Wednesday, September 7, 2011


PRÉCIS NO.5: Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1976; dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini)

“Look at the plants and the trees—they produce flowers, foliage, and fruit; you produce nits, lice, and tapeworms. They pour forth oil, wine, and balsam; you give off spit, urine, and dung. They breathe forth a sweet odor; you give off a dreadful stench.”

Pope Innocent III, On the Misery of the Human Condition

I experienced my first eating crisis while still a child in my native Bohemia, one Sunday afternoon at church when taking the Eucharist.

I consumed the Host. A simple combination of fine wheat flour, water, yeast and salt, with a sprinkling of holy water, the seal of Theotokos imprinted upon the loaf, it nevertheless has an unusual and specific flavour. I drank the wine. It is always unlike any other wine, the flavour mild, pleasing.

Materials for the Eucharist.

The prosphoron, or holy bread, bearing the seal of the Virgin.

Saints Spiridon and Nicodemus, bakers of holy bread.

The introduction of the Host, the body and blood of Christ, into my mouth created a trauma. I felt this symbol of complete purity entering the filth of my digestive apparatus, the divine flesh polluted by contact with mucous membranes. Images of the juices of my corruptible flesh and the rot and stench of my bowels seized me with horror.

I was unable, in this cannibalistic act, to reconcile the two opposing forces. I felt I was somehow polluting the church. I tried to fight off the growing nausea by moving my eyes wildly from point to point across the ceiling of the little church. It was then that I noticed various medieval images of filth.

The wall paintings included one showing a man defecating on the congregation. Another showed the Last Supper, the apostles being entertained by an acrobat defecating on the head of a man in the act of urinating.

This grotesque interaction between the sacred and profane left a deep impression in me and became the source of great confusion. Feeling ill, and obsessed by these frankly obscene images, I asked our maidservant to prepare blancmange to ease my stomach. I prefer the traditional method of preparing this dish, using only milk, sugar and shredded capon (sourced from our yard), mixed with rosewater and white rice flour with a dash of cinnamon.

Medieval crayfish blancmange.

Modern blancmange.

Preparing a capon.

As I thought about these images one warm night I had a formative experience. I came to see food and eating in a more nuanced manner, with consequences beyond the pleasurable and functional. Our medieval ancestors formed a symbolic relationship between ingestion and excretion that still has significance. With symbolism comes the ability to manipulate the effects of food, to imbue it with various aspects. You can see this in the ethical considerations of food production that are gaining in popularity these days. Personally, I began to feel comforted by the understanding that, as opposed to the divine transubstantiation of the Eucharist, all I could do was transform the bread and wine eaten at church into excrement and urine. I felt relieved by how this defined my place in the world.

The dignitaries in Saló excel in all forms of human manipulation, including through control over eating and its by-products. They apply force-feeding liberally. I initially felt this to simply be an uncomfortable counterpoint to my enjoyment of fine meals. Later I was impacted by how easily the application of force can invert necessity and pleasure into humiliation and torture.

A direct account of a force-feeding session was reported by Russian author and dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, who spent years in Soviet prisons and labour camps:
"The feeding pipe was thick, thicker than my nostril, and would not go in. Blood came gushing out of my nose and tears down my cheeks, but they kept pushing until the cartilages cracked. I guess I would have screamed if I could, but I could not with the pipe in my throat. I could breathe neither in nor out at first; I wheezed like a drowning man — my lungs felt ready to burst. The doctor also seemed ready to burst into tears, but she kept shoving the pipe farther and farther down. Only when it reached my stomach could I resume breathing, carefully. Then she poured some slop through a funnel into the pipe that would choke me if it came back up. They held me down for another half-hour so that the liquid was absorbed by my stomach and could not be vomited back, and then began to pull the pipe out bit by bit."

Force-feeding then...

...and now.

Vladimir Bukovsky.

Force-feeding powerfully asserts dominance over the victim, both physically and symbolically. It controls both the victim’s need for food and his enjoyment of food. Consider other examples whereby prisoners are fed paper and soap or are forced to eat from toilets. Some prisoners are force-fed foods forbidden by their religion, thereby provoking a spiritual crisis. But Saló expands this idea by associating it with a perhaps more indirect form of food torture, the production and marketing of food products in modern consumerist societies.


The dignitaries in Saló, being the Duke, the Magistrate, the President and the Bishop, delight in various atrocities based around eating, debating the symbolic and intellectual aspects while also abandoning themselves to the sensuous and murderous pleasures. By diabolically assuming command over eating, they aim to control the body and to punish the soul.

There is a deep darkness in man’s heart that so often leads us down the path to abuse and exploitation. Saló criticizes a society made up of people who fool, bewitch, extort and torture others in order to force-feed them anything from products to ideas. But that darkness is not blind to the implicated consumer. In a twisted way, the torturer is also an exactor of punishment against the gluttonous desire of the consumer. Pasolini uses the metaphor of the circles of hell to highlight this inter-relationship among the brutalizers in Saló and the ‘perfect’ youth whom they have kidnapped and upon whom they heap horrific punishment and extreme brutality.

A medieval image of hell, with Satan punishing the gluttonous.

