The Fantasy of Dirt

homage to mike kelley patron saint of filth_smKEEP IT DIRTY, vol. a., “Filth” (1937)


Lawrence S. Kube

In the course of this paper it will seem at times as though an attempt were being made to claim that there is no such thing as dirt. Such is not our purpose or meaning; but rather to describe the complex system of fantasies which lurk behind the reality of dirt and which manifest themselves both in the structure of the neurosis and in many significant aspects of adult human life. Nevertheless, it is true that we acknowledge no “innate” or inherent distinctions between clean and dirty, whether on the basis of consistency, color, form, smell, utility, waste, or any combinations of these.[1] Instead, the concept of dirt is looked upon throughout rather as the outcome of an emotional judgment which is imposed by the environment upon the ego of the developing infant. Furthermore, it is found to be infested with a surprising array of conflicting and fantastic implications. It should hardly be necessary to state explicitly what ought to be obvious, namely, that in the concept of dirt there is a nucleus of pragmatic reality; but that because of the unconscious distortions and elaborations of the concept, the imaginary components play a far more significant role in daily life than does this realistic kernel. Therefore, it is justifiable to emphasize this aspect of the problem by writing of the fantasy rather than of the reality of dirt.
It is generally understood that the unconscious fantasies which cluster about any reality may have more significance than does the reality itself, but it seems that psychoanalysis has been guided by this principle more consistently when dealing with the concept of mutilation, for example, than when dealing with the concept of dirt. Thus it is an accepted fact that every human being faces the possibility of real physical injury, and that an important part of the development of every child is concerned with his efforts to cope with a growing awareness that he can in actuality be mutilated and that he in turn can mutilate others. Over and beyond this, however, it is known that recurrently much of this struggle focuses on the genitalia; and that as the child develops he must master not only a reasonable dread of possible forms of injury or mutilation, but a psychologically more destructive cloud of impossible, unconscious, and fantastic terrors as well. When stress is laid therefore on the fantastic nature of these neurotic yet universal terrors, it is understood that no one is denying that danger itself can be real.
The feeling of disgust, on the other hand, is usually treated quite differently, almost as though this reaction in and of itself was enough to settle the question of whether something was or was not dirty, and as though there were no unconscious fantasies to be disentangled from whatever reality may warrant the feeling. Naturally, in outspoken manifestations of misophobia[2]—or in the classical hysterical reversals of affect around libidinal cravings—the pathological nature of the feeling of disgust is recognized; but short of these extreme cases there is a tendency to be significantly uncritical of the responses of people to what they call dirt.
It will be our first task, therefore, to show that we scarcely know what is meant by the word “dirt,” that there exists neither a psychoanalytic nor yet a reasonable pragmatic definition of dirt, and that in general our behavior towards things that are usually thought of as “dirty” is replete with paradoxes, absurdities, confused assumptions, and mutually contradictory implications and premises. Also, it will appear that our mores, our personal idiosyncrasies, our neuroses, and our very analytic theories reflect this confusion.
The Body as Dirt Factory—Protection of the Outsides from the Insides
In his paper, “Character and Anal Erotism” [1908], Freud suggests parenthetically that “dirt is matter in the wrong place”; but in the context it is made clear that he himself set little store by this suggestion; and surely it is not merely a translocation in space which makes the difference between honey and slime, between food and faeces, or a thousand other similar and perplexing contrasts.[3] Therefore, let us seek our definition clinically by observing human behavior. It will then appear that there are objects towards which men behave in a manner which is easily described. They do not consciously want to take these objects into their bodies. They approach them gingerly, if at all. They prefer not to touch them without some intervening protection. And, ultimately, they feel that they do not want even to look at them. These are the qualities of that which is looked upon as dirt, defined in terms of conventionally accepted norms of adult behavior. And now if we tum from the world outside of us to the body itself, we find that there are certain aspects of the body towards which we manifest the same type of behavior. These are the parts of the bodies of animals which are not used as food except under rare and exceptional circumstances, that are not approached freely, and that it is conventional not even to look at openly: to wit, the apertures [or orifices], and anything which emerges from such apertures.

Fig. 1: Paul McCarthy, From Heidi (1992-1992).

At this point we must recall that in unconscious language the outside world is never represented by the body, but rather the body is always and constantly represented by the outside world. In other words, and for reasons which we have outlined in a paper on “Body Symbolization and the Development of Language,” the direction of displacement must always be from the body to the outside world.[4] If this is true, everything in the outside world which is looked upon as dirty or disgusting must represent those aspects of the body and its products to which we react in the same way; and the ethnologist should be able to demonstrate that the distinction between clean and dirty is found in primitive language only after there is segregation of the excretory functions in the community.
It is possible in this way to derive a psychological definition of dirt as being anything which either symbolically or in reality emerges from the body, or which has been sullied by contact with a body aperture. There is here revealed a fantasy which is not the less amazing merely because it is given almost universal and unthinking acceptance, namely, that the body itself creates dirt, and is in fact a kind of animated, mobile dirt factory, exuding filth at every aperture, and that all that is necessary to turn something into dirt is that it should even momentarily enter the body through one of these apertures. Furthermore, and paradoxically, we find that this curious dirt factory, the body, must despite its own uncleanliness shun as dirty anything in the outside world which resembles or represents the body’s own “dirt,” and that above all else it must never allow its own relatively “clean” outsides to become contaminated by contact with the filthy interior of itself, or of anyone else. (In this aspect of the fantasy is a clue to certain characteristics of the obsessional neurosis, which are discussed below.)
Let’s take a few homely illustrations of these general statements.
If you move your tongue around in your mouth, you will become aware of the saliva. To you that saliva does not seem dirty. If then you contemplate your finger, it also presumably looks “clean.” But now if you put your clean finger into your clean mouth, moisten it with your clean saliva, and stroke your neighbor’s cheek with it, he will have to control an impulse to shrink; just as we are troubled if we see a slum mother moisten the corner of her handkerchief with saliva to rub the soot from her baby’s nose. Your clean saliva has become his dirt, and not to him alone: now that it has left your mouth, you yourself would hesitate to lick it with your own tongue. Thus, a lover may shrink from the wetness which his own kisses have left behind.
Or again, let us think of the very air that we breathe. We do not think of that as being “filthy.” It may be dusty and laden with soot, but to that atmosphere we do not react with tension, anxiety, revulsion, and aversion. Let us, however, breathe it into our nasal passages, where some of the dust is caught on the ciliated cells of the mucous membranes. Here this dust will be moistened by a fluid exudate. This fluid consists of nothing more appalling than water, salts, and a few diluted molecules of mucoprotein. Nevertheless, when we finally blow this wet and sticky dust out of our nostrils, by the awful alchemy of the body, it emerges as filth.


Fig. 2: Paul McCarthy, From Hot Dog (1974).

Of food, similar things can be said. Surely it is looked upon as clean when it is taken into our mouths to eat; and none of the chemical processes to which our body subjects it to are in any real sense filth-producing. It is split into assimilable and unassimilable fractions. To the unassimilable fractions are added certain hearty brown and green bile pigments, colors such as every painter uses. Subsequently it is subjected to fermentative processes in the intestinal tracts, which so divide the molecules that volatile fractions are released, which give rise to certain well-known and homely odors. In this way that which is taken into the body as a delicacy emerges as offal [shit].
Such fantasies, however, carry us even further. No aesthete can take exception to the color of an egg; but many a loving mother swallows hard when a bit of the yolk rolls out of the comer of her baby’s mouth and stains his bib. The untouched fried egg which is brought to the table may excite our appetite; but, when washing up, the dried remnants of that same egg on the spoon or plate excites disgust. This is, indeed, a powerful and surprising magic.
The facile popular explanation of the idea of dirt is: “something that smells bad.” It is true, of course, that anything that smells in a strange or unexpected fashion is often viewed with mistrust and aversion; but, on closer inspection, the smell itself often turns out to be identical with some well-known and familiar odor, one which is accepted with equanimity in its usual setting. Furthermore, the examples already given include entirely odorless situations; and, conversely, there are many foods whose inherent odors are indistinguishable from those of human excrement and sweat (certain cheeses, high game, etc.). In short, the smell, or absence of smell, cannot in itself be looked upon as the explanation of the distinction between dirt and cleanliness. On the contrary, smells are taken to mean dirt only when they signal either consciously or unconsciously the threat of contamination from a body’s interior. The situation with regard to taste is similar.
One could cite many other homely illustrations of similar things: the reaction to a few wisps of somebody else’s hair in the bath-tub, to a strand of hair in one’s soup, to touching things which have touched the apertures or even the creases of someone else’s body, or for that matter, to touching again after an interval something which one has used oneself without first going through some preliminary rite of rinsing and washing. The fact that there is some bacteriological foundation for some of these precautions does not really lessen their fantastic nature. Because once in a hundred times somebody else’s toothbrush or spoon might carry to one a pathogenic organism, does not mean that in all the other ninety-nine times there is an objective aesthetic or bacteriological difference between one’s own spittle and that of the rest of the world. It is evident, however, that it is just at this point that the concept of dirt and the concept of danger and disease establish an intimate relationship, the nature of which will have to be dealt with below. Here it is sufficient to point out that there is a tendency to use the bacterial etiology of infectious disease not only as a rationalization of the fear of “dirt,” but actually as a form of projection, in order to escape from the deep and terrifying conviction of sickness through masturbation. “It is not I, or something dirty I have done that will make me sick; it is something dirty from the outside.” At this point, therefore, the fear of dirt is strongly reinforced from another quarter.
Without laboring the point further, it becomes evident that so deeply ingrained is this extraordinary notion, that, quite without questioning it, we make the assumption that the insides of the body are in fact a cistern, while all of the apertures of the body are dirty avenues of approach, dirty holes leading into dirty spaces, and that everything which comes out of the body, with the possible exception of tears, is for that reason alone dirty.[5]


