Planks from the Lumberyard: Bathroom Pastoralism, or, The Anecdote of the Can

First, a note to the reader about wood. “Lumber,” a word that we now associate with the Home Depot and deforestation, once denoted the contents or printed products of the mind, which, in turn, was sometimes known as the “lumber-room” (see, for instance, page 54 of Tristram Shandy ). The title of my column, then, is meant to serve as a modest attempt to resuscitate the lost sense of this sadly degraded word, and to suggest something of the ungainly mental labor required of me to salvage and sculpt the unhewed thought-timbers piled up in my mind’s lumberyard.

Not so very long ago I had occasion to spend an afternoon sipping from the green mouths of a series of Rolling Rocks at a party in Williamsburg, amongst a congerie of artists, writers, poets, and other plucky, earnest, (and unemployed?) persons. Knowing no one but the cousin who brought and promptly abandoned me, I stayed close to the walls, sipping beer and hovering at the periphery of several groups engaged in various and strange conversations about lives, friends, and relationships about which I knew nothing. In spite of the pleasures of drinking free beer in the early afternoon, I felt little connection to or interest in the people or the talk until one of the conversations turned to the old typewriter one of the hipsters had famously placed on a milk crate before the commode in the bathroom of her apartment. Recorded on the scroll of that writing machine tucked away in that most private of spheres was a long, peculiarly thoughtful, and digressive conversation, perpetuated and sustained by the excretory ruminations of the apartment’s occupants and anyone else who might have spent time asquat before the typewriter in their ceramic and tile salon.

The unexpected beauty and pertinence of this image, so Jack Kerouac-y in its way, has stayed with me, and I’ve often thought about what it is that makes it so compelling to me, this woman’s transformation of her bathroom into a kind of ad hoc public sphere, a place where ideas are expressed, exchanged, and contested. In part, I think, it has to do with the successful integration of two sets of seemingly opposed desires and spaces that are rarely brought together harmoniously: the desire to express oneself publicly from within the safety and quietude of the private sphere, to fuse solitude with sociability, to link the personal and the public.

The pastoral ideal has long been an important way of ordering meaning and value in American culture; the desire to move from the sophistication of our urban centers to the simplicity of country life (to “light out for the territories”) has provided a cardinal metaphor and powerful symbol for organizing the contradictions of American life. In the 1960s, Literary critic Leo Marx offered his notion of the “middle landscape” to explain how the peculiarly American desire to retreat from civilization is often reconciled with the opposing desire to benefit from industrial, technological, and urban developments. The middle landscape, symbolized by his image of the “machine in the garden” (and visually encapsulated by George Innes in his 1855 painting of the Hudson River Valley), contains the possibility of balancing the opposing forces of technology and nature, sophistication and simplicity, city and country. Many have considered the emergence of suburbia as the modern manifestation of the middle landscape, which makes sense, but I’d like to propose an alternative candidate for middle landscape: the bathroom.

Although generally neglected as a fundamental space of everyday life, the bathroom, like the middle landscape, is a space where social and psychological contradictions are made most manifest. It is the scene of what Julia Kristeva called “abjection,” a site where the intricacies of contemporary plumbing technology saves us from having to confront or acknowledge the material symbol of our own carnality (“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” as Prospero once said in a different context); where our social and natural selves commingle, where the dream of pastoral peace, simplicity, and contentment coexists with the technological infrastructures of industrial design.

(A strong case could be made, by the way, for the bathrooms at the DIA Beacon as the nearest physically existent approximations of the Platonic ideal. Situated in hard-to-find and rarely visited nooks in the sprawling exhibition space of this lovely museum, which is itself encircled by the still-fresh green breast of the Hudson River valley, their pristine loos offer a perfect zen-like enclave for the pensive, art-addled museum-goer. Unlike, say, the cans at the Met, these are quiet, secluded, clean, and peaceful….)

The Japanese seem to understand and accept the centrality of the bathroom to psychic, social, and biological life, as evidenced by their awesomely superior toilet design. (There are, for instance, toilets equipped with delicate temperature control jet sprays, with glow in the dark seats with sensors that automatically open in the presence of an approaching human subject.) Canadian poet of the Yukon, Robert Service, author of the magnificent “Cremation of Sam McGee,” and a man well-acquainted with the exigencies of the body, is one of the few poets to have taken up the subject of the bathroom. His poem, Toilet Seats” is not particularly good but mildly amusing and well-worth a read as a singular instance of bathroom poetry. Aside from that, there is, to my knowledge, scant acknowledgment or representation of this most basic of mental spaces in literature. This seems to me both strange unaccountable.

Within the complex contemporary social landscape, irradiated by the importunate forces of our vibrant consumer culture, exerts a thousand pressures on the individual who might wish to maintain an independent existence. The bathroom exists as a privileged site of quiet contemplation and thought, a space where much of our best thinking takes place, a space even of occasional revelation. It is with a modicum of embarrassment that I awkwardly express my own fondness for this most neglected of spaces, this bastion of mental life. So I continue to scan the literary horizon for a writer bold enough to take up this most marginalized of middle landscapes. In fact, I think I’ll grab a book from the shelf and resume my search presently….Nature calls.