Caganer via Wikimedia Commons (cc)
by Ed Simon
For every second of time was the strait gate through which the messiah might enter.
—Walter Benjamin, “Thesis on the Philosophy of History”
As an Advent rumination, I’d like to consider El Caganer. In the accumulated cultural esoterica of the Christmas season, from the horned and fearsome demon Krampus stalking Alpine children on St. Lucy’s Day to the back-twisted Italian crone of Epiphany named Befana, few practices are as illuminating as the stooped figure hidden in the back of Catalonian Nativity scenes who has the bad luck to have chosen, at the precise moment in which God has become incarnated into our immanent material reality, to take a steaming shit.
“El Caganer” can be literally translated as “the shitter,” and in his many guises, permutations, and varieties of appearance, that’s exactly what he’s doing. Primarily a Catalonian innovation, El Caganer is often found in areas with a strong cultural influence from that northeastern region of Spain that abuts the Mediterranean to the south and French Provencal (where the heretical Cathars once lived) to the north, but he can also be found in Nativity scenes from Portugal, Valencia, Andorra, and as far east as southern Italy, a remnant of Spanish colonialism where El Caganer is included among Neapolitan presepio, famed for depicting the entire life of Bethlehem in all of its mundanity amongst profundity.
El Caganer is barely visible, after the assembled shepherds and their menagerie of beasts who’ve been gifted with the first glimpse of the incarnation, and those bejeweled, turbaned Zoroastrian magi Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar bearing their Persian gifts as they follow the Bethlehem star, and of course stolid Joseph, and young, luminescent Mary with her beatified infant. For that matter, the other assembled townspeople of Bethlehem, which in a traditional Neapolitan presepio could include representations of contemporary Italian merchants and peasants from butchers to bakers, wearing smudged aprons and with tired faces, are all more obvious than El Caganer.
The shitter is simply one person among a multitude, which is precisely the point. After those fishmongers and cheesemakers are subtracted, after the Ethiopian (or Indian) prince Caspar is taken from the scene, once the Babylonian vizier Balthasar is removed, as well as the Persian mage Melchior, and the Holy Family themselves, then El Caganer’s presence shines. An otherwise unremarkable man, often depicted as simply another inhabitant of Bethlehem, wearing the contemporary clothes of wherever the nativity scene had been crafted, jaunty red cap upon his black-haired head as he squats alongside a grey-stone wall or a pasture’s wooden fence, passing a massive, shining turd from his buttocks.
Krampus with a child, postcard, c.1911
I don’t mean to be cheeky here (no pun intended). Though I am indeed being irreverent, I don’t think the presence of toilet humor in a theological essay is reason to ascribe to me qualities of heresy, blasphemy, or sacrilege (at least not in the bad way). Both toilet humor and theology are human inventions, and they have the capabilities of being funny, and I see no reason to deny that. God save me if I ever become so self-serious that I think that farting and shitting aren’t funny.
From Apuleius to Chaucer, our canonical writers certainly knew as much, and I’m not going to repress the fundamental earthiness of El Caganer because it might offend Protestant sensibilities. Who am I to deny the accumulated folk wisdom of centuries of Catalonian and Neapolitan villagers who found in El Caganer not just humor (because he is funny) but also wisdom? The schism between the sacred and the profane is as galling and fallacious as the rationalist mind-body problem, and El Caganer helps to rectify a few points on what exactly the relationship between the transcendent and the immanent, between matter and soul, happens to be.
El Caganer is funny – extremely funny. Imagine this moment in cosmic history, the metaphysical significance that God has been incarnated into the most defenseless of creatures so that he shall one day be sacrificed in remittance of our fallen natures thus redeeming all of humanity, and this idiota happens to unluckily chosen this moment to drop a turd. I won’t apologize for knowing that that’s funny, but if you think that my intent is to simply be jocular, or gross, or scatological for its own sake, then you’ve gravely mistaken me. Especially if you think I’m merely trying to mock or be irreligious, for as funny as the figure is, El Caganer makes certain theological demands of us.
As near as folklorists can ascertain, El Caganer’s origins are from the late 17th century. He is a novelty of the Baroque period, that brilliant statement of Counter-Reformation sensibility which imbued artistic creations with a resplendent showiness. El Caganer is the result of Mediterranean Catholic brilliance, and as funny and odd as he may be, and as seemingly offensive to those from different cultural backgrounds (who’d do well to familiarize themselves with his genealogy before telling him to pull his britches up), it’s important to place him within that context. The Baroque art of the century where El Caganer finds his origins tends towards the gilded, the golden, the glowing; drawing from a diversity of cultural sources, including not just the traditional aesthetics of the Catholic Mediterranean (with German and English examples as well), but also the frantic maximalism of the conquered peoples of the New World Hapsburg Empire, particularly the Aztecs.
