Many things about man are not very godly: whenever a person excretes feces, how can he be a god then?
At the Winter Olympics at Sochi, visitors and athletes can avail themselves of tandem toilets. We may snigger and rage out, but the tandem toilet is a variation on an old theme: the communal crapper. On the one hand, we regard defecation as the most private of acts. It reveals our animal nature. In cultures that nurture the image of humans as being set apart from other animals, the most primal bodily functions are associated with shame, a loss of dignity. Hence, their expression is suppressed, moved out of view for modesty’s sake. On the other hand, where taboos exist, there exist incentives to break them. When taboos are very strong, their breaking requires its own social-normative support. If you see a person relieving herself in the middle of the street, you’d suspect that she is psychologically unsound, probably rightly so. Yet, there are examples of communal defection that are regulated by their own norms and hardware design. The Russian restroom is but the most recent example. In Au Pissoir, I included a photo of a reductive Turkish toilet consisting of two holes in the floor, one next to the other.
I grew up hearing stories of the Donnerbalken, a device pioneered by the German armed forces (As far as I know, that is. I would not be surprised to learn that Julius Caesar thought of a version of it during the Gallic campaign). ‘Donner’ means ‘thunder’ and ‘Balken’ means ‘log’ or ‘beam of wood.’ The men sit on the Donnerbalken like chickens on a roost with drawers drawn. I am not including photos here, but you can go there to take a look. The photographic evidence goes back to the German Imperial Army of WWI. Now, from a psychological point of view, you may speculate that making the enlisted men defecate en masse has certain group dynamic and organizational advantages. It supports their esprit de corps, humbles them vis-à-vis their superiors (which amounts to the same thing), and it makes the whole process efficient. Women famously go the powder room in small groups. They manage to bond by using their words, even if it’s for the purpose of gossip. They may be onto something.
From Donnerbalken to Mission Control
If the Donnerbalken design of the defecatorium encourages bonding through deindividuation, much of modern civilization pulls into the opposite direction. It prizes privacy. A friend stumbled into an ultra-modern toilet in Japan. Here, waste management is a matter of high engineering. The client finds herself in a cockpit-like environment, invited to operate numerous
finely tuned controls to, e.g., flush, rinse, fan, and ventilate her anatomical netherparts. There is even the option – strongly encouraged – to activate artificial sounds of a rushing river to drown out, as it were, any natural sounds as they might occur during a time of relief (Note: With all the fancy controls, it is interesting that the flushing itself is still achieved with the press of the traditional lever). When done, the satisfied client gets up, turns around, and bows to the gods of design and engineering, giving grace for not having to live in the Occident (Russia & Turkey come to mind, in particular).
My sources tell you that some Japanese squat toilets come with signs showing you which way to squat.