Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Art of Fart

Meet Roland the Farter. A minstrel in the court of Henry II of England, Roland had an annual Christmas Day engagement with the king and his fellow revelers. Roland's act consisted of a dance that culminated with his trademark forte: a synchronized jump, whistle, and fart. Though accounts are sketchy, they indicate that Roland's remarkable trifecta was performed simultaneously (and not surprisingly, only once). Roland was so valued as an entertainer that the king rewarded his impressive feat of dexterity with a plot of land.
The story of Roland the Farter is told by Valerie Allen in On Farting: Laughter and Language in the Middle Ages, published by Palgrave Macmillan. Allen uses flatulence as a prism through which to explore the entertainment mores of medieval society. Roland's popularity calls to mind our own longstanding (if sometimes sheepish) embrace of bathroom humor. Among many other revelations found in the pages of Bob Woodward's State of Denial is that President Bush is fond of cracking fart jokes with Karl Rove. And the flatulent campfire scene in Mel Brooks's 1974 film Blazing Saddles remains a cultural touchstone. The young comedian Sarah Silverman once commented that fart jokes are "the sign language of comedy." What is it about farts that we find so funny?
Valerie Allen, associate professor of literature at City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice: Freud saw it as a mark of our own civilization that smell is suppressed. We would start sniffing the ground, and then as we became erect on two legs we did not need our noses so much. So we use our eyes rather than our nose. One of the most enjoyable aspects of doing the research was reading about smell. I had not been aware of how underrated, undervalued, and underused a sense it is. Much can be learned by thinking about farts and smell in particular (more farts from The Chronicle)

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