Fig. 3: Paul McCarthy, From CSSC: Coach Stage Stage Coach (2019).

More than anyone, [Ernest] Jones has sensed the significance of these facts.[6] He has noted the unconsciously synonymous nature of the words: “waste,” “dirty,” and “refuse” (A 676). And, after quoting [Isidor] Sadger, who relates an intense dislike of dirt on the body to masturbatory experiences, Jones adds: “I find that the anal erotic reaction often extends to the inside of the body, there being a conviction that everything inside is inherently filthy” (A 635; italics added): “I have known such people to be unwilling even to insert a finger into their own mouths, and to have the custom of drinking large quantities of water daily with the idea of cleansing the dirty insides of the body.” Furthermore, the problem is raised in a far more complicated form by Melanie Klein in connection with problems which will be dealt with below.
It would seem hard to doubt that this is, in fact, the unconscious assumption that lies behind the adult concept of dirt, and that this is the unconscious meaning of the word as it is taught to children.
The Unconscious Hierarchies of Dirt
Out of this fantasy there emerges a tacit hierarchy of dirt—i.e., human beings, although they have no way of measuring different degrees of dirtiness, have “dirt”-reactions, the intensities of which are quite as finely graded as those which on the positive side of the same scale are looked upon as laws of aesthetic taste. Furthermore, as one might expect, there is a similar hierarchy of the products of the body—so that one can list them in order, from the “cleanest” (beginning probably with tears) to the “dirtiest”; and with two outstanding exceptions there would be little or no disagreement as to the order in which they should be arranged, even if the list included such details as ear-wax, the desquamated cells between the toes, nose pickings, hair clippings, nail clippings, sweat from different parts of the body, urine and faeces. The two body-products which could not be placed so exactly in this negative aesthetic scale are milk and semen, about which the most perplexing ambivalence would be manifested. Similarly, the various parts of the body can be arranged in such a hierarchy, and the influence of this graded reaction can sometimes be observed in the details of the rituals of an obsessional neurosis.
There are, at least, four assumptions which one encounters almost universally, and which have their origins in this same fantasy. (1) Softness, wetness, sliminess, and hairiness, respectively, are always looked upon as dirtier than hardness, dryness, and the absence of hair. (2) Old age represents a piling up of undischarged remnants of a lifetime of eating and drinking, and is thus dirtier than youth.[7] Hence growing old means to grow dirty; and infants, although in the unconscious they may be made from faeces, are nevertheless and paradoxically cleaner than age. (3) Furthermore, pigmentation obviously means dirt, and dark hair is dirtier than the blond hair which “gentlemen prefer.” And (4), finally, in general, a prominent or out-jutting part of the body carries a presumption of cleanliness, whereas a cavity, cleft, hole, or pit in the body carries the presumption of dirt.
It will be seen how these various assumptions fit into the hierarchies which we have mentioned, why the smooth parts of the body are “cleaner” than the wrinkled parts (the penis, for instance, rather than the scrotum), why those parts of the body which are remote from apertures are “cleaner” than those which surround the apertures, and why thinness is presumptively clean and fatness presumably dirty, and why, in the mythical physiology of the laity, fat people are supposed to have larger bowel movements than thin folk.


Fig. 4: Paul McCarthy, From Houseboat Party (2005).

The most important single consequence of this hierarchy of fantasies is an unconscious but universal conviction that woman is dirtier than man. This belief is diametrically opposed to the conscious popular attitude, i.e., that men are dirty and women clean. Often enough, however, this customary attitude is quite insincere; and those who defend it most chivalrously are often the very ones who shrink with revulsion from direct physical contact with any but “low” women. In reality, the reactions of men and women to the body of woman are dominated by this retreat from “dirt”-laden clefts and apertures. We have found this to be true in women as well as men, including those women who are blocked in their heterosexual adjustments and who explain this block as being due to a conscious feeling that in intercourse they are soiled by the man. In this feeling, the idea of semen as dirt is used to obscure the deep personal pain which it costs the woman to regard her own genital aperture as even dirtier.
The Taboo on the Apertures
In all of this there is implicit the most all-inclusive taboo which we meet in the attitude of adult human beings to the body, namely the taboo on the apertures. By every means, and by varying degrees at different times and in different civilizations, the apertures have been camouflaged. They have been either hidden or altered; and through displacements and substitutions every aperture has at one time or another been subjected to rituals of this sort. The simplest of these, of course, are the fashions in which the aperture is directly obscured. A woman’s hair, at one epoch, must cover her ears; or in certain Eastern countries, her nose and mouth must be hidden behind a veil which she would no more think of lifting than of raising her skirt. A man must wear a moustache and a beard. A polite little boy may at most wriggle an itching ear, but he must not put his fingers in it, nor into his nose or mouth. Nor may any unnecessary noise, or smell, emanate from an aperture to draw attention. It follows inevitably that even soft toothpicks are taboo; and if something is lodged in a crevice between the teeth, it must either be dislodged in private or else with surreptitious and genteel manipulations of the tongue. Among many primitive peoples, such as the Trobrianders, people turn their backs to one another when they eat; and among East Indians a woman would no more think of eating in the presence of a stranger than of performing any other intimate rite involving one of her body apertures.[8] Indeed, so drastic is this attitude in the Orient that, according to Brill, the Japanese at one time censored all kissing scenes in American movies, and, on at least one occasion, refused to allow a replica of Rodin’s The Kiss to be exhibited in an art gallery.[9] Nor can this be attributed to any peculiar intensity of body smells among the Japanese, since, according to Havelock Ellis, they are among the least aromatic of all human races—far less, for instance, than the white races.[10]
Compulsive Cosmetic Compensations in Women
That this taboo on the apertures has an intimate relationship to cosmetic rituals must also be quite obvious. It is evident in the compulsive whitening of the nose by the civilized woman, and in the rouging of her lips, or in the gross distortions of the ear lobes, the nose, or the lips in savages. Either one must obscure the apertures and make them decorous and self-effacing, or, where this cannot be done, they must be altered, decorated. And since woman has the one aperture whose presence makes the most urgent protest against the taboo, by simple displacement upward, her cosmetic rituals become the most compelling and elaborate. Perhaps, on the deepest level, these may also be a substitute for the genital and excretory cleanliness rites of infancy, i.e., for the soaping, patting, powdering, and handling that were then enjoyed; but, in contradistinction to man, the woman seems to need them in order to free herself from an obsessive conviction that she has one aperture too many, and a dirty one at that. In the same way, it is the woman who must never sweat; and who, no matter how severe her cold, must use only a tiny lace handkerchief to prove that there is no dirt inside of her. And it is the woman, after all, who must use perfume.

Fig. 5: Paul McCarthy, From Cooking Show White Snow (2012-2013).

