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Calf and Other LovesWendy Doniger
Vol. 16 No. 15 · 4 August 1994

Calf and Other Loves

Wendy Doniger

4209 words
Dearest Pet: On Bestiality 
by Midas Dekkers, translated by Paul Vincent.
Verso, 208 pp., £18.95, June 1994, 0 86091 462 3
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Animal lovers​ who read this book – and no one else will, or should, read it – will not be able to put it down, but they will come away from it feeling vaguely uncomfortable. The subject itself would tend to make the book one long dirty joke; but the issues it raises are deadly serious, touching the tender spots of racism, sexism, sexual abuse and, indeed, the nature of sexual otherness.

First of all, Dearest Pet is full of fascinating information about the things that animals have meant to people. In this aspect the book is thoughtful and erudite, drawing skilfully on a vast array of historical and scientific literature. Dekkers was trained as a biologist but writes like a journalist, in a breezy style that is for the most part charming, occasionally annoying, and as the book progresses, troubling. The writing is so vivid and personal that it encourages us to imagine ourselves the perpetrators of acts that are usually described in more distanced or, at the other pole, more offensively obscene terms. And since some of these acts are at the same time bound to strike us as genuinely perverse, a subtle tension develops. This reaches its climax in the final chapter, when we discover that Dekkers, too, is troubled by bestiality; that he sees erotic implications in some of the most apparently innocent human-animal contacts; and that he regards people who prefer animals to people as morally flawed.

The basic paradox is framed in terms of natural science. Dekkers argues that every sexual act is bestial in the sense that it turns on otherness, that ‘every sexual encounter is a breaking of bounds, an intrusion into an alien realm, every sexual encounter retains a whiff of bestiality. What use is the other person if they are not different? You find true satisfaction only when you let yourself go.’ And he sees bestiality in places unexpectedly close to home, even when we talk about ‘the birds and the bees’ since bees and flowers represent ‘an extreme case of cross-species sexual intercourse. Here the plants obtain satisfaction with the help of animals. In your garden, on your balcony.’ But then he points out the elaborate measures nature has taken to prevent one species from fertilising another, measures which allow you to mate only with your own species. If a male toad ‘sees something moving, there are three possibilities: if it is larger than I am, I run away from it, if it is smaller, I eat it, and if it is the same size, I mate with it. If the creature with which it is mating does not protest, then it is probably the right species and the right sex.’ We all know men like that toad, and not every frog turns into a prince when you kiss him.

Even when humans transgress the boundaries of their species to find sexual partners, they still adhere to this basic principle that like attracts like. Those humans who prefer animals prefer ones that have human features:

Dogs, cats and rabbits are mirrors in which we love ourselves, and if the mirror is enough of a caricature – not ridiculous, but touching – it may even happen that we prefer the animal to the human being. The fact is that in some respects some animals are even more human than human beings themselves. No human being has such an entreating expression as a basset hound, no human being is as loyal as his dog.

Then, however, Dekkers reminds us of the counter-principle, that opposites attract, for human beings seldom commit bestiality with their closest relatives, the primates, generally preferring more distantly related predators, such as dogs, and cloven-hoofed animals, such as goats, cows and donkeys. In other words, there is a biological and emotional tension in sexual selection between the desire for the same (which would preserve the species but lead ultimately to incest and unhealthy inbreeding) and the desire for the different – which would introduce healthy new genes but ultimately endanger the integrity of the species.

From this scientific paradox, a moral paradox arises, or rather a moral switchback, that first lulls us into a permissive relativism and then slaps our hand as we reach out for the forbidden fruit. Dekkers argues, on the one hand, that bestiality is common and natural, and on the other, that it is perverse and immoral. First he tells us how to do it, in terms that would appal the moral majority, and then he says that it is nasty and literally inhuman, in terms that might have been borrowed from that majority. Dekkers begins by arguing that actual bestiality has been, and remains, a lot more common than most of us think. He explains how it took place in the past. In the cavalry, for instance, ‘with such an intimate bond between horse and rider’, and with women scarce and horses freely available, it naturally occurred to some officers that there was more than one useful way to mount a horse – or, one may suppose, for those who were ‘straight’, a mare. Frederick the Great’s judgment on a cavalryman who had abused a mare was more practical than moralistic: ‘The fellow is a swine and belongs in the infantry.’ This, however, merely displaced the problem, for though there were no horses in the infantry, ‘no goat was safe. If need be the armies took their own with them.’ There seems to be some sort of Dumézilian class distinction operating here: horses for the upper classes, goats for the masses. Dekkers goes on to tell us how bestiality occurs nowadays, noting that ‘Alfred Kinsey (a professor of veterinary studies!) asked twenty thousand Americans about their sexual experiences with animals. Not whether, but how often they had had them. That removed the worst scruples and prompted more than 5 per cent of those interviewed to confess.’ This part of the book is often hilarious, a more elegant and intellectually viable version of all those jokes about insatiable women and their gorillas, or farm boys who do things with their sheep/cows/chickens – a genre immortalised by Gene Wilder in Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know about Sex.

