THE BLOG
08/13/2014 08:19 am ET Updated Oct 13, 2014

8 Examples Of Lowbrow Humor In Highbrow Literature

Farrar Straus & Giroux

My novel, The Festival of Earthly Delights [Dzanc Books, $15.95], features an extended comic set piece involving an enormous, unflushable turd that wreaks havoc at a dinner party. This scene has proven to be divisive among both my readership and the critics: while the Los Angeles Times felt that the "bathroom scene... is a riot," this opinion was not shared by [Lesser Publication That I Refuse to Name], which complained of the book's "tired potty humor."

As the debate rages on, I have occasionally questioned the wisdom of inserting a nugget of potty humor (tired or otherwise) into the delicate ecosystem of my Literary Novel. Were the readers of the world ready for my radical vision? Maybe not. After all, Marilynne Robinson and Cormac McCarthy didn't have any potty humor in their oeuvres.

Or: did they? Come to think of it -- isn't there a fart joke in McCarthy's Suttree? What about all those sexy bits in Chaucer? And, doesn't just about every Shakespeare play have some kind of filthy joke in it? Upon further consideration, I realized that countless writers throughout the ages had blazed this trail before me, inserting all manner of gross gags into their highbrow masterpieces. Below are eight of the most colorful examples.

1. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes I had always imagined Don Quixote to be a laborious, lugubrious epic, an Important Book ("the first modern novel") that I would never get around to actually cracking open. However, I recently started reading random chapters to my five year old son at bedtime (his idea, not mine), and was surprised that this particular Important Book contains a fair amount of cartoonish violence and scatological humor -- along with a Judd Apatow-ish scene in which Don Quixote and his bromantic partner Sancho Panza vomit into one another's faces. (Despite all of this, the book still reliably puts my son -- and often myself -- to sleep.)
2. The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen Franzen's kaleidoscopic, Oprah-certified novel succeeds in presenting a biting, wide-angle satire of contemporary American mores, while simultaneously providing a finely-wrought depiction of the invisible and ever-shifting battle lines that demarcate the American Family. Oh, this particular contender for The Great American Novel also features a very, very long sequence in which the Parkinson's-addled family patriarch hallucinates that he's being persecuted by a malevolent talking turd. The effect is distracting, to say the least -- akin to South Park's "Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo" making a surprise cameo in Middlemarch. Apparently, one of Oprah's Favorite Things is a good poop joke.
3. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville If you've ever thought about reading Moby-Dick, but were put off by its massive size and rumors of entire chapters devoted to whale anatomy, please reconsider. The book is full of wild humor, including a scene where the narrator shares a tiny bed with the "savage" Queequeg--an episode that always reminded me of John Candy and Steve Martin shacking up together in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. And whale anatomy is featured most memorably when the ship's "mincer of blubber" dresses up in the tunic-like foreskin of a sperm whale, causing Ishmael to liken him to an "archbishoprick." Truth be told, there's so much phallic imagery in this book, one would be excused for assuming that the title itself is an enormous penis joke.
4. One Thousand and One Nights (or, The Arabian Nights' Entertainment) by Anonymous This classic collection of ancient Arabic folktales depicts the full spectrum of human experience: love, lust, tragedy, sorrow -- and wedding-jitters-induced flatulence. In addition to introducing the world to Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba, and Aladdin, One Thousand and One Nights also features the unfortunate Abu Hassan, a young bridegroom who abandons his wife at their wedding reception after publicly letting loose "a fart, great and terrible." And, who can forget the timeless tale of "Ali with the Large Member"? (They might've skipped over that one in your Middle Eastern Lit class.)
5. Lysistrata by Aristophanes If you're a celebrated ancient Athenian playwright and your name is "Aristophanes," one would assume your plays to be rather on the dry side. Well, one would be wrong. Lysistrata, written in 411 B.C., tells the story of the titular character's scheme to end the Peloponnesian War by having the women of Greece withhold sex from the men until they cease their warring ways. This piece of classic dramaturgy is chockablock with racy humor that make Fifty Shades of Grey look like Goodnight Moon. At one point, Lysistrata lists the specific amorous activities that the ladies must abstain from, including a sexual position known as "The Lioness on the Cheese Grater." The mechanics of this technique have been lost in the sands of time, but it sounds decidedly non-highbrow (and also fairly uncomfortable for the lioness).
6. Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon Winner of the National Book Award in 1974, and considered by many to be one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century, Gravity's Rainbow is also notoriously difficult to finish --which automatically confers upon it a high-falutin' aura. In typical Pynchonian fashion, it packs in a sprawling range of diverse content, including World War II history, organic chemistry, and the writing of Jorge Luis Borges. Mixed in with the continual stream of tony references, though, is a healthy dose of sophomoric humor: most memorably, a fantastical chapter (predating Trainspotting by 20 years) in which the protagonist climbs inside a vomit-clogged toilet bowl and travels through poop-lined pipes while trying to retrieve a lost harmonica -- literally dragging the reader down into the gutter with him.
7. Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri The Divine Comedy, an epic poem from the early 14th century, describes the author's spiritual journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, and is considered to be a masterpiece of world literature. However, if one scratches the patina of respectability that coats this work, it becomes evident that Dante indulged in moments of earthy humor, particularly while visiting Hell. Let us consider the last line of Inferno, which refers to a demon who "used his ass as a trumpet." (I'm sure it sounds classier in the original Italian.)
8. Ulysses by James Joyce Ulysses, the definitive modern novel, is also perhaps the ultimate fusion of highbrow and lowbrow sensibilities. Joyce's revolutionary stream-of-consciousness style attempted to capture the very texture of human existence -- and this texture included the minutiae of the main character's toilet habits ("seated calm above his own rising smell"), as well as an infamous, censor-enraging episode of public masturbation. When an ardent young fan approached Joyce and asked if he could kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses, Joyce laughed and responded: "No -- that hand has done a lot of other things as well."