Ewwww: on disgusting literary classics

Just how revolting are the most revolting works of classic fiction? In this eye-watering investigation, Chris Flynn revisits two of the most obscene.

Illustration from Jonathan Swift's Gulliver’s Travels published by Thomas M Balliet via Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that we live in peak disgusting times, but pretty much every icky thing you can find on the internet has its origins in classic literature. From a 14th-century man tricked into kissing a lady’s, er, orifice, in The Canterbury Tales (it was dark, her posterior was hanging out the window, and he thought it was her mouth until his chin was tickled by the damsel’s – ahem – ‘beard’) to the oft-excised chapter from Arabian Nights, ‘How Abu Hasan Brake Wind’, about a guy dropping a party-ruining fart that would come to define his entire existence, our literary forebears were no slouches when it came to gross-out gags.

Gulliver constructs a canoe out of human flesh, equipped with a sail fashioned from the skins of Yahoo children.

I recently read J.G. Ballard’s Crash (1973) for the first time. I knew it was likely to be stomach-churning, so I planned in advance to read a palate-cleanser straight afterwards: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Both of these books are considered classics. Both, as it turns out, are totally gross, but Old Swifty’s tale really takes the soggy biscuit.

If your only exposure to Lemuel Gulliver’s antics is from the 2010 Jack Black film, you’re in for a bit of a shock. Swift may have been an enterprising member of the clergy, but if an Irish priest wrote a book today with as many boobies, willies and poop-related scenes, he’d be defrocked. 

As soon as our hero is washed ashore on the island nation of Lilliput and captured by its tiny denizens, he’s faced with an etiquette problem: he needs to … relieve his bowels. Embarrassingly for the tourist, the result has to be carted away by a couple of tiny guys who draw the short straw. Still, his bodily fluids come in handy later, as he manages to put out a fire in the emperor’s palace by urinating on it. Later, when the army is marching under Gulliver’s splayed legs, they all have a good giggle at his mighty Kiwi fruit.

Things start getting raunchy once Gulliver hits the beaches of Brobdingnag, a sort of Ibiza for giants. The queen and her retinue strip the castaway naked and carry him around between their breasts, and he sort of has an affair with a 16-year-old, who perches him naked on her nipples, before using him as a dildo. The monkey who kidnaps and tries to breastfeed him is not so fortunate, and is executed for this interspecies affront.

Part Three of the book takes place on an island called Laputa, where a lot of scientific experimentation is going on. One fellow is trying to turn human excrement back into food. Another claims to be able to cure the flu by sticking a pair of bellows, with an ivory muzzle eight inches long, up his patient’s bottom. By tapping his thumb repeatedly on the ‘orifice of the fundament’, the person then expels all the noxious flu gases lurking in the belly, and is right as rain. Gulliver is sceptical, so the doctor demonstrates on a dog, which promptly farts itself to death.

His last journey is to a land ruled by the unpronounceable Houyhnhnms – surely Swift’s inkblotter must have malfunctioned – a race of intelligent horses. Here, humans are base savages that pull carts and get melted down for glue. Five minutes in, a band of Yahoos – ape-like women covered in hair, except, ‘about the anus and pudenda’ – attack him after he belts one with a coat hanger. He fends them off, but several of the women climb into the tree above, and shit on his head. He is rescued by a talking horse (Thanks, Seabiscuit!) but the Houyhnhnms soon tire of his short, dumb face and banish him. In a finale you won’t see anytime soon in a movie theatre near you, Gulliver constructs a canoe out of human flesh, equipped with a sail fashioned from the skins of Yahoo children.

A still from the 2010 movie Gulliver's Travels starring Jack Black.

In Crash, the bodily fluids rise around our ears. General opinion on Ballard’s cult classic is that you tend to be scandalised by its shock-value pornographic bent when you’re young, but come to appreciate its flavour as you age, like a nice bottle of Chateauneuf du Pape. That’s what Zadie Smith says, anyway. I don’t know, Zades – it’s hardly a cornerstone of the feminist manifesto. Everything in this book is smeared in blood, semen and, in a phrase that will be forever seared into my brain, ‘rectal mucous’. Sounds like a particularly nasty Sith Lord, (if you strike me down, Darth Mucous, I shall become more powerful than you can ever imagine) or the name I’ve been seeking for my thrash metal band. (We are Rectal Mucous – thank you, Milwaukee, and goodnight!)

He wears white jeans, covered in stains, which smell, ‘like semen and engine coolant’

James Spader in the 1996 film Crash

The cast of charming reprobates in Crash are all into autassassinophilia (sexual arousal through the risk of being killed) and symphorophilia (arousal through the staging and watching of disasters). Led by the enigmatic and totally gross Doctor Robert Vaughan, this band of merry men and women re-enact celebrity car accidents. Vaughan’s noodle is always described as ‘heavy’, like some backpack with a couple of bricks in it. He wears white jeans, covered in stains, which smell, ‘like semen and engine coolant’. Most of the female characters are in possession of a ‘damp pubis’, though to be fair, the action is set in rain-drenched England, as though each person’s pubic area has its own drizzly micro-climate.

For many people, it might actually be easier to watch the toned-down movie versions of these classics than read the original texts. It all depends, of course, on how you feel about sitting through an hour and a half of Jack Black smirking (his Gulliver’s Travels is sitting at 20% on Rotten Tomatoes). David Cronenberg’s Crash has a slightly more respectable rating of 58%, though it stars James Spader, who at one point penetrates an accident victim’s leg wound, so there’s that to consider. And you might want to consider it carefully. Sure, you won't be able to unsee it, but which is worse: to have an image pre-made by Cronenberg burned into your retina, or to confront the lurid images conjured from words on a page by your very own disturbed brain?

Got your own literary gross-out to add? Go on, then

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Portrait of Chris Flynn

Chris Flynn is author of the novels The Glass Kingdom and A Tiger in Eden.

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