Dekkers does not mention the fact that, in computerised America, there is now a bestiality group on the Internet – used by many people as the loneliest of lonelyhearts clubs. Log on and you may choose among hundreds of articles with titles such as ‘A Girl and her Dog’ and ‘Horse Lover’. Many are explicitly presented as pornographic fantasies, but some claim to recount real experiences, and others offer practical advice on ways to enlarge your penis or ‘111 reasons why animals are better than humans’. Rhoda Lerman’s novel, Animal Acts, about a woman who runs off with a homicidal gorilla, is one of a number of recent books in the same genre. Clearly, this is not merely a rural or pre-industrial vice.

Easily available domestic and farm animals remain the most popular partners, however. The dog is man’s (more often woman’s) best friend in this sense too, ‘because it requites love. Sexual love does not have to be reciprocal, but it is nice when it is.’ Dekkers even tells you how to get a dog to mate with you: ‘With some adjustments it is not difficult to exchange the leg for a more appropriate part of the body and actual mating can ensue. Mostly, however, things do not reach this stage and the dog is most commonly used for cunnilingus. Dogs have an ideal tongue for the purpose, and can be taught it, like so many other tricks.’ Here, however, he sounds a note of caution, remarking that ‘we are not made for each other,’ and noting how embarrassing it can be for the woman (and, presumably, for the dog) when a dog gets stuck in a woman, as a result of the peculiar nature of a dog’s penis. Similarly, the stallion’s ‘60-centimetre penis is really too long for a human vagina.’ Despite these logistical problems, a human might want to do it with an animal, Dekkers suggests, out of

the desire to cuddle ... not to mention fate and the longing for happiness ... There are animals which by their very nature offer stimuli which for us are supernormal; the long lashes of a donkey, the divine hips of a mare, the long sinews of a cow, the soft fur of cats. The senses are aroused and search out the strongest stimuli. Mostly these are derived from a human being, but sometimes from an animal.

Finally, he tells us why an animal might want to do it with a human: imprinting at birth, which fools animals (such as Konrad Lorenz’s famous goslings) into believing they are humans and that therefore they should mate with humans. As all dog-owners know, dogs regard the human members of the household as other dogs. Such factors ‘drive human beings and animals into each other’s embrace. Sometimes to their satisfaction, sometimes to their disappointment.’ So far, so good: bestiality seems no more reprehensible or selfish or risky (or disappointing) than inter-human sexuality. But this last consideration – why an animal might want, or not want, to do it – leads us into a sensitive area: ‘“What does the animal think about it?” is consequently the most interesting question in the area of bestiality. Is it simply the victim of base human lust, or does it enjoy itself?’ Dogs apparently enjoy themselves: ‘It is a pleasant duty for a male dog to service the members of his household from time to time, certainly if he has no access to a bitch on heat.’ For dogs, at least, bestiality might still be a Good Thing. As for cows, ‘it is very difficult to know what they think about anything, as they show the same equanimity whatever happens.’ Moreover, when considering the possibility that a human might produce offspring with a chimpanzee (not, as we have seen, one of the preferred bestial partners), Dekkers turns to the perennial question with all mixed marriages: how to raise the children. Even here he seems to justify the enterprise:

No one seems to consider that the offspring might combine the best of the apes with the best of human beings, and swinging from the chandeliers of the Royal Library, reciting poetry, improving banana-growing, and at last combining a healthy mind and a healthy body, lecture us on what we always wanted to know: what our place in this world is. At last we would find out who we are. We ourselves are the missing link.

The implication is that incompatible couples of compatible species might stick together for the sake of the children.

Such a positive attitude to bestiality, presented with a sophistication reminiscent of Oscar Wilde or Maurice Chevalier, is implicitly supported by the book’s many illustrations, which are for the most part frankly pornographic. They are seldom mentioned in the text and often bear no perceptible relationship to it, but Dekkers does discuss pornography. Some animals (presumably those that look favourably on union with humans) seem to like it: ‘The chimpanzee Washoe liked sitting in a tree reading Playboy in the mornings. And Lucy used Playgirl when masturbating. Eugene Linden regards this as “the most impressive proof of the complex intelligence of chimpanzees. So be it.’ It seems to me to argue equally well for the low intelligence of humans. ‘Like every product of the imagination, pornography is also art, albeit art which needs to meet only one condition: that it should titillate the senses in some way or other. One reads pornography with one hand, literature mostly with two hands. Bestiality is not bound to one such genre.’ Some of Dekkers’s illustrations were surely designed to be read with one hand (or, as the case may be, one paw).

