Iron Stool

For Raoul Bowel life was foul

I spoke in an earlier post about my “need” to write, but so as to differentiate this need from a Rilkean/spiritual need (see Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet) I think I should lay my cards on the table. It’s okay, I tell myself, I’m in good company: Beckett wrote famously of the “iron stool” and Thomas Mann’s diaries are (so I’m told) obsessed with the topic. But the truth is, when all else fails, writing helps me shit. (See, even as I wrote that line — and not to put too fine a point on it — I felt a loosening, a sinking down, a relaxation in the bowel.)

Hell, my relationship with my bowel is so complex that I’ve named it: I call him Raoul. “For Raoul Bowel life was foul,” I once started rhyming, but never finished the stanza — and besides, it’s not true, Raoul’s life isn’t foul, not nowadays. But, like many of us, he’s had his hard times. The iron stool? I’m familiar with it, but thanks to a high-fibre diet, 2–3 litres of water daily and (at my best, not lately) a halfway decent exercise routine, it’s not often a problem. No, for me the problem is simple peristalsis (for the layperson, according to Google, “the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestine or another canal, creating wave-like movements which push the contents of the canal forward”).

Oh sure, I’m aware there’s all sorts of triggers — foods, medications — that work for people, and I do have an osmotic laxative (ie: it draws water to the bowel) for emergencies, when the potential for iron threatens to “compromise the integrity of my ring” (to quote a friend). But ultimately for me the best triggers are — and crux of the problem is — psychological. Put simply, I have a problem “letting go”. (This is borne out by many details of my life, from a long and painful birth to my perfectionism in artistic pursuits, to a tendency to dwell on past mistakes.)

I might just as well say I don’t like surrendering control. Sleep, too, has at times been hard for me, because it requires the conscious mind to let go. Falling asleep, defecating — in both cases, the conscious mind is pretty much helpless; you don’t achieve either of these feats (or I don’t) by deciding to. All you can do, consciously, is to position yourself — physically and mentally — where you’re most likely to succeed. In both cases, for me, excessive noise is prohibitive. Too much going on. People trying to talk to me (ie: not when I’m actually on the can, but in the morning over breakfast when I’m trying to get loose). And pressure. For me, my ideal day starts and ends with solitude (even if my wife is lying beside me there is a point at which I turn away from her and lie with my own thoughts). Failing solitude (which, after all, is rare these days), a good morning involves coffee, a relatively peaceful café, earbuds and semi-ambient music, and my journal. Writing, I long ago discovered, can loosen me up like nothing else. (Music too, at a pinch: many times I’ve picked up my guitar feeling stuck/glued/tensed and rushed to the toilet one or two songs later. But, being the shy type, I don’t play and sing — or shit, for that matter — just anywhere.)

For anyone who doubts the science of this, let me assure you, after 25 years of observation you tend to notice such patterns. Generally these days, I don’t need to write before I can shit — it’s enough to know that I will write soon and have written not long ago for me to maintain my general good health. But there are days (today being one of them, since my bowel has been glued up for most of the past few days after a wheat-binge visiting friends in Bavaria) when it’s necessary.

Hence my “addiction” to journal-writing, which I’d like to break. After all, it’s a slow start to the day that requires me to write 1–2000 words of not-for-public-consumption prose before I can start the work of communicating. And it’s draining: who wants to keep writing after that? I tell myself whatever I’m writing is useful, like practising guitar-scales (something I rarely do, by the way). I tell myself, just maybe, the several-hundred-thousand words I’ve written have made me a virtuoso. Certainly the words come quickly once I get going — but then speed (in the solos of Eddie Van Halen, for eg) never really impressed me. And besides, for many years now (apart from three or four days last autumn), my fiction-writing has not proceeded rapidly. Far from it; in fact, because for so long it (my fiction-writing) has consisted of my revisiting and reiterating far earlier work, it mostly moves at a snail’s pace, painstakingly, with false starts and rethinks aplenty.

Nor do I think I even see the boundary between fiction and non-fiction anymore — or rather, in some (maybe many) cases it’s clear there is a boundary, but in other cases I doubt if it exists; and in fact, I think it may be precisely this grey area that I am increasingly driven to explore. After all, what point in purging all this self-analysis into vessels intended for invisibility or destruction? Not only does it seem a waste of the material, but I suspect by never showing it to anyone, by barely even looking at it myself, that I doom myself to write it repeatedly, maybe endlessly.

Casa Sibilla, Brixton Village

Letting go, remember? I have a “problem letting go”. Once I share this stuff, it’s in the public sphere. At that point, it defines me, or helps to do so. I’m the guy who named his bowel, who can’t shit unless he writes about it (and that has, historically, been a key element of my journals: this endless freaking analysing of myself in the act of analysing, so that, by analysing, I can loosen up and drop a turd).

But you know what? Naming your bowel is not such a crazy idea. The bowel, after all, is known among healthcare professionals as “the second mind”. It manufactures up to 90% of the body’s serotonin, for Christ’s sake! No-one, as I understand it, really knows why this is so, but the bowel is keyed-in, make no mistake. It has opinions. And the existence of this other entity within our own, I would say, is at least some of the inspiration behind the Alien franchise, behind David Cronenberg’s “body horror”. As a child I would lie in bed and hold my gut, chilled by an idea I couldn’t quite grasp: was it inherent “otherness”, maybe? The Other inside? Raoul Bowel, making himself known.

(Handwritten May 27th 2017)