As a metaphysic, the Baroque is seen in the shadowy glow of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro, in the intricate melodies of Vivaldi, in the complex mythopoeic verse of Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, in the religious visions of St. Theresa of Avilla – and arguably in El Caganer as well. Best to think of the Baroque as a multiple fronted assault on the minimalist aesthetics of the Protestant iconoclasts; where Puritans would white-wash church walls and smash out stained glass windows, the Baroque artist would positively revel in the gaudy colors of God’s creation, where sublime complexity would defeat the staidness of the straight line. Not for nothing, but centuries of Protestant hegemony (and in the United States the attendant class connotations) has forced us to reduce the colorful, frenetic, complex, and bawdy into categories with imprecise delineations such as “tacky” and “kitschy,” but whether it’s Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Theresa or a Mary on the Half Shell in Spanish Harlem, another word that could be used is “beautiful.”
Such visions were expressed in the plastic arts and painting, poetry and prose – and of course theology and philosophy as well. Baroque art makes an argument in its sheer overabundance and overdetermination; there is an offered visual magnificence which is a clear repudiation of how most Protestants categorize their separate Second Commandment from the Decalogue. Where New England Congregationalists and Scottish Presbyterians reject all statuary, icon, and other elaborate figurative depictions of the divine as idolatry, the Baroque artists of Spain, or France, or Italy, or Mexico seem to say “Oh, the art of the Middle Ages was too figurative? It was too beautiful? How about you look at what I just made and see what you think?”
To dwell on how Baroque art is a reaction to Protestant iconoclasm is to reduce such a movement to mere trolling, however. No doubt it was partially a propagandistic stratagem in the complex politics of early modern Europe and colonial America, but there were internal theological arguments within such abundance as well. Obviously, part of the point of making beautiful religious art is to make a claim about God’s beautiful enormity; it is a thesis about the sublime long before the philosophes of northwestern Europe used that language in their Enlightenment aesthetics. Even more importantly, though, was that Baroque art makes an argument about corporeality, embodiment, incarnation, and immanence. Such pieces always tell a narrative about what it means to have a body, and this is an issue that is at the heart (and bowls) of Catholic theology.
The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, 1601-1602
Examine Caravaggio’s masterpiece The Incredulity of St. Thomas, for in its example we see not just the positive iconophilia of Baroque art, but its claims about physicality as well. Painted in 1601, only a few decades before the earliest appearance of El Caganer, and Caravaggio’s celebrated painting poses its own uniquely Baroque and Counter-Reformation axiom about embodiment and incarnation, body and soul, and the sacred amongst the profane. Three of the apostles crowd before the resurrected Christ; Caravaggio’s distinctive shading of lightness within dark makes the four figures glow from the inside out. The titular disciple with penetrating gaze lingers down at Christ’s torso, the messiah provocatively (and effeminately) holding his robe open, enticing Thomas to finger the gash left from where Longinus’ spear marked him as Christ was dying upon the cross.
As human beings, there is a material equivalence between all four men. Christ’s bloodless wound is the only indication of something supernatural, something sacred and holy, but otherwise there is no clear differentiation in those present. Jesus lacks even a halo. Caravaggio’s anthropology, as an approach towards Christology is called, tells its audience certain things. Namely that Christ is completely and totally God. But like these three interlocutors, and Doubting Thomas chief among them, Christ is also completely man. Just like Thomas then, Christ was able to bleed (even if this new resurrected body is perhaps made of more ethereal stuff). Just like Thomas, Christ must have also eaten, cried, slept and pissed. For that matter, Jesus must have shat.
This is not an issue of minor metaphysical controversy, nor am I making such a postulate to mock. The 19th century Scottish minister John Duncan formulated an argument that was also ascribed to C. S. Lewis as the “trilemma,” writing that “Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine.” Duncan and Lewis’ purpose was to rightly excoriate those boring celebrations of Jesus as merely a moral thinker, for that milquetoast position does harm to every other religious tradition which contains almost identical ethical teaching. Rather what’s radical about Christianity is the mingling of divinity and materiality, of transcendence within the shell of corporeality. When we’re talking about what makes Christianity radical, it’s the incarnation, stupid. Jeffersonian claims that demythologize Christianity within the sober pronouncements of liberal Protestantism must hold that if Jesus shat, he was not God, but if Christ did not shit, he was not man.