One patient of mine revealed the inner meaning of all of this when, on dropping her compact into the toilet, she roared with uncontrollable laughter, and said, “That’s the part of me I’m ashamed of, and not my face—that’s what I want to change.” Equally clear was the same point as expressed by another patient in her conviction that an ugly mouth always means an ugly genital; or in still another whose exaggerated reaction to a mole on the side of her cheek was traced to her identification of it with a mole on her labia. This, of course, is only an exceptionally transparent example of a well-known fact, namely, that the hands and the head, as the only parts of the body which can always be freely exposed, come to represent all of the hidden parts; and that more particularly the apertures in the head represent the apertures at the other end of the trunk.
Another clear example of this was seen in the behavior of a little girl of five. This little girl had been separated from her father and from her older brother for a few months, and envied this brother deeply. One day she lay on her back with her legs in the air, her genitals exposed; and as she contemplated them she said, “My father won’t marry me because I have an ugly—(here there was a strange break and pause in her speech)—face.”
That the conviction that she has one “dirty” aperture too many is an important source for woman’s incessant discontent with her own body would seem to be likely. It has manifested itself in endless efforts to alter her shape, with the emphasis constantly shifting from one part of the body to another. The feet are squeezed, the neck stretched, the waist confined, the breasts are now crushed flat and again raised and built up, the hips are “slenderized” or built out with a bustle. These polymorphous compulsions have as their constant underlying theme the fact that the body is not accepted as being right as it is, and that, ultimately, all of the manipulations focus themselves around one or another aperture—i.e., the mouth, the nose, the ears, the breasts, the genitals and the excretory system, culminating finally in old age in the pathetic struggle against the dignity of wrinkles.
In this derogatory attitude of woman towards her own body one finds every gradation, from the devastating delusion that contamination, poison, and overwhelming odors emanate from her body, to the mild distress of the young actress who felt completely comfortable on the stage only when she was seated or else hidden from the waist down behind some piece of furniture.
To avoid misunderstanding, it is well to introduce here one necessary warning. The conscious and unconscious motivations of human conduct are always complex. It would be absurd to attempt to find in this one fantasy of the body as a dirt factory the whole explanation of woman’s derogatory attitude toward her own body. That this attitude is related also to her feelings of castration and mutilation is attested abundantly in everyday analytical experience, and in such cases as those reported by Harnik.[11] Therefore, a sufficient explanation of the manifold eccentricities of dress in both sexes through the ages must be derived from many sources. The fantasy of dirt and the related taboo on the apertures constitute only one force out of the many which have been operative here.[12]
Forbidden Interest in Excretory Functions 
The taboo on the apertures works in another obvious and important direction—to forbid the child the right to watch excretory functions. As a result, a child may stand and watch a machine at work to his heart’s content, but never the body. He may not crouch down to watch even a dog urinating or defecating without being made to feel as “dirty” as the thing he wants to observe. Thus, human beings are compelled to suppress (and may therefore repress) all of that frank interest which two dogs will manifest in each other’s apertures; an interest which may then appear in fantasies or dreams as disguised manifestations of an impulse actually to be in the toilet bowl watching the emergence of the mysterious excretory products of the parents. This is as much a primal scene as is the observation of coitus, and like it, it is infused with excitement and with intense fear of detection and of punishment, and with the direct dread of injury and destruction either by the parents themselves or through their destructive body products.

Fig. 6: Paul McCarthy, Cultural Gothic (19992-1993).

This group of fantasies was presented with unusual clarity in the dreams of two patients. In one the dream was of “riding the rods” under a train in such a way that the dreamer was enabled to look up through the opened aperture below the toilet into the car above him. The other was the dream of a most proper young lady that she was in the bathroom in the home of her four maiden aunts, and that in the bathroom was a bath-tub which, by some curious alchemy, was not only a cleansing tub but also a toilet bowl, filled with fluid which she or someone else had put there; and in that fluid she bathed, but whether she was getting clean or dirty she did not know. And floating in that fluid was paper, which was equally perplexing because at one and the same time it was pages from the Bible and sheets of toilet paper. (The delightfully witty and ironic reference to the analysis needs no comment.) There is an obscene little nursery jingle about a happy baby named “Sunny Jim,” who is in the toilet bowl and finds he can neither swim nor float and who swallows faeces. It brings out clearly the lurking curiosity about the excretory functions of parents, the accompanying sense of danger, the link to fears of drowning, to coprophagic fantasies, and to related feelings of shame, disgust and retribution.
Relation to Unreality Feelings in Women
With surprising frequency, one finds that a woman’s fantasies of dirt lead her in yet another direction, namely, to make an identification with her own state of “dirtiness” so profound that if she loses even momentarily her feeling of being dirty, she develops sudden feelings of unreality. It has been possible to observe this in several women against a background of quite varied clinical pictures;and in men I have detected this only in one who had strong latent homosexual tendencies. His formulation was “All women and I are dirty.” The converse of that is expressed in a quotation from a male patient described by [Karl] Abraham, who said, “Everything that is not me is dirt.”[13] This patient, however, was a man with megalomanic tendencies. Certainly, all clinical psychiatrists have been impressed by the greater frequency of unreality feelings in women than in men. The mechanism suggested here may be one partial explanation for this difference.
One of the most surprising things which has turned up during the course of these observations on the fantasy of dirt is the occurrence of unreality feelings as the outcome of an analytic reduction of a conviction of personal dirtiness. Shame may exercise so strong an inhibiting influence that it may be difficult to break through the reserves of a patient in this direction, even after she has achieved fluent analytic productivity in other matters; but once she becomes free to talk, such a patient reveals feelings that she can never get clean. She contaminates a bath faster than a bath can clean her, like Tolstoy’s fable of the woman who was trying to clean a table with a dirty rag. Her predicament sheds new light on the “damned spot” and the “perfumes of Arabia” of Lady Macbeth. If she dons clean underclothes, she feels “queer,” “as though she were a fake,” and “unreal.” A most attractive young college student said that no matter how clean were her underdrawers when she put them on in the morning, by lunchtime she felt as though they were filthy; yet she could not change them, because if she bathed and dressed again, she would still feel as though it were “all put on.” The outside might appear neat, but the inside never was. She struggled, as she put it, between a constant compulsion to prove her cleanliness and simultaneously an actual fear that, if she did, she would lose her identity. Another said that for her there was no existence apart from her sense of dirt. She said, “A woman is real, like excrement; a man is real, like a penis.” When her fiancé was making love to her, she had no feeling of his reality until she touched a pimple on his neck; only then did she feel certain in fact that he had a penis. Another said of herself, “All social presence, clothes and politeness, kindness to others, that is all unreal—a mere imitation.” She identified herself completely with the contents of her own body. “I am my own body, and the only reality of that is its products, my bowels and my urine.” At times, this was associated with an explosive, expulsive protest—to let nothing remain but faeces—underlying which there was a deep unconscious fantasy of world destruction. But, at the same time, she was caught in a difficult therapeutic impasse. She could not tolerate her sense of dirtiness because it shamed her, made her afraid of people, made her asocial, and, in every way, cost her all confidence and joy in
living. On the other hand, she could not let herself feel clean because that meant an explosion of terrifying feelings of unreality. It was as though she said: “In the absence of a penis, the dirt within is the only reality that is left to me. If I lose that, nothing real remains.”


Fig. 7: Paul McCarthy, From That Girl (T.G. Awake) (2012-2013).

