To boldly blow…

In his third and final speech on farts, ‘That a fart is a good thing’, the comedian known as Bruscambille cites Cicero, for whom goodness consisted in what was ‘useful, pleasant and honest’ (On Duties, II, 10). The usefulness of the fart, which in turn naturally contributes to its essential goodness, is seen in the widespread proverb, ‘Whoever farts valiantly and with courage extends his life’ (‘Quiconque pette bravement et avec courage prolonge sa vie’). There were indeed proverbs of this type in the air at the time, a variant being ‘Whoever wishes to have a long life should let his arse break wind’ (‘Qui veut vivre longuement il faut donner à son cul vent’). Such proverbs also have their English equivalents, including the (apocryphal?) tombstone bearing the legend, ‘Where’er ye be, let your wind break free, for holding it in was the death of me’, which has its own variant reading, ‘Where’er ye be, let you wind break free. In church and chapel, let it rattle!’

Bruscambille’s piece of age-old proverbial lore has inspired Dominic Hills’s latest print:

Quiconque pette © Dominic Hills

Quiconque pette
© Dominic Hills

Not everyone would agree with this proverb, of course. The great Dutch humanist, Erasmus, would have been among them. In his massive and hugely successful collection of proverbs, the Adages, he cites the ancient saying ‘Suus cuique crepitus bene olet’ (‘Everyone thinks his own fart smells sweet’), but concludes that it doubtlessly originated from the very dregs of society and that he has yet to meet anyone who thinks this way (Adages, III, 4, 2/2302). Yet, from another point of view, the persistence of such sentiments about flatulence across the centuries points to a fundamental continuity in the human condition. Stephen Greenblatt famously opens his Shakespearean Negotiations with the comment that ‘I began with a desire to speak with the dead’ – these proverbs suggest that the answer to fulfilling that desire is blowing in the wind.

 

Conjonction orbiculaire

In one of his two speeches on castrati (controversial figures, apparently ideal lovers for women who did not want to get pregnant, and the subject of an injunction of 1619 issued by the Parisian law-courts as a result…), the comedian known as Bruscambille makes the following observation about Spring:

‘In this pleasing season, the pilgrim starts planting his staff while the shepherd starts playing on nature’s flute and the mute bagpipe in the shade of the shepherdess’s mossy mound. In short, at this time, everything lives, everything dances, and breathes only orbicular conjunction.’

[En ceste agreeable saison, le Pelerin commence à planter son bourdon, le berger à jouer du flageolet de nature, et de la cornemuse sourde à l’ombre du tertre moussu de la bergere. Bref, en ce temps tout vit, tout dance, et ne respire que la conjunction orbiculaire.]

He goes on to comment how sad it is that castrati cannot ‘chime and ring their bells’ to celebrate the arrival of sweet Spring.

The ornately Latinate phrase ‘orbicular conjunction’ / ‘conjonction orbiculaire’ has inspired Dominic Hills’s latest and similarly ornate print:

Conjonction orbiculaire © Dominic Hills

Conjonction orbiculaire
© Dominic Hills

Bending nature’s crossbow

In his speech on the rare and remarkable objects he has brought from Mexico, which he intends to gift to the French nation so it may be seen as the greatest for the sumptuousness of the dresses ladies wear to ballets, the comedian known as Bruscambille (see previous posts, passim) lists, among other things:

  • a pair of underpants of the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca that are full of moral sayings worthy of profound consideration;
  • Jupas’s lute, which produces such harmonies that whoever hears them isn’t deaf;
  • a pair of marvellous glasses that allowed Saturn to choose a white cloth with which to wipe his bottom.

For his latest print, Dominic Hills was naturally inspired by one of these Mexican objets d’art, namely:

The chamber pot used by Mars and Venus, to Vulcan’s great displeasure, of such size and perfect proportion that it inflames the hearts of its viewers with unbearable lust, and makes nature’s crossbow bend back, to fire at the deer with no nose.

[L’urinal duquel se servoient Mars et Venus, avec un grand desplaisir de Vulcan, de telle mesure et juste proportion qu’il enflamme les cœurs des regardans de luxure insupportable, et faict bander l’arbalestre de nature, pour tirer après la beste fauve qui n’a point de nez.]

Bander l’arbalestre de nature © Dominic Hills

Bander l’arbalestre de nature
© Dominic Hills

Anyone in any doubt as to what the ‘deer with no nose’ refers only needs to consult one of Bruscambille’s speeches on noses, where he establishes in Latin that while men have two noses ‘primum capiti, secundus jacet in braguibus’ [‘this first on the head, the second in the codpiece’], women on the other hand only have one nose ‘ad est capitale, sed abest bragale’ [‘one on the head, but the one in the codpiece is missing’].

