Nix contemplating the death of the public toilet

The Death of the Public Toilet

Loading word count...
Listen to this article

I am walking through downtown Budapest. It’s a sunny day in late April, though the wind still cuts to the bone whenever you get near the Danube. I’m surrounded by breathtaking architecture and thousands of people to observe. Normally, I’d entertain myself by observing either the buildings or the people, but every step I take sends a shooting pain through my crotch. I am walking through downtown Budapest with a full bladder and there isn’t a single public toilet in sight. As is customary for the cerebral man whenever he experiences physical discomfort, I try to abstract myself out of my body and into the clouds of thought, but I am unable to completely extract myself from my predicament so my thoughts turn to the idea of the public space and specifically, the death of the public toilet. 

Whenever I wander around outside and really need to pee, my thoughts turn to an incident where on Sigmund Freud’s first and only visit to America, he and his then-disciple Carl Jung found themselves frantically looking for a public toilet to relieve themselves as they were sightseeing around New York. Freud appears to have attributed this dearth of public toilets in America to American prudery and discomfort with sexual matters. However, today is the first time that it hits me how perfectly Freudian, or Jewish it is to think that the absence of a public toilet is somehow a sexual hangup. Rather, I think to myself, the absence of public toilets may be located in another American-European key difference. 

Before we go on, let’s first review the public toilet situation as it was in the Europe that Freud and Jung left behind when they went to America. Freud would have been used to the public toilets and pissoires that dotted the major cities, including his formative Paris and native Vienna. They were built as the European cities started swelling in size in the 19th century and considerations had to be made about the physiological requirements of large amounts of people. Whereas previous habitation arrangements of small numbers of people concentrated in geographically dispersed villages did not require dedicated public toilets – you could easily go shit in the readily available woods – the new arrangement with city populations numbering in the millions needed a new solution. Hence the French government’s pioneering pissoir. 

However, in America, Freud found that the public toilet is absent. We don’t often think about public toilets when setting out on long walks, nor do we think about the body’s limitations when the romantic flights of fancy follow us on our promenades through the grand cities of Europe and her overseas offshoots, but to an old man with a dicky prostate, or to a young man after two cups of coffee, the public toilet becomes painfully obvious by its absence. But before we start thinking about the public toilet, we must first understand that the public toilet is a constituent member of that family of areas we call public spaces.

We note immediately after thus expanding the frame of reference where Freud made his error. He saw the public toilet as a place of public urination, a place where intimate organs are stripped bare and possibly even exposed to a complete stranger. The existence of the public toilet re-infantilises us in a deeply freudian way – whereas it was once our parents who monitored our physiological behaviour, it is now broader society and the state itself which concerns itself with our poopoos and peepees. If we used to be punished by our parents for peeing our pants, we are now fined by the police for urinating in public. The public toilet is a visceral reminder of our corporal nature, of our bodies as producers of offensive odours and materials, and of our shame. When Freud saw American public toilets few and far in between, “down long and dark corridors, in basements”, he saw American vulnerability and shame tucked out of sight (and therefore out of mind). Combined with what he already knew about American reluctance to discuss sexuality, it’s damn near logical that he drew the conclusion that Americans have no public toilets because they are too ashamed of their sexuality. 

However, understanding that public toilets are everything we mentioned in the previous paragraph, when we also add our understanding of them that they are public spaces, then we can also apply all the rules of that more general category to public toilets. So, what is a public space? It is a commons, a communally-owned, communally-administered, communally-used and commonly accessible area to which all inhabitants of a specific locale, or all members of a specific group are welcome. The public space, whether it’s a park, a public pool or indeed a public toilet is accessible to all of “us”. And here we get to the problem of why Europeans could have pissoires but not Americans. 

The problem isn’t with American public toilets, but with American public spaces. What Europeans have (or had) and Americans don’t is the sense of communality that was present in Europe and especially on the continent. The idea of the common space is ill at ease in America, which prefers the private space where man is king in his own castle rather than Citizen of the Republic. There are three main reasons for this. The first and probably weakest is America’s historic racial diversity. The presence of Negroes and Indians in America meant that whatever was held in common would also be shared with these racial aliens, except when they were explicitly deemed outsiders, such as under segregation or the original laws of the US which deemed American Indians non-citizens. 

However, a far greater factor is probably the psychological profile of the average American. I believe it is noncontroversial to say that most Americans are more individualistic than most Europeans and furthermore, that this distinction dates back all the way to the settling of America. It was those Europeans who could most easily handle moving away from hearth and home, as well as kith and kin to settle a new land, full of savages and dangers that settled America. Even though the demographic profile of even white Americans might have changed since then, Heritage Americans are still a large part of the population and their spirit informs American culture. Accordingly, these people always placed a greater premium on private comfort and luxury than on public spaces, held in common by all. The third factor is that Americans, having moved to where they live would not have the centuries-old communities common in Europe where people are all distant relatives to each other, or at least the genetic equivalents thereof. People who are genetically close to each other are likelier to engage in communal projects such as public toilets. 

Indeed, it is America’s diversity, even among its white people, that has led to its dearth of public spaces and a premium on private spaces. The perpetual liberal lament over the lack of walkable cities is possible in modern America because all the white people have moved out of the cities in order to escape black and brown criminality. Europe’s grand and walkable cities on the other hand are made possible by ethnic homogeneity and are becoming less walkable the more diverse they become. 