One of the pornographic subtexts is the author’s fascination with the size of male genitalia, a concern we have already seen in his caveats about mating with dogs and stallions. Dekkers even seems to suffer from swan-envy, as when he discusses Zeus’s transformation in order to rape Leda and remarks that although one is seldom jealous about the mating of birds, ‘the swan is an exception: it has a penis. A large, beautiful penis, as large and beautiful as the bird itself, amply equipped to satisfy every desire.’ Similarly, centaurs, the result of the interbreeding of Centaurus, the son of Apollo, and certain mares, ‘took their heads and arms from their father, their bodies and legs from their mother, from both sides a large horse’s penis – le meilleur des mondes possibles.’

Men, Dekkers claims, like to fantasise themselves into the role of ‘the stallion, the dog, the bull, the lusty monster with its outsized organ’ – which is why there are more stories about having sex with male animals than with female. He is certainly wrong about this, as any folklorist could have told him – think of all the Swan Maidens and Mermaids and Melusines and Undines and Japanese Fox Women. And it needs no feminist come from the grave to point out the chain of biased assumptions in his argument that

compared with reality, in which it is virtually always men who actually copulate with animals, in art the roles are completely reversed. Since most artists over the centuries have been men, the reason on for this role-reversal is obvious: because it corresponds with male fantasies. As always, a man identifies with the active party: the animal. Since women dream principally about themselves, the benefit to them is not nearly as great as for a man; they do not usually share his obsession with dimensions.

In these passages, Dekkers seems to be saying that Perhaps bestiality need not be such a Bad Thing; after all, it requires imagination. In its further defence, he argues that it is religious. The Greeks, the mythological Greeks, at least, indulged in bestiality. Dekkers sees the children of Leda and the swan (Zeus) as ‘at the same time the product of bestiality (man x animal) and of theogamy (god x man). Mating with such an animal is also mating with a god; human beings are, so to speak, marrying both beneath and above their station.’ He argues that in other religions, too, such as Hinduism, certain animals are believed to be gods, and mating with them amounts to bestial theogamy (or, perhaps, theogamous bestiality). But he fails to note that humans almost always take the form of animals before mating with theriomorphic Hindu gods, and his ideas are strongly redolent of the evolutionism of 19th-century mythologists: ‘For the transition from the old animal gods to the more modern gods in human form hybrids were very suitable. In this way people with animal heads emerged, but also animals with human heads.’

There is, however, an instance of religious bestiality far closer to home: ‘Christ was born of a virgin and a dove; Christianity too is founded on bestiality ... Jesus Christ, himself the Lamb of God, had absolutely no need to be ashamed of his origins, since the dove which had fathered him in Mary was a god as well as a dove.’ The rather literal-minded argument that Christ’s father was a bird reminded me of the old limerick:

Il y avait un jeune homme de Dijon
Qui n’avait pas de religion.
Il dit: ‘Pour moi,
Je déteste tous les trois:
Le Père, le Fils et le Pigeon.’

Dekkers also sees ‘bestial tendencies in the gathering assembled round the crib’ – presumably those inscrutable cows. He might have strengthened his case had he invoked in his chapter on humans raised by animals, the argument put forward by the folklorist Alan Dundes, who places the story of the birth of Jesus within the genre of the hero who is adopted by animals (Oedipus, Romulus and Remus, Mowgli, Tarzan etc).

Dekkers missed another candidate for bestiality in Christianity when so lightly passing over the reference to the lamb of God in the Revelation of St John: ‘Come hither, I will show thee the Bride, the Lamb’s wife’ (21.9). John Boswell, in Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, sees in this metaphor ‘a hint of bestiality’ which raises problems that ‘were rarely explored or even discussed’. Apparently, homosexuality, Boswell’s central concern, is more controversial than bestiality. The two practices – one regarded as the choice of sexual partners too different, the other not different enough – have often been linked by those who would censure either. For example, Dekkers remarks that Zeus took the form of an eagle to rape the child Ganymede, ‘to the great delight of the Greeks, who saw in this an acknowledgment of love between men, allowing women to be eliminated from public life’. One may ask why, if the Greeks had come out of the closet, Zeus had to take the form of a bird in order to carry off his young lover, but Dekkers does not pursue this line. Konrad Lorenz, one of the greatest animal-lovers of all time (though he and those goslings were apparently just good friends), is quoted as saying that ‘anyone who, disappointed and embittered by human failings, denies his love to mankind in order to transfer it to a dog or a cat, is definitely committing a grave sin, social sodomy so to speak, which is as disgusting as the sexual kind.’