As a conclusion, the Jeffersonians exclude the Athanasian profundity which acknowledges that God must have shit. This discomfort is not a historical novelty. In the 2nd century, the Gnostic Valentinus, a heretic who would have denied Christ’s corporeality as mere illusion, prudishly claimed in Jesus’ Digestive System: Epistle to Agathapous (as quoted by Clement of Alexandria) that “Jesus digested divinity: he ate and drank in a special way without excreting his solids. He had such a great capacity for continence that the nourishment within him was not corrupted, for he did not experience corruption.” To those who avert their eyes from El Caganer, who feel his presence is in bad taste, I say unto them that they are Gnostics who see God’s fecundity and reject it as fallenness.
Yet such anti-corporality infects even the orthodox; by the 4th century even that hammer of heretics Epiphanius of Salamis would deny that Christ defecated. Epiphanius would have the gall to write in his compendium of fallacies Panarion that he would “expose… [heretics’] unlawful deeds like poisons and toxic substances,” even as his denial of Christ a bathroom break implies the Docetist fallacy which claims that Christ’s physical body was but a spiritual illusion. If we’re to believe the words formulated in fourth-century Alexandria by Athanasius in his creed, then it must be held that “our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man,” so that as men do defecate, and Christ is a man, than syllogistically Christ must have defecated (at least while incarnated). God must have defected, for “although he is God and man; yet he is not two, but one Christ.” To argue that God didn’t shit is to argue blasphemy.
The paradoxical intricacies of Christ’s dual nature as believed by the faithful orthodox, what’s known as “hypostatic union,” are as such that it could be claimed that all heresies and all inclinations to deny incontrovertible theological realities (such as the fact of Christ’s shitting) are shameful attempts to domesticate Christianity, to make it tame, bourgeois, and respectable. I say rather reject the heresies of suburban Christianity, the blasphemy of air-freshener that tries to exorcize the divine stench of truly held belief. No deodorant can mask the reality of Christ as both God and man. Many of the great heresies, contrary to the mundanity which ascribes to them a radicalism that they’re undeserving of, would be guilty of that precise suburbanization of Christianity; in contrast to the strange and beautiful promise of the Athanasian Creed which holds that for three decades or so God lived amongst us, bleeding and crying, eating and shitting, these heresies gave to Christ a wholly ephemeral, spectral body, more poltergeist than man (or God).
The previously maligned adherents of Docetism from the third and fourth-centuries thought that Christ’s corporeality was an elaborate illusion, he did not shit (or eat, or piss, or sleep) and thus was no man. The Arians of the fourth-century held that He was a created being, greater than us but not coequal to God the Father, and as such even if Jesus did shit, he was not God doing so, but merely a superhuman. Splitting the difference, the Nestorians saw the duel natures of Christ as totally separate, so if the human Jesus shat it did not impinge upon the clean sanctity of the divine Christ. All of these approaches, it should be obvious, are attempts to deny the redemptive scandal that marks Christianity. So often we think of heresy as that which is more radical, and sometimes it is, but in the case of these Christological approaches it’s clear that what’s being denied is the far more revolutionary claims of Athanasius: if Christ is totally and coequally God and man, than Christ must have shat. And His shit is evidence of His duel nature.
Whether you take orthodoxy as literal, or as a complex mythopoeic system that models certain ways of understanding noumenal reality, it could be claimed that Christianity offers one of the most distinctive approaches to corporeality of any of the Abrahamic faiths. By positing that God became man, and that He experienced the same pains and pleasures of what it means to have a body, then we must follow through on the radical conclusion that divinity was suffused into matter. This is not quite the same as saying that material creation is holy because it originates in God, even if it’s also definitely implied by the accounts of hypostatic union, though it must also be admitted that such a position would be a characteristic of other monotheistic religions. Nor is it to reduce all of creation to an equivalent holiness, for sparks of immanence are not completely distributed throughout reality, and thus the claims of Christ’s corporeality are not the same as an undifferentiated paganism or an intellectual pantheism. Rather Christianity, in the Nicene and Athanasian formulations, makes subtle gesture towards the mystery of how amongst the still, sacred silence of the nativity a man could take a crap. Furthermore, God’s incarnation means that He must also have occasionally needed a toilet. Of course, whether or not Christ could crap, El Caganer (like all of us) surely does.
If this makes you uncomfortable, or if you’re unwilling to take me seriously, know that I very much mean what I’m writing, and it’s not parodic or sarcastic, but a genuine claim as to the theological significance of feces. I believe that even the Lord breaks for the crapper. In my upcoming book Printed in Utopia: The Renaissance’s Radicalism, I ask in an essay (originally printed in Queen Mob’s Teahouse) “Where is the corollary to fecopoetics, where is corpotheology? To pass over… fecal utterances in embarrassed laughter is to abandon” a Christian fecal inheritance. By imbuing fallen reality with Divinity itself, Christianity implies a corpotheology whereby there is a significance to shit which can’t be wiped away. El Caganer’s corpotheology can’t be reduced to scatological joke, or political protest, or bawdy Easter egg (though he is also all of those things). The corpotheology of El Caganer, the unfortunate who is shitting in the presence of the nativity, supplies a message about corporality as surely as Caravaggio’s painting of Thomas touching the wound of Christ does.
