Spitting frogs

In 1939, a group of surrealists produced a collaborative novel, including several stories by the English artist Leonora Carrington. One of these, ‘The Skeleton’s Holiday’, becomes particularly nonsensical:

It happened that one day the skeleton drew some hazelnuts that walked about on little legs across mountains, that spit frogs out of mouth, eye, ear, nose and other openings and holes…

This reminded me of some early seventeenth-century French nonsense by the comedian known as Bruscambille, which discusses frogs dressed in the Turkish fashion, fighting a naval battle on the wing of a windmill, in the land of the fairies where, among other things, cats guzzle a confection of turds and frogs spit roasted and stuffed goslings (etc.)

Academically, such anachronism is a crime: nonsense writers from the distant past could not have been surreal so long before the surrealist movement was formed in the 1920s. But nonsense is much older than surrealism so Carrington, knowingly or not, is drawing on images and techniques that reach back well before Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. Nonsense predicts surrealism.

Bruscambille’s imagery, especially the cats and frogs, has inspired Dominic Hills’s latest print, given a further twist as the poor frog, rather than spitting roasted goslings, becomes spit-roasted, a lapsus lectionis, or slip of reading, of which Freud and the surrealists would themselves have approved:

Grenouilles qui crachent
© Dominic Hills

Les bestes et les gens/Beasts and people

Dominic Hills’s latest print, ‘Les bestes et les gens’ (‘Beasts and people’), presents a disconcerting vision of an individual enveloped by rats and frogs. To my eyes, this image, inspired in part by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, is also reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch or Arcimboldo or even of Sartre’s descriptions of nausea.

Les bestes et les gens
© Dominic Hills

The verbal prompt for the print comes from a piece of nonsense by Bruscambille, in which the comedian takes his cue from Rabelais. The master had slipped a blink-and-you-miss-it insult into an episode of gibberish – ‘Quand le soleil est couché toutes bestes sont à l’ombre’ (‘When the sun is wholly set, all beasts are in the shade’) – which the apprentice incorporates into one of his speeches, to toy with his audience:

L’autre soir comme le Soleil estoit couché, toutes les bestes, Messieurs, estoient à l’ombre, comme vous estes, je rencontray un grand petit homme rousseau, qui avoit la barbe noire, lequel venoit d’un pays, où excepté les bestes & les gens, il n’y avoit personne

[The other evening as the sun had set, all beasts, gentlemen, were in the shade, as you are, I met a tall short man with red hair, who had a black beard, and who came from a country where, except beasts and people, there was no-one]

The insult is more obvious in Bruscambille’s version but still the audience would have had had to keep up with him so, deliberately and perversely, only the clever ones would have got it that he was saying they were idiots. Equally, a moment’s thought tells us that a country where, except animals and people, there is no-one, is any country you might care to visit. Unless, that is, you push the meaning of ‘no-one’ and end up in the dystopian world depicted by Dominic Hills’s subtle knife.

Fisherman’s tales

In one of several speeches devoted to the joy of cuckoldry and its associated horns, Bruscambille discusses how he put his books to one side and experienced a vision of Europa riding a bull (actually Zeus metamorphosed into a bull to have his way with her) and holding him by the horns while she chants ‘Long live the horn! Long live the horn!’. The comedian goes on to decrypt his vision:

Moy qui mytologise sur une obscurité, comme un Portugais sur les merluches de terre neufve, je m’escrie à gorge desployée Lætandum est.
 
[I who expound on a hidden meaning, like a Portuguese man on the pollocks of Newfoundland, I cry out to the top of my lungs, Lætandum est [Let’s rejoice!]]

There were plenty of fish in the seas around Newfoundland, their bounty was practically proverbial. Bruscambille’s allusion to a Portuguese fisherman talking about pollocks from that part of the world would then doubtless have made sense to his audience. Similarly, in another speech that is virtually nonsensical, Bruscambille opens by telling his audience that he has brought them cod from Newfoundland, but for us this is the piece of cod that passes all human understanding.