Here we find ourselves on less frivolous turf. For the worldly, cynical tone of the argument that bestiality is just one more form of inclusive sexuality is undercut by the moralising tone of the argument against it. Here Dekkers seems to change his tune, to argue that bestiality is a Very Bad Thing, though this argument, too, is presented with wit:

Laws against bestiality are not necessary. Even without a court in the background it is bad enough to be found committing bestiality... No one who has gained notoriety as a chicken violator will get very far in life. Sexual intercourse with a pet, entrusted to your care, is regarded with almost as much disapproval as actual incest; the blackmailer who catches an American politician committing bestiality is in clover for the rest of his days. I am still waiting for the first man to tell Oprah Winfrey in vivid detail about the wonderful night he had with his goat.

In a more serious vein, Dekkers remarks that ‘People simply do not approve of others having sex with animals. That is what makes them human beings.’ And after noting that dogs often take the initiative in sexual contact with humans (who among us has not pretended, inanely, not to notice when a host’s dog makes a serious pass at his or her shin?), he turns through 180 degrees: ‘Force is often required to get the animal to do what the human being wants. Barbara Noske consequently prefers to speak not of bestiality but of interspecific rape. The analogies with the rape of a human being by another human being – force, fear, violence, trauma – are obvious.’ The spectre of the sexual abuse of children will certainly be evoked here, though not, apparently, in the author’s mind. When he suggests that a fertile union could probably be achieved with a certain sort of chimpanzee – the one he imagined swinging from the chandeliers of the Royal Library – he remarks: ‘What is technically possible may be ethically unacceptable.’ In which connection, he might have cited H.G. Wells’s terrifying depiction of the cruelty inherent in breeding humans with animals in The Island of Dr Moreau.

At this point, it may be difficult not to join Dekkers in condemning those who commit bestiality. Anyone who may have casually confessed to a preference for animals over people is here confronted with people who really do prefer animals to people, in terms which make them unacceptable. The homophobic subtext implicit in the condemnation of ‘social sodomy’ is only one aspect of a deeply disturbing body of racist texts which equate bestiality with certain forms of ‘aberrant’ human behaviour, primarily miscegenation. Thus François Leguat, a French traveller in 17th-century Java: ‘There is more similarity between an Ape and a black slave woman, who has been brought up without the least knowledge of God, than between an Ass and a Mare.’ Other, similar texts are cited, distant from us in time and space, but not distant enough:

Intercourse with blacks was obviously a worse kind of bestiality for a white than with a cow or a pig. Which does not mean that the whites, given the large number of people of mixed race in the former colonies, were inhibited by this. Indeed, foreign races exercise a particular sexual fascination... Indians, apes, satyrs, pygmies, blacks: it was really not clear where the human ended and the animal began; where high-flown love could turn into filthy bestiality.

There is a logical irony here, for who would not prefer animals to these people who prefer animals to people? Even Dekkers himself is not as condemnatory as one might wish: ‘Although it is a sick joke to ask what the definition of a virgin is (“a goat that runs faster than an Arab”), there is a grain of truth in it, to the extent that Islam is not as violently opposed to bestiality as is Christianity.’ Aside from the fact that it is a contradiction of Dekkers’s own assertion that ‘Christianity too is founded on bestiality,’ the statement about Islam is offensive nonsense.

Dekkers makes a particular example of Dian Fossey, who preferred her gorillas to Africans and was alleged to have been found in bed with a gorilla. Dekkers reserves judgment on this allegation, but he does see ‘hints of an erotic element’ when Fossey, in Gorillas in the Mist, calls one gorilla ‘exceptionally attractive’. As for humans, she was accused of kidnapping the son of one poacher and of tying Africans to a tree with barbed wire in order to beat them.

Dekkers presents strong evidence that, in our culture, the love of animals is often coupled with a distressing lack of love for humans. The large number of household pets that are more than ten years old indicates that ‘old animals are not abandoned, that human beings remain loyal to their pets until death do them part. This contrasts starkly with human loyalty to other humans: one in three marriages ends in divorce.’ To say nothing of parents in old people’s homes. Dekkers sees a historical pattern in this preference, connecting the present era of moral decline with the decline and fall of Egypt and Rome, when people treated their pets far better than their slaves. This preference

is a sign of decadence, a short-circuit in the network of affection, a cry for help from a society which has lost its way. All the more so because the same hands which stroke dogs and cats shamelessly scoop food from the trough of the food industry, just as in the past the same eyes which enjoyed a pet bird enjoyed the mass sacrifice of animals in the Circus Maximus in Rome. Love of animals is very nice, just as all love is nice, but it must not obscure love of human beings, otherwise our human society will disintegrate, creaking in its joints, to the accompaniment of heartrending meowing and barking.