A consumerist society such as ours is an open road into our mouths that may be paved by producers driven towards producing the cheapest product. For their returns to increase means the product that we are consuming begins to hold only a tenuous connection to what can be considered ‘food.’ These highly processed products are marketed, flavored, and textured to be as alluring to the senses and tempting to the pallet as possible with little regard to the adverse effects of their addictive nature. The resulting rabidity of the population towards these products is a glorious assertion of power and dominance over the consuming masses.

Pasolini on the set of Saló.

Augustine wrote that we are born between urine and feces. The thought of placing near the mouth what has been ejected from one’s anus is revolting. Excrement in the context of eating is taboo and, as such, becomes a useful tool for humiliating and insulting ones’ enemies.

Pasolini himself mentioned that the film’s most infamous sequence in which the entire group dines on a banquet of painstakingly collected feces is “confrontationally symbolic of a neo-consumerist culture’s forced ingestion of processed food, unavoidable in its present-day ubiquity.” In effect, this scene is exposing the shit that we eat by showing people being served and forced to eat shit. The implication for next phase of this society is that the commodity is our own kind, where the abuse of power results in disposing people the same way we dispose of garbage, exploiting a person to their maximum, through work and our own amusement, keeping them alive with the most rudimentary manner of providing for their needs and then discarding them.

And our punishment for consuming the abominations that pass for food, for our lust towards gluttony and consumption, is that we rot in the stench of our lust, willing subservients to those that fill the need. For Pasolini, capitalism is the engine that changes everything into waste so more can be produced.

In this environment, who can survive but the wretched coprophague? Burroughs had this to say about this sub-human: "A coprophague calls for a plate, shits on it and eats the shit, exclaiming, 'Mmmmm, that’s my rich substance.'”

Pantagruel’s gluttonous feast: "ils mangent la merde du monde, c'est à dire, les pechez."

But the act of consuming bodily filth also enjoys a mystical tradition, where ‘body’ and ‘filth’ are equated. Take the cases of Catherine of Siena and Catherine of Genoa. They consumed filth, from putrid urine to pus, to overcome the naturally repulsed instincts of their bodies, prove their sanctity, and show that they cannot be reduced to their bodies. By conquering physical weakness, filth ingestion can also be seen as a sacred deed.

To feel aversion to filth is, in other words, natural. To combat that aversion illustrates one’s supernatural and inner strength. This contrasts with the spiritual corruption resulting from force-feeding excrement to the victims in Saló, which, from the perspective of the dignitary abusers, then justifies their continued punishments.

Domenico Beccafumi, Saint Catherine of Siena Receiving the Stigmata

Saint Catherine of Genoa.

In my next exposure to the Eucharist, now armed with a better understanding of the relationship between our bodies to what we consume and pass as excrement, I thought of Angela da Foligno. Like the two Catherines, this mystic identified with and ingested bodily filth. But her consumption differed from the others. You see, Angela consumed the scab and bloody wash water of a leper. The leper, being a stand-in for Christ, transformed her consumption into a Eucharistic meal. This form of the Host united her with Christ while, as a result of its foulness, by-passing the difficult images of commingling the divine with the putrescence in our bodies. Perhaps it was a drive to unite with Christ that compelled Voltaire, an archenemy of the church, to eat his own excrement in the frenzied delirium of his dying moments.

Angela da Foligno.

Voltaire’s death mask. Voltaire famously cautioned that “the best is the enemy of the good.”

The future may be secure for saints and coprophagues. In the meantime, in the event of an apocalypse, I will be found enjoying a lavish outdoor feast, upon a table with a centre-piece containing large peacock feathers and green branches, to which will be tied violets and other sweet-smelling flowers. In the middle will be a fortress, covered with silver, forming a cage in which several live birds will be housed, their tufts and feet being gilt. On the fortress tower, a banner will be placed bearing the coat of arms of my ancestors.

The first course will consist of a civet, a quarter of stag which will have sat an entire evening in salt, a stuffed chicken, and a loin of veal, covered with a German mustard sauce, with gilt sugar-plums, and pomegranate seeds. There will also be enormous pies, the crusts of which will be silvered all round and gilted at the top, and containing roe-deer, gosling, fattened capons, chickens, pigeons and one young rabbit. As seasoning or stuffing, there will be minced loin of veal with two pounds of fat and twenty-six hard-boiled eggs, covered with saffron and flavoured with cloves.

The second course will be a meaty meal, and will contain more roe-deer, a roasted wild boar, a sturgeon cooked in parsley and vinegar and covered with powdered ginger, a kid, two goslings, chickens covered with yolks of eggs and sprinkled with poudre de duc, two herons and a leveret. For those unfamiliar with the almost forgotten poudre de duc, it is blend of spices made up of ground cinnamon, ground ginger, crushed cardamom seeds, cloves, nutmeg and powdered sugar, all placed in a tightly sealed pot and shaken until well mixed.

The third course will consist of darioles with fruit and almonds, candied starfish and a red and white jelly. Next will come a cream made of poudre de duc covered with fennel seeds preserved in sugar, a white sweet cream, a variety of cheeses with strawberries, and plums stewed in rose-water.
Amid the wretched clambering over one another, fighting over canned meat and fast food in the stench filled air, I will enjoy the finest wines and fruit preserves, and then lie back among the delicate odours of sweet pastries shaped as stags and swans, to the necks of which will be suspended chocolate ribbons bearing sugary charms...

Belshazzar's Feast, by John Martin (1821).

Niklaus D’Oloferne.
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