The man from Portugal and his pollocks had not fully registered with me until a trip to Paris to give a talk about nonsense and humour. One of the colleagues there, a recent  PhD graduate from the Sorbonne, Dr Tiphaine Rolland, knew this passage off by heart. She had indeed recited it at her doctoral thesis defence – a much more public affair than in Britain – concluding her opening statement with it, before being interrogated by the assembled jury of professors about her thesis on the origins of La Fontaine’s fables and tales in sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century comic works like those Bruscambille.

Even if the Newfoundland seas are sadly no longer so full of fish, the ripples of their erstwhile abundance are still being felt, returning to Paris and then making their way to Devon, where they have inspired Dominic Hills’s latest print, ‘Portugais sur merluches’ [A Portuguese man on pollocks]

Portugais sur merluches
© Dominic Hills

How Hills came by this visual version of Bruscambille’s speech is something of a mystery in itself. Some say after a week spent drinking absinthe he was so exhausted he fell asleep in his garret and a vision of a man battling a giant fish with nonsensical French settled on his consciousness like a phantom from another world. This is what happens when four-hundred-year-old pollocks swim mentally from Newfoundland to Paris to south-west England, which, in some ways, is where it all began, over the border, in Cornwall, for Bruscambille’s speech is called ‘En faveur des privileges de Cornuaille’ [In favour of the privileges of Cornwall], because ‘Cornuaille’ in French suggests ‘corne’ or ‘horn’ and, hence, ‘the forked, or cornuted, order’, as Randle Cotgrave translates it. So the cuckolds’ horns of plenty are indeed endlessly fertile and have come full circle. In other words, it’s all a load of pollocks.

 

 

 

When the sun is wholly set all beasts are in the shade

In the nonsensical court case between the lords Baisecul and Humevesne (Kissebreech and Suckfist), in Rabelais’s Pantagruel (1532) the latter makes the following statement in the wonderfully evocative translation by Sir Thomas Urquhart:

If any poor creature go to the stoves to illuminate his muzzle with a cowsherd or to buy winter-boots, and that the sergeants passing by, or those of the watch, happen to receive the decoction of a clyster or the fecal matter of a close-stool upon their rustling-wrangling-clutter-keeping masterships, should any because of that make bold to clip the shillings and testers and fry the wooden dishes? Sometimes, when we think one thing, God does another; and when the sun is wholly set all beasts are in the shade. Let me never be believed again, if I do not gallantly prove it by several people who have seen the light of the day.

The emboldened phrase is one of several plays on words, which is clearer in the original French:

Quand le soleil est couché, toutes bestes sont à l’ombre

It’s a joke on the ambiguity of beste, which means either beast or idiot (or, better, one of Randle Cotgrave’s translations, including sot, doult, loobie, blockhead). In other words, it’s a blink-and-you-miss-it insult hidden within the gibberish. It implies of course that we are all loobies and, incidentally, that the Lord of Suckfist will struggle to find ‘people who have seen the light of the day’ – we as readers are in the dark about what he and the Lord of Kissebreech are debating so animatedly yet ludicrously.

I mentioned this expression to Dominic Hills recently, as I was about to discuss it at a research seminar at the Sorbonne. He rapidly produced a print inspired by the beasts/idiots, which happily I was able to project during my talk:

Quand le soleil est couché, toutes bestes sont à l’ombre
© Dominic Hills

Subsequently it emerged that the shaded monsters/loobies are inspired by Goya, the whole effect by Ver sacrum, the green and purple shades by a plant, and so forth, a whole soup of influences of which Rabelais would have approved.

Working on such research, talking nonsense at the Sorbonne means being in the shade, of course. Dominic Hills’s print reminds us of Rabelais’s original creativity, not to mention nonsense, and thereby helps take us back into the light of day.