We ourselves, it seems, are the beastly members of the bestial partnership.

Dekkers expands the definition of this nasty thing, bestiality, to include acts that many will have committed in seeming innocence:

If you include in bestiality only people who have sex exclusively with animals, then the percentage of course falls far below 1 per cent. On the other hand, if you drop the requirement that for sexual contact something has to be inserted somewhere and that something has to be fiddled with, and it is sufficient simply to cuddle, to derive a warm feeling from each other, to kiss perhaps at times, in brief to love, then bestiality is not a deviation but the general rule, not even something shameful, but the done thing.

Is loving a pet really erotic? Once we have agreed that hard-core bestiality is truly bestial, this soft-core kind is suddenly presented as more bestial than most of us would have thought.

This part of the book leaves the (pet-loving) reader feeling morally inadequate and a bit guilty about having pets at all – though not quite so guilty as the animal-rights man I once dined with, who explained to me that, since it is cruel to treat pets as city-dwellers inevitably must, the only kind thing to do is to sterilise all existing pets and kill all strays, so that in fifteen years there won’t be any more dogs and cats at all. According to this logic, the ultimate right of an animal is to be dead – or, like a character in a Greek tragedy, never to have been born. This will strike any animal-lover as counter-intuitive, and any reader of Midas Dekkers’s book as untrue. For, if nothing else, Dearest Pet tells us that one of the rights of an animal is to be loved – for better or for worse – by a human being.

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Vol. 16 No. 16 · 18 August 1994

What perverse trick of memory caused Wendy Doniger (LRB, 4 August) to quote what she called ‘the old limerick’ in French? There are no limericks in French, old or otherwise. The form simply does not transpose. Rules of prosody can be set aside, although in French with difficulty, since they spring so naturally from the spoken language. But the sounds and rhythms of the language, and above all the fugitive nature of tonic stress, cannot accommodate the limerick. The rhyme scheme aabba is, I suppose, possible, though I have never encountered it. Englishmen have tried to write limericks in French, if memory serves I believe George du Maurier had a go, but it did not and cannot work. I do not believe any French writer has been tempted. Wendy Doniger’s example is a patent translation, and a poor one, since the result cannot be read as verse, even doggerel verse; it could be improved, but the result would still be forced and false. I do not know the original, but it is easy to reconstruct it. The first line, ‘There was a young fellow of Dijon’ (Didge-un is the required pronunciation, to give a rhyme with ‘religion’), has a typically lolloping rhythm which cannot be reproduced in French.

It has to be accepted that the limerick, with its curious ability to accommodate philosophical thought or cheerful obscenity, is indissolubly tied to the English language, as, for example, the prose form of the contrepèterie is to French, in which it produces books full of gross obscenities, whereas the transfer to English gives only the flat and laborious spoonerism, with one or two irreverent exceptions that I will not quote here.

The book under review reminded me that Théophile Gautier did not agree that dogs need people:

Que les chiens sont heureux!
Dans leur humeur badine
Ils se sucent la pine,
Ils s’enculent entr’eux;
Que les chiens sont heureux!

Gerald Long

Vol. 16 No. 22 · 24 November 1994

As one who runs an annual limerick competition in the Comparative Literature Department at Princeton, I was fascinated to read the recent exchange in your periodical. Not only do French limericks already exist, such as the following gem –

Il y avait un jeune homme de Provence
Dont les couilles étaient vraiment immenses.
‘C’est un grand avantage,’
Disait-il, ‘quand je nage,
Mais ça gêne quand je baise ou je danse’

– but more are being created, in spite of the obvious difficulties in transposing a form that depends on stress accents into a syllabic metre. I submit a more anglicising piece on the lately great Jacques Derrida, and a hybrid effort by Christophe Lagier which attempts to reduce Waiting for Godot to lines of six and 12 syllables.

Un garçon qui s’appelle Maître Jacques
A beaucoup de problèmes à sa fac
Car à chaque quest-i-on
Il répond ‘oui et non’ –
Il’ va pas réussir à son bac.

Acte premier

Vladimir pensait nulle chose un peu trop fort,
Pauvre Estragon oubliait demain sans remords.
Grand Dieu qu ‘attendait-il?
L’espoir d’une mort facile?
Une corde même ne suffit à I’ accord …

Acte deuxième

Impotent Pozzo la solution porta:
Un portant Lucky domina et fouetta.
Aveugle comédie,
Qui troubla fort Didi,
Qui dit ‘on y va’ bien que le départ ratât.


Joshua Landy
Princeton University

Some years ago in the language department of a Midwestern university, there was a brief fad of attempting the clerihew, that other eminently English form, in French. I retain two, the first reminiscent of something, perhaps a limerick?

