[ by Charles Cameron — a light-hearted post about serious matters — not for the squeamish — discusses politicians, fecal matter, children’s glee and Christmas spirit ]
As children, we are taught that we extend from the crowns of our heads to the tips of our toes, that our skin is our outer boundary, that we’re us, here, this living, perceiving, thinking being — and we know that there’s an appropriate distance for others to keep, that under certain circumstances they can touch us, perhaps while demonstrating they don’t have a knife up their sleeve, and that with a certain amount of social approval, depending, they can enter partially inside us or vice versa — the result on occasion being the arrival of a third one that pretty much belongs to the two of us, growing inside one of us for months only to somewhat belatedly separate out…
That last example — child-bearing and childbirth — shows that the simple notion that we are our skin and whatever is inside it is a bit simple. And there are various bits of us that seem to cross the boundary that separates us from the rest without too much problem: nail clippings, hair, saliva, which I’ve covered in two recent posts, ear-wax…
Even the air we breathe in and hold in our lungs is “us” — our breath — though once we breathe it out again, it’s air, part of the room we’re in, or if we’re outdoors, part of the atmosphere, the sky…
Mathematician John Allen Paulos suggests in his book Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, calculates that there’s a better than 99% chance that the last deep breath you breathed in and out contained one molecule from the dying breath of Julius Caesar…
But it is poo, perhaps, that best exemplifies how something that was us a minute or two ago can be not us, and frankly faintly disgusting, a minute or two later. And because it breaches the me / not me distinction so forcefully, it’s a matter of keen delight and humor to all children, as far as I can tell, everywhere.
Which is where the caganer comes in.
A caganer — I kid you not — is “a figurine depicted in the act of defecation appearing in nativity scenes in Catalonia and neighbouring areas with Catalan culture such as Andorra, Valencia, Northern Catalonia (in southern France) and the Balearic Islands. It is most popular and widespread in these areas, but can also be found in other areas of Spain (Murcia), Portugal and southern Italy (Naples)”. That’s Wikipedia‘s current take on the topic, which has also been written up extensively elsewhere, and indeed, caganers in their profusion have become collectibles in their own right…
All of which brings me to Bob Dylan‘s “emperor’s new clothes” line:
Even the president of the United States: Sometimes must have to stand naked.
Or squat, vulnerable and with his pants down. Even Fidel Castro must do the same. Even Death…
All of which is either a complete mockery or a source of considerable hilarity — especially to the kids, who must find these caganer hidden in among the shepherds, kings, animals and straw that surround the Christ Child in his manger.
Right in the heart of the sacred, if you will.
Which brings up the twin questions:
Is no-one sacred?
Is everyone sacred?
Which is actually a pretty profound pair of questions — and one which, again, may help us understand a little more about religion than piety alone can tell us.
The fact is, religion can exalt us, but does so at the risk of our becoming pompous and inflated — and when we do, it can also deflate us.
Which lands us right on the topic of liminality, communitas and the work of Victor Turner, which I shall address in a follow-up post — invoking a US submarine, a Hindu avatar and St Francis along the way.