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Stephen Fry: We stink

Katrina Stephen Fry Huffington Post Op-Ed

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#1 MuseZack


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Posted 11 September 2005 - 11:33 PM

I haven't been all that impressed by the Huffington Post so far, but this extended blog post by British writer/actor/director/comic Stephen Fry was quite impressive in how it evokes the smells of post-Katrina New Orleans to make a larger point on essential human nature.



British reporters I know who have been to New Orleans speak of one thing above all others. The dreadful, vomit-inducing stench. Not just the stench of death, which heaven knows is dreadful enough, but the stench of life. Anyone within fifty yards of the lavatories in the Convention Center or the Superdome threw up uncontrollably. Only the smallest quantity of molecules from that terrible, terrible place needed to hit the olfactory bulb to cause an involuntary and absolute upchucking. The resultant puke itself, of course, added to the savage osmic holocaust which more than crime, more than despair, more than the appalling sense of victimisation and neglect turned those places (ghastly enough in their nylon carpeted, vending-machine, strip-lit healthy incarnations) into an idea of hell that the combined imaginations of Hieronymus Bosch, Dante and Antonin Artaud could never conjure up.

This is what we are: great sacks of disgusting, evil-smelling suppurating filth. It is bad enough that every one of us seems socially and tribally as likely to default to a Jack as to a Ralph or a Piggy. It is bad enough that we distrust and fear our neighbours. But all these we can intellectually finesse, rationalise and redeem. Bad education, social deprivation, abuse -- these are, in theory, curable and surely at least addressable. One day we may be able to fix all these indicators and causes of unsociable, violent and destructive behaviour. We will never alter this one ineluctable fact about ourselves however. We stink. My god how we hate to be reminded of it and my god how much that reluctance to face it should tell us about its centrality to our existecne. We shower, we smear and spray ourselves with product, we defecate into artfully designed porcelain which takes away the ordure invisibly and more or less odourlessly. When we die we are embalmed, burned or interred before we have time to pong. Take away the sewage systems, take away the running water, take away the morticians and within days our stink is beyond that which can be endured. Every cell of our body is composed of stuff so malodorous than one whiff of it will empty stomachs at fifty paces. It doesn't matter whether we are white, black, rich, poor, virtuous, vicious, healthy or addled. We all stink. "My offence is rank, it smells to heaven" as Claudius said for us all. It is our true original sin, the primal shame that haunts us.

It used to be believed (on good rational grounds) that it was smell that caused cholera, plague and all the pestilences we now know to be caused by water and air borne bacilli, microbes and parasites. The pocketful of posies carried by judges to ward off Newgate (prison) Fever, the children's songs that commemorate it to this day and the pomanders, spices and air 'fresheners' (ludicrous misnomer) that we still favour all attest to this association with smell, disease and death. Beaudelaire and his decadent contemporaries were obsessed with perfumes of all kinds, heady and disgusting. The Miasma theory of disease wasn't disproved until another candidate for Greatest of Britons, John Snow, locked the pump in London's Soho causing a complete diminution in the parish's cholera infection rate, demonstrating thereby that it was bad water, not bad smell that was killing Londoners and once more showing how empiricism beats rationality any day of the week. The Great Stink of 1858 had caused Parliament (which being on the fetid banks of the Thames had been forced to adjourn) to disgorge the money to Bazalgette and allow him to get on with his sewers. We now know that stink is a correlative of disaster, death and disease, not a cause.

Maybe Civilisation itself is best described as that level of sophistication that most distances us from our smell. Katrina shows that we have a long way to go. London has its equivalent of the Louisiana levees, in its Thames Barrier. Many voices learned in engineering and geography are suggesting that it too will soon prove as inadequate as the Embankments of New Orleans, and then my dears, you will smell us across the Atlantic.

"Some day, after we have mastered the wind, the waves, the tides, and gravity,
We shall harness for God the energies of Love.
Then, for the second time in the history of the world,
we will have discovered fire."
--Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

#2 Cyncie


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Posted 12 September 2005 - 10:00 AM

Powerful reading. It just goes to show just how fragile civilization really is. We pride ourselves in our social order, our science, our art and culture. Yet, in one day, everything we glory in can be wiped away and we are we are reduced to our baser natures.


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#3 Rhiannonjk



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Posted 12 September 2005 - 10:25 AM

Just reading that came close to making me vomit.  
But anything that pokes fun at how nature constantly catches up with us, no matter how hard we try to opress it, gets my approval!

***Is easily distracted***

#4 Rhea


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Posted 12 September 2005 - 01:21 PM

:cool:  :cool:

I so love Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, and one of the reasons is because not only are they talented, but their intelligence just shines through in their writing.
The future is better than the past. Despite the crepehangers, romanticists, and anti-intellectuals, the world steadily grows better because the human mind, applying itself to environment, makes it better. With hands...with tools...with horse sense and science and engineering.
- Robert A. Heinlein

When I don’t understand, I have an unbearable itch to know why. - RAH

Everything is theoretically impossible, until it is done. One could write a history of science in reverse by assembling the solemn pronouncements of highest authority about what could not be done and could never happen.  - RAH

#5 DWF


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Posted 12 September 2005 - 04:17 PM

I'm looking foward to Stephen Fry's Dr. Who ep. :thumbs-up:
The longest-running science fiction series: decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core. Power-mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans... Cybermen! They're still in the nursery compared to us. Fifty years of absolute fandom. That's what it takes to be really critical.

"Don't mistake a few fans bitching on the Internet for any kind of trend." - Keith R.A. DeCandido

#6 Aurelius


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Posted 12 September 2005 - 05:51 PM

Cyncie, on Sep 12 2005, 03:00 PM, said:

Powerful reading. It just goes to show just how fragile civilization really is. We pride ourselves in our social order, our science, our art and culture. Yet, in one day, everything we glory in can be wiped away and we are we are reduced to our baser natures.



How true....and how utterly terrifying. I often find myself thinking that we consider ourselves so advanced, so powerful and yet we can be so animalistic. Are we anything more than animals with delusions of grandeur. We like to think so, yet when it comes down to the bare necessities we can behave with shocking savagery.

I do take comfort in the fact that not everyone reverts to primitive behaviour...but I often wonder....what would I do if the worst happens; how would I behave. And the scary truth is...I DON'T KNOW.

If the breakdown in law and order...and sanity, I feel, can happen in what is supposedly the most advanced nation in the world...what hope is there for the rest of us. If a world-wide disaster was to happen and all society broke down, I think I would prefer to be dead. Sounds cowardly, but not only would I fear what others would do, I'd fear what I might become.

"If I had all the answers, I'd run for God"
Cpl. Max Klinger, M*A*S*H

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