M. Gustave Flaubert
Avait un sourire amer.
Son regard morne, superbe
Traitait toute chair comme herbe.

Mais le comte de Buffon,
Dans son sentiment profond,
Et son oeil doux et clair,
Voyait toute herbe comme chère.

Like the contrepèterie, the limerick drifts towards the salacious; the clerihew seems altogether more conservative in its values.

Robert Cunliffe
Hollis, New Hampshire

Not altogether in French, admittedly, but the following limerick in franglais may find a place in your collection.

It concerns:
Une jeune demoiselle de Nantes
Si chic, petite, élégante;
Sa chose was so small
There was no room at all
Sauf for la plume de ma tante!

The origin is unknown to me, but George du Maurier seems an unlikely source.

Bernard Cashman

The LRB launched a critique
On the ethnic soul of the limérique.
Francophobe and pedantic,
‘Town’s Celtic,’ they granted,
‘Mais do-guerre-al – pas magnifique.’

Wendy Doniger

Vol. 16 No. 24 · 22 December 1994

In the old days of the New Statesman weekend competition, we elicited this entry. I forget whether we ran it or not, but I can remember that it went like this:

Un jeune matelot à Marseille
A rencontré une fille sur le quai
Elle murmure ‘Ah chéri,’
Dit-il, ‘Pas sur ta vie!
Je regrette – comme Paris – je suis gai.’

Christopher Hitchens
Washington DC

I quote from a letter by Gerald Long (Letters, 8 December) on the subject of limericks: ‘Another favourite of mine which I have never seen recorded plays on a familiar name:

There was a young girl of Pretoria
Who was raped by Sir Gerald du Maurier
Jack Hylton, Jack Payne,
Then Sir Gerald again
And the band of the Waldorf Astoria.

People should be content with such amusements.’ Am I the only person who doesn’t find it particularly amusing that this should be one of Gerald Long’s favourite limericks?

Helen Tookey

Vol. 17 No. 1 · 12 January 1995

May I extend the frontiers of the Great Limerick Debate to include Germany where, for the past thirty years and maybe even longer, the art of limerick-writing has been cultivated with no little success, as you can see from the following examples (for which, regrettably, I cannot take the credit):

Stets trug nur ein Tuch statt des Wamses,
Auch bei Regen, der selige Ramses.
Er erkältet’sich sehr,
Und verlor sein Gehör;
Da sagte sein Arzt: ‘Na, da hamses!’
Es war ein Trompeter in Worcester,
Rein körperlich gar kein roborcester,
Doch einwandfrei bester
Im Worcester-Orchester,
Und allen Trompetern ein Morcester.

Ein Spanier mit Namen Rodriguez,
Der kaufte ein Pferd und bestieguez.
Doch war dieser Gaul
Selbst zum Fressen zu faul;
Nur der Pferdehändler verschwieguez.

Thomas Lindsay

As a man who works with men who rape, I was taken aback by the casual, unquestioning endorsement of abusive male sexual behaviour which appeared, without qualification or contradiction, in Gerald Long’s letter (Letters, 8 December 1994). This pitiful piece of juvenilia, masquerading as an erudite intervention, quotes an allegedly droll limerick about the hilarious topic of a woman being gang-raped. This, Mr Long informs us, is a ‘favourite’ limerick of his; limericks, he claims, are most successful when ‘succinctly philosophical or grossly obscene’.

Our culture endorses masculine power and control, so perhaps one should not be too surprised to see Mr Long endorsing his particular brand of cognitive distortion. Male dominance in the cultural sphere, as in the social and economic spheres, might no longer possess the easy air of historical inevitability it once claimed, but of course the continuing potency of masculine ideology is augmented by the submerged nature of its very status as an ideology. Thus the endorsement of gang rape becomes invisible while the ‘amusement’ value of the limerick in which it is packaged becomes all too visible. No doubt even this critique will be seized upon as indicating Pseuds Corner style humourlessness.

Consider the plethora of masculine myths constructed and reinforced by the masculine ideological imperative around the issues of abuse and rape: women need to be raped, they want it, it teaches them a lesson, shows them who is boss, they provoke it anyway, and deserve to be raped. In view of Mr Long’s jocund little epistle, one might add that rape provides a source of levity for men. There seems to be a yawning misconception here about the different ways in which men and women communicate. Not to worry, Mr Long – with a value system like that, if things get tough on the employment front, there will always be a vacancy for you in the judiciary.