Scholars have argued over the El Caganer’s purpose. Some anthropologists claim that the figurine works as a means of protesting social and economic inequity, the statue mocking political figures in the venerable tradition of the Carnivalesque, so that modern day nativities may present ceramic Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, or even Pope Francis with their knickers scrunched down beneath their knees. Others see it as a remnant of superstitious paganism, a comment on the fecal fecundity of the earth surviving within an otherwise staid, Christian presentation. Clearly there are possible merits to either claims, but if we’re to read El Caganer as a statement concerning Baroque corpotheology, there are more sophisticated interpretations which are possible, such as the Catalan writer Joan Barril’s argument that the “caganer is a hidden figure and yet is always sought out like the lost link between transcendence and contingency. Without the caganer, there would be no nativity scene but rather a liturgy, and there would be no real country but just the false landscape of a model.” Barril’s astute observation makes clear that the details are in the crap, that when shit happens, we’ve moved from the platonic realm of pure spirit and into a more recognizably human environment.
Such are the bawdy celebrations of the carnivalesque that are replete in the medieval and Renaissance Catholic tradition. The Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin explained in his description of the “grotesque body” from the classic Rabelais and His World that the “bodily element is deeply positive. It is presented not in a private, egoistic form, severed from other spheres of life, but as something universal, representing all people… it makes no pretence to renunciation of the earthly, or independence of the earth and the body.” Far from being irreverent or disrespectful, this is a deeply felt sacred reality. Reflecting on the grotesque, the Italian writer Danielle Luttazzi writes that displays such as El Caganer “celebrate the victory of life: the social and the corporeal are joyfully joined in something indivisible, universal and beneficial.” For us inheritors of Puritanism who are embarrassed by the reality of shit, who hide it away, who cover it in perfume, El Caganer could be deeply offensive, but Bakhtin writes that “Contrary to modern canons, the grotesque body is not separated from the rest of the world.” El Caganer is a trickster god then, reminding us that the original trickster is actually God. “Sacred parody was common,” explains Bakhtin, and El Caganer is meant to be funny (and he is). That’s not incidental or contradictory – that’s inextricably an aspect of the Catalonian tradition. Those are the two major arguments of the figurine, after the social and political uses of the character are bracketed out – that he expresses something of the immanent divinity of materiality, and that rhythms of profane life continue while miracles occur. That the rhythms of profane life actually are miracles. El Caganer reminds us that everybody poops, and that nature can call even when Christ is being born.
If Christianity is one of the most astute comments on divinity’s relationship to materiality, which abolishes neither of those categories nor reduces them into one another, then El Caganer is a dirty lyric in ceramic which expresses that truth. The complexities of hypostatic union are such that a reading of Christ’s duel nature can’t reduce it to pagan apotheosis, nor the polytheistic division of gods who are greater than man but lesser than the Absolute. El Caganer rejects both the optimistic, halcyon exuberance for the natural world that marks paganism as well as the barren, pessimistic gospel of fallenness that defines Calvinism. With no irony, I’d compare the corpotheological vision of El Caganer to the poetics of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur,” where in sprung rhythm the English poet and Jesuit priest writes that “The world is charged with the grandeur of God/It will flame out… [yet] for all this, nature is never spent.”
Good parochial student that he is, the literary critic Terry Eagleton provides masterful close reading of Hopkins’ lyric in How to Read a Poem, writing that the verse explores the tension between whether “Nature was involved in the Fall along with humanity, or that only humanity is fallen.” Eagleton claims that Hopkins’ poem equivocates “between these two positions” whereby “Nature is charged with grace, but it does not release it spontaneously.” Thus “God’s Grandeur” does “avoid what for… [Hopkins] would be two heretical extremes: on the one hand, the radical Protestant view that grace and Nature are absolutely at odds… [and] the Pelagian heresy, for which grace is natural to us.” El Caganer exists in that space between divinity and humanity, between the sacred and the profane, between Christ and man. What the figurine demonstrates is that even in the midst of the most gross of activities, there is the possibility that something holy might be happening. El Caganer’s presence doesn’t elevate the nativity, but the nativity elevates what he is doing. What’s beautiful about the rude little character is that El Caganer reminds us that we all have a body – and that perhaps God did once as well.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.