Such patients may at times make impulsive identifications of themselves with every unfortunate cripple and ill-favored person whom they see, linking such persons with the most unacceptable aspects of their own bodies and their own body products. This is a peculiarly masochistic and self-debasing form of pity.
Genitals as Excrement
Implicit in much that has been said is an attitude towards the genitals which must be referred to for a moment. This is the idea and feeling that the genitals, although in reality parts of the body, are, to the unconscious, detachable excretory products [shit]. This is a fantasy which is intimately related to the whole question of homosexuality, and will be discussed again in that connection.[14]
Sociological Significance: The Stratification of Society
In addition to the individual implications already discussed, the fantastic inflation of the concept of dirt has given rise to certain significant sociological phenomena. Perhaps to say that it has given rise to them is to claim too much; but it would be safe to emphasize that at the least it has played no small part in their development. We refer here to the phenomena of the stratification of society. Everyone knows, of course, that any representative of a strange group is likely to be spoken of as “a dirty this” or “a dirty that.” In India, this is given so literal an expression as to create a class of “untouchables.” It is as though man struggled to rid himself of his feeling of his own secret inner uncleanliness by finding another and dirtier human being whom he could scorn. Brill speaks of body odors as dividing man from man, and attributes this to the fact that body odors remind each man unwittingly of the other’s undue proximity, adding that an obtrusive smell lowers one’s estimates of its human source (SS 15). This is undoubtedly a true observation, but does not quite explain it, and it would seem probable that it is the immediate unconscious assumption that body smell arises internally which gives it its great emotional significance. Brill senses this when he quotes from Somerset Maugham’s comments on Chinese democracy. Maugham claims that the democracy of the Chinese is based on the uniformity of the toilet habits of rich and poor in that country, and on the ubiquity of bad smells. He says, “The cesspool is more necessary to democracy than parliamentary institutions . . . . [But] sanitary convenience has destroyed the sense of equality in men . . . . The first man who pulled the plug of a water-closet . . . rang the death-knell of democracy.”[15] We need not accept this extreme formulation in order to recognize its sociological importance. Further outstanding examples of this are the segregation of women in Oriental races—the custom of segregating a woman during menstruation—and the concentration of the contamination idea on any one special group of human beings, such as negroes, Jews, or “dirty foreigners,” in general.
Indeed, it is regrettable that psychoanalytic data is not available at present on the American negro in his white environment. Such data, no doubt, would throw light on the relation of skin pigmentation to this problem. It is easy to see, however, how much of the white man’s prejudice against the pigmented races comes from his feelings about excrement and pigmentation which, with advancing years, develops around the apertures. The white child, with little or no perineal pigmentation, has little feeling against the negro, until he is stimulated to it by adults. His naive nursery explanations of the color of the negro skin are quite devoid of derogatory implications. One child, for instance, was heard to warn her old mammy not to drink black coffee because, as the mammy could see for herself, it made her skin black. Yet even in this innocent warning lurked an implication which later became derogatory, since the pigment from the coffee must reach the skin from the dark and mysterious insides of the body. Similarly, a young, brunette white woman, facing an appendectomy, could not rid herself of the notion that it would make her blond: “Cut out my intestines and I will lose my dark skin, I will lose my dirtiness.” There is a hint in the old story of creation from Uncle Remus that the negro himself is weighed down with the feeling that pigmentation means dirt. In this legend, the entire human race is black until a lake is discovered which can bleach the skin, whereupon there is such a rush of human kind to bathe in this lake that it is completely filled up, and the negro race of today represents those who were left on the banks and who could do no more than dabble the soles of their feet and the palms of their hands in the bleaching waters.[16]
There is an even more ominous outgrowth from this same fantasy, one that plays a part in the institution of lynching in our Southern states. It arises from the fantasy that the inferior is always stronger than the superior, that that which is dirty, and therefore dark, is stronger than that which is clean and therefore light. It follows that the pigmented penis is stronger than the white penis, and a negro must be sexually stronger than a white man. Southern manhood attacks the negro not merely to protect “Southern womanhood,” but out of jealous rage against the man whose darker, bigger strength is envied [penis envy]. That this relates itself, at once, to the problem of the child in relationship to his father is obvious.[17]

Fig. 8: Paul McCarthy, Untitled (Tokyo Santa #2) (1999).

Family Pride and Shame
When we tum to the family, we find a related situation. No one has pictured this more vividly than Ernest Hemingway in his story, “Fathers and Sons” [1933], where he describes a son’s reactions to the smell of his father’s underwear.[18] It is sometimes overlooked that opportunities for intimate contacts with the excretory functions of others are limited almost entirely to the family circle and to the early years of childhood, with the result that the child develops the unconscious conviction: “my family alone is dirty.” From this conviction grows the painful climb of the ladder of social stratification—wealth, position, culture, or intellect—which has at its core the unconscious division of human beings into those with dirty, smelly bodies, like the child’s family, and those whose bodies never produce such smells. It takes a philosopher like Aristotle to accept with equanimity the generalization that “all life arises out of dunghills.” The child, however, thinks only of himself and his family in these debased terms, and struggles against this conviction with great pain.
Before further pursuing the widely diversified implications of this central fantasy, we must turn back to ask how such a fantasy could have arisen, how early it has manifested itself in human society, and why it persists. It will not be possible to answer these questions fully, but the discussion of them will bring us into contact with many aspects of psychoanalytic theory.
Critical Review of the Treatment of the Concept of Dirt in Psychoanalytic Literature
Strangely enough, in Freud’s own writings, there are not many direct references to this problem. In 1905, in the “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria,” he speaks of the feeling of disgust as arising originally as a reaction to the smell, and later to the sight, of excrement, and adds further that the genitals act as a reminder of excremental functions (FA 40). On the following page, in footnote 1, he adds: “It is scarcely possible to exaggerate the pathogenic significance of the comprehensive tie uniting the sexual and the excremental, a tie which is at the basis of a very large number of hysterical phobias.” In the same year, in the Three Contributions, he comments upon the fact that although beauty plays an important role in sexuality, the genitals themselves are condemned as unbeautiful. He does not say “unclean,” but the link to excrement, which he describes elsewhere, indicates as much.[19]
It is clear from these quotations that, up to this time, Freud himself had not asked the question—how excrements themselves had come to be looked upon as disgusting and dirty—but had taken this as being of a self-evident nature.
Again, on page 101, he speaks of the “pride” taken by women in the appearance of their genitals, and of the special feelings of repugnance or disgust, of humiliation and of lowered self-esteem, which arise over any disorder of the genitals, or at the appearance of any abnormal secretion. Here, obviously, he is close to realizing the identity of genitals and excretory products in the unconscious, but the “pride” which he speaks of would seem to be more theoretical than actual. In 1908, in the paper on “Character and Anal Erotism,” he speaks of cleanliness as a reaction formation against interest in things that are “unclean,” but goes no further in his analysis of what is meant by “uncleanliness” than his comment: “Dirt is matter in the wrong place” (AE 48-49). And yet, he hints at the significance of the excretory functions in his references to gold and faeces.
Finally, in 1909, in the “Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis,” Freud ventured upon a new angle of the problem, a discussion which has been referred to many times in all subsequent literature. Here he emphasized the importance of the assumption of erect posture, pointing out that as a result of this there might be a diminished importance for olfactory sensations, a kind of emotional atrophy from disuse.[20] It is not clear, however, whether any of these speculations about the influence of erect posture on man’s attitude towards excrements and smells are borne out by observations either of primitive races or of primates and the higher apes. In fact, Havelock Ellis presents much evidence that many human races have preserved great olfactory acuity despite the assumption of erect posture (SPS 4). It will be of great interest someday to investigate the emotional aspects of the olfactory functions and the systems of dirt fantasies among such peoples.

Fig. 9: Paul McCarthy, Spaghetti Man (1993).