Michael Teague
Aylesford, Kent

Vol. 16 No. 17 · 8 September 1994

Clearly, Wendy Doniger’s ‘jeune homme de Dijon’ is no limerick. Yet Gerald Long (Letters, 18 August) pushes too far: ‘There are no limericks in French, old or otherwise.’ What about James Joyce – a writer surely fully alive to ‘the fugitive nature of tonic stress’ in both English and French? He had a go in 1937. His subject, Ellmann tells us, was a certain Pinard de la Boulaye, a Lenten preacher in the Cathedral of Notre Dame that year. Joyce found it funny in the circumstances that this priest’s first name was also French slang for what some English people now call ‘plonk’. So he produced several limericks on the subject, in ‘a mixture of argot and old French’.

But Long grows more puffingly insular: ‘It has to be accepted that the limerick … is indissolubly tied to the English language.’ How about Thomas Aquinas? Didn’t Joyce’s own preferred philosopher also have a go at the form in a foreign language, years ago? Daily, before Vatican II changed everything, priests in all parts of the world could be found muttering, as they disrobed, the Angelic Doctor’s special post-Mass prayer – a prayer that includes this powerful limerick:

Sit vitiorum meorum evacuatio,
Concupiscentiae et libidinis exterminatio,
Caritatis et patientiae,
Humilitatis et obedientiae,
Omniumque virtutem augmentatio.

This prayer, with its lolloping rhythms, has fallen into disuse. Yet may I recommend its recitation to Gerald Long, over there in Paris, as a calming spell against the sultry urgings of old Gautier’s doggy badinage?

Bernard McCabe
Ludlow, Shropshire

Gerald Long says: ‘the rhyme scheme aabba is, I suppose, possible, though I have never encountered it.’ I have:

C’est la Mère Michel qui a perdu son chat
Elle crie par la fenêtre ‘qui me le rendra?’
C’est le Père Lustucru
Qui lui a répondu:
‘Allez, la Mère Michel, ton chat n’est pas perdu.’

Long also says that George du Maurier ‘had a go, but it did not and cannot work. I do not believe any French writer has been tempted.’ Well, du Maurier was French, being born in Paris. He had several goes, three of which were awful and one passable if only for its splendid tongue-twister of a last line: ‘Ton thé t’a-t-il ôté ta toux?’

Freddy Hurdis-Jones

Vol. 16 No. 19 · 6 October 1994

Gerald Long’s assertion that ‘there are no limericks in French’ (Letters, 18 August) reminds me of a dilemma that faced me some years ago when I was invited to deliver the concluding speech at an Anglo-Canadian conference of adult educators. I was required to provide a commentary on the discussions held during the previous three days, and thus the speech had, in theory, to be composed at high speed after those discussions had taken place. In the event, since I felt I could guess what adult educators were likely to say, I composed the key passages of my speech in advance, including a section which I was asked to deliver in French and to which I therefore gave a somewhat lofty and ‘philosophical’ tone. In addition I prepared some verse which I thought it would be fitting to include: to wit, that overwhelming utterance of Lear’s, ‘Pray do not mock me: / I am a very foolish fond old man’; and also – and we now come to the point – a limerick. As I couldn’t expect the lady who was translating simultaneously into French to translate Shakespeare off the cuff, I handed her in advance a rendering of Lear’s words by a M. Guizot (‘Je vous en prie, ne vous moquez pas de moi. Je suis un pauvre bon radoteur de vieillard’). I also gave her the text of my limerick, but without translation, in order, rather unkindly, to see how she would cope. For this composition was located in the middle of a passage encouraging English-speaking Canadians to spend the next twenty years learning to speak French with a modicum of fluency, and so it was appropriately bilingual:

Une belle professeuse, a French Miss,
To her English provincial said: ‘Chris,
I’m shocked que vous pensez
That your duty to Français
Is fulfilled in a bilingual kiss.’

The translators into French and English (both of them French Canadians, of course) solved the problem very neatly: they read my bilingual limerick in unison. As the French printed record of the Conference noted, ‘nous laissons ce poème sous sa forme originale.’ But I confess to Mr Long that I have yet to compose a limerick in French.

Boris Ford

Freddy Hurdis-Jones (Letters, 8 September) has not ‘encountered’ aabba. The rhyme scheme of ‘La Mère Michel’ is, as correctly printed, aabbb.

J.A. Fiskin
Los Angeles

Vol. 16 No. 20 · 20 October 1994

Neither Bernard McCabe nor Freddy Hurdis-Jones seriously disputes my contention that the limerick is an exclusively English form of doggerel verse. To state this as a fact is in no way insular, any more than it is cock-crowing to say that the contrepèterie, at a low level, and the alexandrine, at a high one, are peculiarly French. Bernard McCabe cannot expect us to take the reported Joyce limericks on trust: they sound unlikely, and, if they exist, are probably excruciating.

I have in the meantime traced Wendy Doniger’s example to the preface by Norman Douglas to his collection of limericks. He does not present it as a French limerick, but only claims that it would shock a hypothetical Frenchman, which obviously it would not.

