history can be a gas

Dear Uma: Costumes, beer, lumpy ice on a frozen lake, sunshine, an enthusiastic crowd - that's the famous outdoor bonspiel in Watson Lake. Finally, curling makes some sense to me as a fun activity. One did not have to be a curler to enjoy the scene, and

Dear Uma:

Costumes, beer, lumpy ice on a frozen lake, sunshine, an enthusiastic crowd – that’s the famous outdoor bonspiel in Watson Lake.

Finally, curling makes some sense to me as a fun activity. One did not have to be a curler to enjoy the scene, and the weather co-operated beautifully in helping to make this annual event a success. Not that inclement weather has ever impeded these curlers, from what I have heard.

Weather means nothing, and neither does level of skill; champions of the game have gone down in inglorious defeat, while rank amateurs, and those who refuse to take the contest seriously, have gone home in triumph, laden with prizes and accolades.

It was a full weekend, with the Oscars being another must-see event. They, too, did not disappoint. Many men, patient partners of Oscar aficionados, who would usually drift off to another room to watch hockey, reported enjoying the four-hour special. I have rarely had the opportunity to watch this Hollywood super party, but I made it through the whole program, albeit with long periods of yawningÉ.

On the internet, poking around in an effort to find something to take away the glitzy images of Academy Awards, I came across another kind of celebrity, one that had me scrolling for some time. Knowing you depend on me to broaden your narrow world, I will share this discovery with you.

I have long been puzzled by the French obsession with Jerry Lewis, thinking it some sort of anomaly, some weird inexplicable blight on a culture that prides itself on its sophistication. Not any more, there is now a historical context; read on.

His name was Joseph Pujol, but he was best known as Le Petomane, and in his heyday, the late 1800s, he was more popular than the famed Sarah Bernhardt. In fact, he was for many years the highest-paid entertainer in the world.

Although he began and ended his long life as a baker, his detour was nothing short of astounding.

He was a fartiste – he farted.

Of course, everyone can fart, and some get media attention. Tom Cruise and Sarah Palin have publicly farted, with their performances being duly reported.

There are videos online alluringly entitled Girls Farting, and for the animal lovers, Dogs Farting. Websites sell the ubiquitous T-shirts with fart slogans, and there are a host of items for sale: teddy bears, hippos, pens, all guaranteed to fart. There is a multitude of books on passing gas, many of them about how to stop farting. Farting may be a popular theme for jokes, but nocturnal flatulence is not regarded as amusing.

With evidence of an international preoccupation, not one limited to France, I cannot believe this is the first I have heard of Le Petomane, the undisputed king of farting.

Although he had some imitators, no one ever came close to achieving his level of ability.

Early in life, he discovered he had an unusual talent: he could suck up water through his anus and expel it at will – for several yards. He could also blow out a candle flame.

When he joined the army, his fellow soldiers were his first audience, and it was their appreciation that motivated him to develop his skill.

By the time he was back in his bakery, he’d learned to imitate musical instruments, pretending to be playing them behind the counter. He could also imitate the noise of thunderstorms, and cannon fire.

The growing appreciation for his talent decided him to take his act public; he debuted in Marseille in 1887. So successful was this performance that he then proceeded to Paris, to the big time.

In 1892 he was featured at the Moulin Rouge, the most famous nightclub in Europe.

Here he developed his show, which now included plays, impressions of famous people, animal sounds, and smoking cigarettes from both ends simultaneously. The climax of his show was him farting his impression of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

There was no nudity; Joseph was not a vulgar man. He appeared on stage fully and formally dressed, the only oddity a rubber tube which dangled from his backside.

His audiences were enormous, and made up of royalty as well as the bourgeoisie. King Leopold II of the Belgians, Edward, Prince of Wales, and Sigmund Freud were among the celebrated enjoying the show. One man is reported to have died of a heart attack due to uncontrollable laughter at one of Le Petomane’s performances, and countless women fainted during his 90-minute show.

Among his friends were such notables of the time as Matisse, and Renoir. He was examined by several doctors and was the subject of many learned documents, the best known being titled An Extraordinary Case of Rectal Breathing and of Musical Anus by Dr. Baudoin, published in an l892 edition of La Semaine Medicale.

These years were later described by Pujol as the happiest of his life. Little did he know the stench of litigation was about to blow across his idyllic landscape.

The owner of Moulin Rouge, Monsieur Oller, sued him for breach of contract when he found out Joseph had been amusing some friends with an impromptu performance.

The judge was not impressed with Le Petomane’s defence: “You can’t own the wind,” and the case was lost, with the fartiste having to pay damages. Disgusted, he left the Moulin Rouge and started his own nightspot, Le Theatre Pompadour.

His success grew. He surrounded himself with talented mimes and acrobats, clowns and magicians. He wrote new material, recreating folk and fairy tales, set to Le Petomane’s ‘music.’

Monsieur Oller, not content with the size of his settlement versus the loss of his greatest moneymaker, immediately debuted a new star: La Femme Petomane, her act being, of course, a blatant rip-off of the pioneering Pujol.

It became quickly apparent the woman had no natural talent; it was revealed to the furious Joseph that his rival kept a bellows up her petticoats!

When it was made public she was a fraud, the management of the Moulin Rouge had to issue an apology. Emerging from the courthouse, Pujol was met by the thunderous applause of thousands of fans; it was a sweet moment.

Horrified by the inhumanity of the First World War, Le Petomane retired to his bakery in Marseille where his shop was said to produce the best bran muffins in all of France. He later opened a biscuit factory in Toulon. He died in 1945, aged 88.

The Sorbonne offered his family 25,000 francs for his body. Though the surviving family could have used the money, the offer was refused, his eldest son, Louis, saying “There are some things in this life which simply must be treated with reverence.”

Love,

Heather

Heather Bennett is a writer

who lives in Watson Lake.

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