Furthermore, even on theoretical grounds, Freud’s argument is not entirely beyond question. Let’s accept the premise that the sense of smell in quadrupeds is utilized very much as we use sight and sound, that is, to look for things, to find things, to recognize them, and possibly to differentiate between edible and inedible objects. With the shift to erect posture, however, the nose seems to have lost some, if not all, of these purely apperceptive functions, and to have become instead primarily an organ of aesthetic judgments. Thus, far more than sight, sound, or touch, for the animal in the erect posture, smells are almost never neutral but always either pleasant or unpleasant.[21] Moreover, it is no accident that the nose is set above the mouth as the guardian of the gastro-intestinal tract. In the quadruped, the snout is usually long and serves not only an olfactory purpose, but also as a tactile organ, like the index finger. With the assumption of the erect posture, however, the snout has gradually receded, so that now the nose functions only when things are brought to it, either in eating, or in the close approximation of bodies in sexual activity.
Thus [contrary to Freud] it would seem plausible to argue that man’s assumption of the erect posture has resulted in an increase in the pleasure-displeasure evaluations of olfactory stimuli, and a decrease in their purely intellectual values. Smell, therefore, may play an even more important role emotionally in the sexual life of man than it does in that of the lower animals, even though in lower forms it may play the more important role as an orienting lure. Moreover, and this is the important part of the problem for us, its role in man is emotionally not only more important, but also more complicated, since the negative as well as the positive aesthetic reactions have been enhanced.[22]
In Civilization and its Discontents [1929], Freud returns to this problem again. He points out that, in the nursery, excrements arouse no aversion, and that the reversal of this non-aversive attitude is produced only by vigorous educational efforts, which he holds could not be successful were it not for the repression “of olfactory functions in the course of the evolution of the erect posture.”[23] With this last point, as we have already pointed out, we cannot entirely agree. Nevertheless, for Freud, cleanliness remains a measure of the degree of civilization; thus, where nature itself has something which can perhaps be called order, it has nothing which can be called cleanliness. Cleanliness is a product of man’s imagination (CD 55). Moreoever, while emphasizing the derivation of our sense of beauty from “the realms of sexual sensation,” he faces us with the perplexing problem of why the genitals can be exciting, and yet rarely regarded as beautiful. In this connection, as we already noted, he suggests the significance of their excremental meaning.
[Salvador] Ferenczi’s contributions to this problem are too well-known to needdetailed summaries. They are presented most fully in his paper on “The Ontogenesis of the Interest in Money” [1916]. There he points to the early pleasurable interest in all evacuating processes and their products, the reversal of this through education, and its evolution through various stages.[24] It is of some importance historically that, under the influence of Freud’s work, Ferenczi also postulates an early focusing of disgust reactions on smell alone, and stresses the importance of the assumption of erect posture. The direct observation of children would seem to show that the rejection of smells as unpleasant comes long after the child has shown many troubled reactions to wetness, coldness, stickiness, and color, and that each child oscillates for a long period between positive and negative reactions to each one of the individual physical characteristics that later are grouped together into the constellation of dirt.
Abraham, in his “Contributions to the Theory of the Anal Character” [1927], reiterates this derivation of disgust from the negative reversal of an earlier positive pleasure in the things produced by the body (AC 371).
Jones, however, carries this analysis much further in his article on “Anal Erotic Character Traits” [1918], but in directions that again awaken some doubt in our minds. He bases his point of view squarely on that expressed by Freud in the Three Contributions, and assumes: (1) that the mucous membrane of the anus responds to the passage of bowel movements by pleasurable sensations whose intensity varies with the size of the bowel movement; and (2) that infants early observe that by holding back their faeces, and thus accumulating larger quantities of fecal matter, they can produce more intense sensations, and so heighten their anal pleasures. This is our first point of dissent. To assume that an infant is capable of foregoing—deliberately—a definite, immediate anal pleasure in order to secure a somewhat more intense sensation a few hours later, is to assume something that it is impossible to prove and hard to credit. Jones then assumes (3) that this pleasurable aspect of defecation is subjected to an early autogenous repression. This is our second difficulty. Why this repression should occur at all is not clear. Why an infant should not proceed to enjoy his pleasurable defecations, reinforced by praise from his parents or nurse, is completely obscure. And, finally, it is equally unclear why this hypothetical construction does not take into account (a) the unpleasurable aspects of a distended rectum, and (b) the painful aspects of a defecation too long delayed, a pain which may indeed be combined with a subsequent sense of relief because the discomfort of the distended rectum has been dispelled, but hardly with any feeling of pleasure. It must be clear that the whole argument is an ad hoc construction, a preconceived theory to explain certain perverse manifestations, and not built up empirically.

Fig. 10: Paul McCarthy, White Snow Dwarf (2010-2018).

[John] Rickman presents another solution to this question. He argues that repulsiveness is inherent in all objects outside of the body, merely due to the unpleasantness of the change from intrauterine to extrauterine life. To this universal misanthropy, the nipple appears as the first exception, and, by incorporation, is identified with the ego. Pleasant things thus become a part of the ego, and unpleasant things are not so much rejected by it as just left outside. What is inside of the ego is good, and what is outside, bad. That this ingenious logical structure has any relationship to what we actually observe would appear unlikely. One need merely note that it is exactly the reverse of the attitude towards the body itself, namely, that what is inside of the body is bad (filthy) and what is outside is good (clean). Unless this hypothetical ego has nothing to do with the human body, the logical outcome of Rickman’s theory is a complete paradox.[25]
And, finally, we cannot leave this resume without a reference to the complex and important structure of Melanie Klein’s theories. Klein recognizes clearly the importance of this concept of the inside and the outside of the body, and of the conflict between the two. She finds evidence, however, that the contents of the body may be both good and bad in the unconscious fantasies of the child, and that, indeed, there is a constant struggle going on within the child between these two forces, in that the child is trying to neutralize the bad by introjection of good forces, or by ejection of the bad.[26]
In general, Klein’s position may be summarized as follows: The child’s basic relationship to its environment is sadistic. In oral, urethral and anal-sadistic phases, the child makes imaginary attacks on his mother, on her body, and on its contents. From this, the child develops a fear that the unkind mother will demand back that which has been stolen from her, namely, the body contents, or the faeces. Thus, the real mother or nurse, in the cleansing of the child, becomes a terrifying person who not only compels the child to give up its contents, but may tear them out of the body by violence. At the same time, if these contents are not given up by the child, these introjected objects thus acquire savage and destructive attributes which in turn can destroy the body from within. (The child is usually warned that if he fails to move his bowels he will become sick.) Thus, the child is caught in a characteristic dilemma: his body contents become poisonous, burning, explosive and destructive substances, generating terror from within, if retained, and terror of contact, when excreted—instruments of terror with which to destroy others in turn. These are “the deepest causes of a child’s feelings of anxiety and guilt in connection with its training in cleanliness” (PC 230). The reaction formation of disgust—orderliness, cleanliness—arises secondarily out of these early danger situations, and, according to Klein, the protection against these dangerous objects by the introjection of a neutralizing array of good objects, or by the extrusion of bad objects, in a setting of great uncertainty, gives rise to the obsessional character and obsessional neurosis, i.e., to the obsessive need for knowledge, to the emphasis on reality, over-precision, and the like.[27]
Redescription of the Development of Excretory Habits and Attitudes
It is not possible here to go further into an analysis of Klein’s theories; but let us instead turn back tothe child himself, to see if it is not possible to describe his excretory experiences in somewhat simpler terms first, without in any way prejudicing ourselves as to the need ultimately to recognize the coexistence of such highly complicated unconscious fantasies.
Let’s begin by recognizing that, in the infant, as in the adult, a full rectum is not comfortable but uncomfortable, and that it gives rise by automatic reflex mechanisms to peristaltic waves and, ultimately, to a relaxation of the anal sphincter. There seems to be no reason to assume that there is any primary pleasure associated with a distended rectum; indeed, if such were the case it would be hard to understand how any infant would ever learn to evacuate at all!
Nor is there any a priori necessity to assume that the actual passage of a moderate bowel movement through the anus originally gives rise to sensations which are either pleasant or unpleasant. On this point, no direct evidence is accessible to anyone. Analysts have predicated the pleasurable nature of the passage of the bowel through the anal sphincter in the infant in order to explain disturbances of behavior and perversions, and, then, have supported this assumption by pointing to the later existence of anal perversion, forgetting that they have already assumed the primary nature of anal pleasure in order to explain anal perversion. This is circular reasoning, and unnecessary. The simplest primary pleasure must be merely the relief from the preceding discomfort of the distended rectum. Whether this, by an inevitable process of simple conditioning, gives rise to a secondary sensory pleasure from the passage of the faeces through the anus, is a matter about which there exists no direct evidence, and which may vary from one individual to the next.
The third phase is that in which the child lies with a soiled and wet diaper, at first in a state of considerable comfort and peace from the relief of the rectal or bladder discomfort that had preceded it. Furthermore, we can assume with probable safety that, while the urine and faces are still warm, there is nothing unpleasant associated with their presence against the perineum, unless perchance the perineum is already irritated and inflamed. As the excreta become cold, they may give rise to discomfort; but every parent has often seen infants lying perfectly happily in cold, wet and soiled diapers. Whether or not the child is uncomfortable, the soiled diaper becomes the signal for an important pleasure of an entirely novel nature: to wit, the cleansing ritual at the hands of the mother or nurse. This brings about a confluence of active excretory pleasure and passive genital pleasure. Here both the peace that follows urination and defecation, and also the comfort or discomfort of the diaper (whichever it may be) become conditioning signals for loving perineal and genital stimulation at the hands of the nursing attendant. The process of conditioning is simple and obvious. The longer the diaper regime is maintained, the more firmly will that conditioned reflex be established. Thus, the genitals and the excreta together become a link between the child and its mother or nurse, second in importance only to that of nursing, and thus become intimately fused in the child’s own psychology. Therefore, when the child is taught to disown excrements as filth, it is simultaneously being taught to disown its own genitals as equally filthy excremental products of its own body. To the child, its genitals are just as much excrement as are the excreta themselves.[28]

Fig. 11: Paul McCarthy, From Hot Dog (1974).

