For you to exercise your Spight.
In vain, the Workman shew’d his Wit 
With Rings and Hinges counterfeit
To make it seem in this Disguise,
A Cabinet to vulgar Eyes;
For Strephon ventur’d to look in,
Resolv’d to go thro’ thick and thin; 
He lifts the Lid, there needs no more,
He smelt it all the Time before.
As from within Pandora‘s Box,
When Epimetheus op’d the Locks,
A sudden universal Crew 
Of humane Evils upwards flew;
He still was comforted to find
That Hope at last remain’d behind;
So Strephon lifting up the Lid,
To view what in the Chest was hid. [90]
The Vapours flew from out the Vent,
But Strephon cautious never meant
The Bottom of the Pan to grope,
And fowl his Hands in Search of Hope.
O never may such vile Machine [95]
Be once in Celia‘s Chamber seen!
O may she better learn to keep
“Those Secrets of the hoary deep!”

Here, issues of consumption and excrement become tangibly intertwined. Petitions from the poetic narrator – “and must you needs describe the chest” – go unheeded as the infamous chest is laid bare for readers to see. Much as Celia is adorned with her ointments, the chamber pot is disguised with “rings and hinges counterfeit” – useless in function the cabinet becomes such a problem within the poem because it is an emblem of a performance of opulence which clearly articulates the notions of  Economic theorist Thorstein Veblen that the chief occupation of the leisure class is conspicuous consumption, the lavish purchasing of goods to display one’s wealth. Thus, Veblen asserts the primary “product” of this class is waste.

Yet consumption and waste become more explicitly linked as Strephon describes the foul smell of Celia’s droppings:

   As Mutton Cutlets, Prime of Meat,
Which tho’ with Art you salt and beat, [100]
As Laws of Cookery require,
And toast them at the clearest Fire;
If from adown the hopful Chops 
The Fat upon a Cinder drops,
To stinking Smoak it turns the Flame [105]
Pois’ning the Flesh from whence it came;
And up exhales a greasy Stench,
For which you curse the careless Wench;
So Things, which must not be exprest,
When plumpt into the reeking Chest; [110]
Send up an excremental Smell
To taint the Parts from whence they fell.
The Pettycoats and Gown perfume,
Which waft a Stink round every Room.

Here the smell of waste is transmuted into the smell of flesh, of cooking meat. Familiar yet unnerving, Celia’s excrement bears an uncanny resemblance to edibles. As Mikhail Bakhtin writes “the grotesque body is a body in the act of becoming. It is never finished, never completed; it is continually built and created and builds and creates another body” as such, Bakhtin continues all acts of excretion are “performed on the confines for the body and the outerworld, or on the confines of the new and the old body”.  Strephon’s association with flesh, fat, and fecal matter reveal a discourse uniting the body and the commodity – the edible and the execrable occupy a simultaneous realm connecting the mysterious inner cavities of the body with the larger world beyond it.

I think this is notion of “bodies becoming” and the connection that excreting creates between (wo)man and “outterworld” is carried through in Humphry Clinker, but that’s (fecal) matter for another post to come!

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One thought on “Eating Celia, Eating Excrement

  1. Finally, I arrive at my last response to a post about fecal matter for the week, and it is truly the most disgusting of them all. Your direct linkage of consumption and excrement really puts the icing on the cake, so to speak; the idea that we transform such wonderful-tasting foods into such foul-smelling excrement is certainly interesting–if not a thought that I want to dwell on for very long. Your bit on the decorated chamber pare seems to me to mirror this in that, like food, it looks great on the outside, but once you get inside, things start to change. Then, (I seem to be working through your post in reverse), I think back to Celia and how, when she is dressed up for a social event, she is beautiful on the outside, but beneath a few layers of cloth, she is a human woman who shits like everybody else.

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