All his life Herbert Patz could vividly recall the first time he heard about coprophagia. He was shocked and horrified. His own associations with feces were uniformly negative: bad smells, nightmares of filth, and the desperate urge to wash his hands. As a toddler he had once, at the urging of his older brother, eaten most of a mud pie. He still remembered dimly how it tasted. Bad as that was, the thought of someone eating what most people left swirling in the toilet was almost beyond imagining. And yet his friend, Tabitha Harbinkle, swore to him with crossed heart that her older brother Kevin not only had eaten poop, but did so regularly (though without anyone knowing), and actually enjoyed it.
For a while he found it hard not to think about this image. It wasn’t that he was attracted to the idea. It held no appeal whatsoever. The idea was just so strange, he could hardly believe it. Did anyone actually do this? Why? What would make them?
He was at an obnoxious age and he couldn’t help bringing it up at inappropriate times. A joke about the brown gravy at the dinner table or a quip at a wedding just after the bride smeared cake on the bridegroom’s beard gave him some outlet for his confused fascination. The horrified and disgusted reactions of all those around him let him know that however much Tabitha’s brother enjoyed coprophagia, it was by no means a normal or acceptible practice.
Eventually his interested waned. He stopped thinking about it.
A few years later he was watching the news with his parents. A popular senator’s re-election bid had collapsed when a former girlfriend exposed his taste for excretia.
What Herbert heard made him nearly retch. He felt sick to his stomach. “Gross!” he said, glancing uncomfortably at his parents.
The T.V. chattered on. At last his father spoke. “It’s worse than gross,” he said, not taking his eyes from the T.V. “Anybody who would do that…something’s wrong with his mind.”
“I think it’s sad,” said Herbert’s mother. “I always liked him. I never would have guessed. Why would he do it? How does a person get trapped in a…practice…like that?”
“Who says he was trapped?” responded his father. He made a little laugh. “Sounds like he liked it pretty well.”
“I just can’t imagine,” she replied, and that was the end of it.
One encounters all sorts of strange things in one’s childhood. In the usual course of things, Herbert would have forgotten all about coprophagia, filing it away with other odd childhood discoveries like the Chinese tradition of feet binding or the chemistry involved in shrinking heads. He only recalled these particular events because of what happened several years later.
He first noticed a change when the coprophagia of another famous personality—a film star—again made the news. Instead of reacting with pity or disgust, certain commentators defended the celebrity. “Mr. Hoarke’s personal culinary habits are nobody’s business but his own,” opined one national newspaper. A former co-star revealed, “Yeah, I knew he was into it. It’s kind of weird, I guess. But, you know, live and let live.”
Certain outspoken religious leaders were less enthusiastic. “Coprophagia is a depraved and disgusting practice,” proclaimed a prominent Southern preacher. “Mr. Hoarke needs counseling, not coddling.”
The media furor lasted a week. Around the office there was some squeamish joking. Then it was forgotten.
Some time later, an Oscar-nominated film made headlines for featuring a coprophagic character. “Madeleine Feld gave the performance of her career as a tortured yet courageous joviant,” said one review. “The eating scenes may shock some audiences, but they were delicately presented, and offer a long-overdue sympathetic portrayal of this oft-maligned practice.”
Herbert had to look up “joviant.” He found that it was slang for “one who enjoys the ingestion of feces for culinary, sexual, or ceremonial purposes.” This made no sense to him. He could not think how to put “enjoy” and “feces” into the same sentence, and none of the rest of the words shed any light on the matter.
Again there was an outcry. This time Herbert was surprised to see how isolated were the voices of disgust. Nothing was said around the office. It seemed a taboo subject, liable to make you enemies no matter what you said. A few careful op-eds commented on Hollywood’s “declining standards” and “general penchant for celebrating corruption.” But much louder were the voices condemning “judgment” and demanding “tolerance”. “To paraphrase Voltaire,” wrote the political editor of the Propterhoc Post, “I do not share your taste for shit, but I will defend to the death your right to taste it.”