The Significance of the Change from the Diaper to the Pot
Thus, for the child who is allowed for a long period the luxury of the diaper, excretion comes to mean two pleasures: first, the active comfort of the act itself, and then the passive comfort of the cleansing rituals spread over the genitals. The shift to the chamber pot, therefore, involves his first loss of genital pleasure and deprives him of what has become one of the chief motives of his excretions. That the child may react to this deprivation by sullen refusal, retention, and willful soiling, in his efforts to return to the earlier happy state, would seem inevitable, without our having to explain the retention of excreta by hypothetical gradations of anal stimuli and the like.
When this deprivation occurs, the excretory processes, as well as the genitals, suddenly cease to be a loving link between child and adult, and instead become a battleground on which hate makes its appearance. From here on the story is well known of the investment of the excretory products and the genitals with ambivalent feelings: refuse or powerful magic; love tokens or destructive agents, etc. There comes to mind the picture of a little boy solemnly seating himself on the chamber pot every Sunday morning with a toy wand from his magic game in his mouth, “doing his duty” at one end, but, at the other end, making magic for a snow-storm so that he would not have to go to church.
Thus we see that the first application of pressure in the education towards “cleanliness” consists inevitably and unavoidably of a genital punishment, that is, of a withholding of pleasurable genital stimulation. From the point of view of practical education, the importance of this may certainly be reduced by shortening to a minimum the diaper period; but probably it can never be wholly eliminated. Even an infant who has been gently but firmly potted right from birth will have occasional bowel and urinary accidents to signal to him the subsequent pleasurable attentions to his perineum—just as the conditioned stimulus signals the coming of meat to the experimental animal. It may be borne in mind, however, that there is one significant and consoling difference between these two situations. Pavlov has shown that conditioned reflexes can be established only when an animal is in a state of unsatisfied instinctual craving, and never when satiated. The infant who has just voided and evacuated is in a state of much diminished instinctual tension, where conditioning influences must operate only weakly and slowly. For this reason, shortening the diaper period is probably all that is needed to reduce the genitalization of the excretory functions to relatively insignificant proportions.
Melanie Klein, as we have already indicated, emphasizes another aspect of this problem. She has found evidence that the nurse or mother who cleanses the infant may represent to that child a terrifying and fantastic figure who is tearing out its body contents. She explains this fantasy as due to the child’s fear of revenge because of its own primary sadistic impulses against its mother’s body contents. I have no evidence either for or against this explanation, but, on the basis of what has been described above, a simpler one is also possible, namely, that the child may develop an uneasy sense that the mother or nurse is angry because of the inevitable projection of its own anger when the cleansing perineal gratifications to which he had become accustomed are withheld. In addition, it remains possible that children may elaborate this primary anger and fear into astructure of secondary unconscious fantasies such as Klein describes. If this is true, the fantasies outlined by Klein may be the result rather than the cause of the initial emotional disturbance, and their cathexes can be lessened merely by a shortening of the diaper period, or, as Brill (SS) jokingly suggests, by the use of those easily detachable perineal sandbags of the placid Chinese.
Significance of the Warning against Excrement for the Evolution of the Dirt Fantasy
The second step in the education towards “cleanliness” is not merely a silent deprivation, but an active and forceful system of warnings, threats, punishments and exhortations, under the influence of which the infant and child is taught to eschew that which adults regard as dirty. As a result of this education, the child builds his first system of graded aesthetic values: There are (a) things which may be played with freely, smelled, and placed in the mouth (yet, with a perplexing absence of logic, the child is taught not to “play with” or “handle” his food); (b) things which may be sniffed at perhaps and played with, but not put in the mouth; (c) things which may be touched, but not played with; (d) things which may be looked at, but not touched; and (e) finally things which should not even be looked at.
When we consider that the child’s basic pattern is to look, to reach for, to touch, to smell, and to take into his mouth, it is evident that this system of contrary feelings can be inculcated only at the price of inner conflicts quite comparable in intensity with those generated by the Oedipus drama, the sibling rivalries, and the castration problem.
Thus, the first effective distinction between clean and dirty comes via the parental injunctions, “Don’t touch,” “Don’t put into the mouth,” and, ultimately, in example if not in precept, “Don’t look.” Therefore, that which is dirty will make one sick, and sickness and dirt become synonymous. Furthermore, it must finally become dangerous even to look. (Witness the universality of blinking tics in childhood.)
From this step to the conclusion that all excretions are dirty, that the excretory zones and apertures as well must not be touched, that therefore pleasure from these zones is itself dirty and bad, that if you touch yourself (that is, masturbate), you touch dirt and actually become dirty and therefore fall sick, is a well-known chain of consequent ideas.
And finally, since the thought is the same as the deed, and the desire to masturbate is also dirty, the desire alone can make you sick. Hence: guilt, disease, dirt, masturbation, contamination, intercourse, pregnancy, and cancer become intimately linked concepts. The most extraordinary part of this whole structure is that, just as with the taboo on masturbation itself, the fantasy is built up again and again—through each succeeding generation—with no personal experience of pain or sickness, or of other direct and immediate consequences for the violation of the code.

Fig. 12: Paul McCarthy, The Garden (1992).

Dirt Fantasies vs. Mutilation Fantasies in the Development of Obsessional Traits
This is the basic difference between the role of dirt fantasies and the role of mutilation fantasies in human psychology: no one has to teach a child to recognize pain; pain is its own schoolmaster, furnishing its own definition. No one needs to write a paper explaining what we mean by pain. Thus, the role of the adult is the relatively simple one of expanding the child’s own experience, warning him of possible sources of pain, allying himself with the child’s own instinctual avoidance of intolerable tensions. With regard to dirt, on the other hand, the adult’s role is the ungrateful one of opposing the child’s natural impulses at every point, by a combination of bribery, intimidation, and a system of authoritative pronouncements that, as has been suggested elsewhere, are in their essence identical with post-hypnotic suggestions.[29] Undoubtedly, this accounts for the fact that a “must”-system plays so large a role in the obsessional neurosis, in contradistinction to the dominating significance of the “fear”-system in hysteria and anxiety hysteria.
The artificial intimidation is achieved partly by inculcating a deep unconscious fear of disease, thereby setting the pattern for many phobic and hypochondriacal reactions both in childhood and in later life. As Klein points out, to the child, the body products come to mean malevolent instruments of destruction—burning, poisoning, corroding, exploding, etc. This creates for him many dilemmas: how does it happen that these destructive substances can be formed within the body without destroying their possessor from within? Is it better constantly to be getting rid of them, or to pretend that there are no such things and to retain them forever? One is reminded of Elinor Wylie’s poem, likening young girls to transparent drops of dew, thus solving the problem neatly by making the human frame translucent, devoid of the hidden dirt and danger which is inherent in opaque internal organs. In the course of analysis, a young man of thirty, who had come into analysis because of a phobia of bedwetting, rediscovered his early terror that in his sleep he would void and defecate, and that the products thereupon would actually eat away his body, so that in the morning when “they” came to waken him, he would be gone.
This fear that the products of the body are destructive and dangerous is related in turn to the fantasy which [Lillian] Malcove describes in young children, namely, that all food is alive and—by “eating back” at its devourer—is capable of retaliating against the child who eats it.[30] Furthermore, both of these fears (the fear of food and the fear of waste products) come into conflict with all fantasies of the reincorporation of lost objects of libidinal attachment, whether this reincorporation takes place directly in oral fantasies and practices, or through some substitute skin ritual of smearing, dressing, and the like, as described by Lewin (KM 13).
In all of this, one glimpses the tangled web of conflicting impulses and feelings: food and waste products are prized, feared, rejected, retained; they are magically potent; they are disgraceful and shameful, etc. Out of this web emerge many of the incongruous inconsistencies of behavior towards dirt, to which the history of human affairs bears witness.
Medical lore and practice is full of these contradictory influences. As [William] Oslerpoints out, the use of excretions—and parts of the body—as medicine was a practice of great antiquity, first recorded in the papyri of Egypt.[31] There we find that saliva, urine, bile, faeces, and parts of the body dried and powdered, worms, insects, snakes, and powdered mummies all had their potent values. Furthermore, the art of divination was practiced largely on the internal organs of sacrificial animals, notably the heart, brain, and especially the liver, which was eaten for its curative value, long before anything was known of liver oils or pernicious anaemia. Simiarly, certain tribes of American Indians used urine both as a medicine and as a charm against disease. [Ernest] Jones refers to the magical and curative properties ascribed to the urine and saliva of horses, to horse hair laid in manure, to a towel streaked with human faeces, etc.[32]
Certainly, much that is obsessional in human nature is thus seen to have its origin in the fantasy of dirt. At the price of constant vigilance, the products of the dirty interior of the body, and their representatives in the outside world, must never be allowed to contaminate the outside of the body except as a magical and therapeutic rite. We see this in the obsession of the child who spends hours folding his underwear so that no part of the undershirt shall peep out from under the blouse, no part of the blouse from under the coat, and so on, as he lays them on the chair beside his bed. It is also clear in the convention that one must have different face and body towels—with the imperative that these must never touch. We observe it in the play of brothers, who were happy together until one touched his nose, his tongue, or his buttocks on the pillow of the other, whereupon war would break out. Or the obsessional accountant who had to feel the soles of his shoes to see if anything uneven adhered to them, while comparing the bulges in his pockets where he carried his pencils, repeating such calculations incessantly. One might say that just as anxiety hysteria is oriented essentially around the problem of mutilation and pain, so the obsessional neurosis or the obsessional character is oriented around the problem of contamination and dirt, and particularly, in this form, of contamination of the outside from the inside.
In The Problem of Anxiety [1936], Freud writes: “To the question why the avoidance of touching, contact, or contagion plays so large a role in the neuroses and is made the content of so complicated a system, the answer is that touching—physical contact—is the most immediate aim of aggressive no less than of tender object-cathexes.”[33] This has become the usual psychoanalytic explanation of this phenomenon, a monistic emphasis on aggression and destruction, overlooking what appears to be a parallel struggle which is focused primarily around the individual’s conception of his own body—and its products—in terms of fantasies of cleanliness and dirtiness, and which involves only secondarily his aggressive impulses.