 

Umbilical pistol

In his speech in praise of the number three, the comedian known as Bruscambille (see other posts, passim) asserts that the umbilical pistol (‘pistolet umbilicaire’) needs three things:

1. To be well cocked and full of gunpowder;

2. To be charged with a couple of bullets;

3. To have a new holster, for if you put it in a old rotten holster covered in cobwebs, your pistol will be ruined.

Things have changed since Bruscambille’s day, of course, and Dominic Hill’s animated print of the umbilical pistol takes inspiration from Jean-Luc Godard’s observation that all you need to make a film is a gun and a girl:

Pistolet umbilicaire © Dominic Hills

Pistolet umbilicaire
© Dominic Hills

 

 

 

 

Souffler au cul

In the nonsensical court case between the lords of Baisecul (Kissarse) and Humevesne (Sniff-fart) in Rabelais’s Pantagruel, Humevesne observes that among all good bagpipes, when hunting for birds and swinging a broom around the chimney three times, one only blows into the arse (‘souffler au cul’), but as soon as we see the letters, the cows will be returned to him.

Blowing into the arse is of course a waste of time for there is no point breathing into something that is perfectly capable of producing its own wind power. It’s so much hot air, like the court case, which drones on like the bagpipes Humevesne mentions, full of wind but empty of substance.

Dominic Hills’s animated illustration of this expression gives it an industrial feel, like a poster from the Soviet Union, exhorting us to Stakhanovist levels of bottom blowing:

Souffler au cul © Dominic Hills

Souffler au cul
© Dominic Hills

 

Sirens and Secrets

Reading through Montaigne’s ‘De la gloire’, I came across this piece of verse from Homer’s Odyssey which ventriloquises the Sirens and suggests content for their mysterious enchanting song. On his endless voyage home to Ithaca, Ulysses became the first man ever to resist the singing of the strange, monstrous bird-women, who lured sailors off their ships and dashed them onto the rocks of their island – and so became the first man ever to report the words of the song. Homer and Montaigne after him speculate that the irresistible song is in fact an interpellation, a mirror lifted up to the passing hero that offers him an image of himself that panders to his vanity and is thus spell-binding. Montaigne says:

Le premier enchantement que les Sirenes employent à piper Ulisses, est de cette nature, Deça vers nous, deça, ô tres-louable Ulisse, Et le plus grand honneur dont la Grece fleurisse.

The first enchantment the Syrens employed to deceive Ulisses, is of this nature. ‘Turne to us, to us turne, Ulisse thrice-renowned, / The principall renowne wherewith all Greece is crowned.’

I like this idea that the Sirens offer us visions of ourselves that are irresistible and glorious to us, rather than any other enticement. They seem to play the role of the Lacanian mirror, showing us beyond all doubt that rather than the broken, fragmented, vulnerable creature we feel ourselves to be, we are in fact, whole, competent, capable – heroes, in fact.

I remembered reading a poem by the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood when I was a teenager about precisely this kind of Siren song which left a lasting impression. Her Sirens also appeal to the hero in the passing sailor – you are my saviour! You will rescue me! – but they use the rhetoric of secrecy as lure in a way that Erasmus would have recognised.

This is the one song everyone
would like to learn: the song
that is irresistible:
[…]
Shall I tell you the secret
and if I do, will you get me
out of this bird suit?
[…]
I will tell the secret to you,
to you, only to you.
Come closer. This song

is a cry for help: Help me!
Only you, only you can,
you are unique

at last. Alas
it is a boring song
but it works every time.

Margaret Atwood, ‘Siren Song’, You Are Happy (1974)

What is clever about Atwood’s poem is that it is only at the end that you realise it is in its entirety the lure, the enchantment: the pose of the damsel in distress, the disillusion with the whole business of shipwrecking sailors. From this point of view it is a real siren song: it is not what it appears to be at first glance: rather than a beautiful singing maiden, it is a hideous squawking beast. But it is only because we want to believe them that they have any power.

Shake the feminine tree

In his speech on the pleasure of defecation (‘En faveur de la felicité chiatique’ – see previous post, ‘Hang four hams from a peg’), the early seventeenth-century comedian known as Bruscambille claims that the joy of crapping is greater than that of sex because:

‘one can breathe the air easily for a month, a year, even to the very brink of the tomb, without it being necessary to shake the feminine tree, to get fruit, but it’s entirely impossible to stop oneself going for a crap, because it is such a pleasure that if we are deprived of it for five or six days, we may as well put our boots on to travel speedily to the other side, for it is in such harmony with life, that the one cannot survive without the other.’