Herbert encountered several scientific articles discussing the health implications of the practice. Some of them carefully demonstrated that the consumption of feces increased disease in the vast majority of joviants. These studies noted that as the number of self-identified practitioners of coprophagia had increased in recent years, the observed cases of parasitism, malnutrition, and other gastrointestinal complaints had skyrocketed. Other articles debunked these claims, noting that other sources of stomach ailments, such as stress, fast food, and environmental pollution, had also increased in that period and could as easily be correlated with the problem. Moreover, they argued, the genetic evidence that coprophagia was an in-built instinctual condition proved increasingly strong. There was even some indication that the habit might have evolutionary advantages.
Psychological journals published papers showing that coprophagia tended to both result from and lead to other kinds of self-destructive behavior, and that with treatment the habit could, in many cases, be permanently broken, resulting in greatly improved mental and physical health for the former practitioner. Others argued that the correlation between coprophagia and psychological illness was overblown and, to the extent it existed, could be traced to social rejection pressures rather than any inate relationship. No scientific consensus emerged.
The Bucharan Free Church became the first major religious institution to officially accept the practice. Although most laypersons objected, the general convention approved the ordination of joviant bishops and pastors in a landslide vote. “Grace is the mark of our faith,” wrote one of the most ardent proponents. “To judge another man or woman is to commit the only true sin. Our Lord told Peter, ‘Take up and eat.’ Who are we to say otherwise?”
A joviant restaurant opened up down the street. It received rave reviews, but business waned after a more up-scale competitor opened on the other side of town. The grocery store began stocking the substance, initially in the freezer section. Organic varieties later appeared in produce. Herbert could never stomach what was praised as the “bouquet”, and started buying his vegetables from a farmer’s market. Then it was made an option in school lunches, preserving the right of each child to discover his or her own tastes.
Herbert shook his head. Something was terribly wrong with it all but he couldn’t put his finger on what. So long as joviants kept their habits to themselves he was content to leave the whole matter alone. But now it wasn’t enough to leave it alone—it had to be faced in public, accepted, considered, explored, coddled, nurtured. He felt that he and the dwindling few like him had quite suddenly been put in the position of having to defend what should never need defending, to articulate an argument so simple it could hardly be put into words.
He held no particular ire for the joviants. He found what they did revolting but it was hardly the only revolting thing that people got up to. He felt no urge to take up torches and pitchforks. And yet suddenly to disapprove was to hate, to condemn, to lack tolerance. There was no greater sin than to call a sin a sin. He wanted to be agreeable, yet he couldn’t condone people openly eating excrement without compunction or comment. But whether he condoned it or not, there was nothing left to say and no one left to say it to.
Through the whole phenomenon, Herbert’s chief emotion was incredulity. Overnight the whole cacophony of his world had joined not only in condoning a perversion but in celebrating it. It simply didn’t make sense. For most of his life and for all of the lives of all of his ancestors in all the societies they had formed for a thousand years past, the practice of joviance would have been roundly and rationally denounced as unhealthy and disgusting—symptomatic of mental illness or moral depravity. Suddenly—it all happened quite quickly—that world had simply vanished.
It seemed impossible. One moment he was making faces with his chums as they joked about poop-eaters in the schoolyard. The next moment he could no longer suggest in polite company that he might find the practice distasteful. One moment what seemed obvious to him was generally recognized as true; the next it was universally decried as ridiculous, deplorable, impossible.
He found it difficult even to think about the question. How do you explain what is undeniably clear? How do you explain to someone who just won’t believe it that the sun really is hot, that sugar really is sweet?
All the words that he found useful in reasoning through moral questions were suddenly off-limits. It would have been perverse to say “perverse.” Only deviants said “deviant.” “Obscene” was comical. “Unhealthy” irrelevant. “Wrong” a child’s word. “Sin” made him a religious nut. “Immoral” made him a hypocrite. It was dizzying, confusing. Any word expressive of ethical value had fallen into disrepute.
After incredulity his next emotion was isolation. Twenty years ago everyone knew that joviance was wrong. Now anyone who thought so wasn’t telling. A comment on Faceplant, a blog post, and all one could expect was a lashing of incensed derision and a smattering of muffled, vague, furtive assent.
What was left for Herbert to do? He put it out of his mind. He tried his best not to read the steady stream of unsettling news articles. He thumbed quickly past the food channels showing people exulting in long, ecstatic licks at fuzzy orange-brown lollipops. “Is the rest of America watching this?” he wondered. “How in heaven’s name did we get here?” He asked it as if to himself, though he didn’t know the answer, only because there was no one else to ask.