Fig. 13: Paul McCarthy, Brain Multiples (2019).

Anthropological Theory
Much has been written of the individual’s initial interest in excrement, and of his early, uninhibited coprophagic propensities.[34] It is natural, therefore, on turning to a consideration of the race as a whole, to wonder when the eating of excrement and of the abundant life of the dunghill stopped, and what this may have had to do with the appearance of scavenger gods in Egyptian religions, or of magical rites to protect the dead from having to eat faeces, or with the placing of mummies in Egyptian graves, bent so that the heads and food containers are close to the excretory organs, as though self-perpetuation in immortality was to be achieved by re-ingesting one’s own excrement. Such questions remain unanswered, however. Indeed, surprisingly little has been written by the anthropologists about the earliest evidence of the existence of a concept of dirt, despite the evident fact that the establishing of a distinction between clean and dirty must have been one of the crucial turning points in the evolution of civilization. This perhaps gives us some justification for using our imagination in order to visualize a hypothetical series of stages in the evolution of the concept of dirt, under the influence of general cultural evolution. At each stage, the critical issue would be: What is eaten as food?
(1) A primitive stage, in which food included all creeping, crawling things—i.e., all the abundant life of the earth which is most abundant around the dunghill, and which is not easily distinguished from excrement itself. Excrement would therefore be prized as a zoological manure.
(2) With the evolution of fishing and hunting, a taboo on lowlier forms would become possible, and fishing and netting or spearing of swimming fish would make it possible to replace, or supplement, the eating of the clinging, stationary, sessile shellfish forms. (The Kosher taboo on shellfish may conceivably represent this ancient step in cultural development.)
(3) Finally, the shift from a hunting-fishing to an agricultural culture, with stationary homes and villages instead of a nomadic life, would force the segregation of the excretory functions of the villagers. From this point on, the distinction would be firmly established on the basis which we have described, a rejection of all body products as filth.
The Psychosexual Implications of the Dirt Fantasy
It is to be expected, of course, that sexual functions would register the particular constellation of dirt fantasies with which a patient struggles, especially since sex brings with it the only sanctioned violation of the otherwise unqualified taboo on contacts between body apertures and body products. Not only is there an exchange of body products—both at the mouth and at the genital orifices—but there is in addition the actual penetration into another body, so that the outside of one body becomes directly contaminated by the inside of another. No one who has analyzed adolescent boys and girls or young adults can fail to be impressed by the violence of the conflict with these taboos, which is evoked by the mere thought of intercourse. Both sexes struggle with a conviction that only those protuberances of the body which are far from the genital excretory zones are safe and clean. Clefts, wrinkles, and cavities must be avoided, not merely because they represent to the unconscious a wound or a mutilation, but also because they are diseased and dirt-laden approaches to loathsome, disease-filled places.
On this basis, one sees a type of pseudo homosexuality in woman: that is, the woman who feels contaminated, as well as mutilated, who at the same time feels closely identified with a mother or nurse, and who in her love-making attains only some measure of reassurance through an alliance with another woman. On a “misery loves company” basis, both of them tacitly avoid the “contaminating” areas, thereby avoiding exposure of their imagined filth and misery to men.
In the male also, as part of an absolute refusal to believe in the reality of a penis-less woman, there may be a conviction that woman is the cleaner and man the dirtier sex, with an inability to approach the opposite sex for this reason. Thus, there can be at least two kinds of homosexuality in the male: the one due to a fear that the man is dirty and will contaminate the woman with his fecal penis and semen, and the other, the fear that the woman is dirty and will contaminate the man. Inconsistent though they may be, both unconscious fantasies may coexist side by side within the same patient.
I have a suspicion, which I am not yet in a position to verify, that castration fear plays a major role in disturbances of effective genital function, and contamination fears in disturbances of object choice. Both the penis and the vagina tend, however, to share in this inhibiting sense of filth; and out of this is derived a system of unconscious ideas shared by men and women alike: the vagina is dirty. Therefore, it is worthy only of dirty objects. Anything which enters it either is dirty to begin with, or becomes dirty upon penetration. All body secretions are dirty. Both vaginal mucus and the semen of the male are dirty. Intercourse therefore consists of being filled full of dirt and of being smeared with dirt. Neither the impressive ceremonials of the wedding service, nor the exhilaration of deep infatuation can effectively lift the taboos which fantasies such as these represent and enforce.
Relation to Social Inhibitions
It must be obvious that these ideas relate themselves closely to the problem of social freedom and social inhibition in all human beings, but particularly in women. Many examples of this have been seen, but one striking illustration may be mentioned. This was the case of a gifted and attractive woman, a woman of social prominence, who on every social occasion suffered from overwhelming constraint. To this, many things contributed, but ultimately there were two outstanding factors: first, the feeling that there was something lacking externally which everyone could see or sense (her castration material); and, second, the feeling that there was something awful internally which would betray itself (her filth conviction). These gave rise to a secondary series of fantasies: (a) “I must get rid of my faeces and urine as quickly as possible. They are dirty, filthy, dangerous and embarrassing to keep inside me.” (b) “However, in the presence of people, I must hold everything in.” (c) This resulted in extreme constraint and an inhibition on all bodily movement, but, at the same time, to a tense state of terror and rage. (d) This rage, in turn, generated an infantile impulse to pour out her body contents in an angry and destructive flood in the presence of people, and, indeed, over people, thus disgracing them, and herself, and destroying the world with her corroding body waste.

Fig. 14: Paul McCarthy, From Pirate Party (2005).

The material which laid bare this extraordinary system of impulses and fantasies came to light only very slowly, but they finally brought with them a sense of conviction and a complete freedom from the crippling constraint of forty years, leaving not even a residual trace [stain] of the old difficulties. This experience, among others, has convinced the author of the clinical usefulness of this formulation.
Note on Technique

In conclusion, something might be said about the technical application of this material. All analysts are aware of the great reluctance with which patients talk of their daily excretory experiences. Such data usually filters into analysis even more slowly and more timidly than does the information on genital and sexual matters. It has been customary to explain this from the hypothesis that the excretory pleasures appear earlier in the life of the individual than do the genital pleasure drives, and, thus, have been subjected to deeper repression. For this reason, the analyst has tended to respect these silences through months of analysis, and to feel that no direct attack may safely be made upon this silence, and the taboos it represents, until the castration fears and the basic family relationships have been analyzed, and some breaking through of the curtain of infantile amnesia achieved.
We have come to feel that this is a mistake, and that until the patient is communicating his daily ingestive and excretory experiences as freely as anything else, one is not really advancing on all fronts and the analysis is still in its infancy. To achieve this requires an early attack upon the idea of the body as a dirt factory, and upon every personal idiosyncrasy of daily routines, voice, manner, speech, dress, etc., which can possibly be a manifestation of the taboo on the apertures
* Originally published in The Pscyhoanalytic Quarterly 6.4 (1937): 388-425.

