July 18, 2007

Briefly noted and quoted

Evan Goldstein, "The Language of Farting", The Chronicle Review, 7/20/2007:

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?

You'll have to read the rest of Evan's article to find the answer -- and to learn about the historical contingencies of "performance farting" -- though regrettably, there is no discussion of whether flatulence can be recursive. (And some people say that the humanities are no longer relevant!)

[Update -- in other flatulence-related news, take a look at this scan from Monday's New York Daily News (from Regret the Error).

Arnold Martin's observation that "Our 'number two' [the fake dog poop] is still our number one" underlines the fact that flatulence is not the only form of excretion with semiotic functions.

The scan was deemed notable because of the misplaced caption underneath the picture. It's not clear whether this was an honest mistake, or some compositor's attempt at political commentary. That's often a problem with farts, as well, and for that matter with many other events that may or may not have been communicative choices.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 18, 2007 08:09 AM