I note with a dose of irony, that my bulging bladder is currently bouncing around not in an American city, but in the heart of old Budapest, which would in its 19th century heyday have had public urinals. So, has this grand European city been magically transported to America? Or has a transformation occurred which has made all of the public toilets disappear? I remember a couple of public toilets from my previous visits and rush to relieve myself. All of them are out of order. My morning walk is ruined, all because of the death of the public toilet going worldwide. 

We ask ourself this question, why does this beautiful European city have no public toilets? Has American hegemony forced Hungarians to privatise all toilets? I could easily relieve myself by ordering a cup of coffee and then using the coffee shop’s restroom, but first of all, more coffee is precisely what I don’t need in a situation like this and second of all, it becomes a point of principle. I do not need to eat, have coffee or go to a mall, I need to pee. I don’t intend to spend more than what is necessary. I’m tempted to just walk over to the Danube and do my business in that grand and noble river. 

I use the term “beautiful European city”, but I take note of the faces that stream past. Some of them are European, yes. Some of them are what after some time in the city I’ve come to recognise as “typically Hungarian”. But many more are dark and have the characteristic brow ridge and bulging eyes of a gypsy. There are a lot of Asian faces and the arrogant bearing and tacky clothes tell me they belong to Chinese. There are some Arabs and Indians in this city, but the predominant nonwhite presence is gypsy and Chinese, two people groups not exactly famous for their hygiene. I’m reminded of a story of a friend who went to China to work as an English teacher about Chinese public toilets being completely unusable due to the Chinese drinking milk as a status symbol and then proceeding to spray explosive diarrhoea all over the place, as they are to a man lactose intolerant. 

Despite attempts to present itself as a nationalist and conservative state, Orban’s Hungary is very welcoming to immigrants and very accommodating to nonwhite minorities. In a sense, it is a living, breathing manifestation of the MAGA dream where “high value” Chinese and Indians come in legally and high fertility gypsies vote in perpetuity for the ruling conservative party, in this case Orbán’s Fidesz. Somewhat un-MAGA like, but nevertheless on brand for conservatism, Orbán’s Fidesz has also signed away Hungary’s sovereignty by allowing Chinese police to operate on Hungarian soil and arrest Chinese in Hungary. In discussing this unprecedented move with a friend, I noted that for all of the indignities of American hegemony, in no European state is it possible for American police to arrest anyone, regardless of citizenship. Even American citizens are processed by local authorities and courts. Hungary, of course, is not alone in this abrogation of sovereignty. Neighbouring Serbia, another favourite of the populist and MAGA right is likewise allowing Chinese police to operate freely. 

And finally we come to understand why Budapest has no public toilets. Public spaces are a privilege of homogenous societies and Budapest is not a homogenous city, nor is Hungary a homogenous country. The concept of public spaces which belong to the whole community, theoretically composed of people who needn’t know each other, ironically falls apart whenever foreigners are allowed into this community. This is because the public areas of a city might be the public space with regard to the city’s inhabitants and their private homes, they are the private space when contrasted to the broader world of the nation or even more broadly the world. The public spaces in Budapest are ironically the private spaces of the Hungarian nation which of course, I violate as a tourist, but are even more egregiously violated by the gypsies and Chinese who perversely hold Hungarian citizenship. 

However, this isn’t a uniquely Hungarian problem, nor is it a uniquely American problem. It is a problem of every European nation which doesn’t exclude the outsider and especially the racial outsider, which aside from being disruptive of public spaces is also filthy and disruptive of toilets in particular. Recall that many European public toilets, or toilets belonging to public houses have signs prohibiting the act of squatting on top of the toilet. This prohibition has to be spelled out because squatting to poop is the pose mandated to Muslims by their religion. The result is that Muslims get on top of toilets and squat on the seat, leading to many of them missing the toilet bowl or slipping and falling with predictable consequences. The left has sprung to their defence by declaring the Western toilet an artefact of colonial racism and calling for squat toilets (basically holes in the ground) to be installed to accommodate Muslim religious needs. 

European nations, who aren’t allowed to exclude outsiders under the Nuremberg moral paradigm have thus forfeited their right to public spaces. Public toilets will become unusable and will eventually be closed. Public parks will become dangerous. Promenades will become filthy. Like the Americans before us, we’ll turn inward into our homes and relocate into suburbs. Our ancient cities will be hollowed out. Our great, walkable corsos will be abandoned, unless we amass the moral fortitude to renegotiate the moral paradigm of our time and assert the right of European nations to remove the outsiders. 

My journey is at an end. I’ve come across an art exhibit called Pop and Roll. It consists of fully functional, working, stylised toilets. I cough up the 4000 forint entry fee (nearly 5 euro) for me and my wife to relieve ourselves. We giggle to each other about “poop art” as we do our business in the pristine bliss of a privately-owned toilet, sequestered from the multiethnic crowd. Everyone at the exhibition, including the artist and his entourage is lily white. Though the installment is very obviously japanophilic, it gets into that very European notion of the communally-owned, communally-used and commonly administered space and what it represents, even when it deals with matters as delicate and private as peeing and pooing. 

Post Author

Leave a comment

5 1 vote
Article Rating
Notify of
1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

Like the Americans before us, we’ll turn inward into our homes and relocate into suburbs. Our ancient cities will be hollowed out

100% accurate. Some say The South shall rise again

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x