Playing on nature’s flute and the mute bagpipe

Implausibly devoted readers of this blog may remember that the early seventeenth-century French comedian known as Bruscambille has a speech on castrati (controversial figures, believed to be ideal lovers, since some allegedly could maintain an erection but obviously without any risk of pregnancy, hence they became the target an entirely serious injunction issued by the high court of Paris, which was concerned that eunuchs might corrupt women…) in which he 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 flageollet 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.

Dominic Hills already turned the ludicrously Latinate phrase ‘conjunction orbiculaire [orbicular conjunction]’ into one of his woodcuts and now he returns to this same speech for the source of his latest version of Japanese erotic prints (shunga), ‘jouer du flageollet de nature, et de la cornemuse sourde’ [to play on nature’s flute and on the mute bagpipe]

Flageollet Naturel
© Dominic Hills

Bruscambille’s image reminds me of Peter Cook’s famous satire of the judge’s summing-up in the Jeremy Thorpe trial of 1979 in which he describes a thinly-veiled version of the male model Thorpe was charged with conspiring to have killed as ‘a scrounger, a parasite, a pervert, a worm, a self-confessed player of the pink oboe‘. Cook wrote the speech the night of its performance, surrounded by other great comedians. As Harry Thompson notes in his biography of Cook, Michael Palin recalls that two minutes before going on stage, he was seeking out a euphemism for homosexual and Billy Connolly ‘with the air of a scholar recalling some medieval Latin’ remembered hearing someone described as a ‘player of the pink oboe’. Two minutes later, the brilliant Cook was on stage, throwing in ‘self-confessed’ for good measure.

Nature’s flute and the mute bagpipe do not have the political force of Cook’s player of the pink oboe, even if Bruscambille’s speech does satirize what now appear to be unlikely anxieties about eunuchs. Nevertheless, it is still pleasing to think of a kind of comic continuum between performers and audiences over the centuries, delighting in this kind of humour and indeed preserving and transmitting it (viz. Michael Palin saying that Billy Connolly was like a ‘scholar recalling some medieval Latin’), which this blog has also sought to do.

Drive the peg in

In his speech in praise of a nymph’s tits (‘En faveur des tetins d’une nymphe’), the early seventeenth-century French comedian known as Bruscambille describes an apparently disturbing dream involving this part of the female anatomy. He is saved from this nocturnal vision by seeing a Latin saying at the end of Mercury’s wand: ‘Quae mutuo sumpseris pari vel etiam | Maiori mensura reddas’ [‘Take fair measure from your neighbour and pay him back fairly with the same measure, or better, if you can’] (Hesiod, Works and Days, 349-51).

Disarmingly claiming to understand Latin like a cow, he gives his own version of Hesiod’s moral injunction:

Pour mettre la femme a son aise,

Il la convient un peu flatter,

Mais pour du tout la contenter

Il faut cheviller la mortaise.

My Exeter colleague and translator of Guillaume Apollinaire and many others, Professor Martin Sorrell, has rendered this little poem as follows:

To make a woman drop her guard,

Flatter her somewhat.

But to please her, find the slot

And drive the peg in hard.

Clearly, Bruscambille has an unusual take on the dictum about paying your neighbour back the same, or better, but what, one may well ask, has all this to do with tits? The answer lies in the fact that men pay women back for their bosomy apples with their Priapic pears, which are accompanied by comforting and stiff branches.

This noble image of human cooperation and exchange has inspired one of Dominic Hills’s most recent prints, itself inspired, as ever, by Japanese erotic prints known as shunga. And of course this whole blog is the result of an exchange of the fruits of academic research and artistic practice. Thus Hesiod’s view from the seventh or eighth century B.C. resonates centuries later, in the early 1600s in France, through to the present internet age, as humans continually exchange their apples and pears, whether to ‘drive the peg in’ (‘cheviller la mortaise’), or for other pursuits.

P.S. Men also drive the peg in to hang four hams from it, but that is another story.