One of the main jokes of a speech like this, an ancient genre technically known as a mock encomium, or praise of something normally deemed unworthy of praise, is to use the most elaborate language and argument for the most ignoble of subjects. Dominic Hills’s print of this image, ‘Locher l’arbre fœminin pour en avoir du fruict’ (‘To shake the feminine tree to get fruit’), is similarly elaborate, a three-dimensional animated woodprint with moving parts:

Locher l’arbre féminin © Dominic Hills

Locher l’arbre féminin
© Dominic Hills

Other recent examples of such prints are in the gallery and may well be appearing as a dedicated, indeed unique, art app in the not too distant future.

Hang four hams from a peg

In his speech on the pleasure of taking a crap (‘En faveur de la felicité chiatique’), the early seventeenth-century comedian known as Bruscambille (see previous posts), compares the delight of defecation with the joy of sex:

‘When men, while night has its black nightcap on, imitate carpenters and amuse themselves pegging the mortise while their wives, like good housekeepers, hang four hams from a peg, and get busy with a Cyclops in their furnace, who more often than not works so hard that he seems enraged, given how much he spits, I would concede that then they receive the greatest contentment you can have here on earth…’

Pendre quatre jambons en une cheville © Dominic Hills

Pendre quatre jambons en une cheville
© Dominic Hills

One of the remarkable images in this extraordinary speech has inspired Dominic Hills’s latest print, ‘Pendre quatre jambons en une cheville’ (‘Hang four hams from a peg’), which takes its cue not only from metaphors involving pork products, but also from Jean-Édouard Vuillard.

Incidentally, Bruscambille argues that while you can live for many years without ever hanging hams from a peg or indeed shaking the feminine tree to get the fruit, if you are deprived of faecal felicity for even a few days, you will surely leave this vale of tears behind. The delight of defecation is more vital than that of ham-hanging. QED.

Ben Jonson’s churnd bollock

On a recent trip to the British Library, I took an idle look at Ben Jonson’s copy of Rabelais’s complete works, in which he made copious notes, in the hope that he would have tried to decipher the nonsensical ‘Antidoted Fanfreluches’, which contain the giant Gargantua’s genealogy and that were discovered in an ancient tomb, in a ‘big, fat, great, gray, pretty, small, mouldy, little pamphlet, smelling stronger, but no better than roses’. While Jonson had dutifully glossed the opening chapters to the book, the ‘Antidoted Fanfreluches’ were understandably left untouched by his hand.

NPG 2752; Benjamin Jonson by Abraham van BlyenberchI did however identify some of Jonson’s notes that other scholars had not spotted before, especially to Rabelais’s catalogue of the Library of Saint-Victor, which contains such learned tomes as The Codpiece of Law and the Art of Farting Politely in Public. Jonson’s marginalia include ‘churnd bollock’, actually a mistranslation of La Couille barine des preux [The Elephantine Penis of the Valiant], and ‘bridle champer’, the latter meaning a lawyer, ‘from his mule, which attending while her master is in court, hath leisure enough to champ on the bridle’ (this from Randle Cotgrave’s Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), which Jonson clearly had by his side as he took his notes).

Other gems can be consulted in a note on Jonson’s notes:

Previously Unnoticed Annotations to Jonson’s Copy of Rabelais

Small talking things

As I get further away from you
I see you more clearly.
Your souls should have been immense by now,
not what they are,
small talking things –

(Louise Glück, ‘Retreating Wind’, Wild Iris)

The poem speaks with the voice and the perspective of the retreating wind, or perhaps of God, a once-present deity who has given up on its creation and withdraws from it, leaving it to spool out on its own. Perhaps the creator has been disappointed in its desire for an interlocutor, a respondent who could rise above mere noise and chat to a purer level of communication. ‘You’ are not like that. Your talk has restricted your soul, tied you to earth, perhaps, and to the everyday, stunted your growth. I am reminded of the sixteenth-century Christian preference for silence, which for pious and erudite worshippers like the reformist queen Marguerite de Navarre was closer to God than the babble of everyday prayer – a way to praise God more fully, perhaps even communicate with him. When Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, as Diarmid McCulloch puts it in Silence: A Christian History, he wanted to chatter; Jesus refuses to engage in conversation. Generations of ascetic Christians took Jesus as an example and withdrew into silence and inaccessible places. What all this suggests is the banality of the evil of chatter: it ties us to the contingent and the worldly, bogs us down in the detail, distracts our souls from following the retreating wind. Chatter is minute; silence is immense.