Elmore Leonard on the Toilet: An Introduction

There is a very fine line to walk here. Avoiding the easy ironies and insincerity associated with bathroom humor will be the ongoing challenge for us on this blog.

I think this photo best represents what I am trying to do here:

Auguste Rodin’s famous sculpture “The Thinker” is photoshopped onto an ordinary public toilet. Our first instinct is, of course, to laugh. I laughed. The seriousness of the thinker’s face, of his whole posture, really, is undermined by the ordinary, not-so-timeless figure of the toilet. In fact, the toilet changes the thinker’s whole telos; it opens up a space in which a contradiction can exist. According to Schopenhauer, Bergson, and many others, a contradiction or “incongruity” is a prerequisite for humor.

The thinker is no longer only thinking but is, instead, thinking while going to the bathroom, which is almost like not thinking at all. Because of the introduction of the toilet, it would be hard to imagine that this picture would retain the sculpture’s original title.  

But why? Why does the toilet predominate the photo, such that the thinker almost recedes into the background?

Why does the very idea of a bathroom seem not to suggest seriousness or thinking?

A few weeks ago I was at a conference at my university. The speaker, a writer of mystery fiction, was describing an experience she had with the late great author Elmore Leonard. The two were riding in an elevator together. The speaker was escorting Mr. Leonard from the offices of a mystery magazine in New York to the restrooms upstairs. On the ride up, Leonard asked her a bunch of questions about writing.

One of the questions he asked her was how close her writing area was to her bathroom. As the speaker recounted this, the audience at the conference laughed. I laughed. It was funny because we don’t expect a question about bathrooms in a list of serious questions about writing. But, again, why not? Leonard, even though he was being funny, was also making a serious point. His reason for asking the question, which he explained to the speaker and she explained to us, was that he felt his best ideas came to him while on the toilet. Being the kind, unassuming man that he was, he wanted to make sure that the speaker’s bathroom was close enough to her workspace so that when her good ideas came to her in the bathroom, she would be able to rush back to her typewriter to write them down.

Why is it that we have some of our best ideas in the bathroom? Each week you are going to have the opportunity to read one of these ideas, written on the wall of a bathroom stall. With your help, I will be gathering ideas from bathrooms around the country and posting them to the blog. My hope is that, through an examination of bathroom graffiti, we can answer all of the questions raised in this introduction and many more.