Cheviller la mortaise
© Dominic Hills

The big genital thumb without a nail

In his speech in praise of the number three, the four-hundred year-old French comedian known as Bruscambille notes:

doesn’t a man have seven times three fingers, i.e. ten on the hands, ten on the feet, and the big genital thumb, which even if lacking a nail, nevertheless does more duty than all the others put together, because in a single blow that he strikes on nature’s anvil, sometimes he makes a great captain, sometimes a coward, sometimes a Braggadochio, sometimes an attorney, sometimes a merchant, sometimes an officer of the court, sometimes a witness, or even less, sometimes a pimp, sometimes a kitchen boy, sometimes a footman, and so on and so forth, Nature in truth has been a little harsh as far as he’s concerned because not content with having made him without a nail, she has also made him one-eyed, albeit that in compensation she has doted him with such clarity of vision that when he wants to meditate and rifle through the secrets of nature, he has no need of glasses nor of a candle to find the chamber, the wily fellow like a good blood-hound knows where the hare is hiding, allowing him to complete his commission, and what makes him welcome among ladies is that he lives without pride and ambition, his flight is not too high, in fact all his aims  are only towards the mid and single point, he only ever wishes to lodge in a small, narrow and tight space.

(Exceptionally devoted readers of this blog may recall the expression ‘to strike on nature’s anvil’ – forger sur l’enclume de nature – as the subject of another print and accompanying post).

This remarkable big genital thumb without a nail (‘le gros pouce genital despouveu d’ongle’) has inspired one of Dominic Hills’s most recent prints.

Le gros pouce
© Dominic Hills

The big genital thumb without a nail is clearly so overwhelming that the comedian devotes almost as much attention to it as the number three, although he does eventually return to his purported theme. This was of course only ever a pretext for a whole series of comic conceits like these and indeed an umbilical pistol soon joins this pantheon of phallic imagery (this pistol incidentally requires 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), making an unholy trinity with the masculine peg (‘cheville masculine’), one of three things needed for procreation…

Seduction and not saying the Lord’s Prayer

One of Dominic Hills’s most recent prints illustrates a self-explanatory Latin catchphrase, ‘Scholasticus loquens cum puella non praesumitur dicere Pater noster’ [A student talking with a girl doesn’t think of reciting ‘Our Father who art in heaven’].

The phrase apparently originated with the great fourteenth-century Italian jurist Baldo degli Ubaldi, who used it to convey what it is to be presumed guilty. As well as a student, different versions of the joke have a cleric, a scholar or simply a man talking with the girl.

As is the way with such witticisms, it took on a life of its own. In France, it occurs in one of the late sixteenth-century tales of Noël Du Fail, in which an apothecary gives his wife some medicine to sweeten her breath before a ball – yet conveniently when one of her dance partners starts whispering sweet nothings in her ear (cue the Latin phrase) it transpires the supposed breath freshener was in fact a laxative, leading her to make a rapid exit from the dance floor. The early seventeenth-century comedian known as Bruscambille (see previous posts) borrows the expression from Du Fail in a speech of his in the form of a mock court case. The comic sees his opponent whispering into the ear of a female friend, naturally presumes he isn’t saying the Lord’s prayer, yet wonders if his actions will match his words or whether he will end up being accused, like another man, of ringing his bells when the parishioners don’t want to come.

Given the way the Latin phrase itself inspired different versions, it is strangely appropriate that Dominic Hills’s version:

Scolasticus cum puella© Dominic Hills

Scolasticus cum puella
© Dominic Hills

should itself be a close adaptation (with a religious twist) of a piece of Japanese shunga:

2013-11-19-ShungaPoemofthePillow

Kitagawa Utamaro (d. 1806), Lovers in the upstairs room of a teahouse, from Utamakura (Poem of the Pillow), c. 1788. Sheet from a colour-woodblock printed album. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Bend the equinoctial line

Legal terminology often features in French Renaissance comic and nonsense writing, which tells us something about its audience, which would have included students and practitioners of the law. The nonsensical case between Baisecul (Kissarse) and Humevene (Sniffshit) in Rabelais’s Pantagruel is one example – see Souffler au cul.

