Friday, May 27, 2005


Books and Toilets

The controversy over whether a Koran was flushed down a toilet at Camp Gitmo is much in the news lately. It would have to be a very small Koran or a very big toilet, I think. However it leads my perverted, scatological mind to reflect on some examples of pages of books used as toilet paper.

Poem 36 of Catullus (tr. F.W. Cornish) is an attack on the poet Volusius:
Chronicle of Volusius, filthy waste-paper, discharge a vow on behalf of my love; for she vowed to holy Venus and to Cupid that if I were restored to her love and ceased to dart fierce iambics, she would give to the lame-footed god [Vulcan, god of fire] the choicest writings of the worst of poets, to be burnt with wood from some accursed tree: and my lady perceived that there were the "worst poems" that she was vowing to the merry gods in pleasant sport. Now therefore, O thou whom the blue sea bare [Venus, goddess of love], who inhabitest holy Idalium and open Urii, who dwellest in Ancona and reedy Cnidus and in Amathus and in Golgi, and in Dyrrhachium the meeting place of all Hadria, record the vow as received and duly paid, so surely as it is not out of taste nor inelegant. Meantime come you here into the fire, you bundle of rusticity and clumsiness, chronicle of Volusius, filthy waste-paper.
What Cornish euphemistically translates as "filthy waste-paper" is in the original Latin "cacata carta," literally "paper that has been defecated upon." In a learned comment on this poem, Professor William Harris claims that the ancients didn't use toilet paper, but rather the xylospongion or xylospongium (my correction for Harris' xylospondium), a little sponge on the end of a wooden stick. But it's not impossible that the ancients also used discarded paper for this mundane purpose. Kenneth Quinn in his commentary on Catullus, 2nd edition (London: St. Martin's Press, 1973), has nothing to say on this fascinating topic.

Horace isn't a holy book, although J.W. Mackail called his Odes a secular psalter. Lord Chesterfield, in a letter to his son (Letter XXI, 11 December 1747 Old Style), tells this delightful tale:
I know a gentleman, who was so good a manager of his time, that he would not even lose that small portion of it, which the calls of nature obliged him to pass in the necessary-house; but gradually went through all the Latin poets, in those moments. He bought, for example, a common edition of Horace, of which he tore off gradually a couple of pages, carried them with him to that necessary place, read them first, and then sent them down as a sacrifice to Cloacina: this was so much time fairly gained; and I recommend you to follow his example. It is better than only doing what you cannot help doing at those moments; and it will make any book, which you shall read in that manner, very present in your mind.
The necessary-house is the outhouse, and Cloacina is the Roman goddess of the sewers.

Holbrook Jackson, in his Anatomy of Bibliomania, Part XIX (The Misfortunes of Books), Section III (Neglect and Misusage), touches briefly on the use of pages from books as toilet paper, but he doesn't mention either of the passages I've cited here.

Dennis Mangan adds an apposite quotation from Voltaire.

Edward Cook also has a good post on The Stench of Ancient Cities.

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?