With a Miriam Stimbers book you can expect only one thing: the unexpected. From knock-knock jokes to the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, from allegorical albinism in the music of Hawkwind to fundamentalist phantasmality in the music of the Wombles: Stimbers has an unparalleled ability to dissect the deviant demons of mutant modernity by unleashing a scholarly spotlight of high-octane hermeneutics on the feral formulae of societal psychosis that lurk unsuspected amid the mephitic maelstrom of contemporary culture. And then some…
But might Botty be her best book yet? Quite possibly. The backside is (or can be) a big subject, but Stimbers doesn’t flinch, seamlessly synthesizing the most disparate elements of pygocentric and proctotropic performativity, from bottom-worshipping sculptors in the ancient world to twerking pop-stars in the 21st century. But for me the stand-out – or should that be stand-up? – section has to be the chapter in which Stimbers rolls up her psychoanalytic sleeves and gets to grips with the toxic taboo of the haemorrhoid. Is it merely a coincidence, she asks, that the journalist Emma Freud, great-granddaughter of the immortal Sigmund, should have supplied a rhyming slang for the condition? (i.e., emmas ← Emma Freuds ← haemorrhoids)
Stimbers suggests not, because haemorrhoids occupy a central, albeit (to the general public) little-known, position in the history and culture of psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) first suffered from them at the age of 46, writing to his long-term correspondent and confidant Jakob Froschnichts:
My God, Jakob, I could swear that they are the size of grapefruit! [Pampelmusen] I cannot sit for a moment and have to work standing at my desk, which I have raised by propping the legs on the largest volumes in my library. Furthermore, I must sleep on my stomach, strapped to the bed for fear that I should turn over in the night and be woken by a sudden shaft of proctalgia [Arschlochschmerz]. It is a most wearisome business, but nevertheless an educative one, offering the sufferer insights into the human condition that might pass them by who have never endured this atrocious affliction. (Botty, ch. 8, “Of Heresy and Haemorrhoids”, pg. 215, quoting The Collected Letters of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XVIII, ed. Dr Nathan T. Goldberg, Harvard University Press 1983)
But despite his own direct experience, Freud was never able to place haemorrhoids definitively within the schemata of psychoanalytic aetiology. Were they, as he first suspected, a tell-tale symptom of anal retentivity? Or, in fact, of its exact opposite? Or did it vary from patient to patient, from backside to backside? He never made up his mind.
Nor could he have guessed how haemorrhoids would spark a furious controversy in psychoanalytic circles following his death. In the 1950s, some senior disciples began to insist that it was an “insult to the Master” to acquire them substantially before the age of 46, while others insisted, on the contrary, that it was an insult to acquire them an appreciable time after.
Most were agreed that acquisition actually in the year of one’s 46th birthday was best, but what of those who never acquired them at all? Stimbers describes rumours that some unafflicted psychoanalysts were faking the symptoms in order to ingratiate themselves with whichever tendency happened to hold sway in their own city or nation. There is even talk of prosthetic haemorrhoids being secretly manufactured and deployed in such psychoanalytic centres as New York and London. Stimbers keeps a cool head amid the controversy, declines to reveal her own partisan preferences, and guides the reader through the twists and turns of the great Freudian haemorrhoid debate right to the present day.
But if that’s the best bit of Botty, you’ll by no means be disappointed by the rest. As ever, there’s some serious Stimbulation within these pages and, unlike Freud and his fellow sufferers, you’ll be left in the best possible position: glued to your seat and wanting much more. By casting a botlight into the most uncompromising crevices of proctocentric possibility, Stimbers has thrown down an incendiary gauntlet not merely to other cultural commentators but also to her own future self. Will she ever top Botty? We’ll just have to wait and see…
• Pestilent, Pustulent and Pox-Pocked – more meticulous Miriamic monitoring of the mephitic maelstrom