During the period of festivities known as carnival, lawyers in Paris and elsewhere would plead ’causes grasses’, translated by Randle Cotgrave as ‘Bawdie suits, immodest actions’, absurd cases ‘proving’ things like 11-month pregnancies, which might be handy when proving the legitimacy of a widow’s child (it is also something Rabelais’s narrator, Alcofribas Nasier, attempts to demonstrate of the eponymous giant hero of Gargantua).

Bruscambille similarly has several speeches that are mock legal cases, which must have delighted the law students in his audience. In one such speech he wishes, but ultimately fails, to make a case against a variety of disreputable characters including one who, using the wall as a handkerchief, claimed:

‘not to be to be blame for having really and actually drenched everyone present from the very depths of his underpants, and maintained that he should keep all expenses, damages, and interest, upon which he concluded and, expanding his case, noted that he had bent his equinoctial line, by which he meant his natural crossbow, by way of his dear wife’s bottom, without any other type of legal palaver.’

Devoted readers of the blog may remember the phrase, bend back nature’s crossbow, which has already been the subject of one of Dominic Hills’s prints. The curiously scientific phrase ‘bander sa ligne equinoctiale’ (‘bend the equinoctial line’, technically the line around the earth’s circumference from north to south pole), is part of this more or less nonsensical parody of legal terminology and has inspired another print:

Ligne equinoctiale© Dominic Hills

Ligne equinoctiale
© Dominic Hills

Incidentally, the French term Bruscambille uses for the wife’s bottom is ‘ponant’, literally the west, but also used to refer to the ‘arse, tayle, bumme’, according to Randle Cotgrave. There is clearly something about hemispheres and equinoctial lines that is richly suggestive of other things, something Hills’s print also captures.

Making droning music from the depths of one’s trousers

In a remarkable speech in praise of lying, the comedian known as Bruscambille proves that deceit is better than truth. For instance, the beautiful widow Judith saved her nation through her lies when she seduced Holofernes, the Assyrian general, before beheading him. Similarly,

if someone had killed his enemy in a secret place, and he was arrested by the authorities, would he wish to confess his crime? In just the same way, if someone were accused of having made some droning music from the depths of his trousers, would he also wish to confess it for his honour? Would he not take the highway to Denial Town?

[si quelqu’un avoit tué son ennemy en lieu secret, & qu’il fust apprehendé de la Justice, le voudroit-il confesser? Tout de mesme si quelqu’un estoit accusé d’avoir fait quelque Musique en faux bourdon au fonds de ses chausses, le voudroit-il confesser aussi pour son honneur? Ne prendroit-il pas le grand chemin de Nyort?]

The great lexicographer Randle Cotgrave translates ‘faux bourdon’ as ‘the drone of a bagpipe’. In case we were in any doubt about the meaning of the expression ‘faux bourdon au fonds de ses chausses’, the royal interpreter Antoine Oudin, who in 1640 published a dictionary of French ‘curiosities’, many of which he drew from his careful reading of Bruscambille, defines it as a ‘big old fart’ (‘un bon gros pet’).

The bagpipe-droning fart has reappeared in one of Dominic Hills’s recent prints:

Faux bourdon© Dominic Hills

Faux bourdon
© Dominic Hills

The techniques of Japanese print-making practised by Dominic Hills are more complex than they might appear at first sight. Similarly, it might be tempting to dismiss Bruscambille’s humour as puerile, but that would miss the point of how he puts together his speech to set up all kinds of comic contrasts, equating denying a murder charge with pretending not to have farted, alongside precise references to Plato and Aristotle, among others. The seventeenth-century audience would have loved all this, and the persuasive ingenuity involved in naughtily demonstrating that lying is preferable to the truth. But just in case we were tempted to take any of this too seriously, Bruscambille immediately follows his speech praising lying with one eulogizing truth. Whether it is better or not to admit to making the sound of a droning bagpipe in the depths of one’s trousers remains, therefore, an open question.