[1] The reactions of lower animals, primates, and the infants of primitive peoples are relevant to this point: but a discussion of these, insofar as the data are available, will have to be reserved for another communication.

[2] [Misophobia (or mysophobia): an extreme or irrational fear of dirt or contamination. —Ed.]

[3] Sigmund Freud, “Character and Anal Erotism” [1908], in Collected Papers II, pp. 45-51, esp. 48, 49. Hereafter cited in the text as AE.

[4] Cf. Lawrence S. Kubie, “Body Symbolization and the Development of Language,” The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 3 (1934): 430-435.5

[5] To the child, the body is not a group of independent systems—a two or three family house. Rather, it is often all one room, one cavity; and all the apertures are doors and windows leading by various pathways to one single, undifferentiated, stinking mess. (Cf. Erik Homburger, “Configurations in Play—Clinical Notes,” The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 6 [1937]: 9.) The conflicting attitudes towards the baby as a body product, and to human milk and semen, require special discussion. Towards both, the inconsistencies are at times amazing. The author knows of two young interns in pediatrics who promptly vomited on discovering that they had unwittingly drunk human milk from the supply in the hospital ice-box.

[6] Cf. Ernest Jones, “Anal Erotic Character Traits,” in Papers on Psychoanalysis (London: Balliere, Tindall & Cox, 1918), 635-676. Hereafter cited in the text as AEC.

[7] This recalls Metchnikoff’s once famous theory that senility and death come as the result of microbic action on the contents of the lower bowel (E. Metchnikoff, The Prolongation of Life [New York: G. P. Putnam Sons, 1908])—a theory which received indirect scientific investigation in the experiments of Woodruff on the amoeba (Cf. Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle [1920]) and pseudo-medical exploitation in theories of intestinal auto-intoxication with their attendant rituals of colonic irrigations and the like. In the lay mind, it is reflected in that type of intestinal preoccupation which Osler used to refer to as cases of “bowels on the brain.” (Cf. William Osler, The Evolution of Modern Medicine [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1922], pp. 14, 15, and 18).

[8] Dr. A. Kardiner points out that this ceremonial restriction may have other important and coincident determinants. (Personal communication.)

[9] A. A. Brill, “The Sense of Smell in the Neuroses and Psychoses,” The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 1 (1932): 7-43. Hereafter cited in the text as SS.

[10] Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Vol. II, Part I, “Sexual Selection in Man: Touch, Smell,” etc. (New York: Random House, 1936). Hereafter cited in the text as SPS.

[11] Cf. E. J. Harnik, “The Various Developments Undergone by Narcissism in Men and Women,” International Journal of Psycho-analysis 5 (1924): 66-84; and E. J. Harnik, “Pleasure in Disguise, the Need for Decoration, and the Sense of Beauty,” The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 1 (1932): 216-264.

[12] Bertram Lewin, “Kotschmieren, Menses und Weibliches Uber-Ich,” Int. Ztschr. f. Psa 16 (1930): 44-56. Hereafter cited in the text as KM.

[13] Karl Abraham, Selected Papers on Psychoanalysis (London: Hogarth Press, 1927), Chapter 23, “Contributions to the Theory of the Anal Character,” esp., p. 371. Hereafter cited in the text as AC.

[14] Cf. Sigmund Freud, Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria [1905], in Collected Papers III (London: Hogarth Press, 1925), pp. 40, 41, and 101. Hereafter cited in the text as FA.

[15] Somerset Maugham, “Democracy,” in On a Chinese Screen (New York: Geo. H. Doran & Co., 1922). [“I asked myself why in the despotic East there should be between men an equality so much greater than in the free and democratic West, and was forced to the conclusion that the explanation must be sought in the cesspool. For in the West we are divided from our fellows by our sense of smell. The working man is our master, inclined to rule us with an iron hand, but it cannot be denied that he stinks . . . . Now, the Chinese live all their lives in the proximity of very nasty smells. They do not notice them. Their nostrils are blunted to the odors that assail the Europeans and so they can move on an equal footing with the tiller of the soil . . . . The invention of the ‘sanitary convenience’ (i.e., the water-closet) has destroyed the sense of equality in men. It is responsible for class hatred much more than the monopoly of capital in the hands of the few.” —Ed.]

[16] This self-derogatory negro myth is to be compared with the proud legend of the American Indians, in which the Great Spirit at the Creation is baking the form of man in an oven, but falls asleep over the first batch and scorches them black, becomes over-anxious about the second batch and turns them out under-done [half-baked] and white, but ends with the final batch cooked to the perfect red-brown of the Indians.

[17] Cf. John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1917), pp. 160-161.

[18] Ernest Hemingway, “Fathers and Sons,” in Winner Take Nothing (New York: Scribners, 1933), p. 223.

[19] Sigmund Freud, Three Contributions to a Theory of Sex [1905, 1910, 1915, 1920]. Trans. of the Fourth Edition by A. A. Brill: Nerv. & Ment. Dis. Monograph Series 7 (New York: Nerv. & Ment. Dis. Publ. Co., 1930).

[20] Sigmund Freud, “Notes Upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis” [1909], Collected Papers III (London: Hogarth Press, 1925), especially p. 382.

[21] In this connection it should be borne in mind that there is a particularly close anatomical link between the olfactory gyri and the vegetative centers of the fornix system and of the hypothalamus. In turn this has been looked upon tentatively (Tilney) as a central reception station for afferent impulses from the viscera. Furthermore, there are recurrent fragments of clinical evidence that suggest a special reflex relationship between certain nerve-endings in the nasal mucosa (the so-called “genital spots”) and the reproductive functions.

[22]In this connection Freud comments on the fact that the odor of menstruation has great potency as a lure for animals when the female is in heat, whereas this same odor is in general looked upon with repugnance by human beings. For this change the author ventures to suggest a rather simple hypothetical explanation: Among the lower animals, if a male mounts another male, the “under-dog” fights. Similarly, if a male mounts an unexcited female, she usually fights. It is only when a male mounts a female who is in heat that she submits without protest or combat. Therefore, to the male, the menstrual smell becomes a signal for genital pleasure devoid of danger. If women fought men openly during any effort at intercourse except when the woman was menstruating, it would seem likely that the human male would quickly lose any feelings of repugnance towards menstrual odors and would replace these with feelings of eager pleasure, equal to those manifested by quadrupeds.

[23] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents [1929] (London: Hogarth Press, 1930), pp. 66-67. Hereafter cited in the text as CD.

[24] S. Ferenczi, Contributions to Psychoanalysis (Boston: R. G. Badger, 1916), Chapter 13, “The Ontogenesis of the Interest in Money.”

[25] John Rickman, The Development of the Psychoanalytical Theory of the Psychoses: 1893-1926 (London: Balliere, Tindall & Cox, 1928), especially p. 57.

[26] Melanie Klein, The Psychoanalysis of Children (New York: W. W. Norton, 1932), especially pp. 79, 187-191, 281-282, 205-208, 274, 284, 311-312, 367. Hereafter cited in the text as PC.

[27] In this work, Klein, of course, recognizes her indebtedness to Van Ophuijsen and to Starcke.

[28] In adults, this state of mind is directly reflected in those women who in coitus are anesthetic in their external genitals and vagina, and who perform their excretory duties with a rigid, almost trance-like inattention.

[29] Richard M. Brickner and Lawrence Kubie, “A Miniature Storm Produced by a Superego Cunflict Over Simple Posthypnotic Suggestion,” The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 5 (1936): 467-488.

[30] Lillian Malcove, “Body Mutilation and Learning to Eat,” The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 2
(1933): 557-561.

[31] William Osler, The Evolution of Modern Medicine (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1922), p. 17.

[32] Ernest Jones, Nightmares, Witches, and Devils (New York: W. W. Norton, 1931), pp. 290, 296, 299, 309.

[33] Leggs McNeil and Gillian McCain, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (New York: Grove Press, 1996).

[33] Sigmund Freud, The Problem of Anxiety (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1936), p. 73.

[34] [coprophilia: an interest in excreta; a love of shit. —Ed.]



punctum books