It surprises me that Bernard McCabe sees urgings in Théophile Gautier’s factual account of canine behaviour. I see none, and have no need of the jaw-breaking incantation of Thomas Aquinas: limerick indeed!

Freddy Hurdis-Jones achieves his rhyme scheme by breaking in half what one might call a country alexandrine that has a jarring internal rhyme. The verse is printed in Chants et Chansons Populaires de la France (1843) as the quatrain it properly is.

Being born in Paris does not make you French. The DNB says that George du Maurier’s father, Louis Mathurin, married an Englishwoman, and became a naturalised Englishman. The Britannica (11th edition) says that George was British, but whatever he was, he could not import the limerick into French. The nearest anyone can get to it is the charming example of the young man of Boolong,

Who sang a most topical song;
It wasn’t the words
That frightened the birds,
But the horrible dooble-ongtong.

Gerald Long

I have followed with interest the correspondence on the subject of French limericks, and remember having the same discussion as long ago as the Fifties, when my family was living in France. At that time, my father, who had been asked to help in arranging an exchange visit for the grandson of an acquaintance, produced the following specimen by way of a letter to the party of the second part:

Un peintre, qui s’appelle H. Matisse,
II paraît, a un jeune petit-fils;
Et, si cela vous arrange,
II propose un échange
Pour au moins cinq semaines – peut-être six.

The visit was made.

H. Harvey Wood
Literature Department, British Council,

I’m surprised Gerald Long hasn’t met this one:

Voici un gendarme à Nanteuil,
Qui n’avait qu’une dent et qu’un oeil,
Mais cet oeil solitaire
Etait plein de mystère,
Et cette dent d’importance et d’orgueil.

Needless to say I cannot remember the source, but I assume it would have been British.

Christopher Hill

My high-school French is many decades behind me, but I think I can follow a discrete set of words well enough to determine a rhyme scheme. In the example given by Freddy Hurdis-Jones the line-ending words – chat/rendra/Lustucru/répondu/perdu – constitute an aabbb pattern, which is not the limerick’s aabba pattern.

At considerable risk, given my years away from any formal work in French, I’ll offer my best memory of what I always supposed was a Gallic example of the quintessentially English verse form. Corrections will be gratefully accepted.

Il y a un jeune homme, un émir,
Il a laissé le trône à ces dires:
‘Qui vaut des alarmes,
Des regrets et leurs larmes,
Comme le khan à la tête de l’empire?’

Stuart Silverman

Vol. 16 No. 21 · 10 November 1994

My suggestions about non-English limericks seem only to exacerbate Gerald Long’s dogged chauvinism (Letters, 20 October). Of James Joyce’s versions: ‘probably excruciating’; of Thomas Aquinas’s: ‘jawbreaking’. Literary discourse must push beyond such huff and puff.

No one doubts the fluent, and perhaps inimitable, at-homeness of the limerick in the English language. Yet note how many of the best thrive on self-parody. A hundred examples spring to mind, but I’ll quote, quite arbitrarily, from just one:

‘We should thtop,’ lisped a young girl of Louth.
‘All the buttonth have come off my blouth.’

Here the sly, deft play with the limerick’s traditional form is at least as important as the sly situation in itself.

Limericks in a foreign tongue are doubly parodic – of the form, and of the language they are written in. The French examples offered by your correspondents H. Harvey Wood, Christopher Hill and Stuart Silverman (Letters, 20 October) can all (after minimal syntactical and verbal adjustment here and there) emphasise this fundamental point.

St Thomas grasped that point prophetically when, seven hundred years ago, he enlivened his solemn prayer with a Latin limerick’s clattering rhyme and galumphing rhythm. Joyce loved the form. Twenty-four of his limericks (some, it is true, better than others) appear in his Poems and Shorter Writings (Faber, 1991). Of these, one is macaronic, in English and French, and another, taking characteristically anarchic liberties with the form, is in Finnegans Wake-speak:

Humptydump Dublin squeaks through his norse,
Humptydump Dublin hath a horriple vorse,
And, with all his kinks english
Plus his irishmanx brogues,
Humpydump Dublin’s grandada of rogues.

How pleasant if this correspondence prompted some scholar to hound down those lost French limericks Ellmann told us about.

Bernard McCabe

The limerick provided by Christopher Hill (Letters, 20 October) is one of George du Maurier’s, mistakenly rejected by Freddy Hurdis-Jones (Letters, 8 September). As printed in Punch, the first line reads, ‘Il était un gendarme … ’; the last, nicely: ‘Cette dent, d’importance et d’orgueil’.

Du Maurier’s other performances in this genre include:

Il existe une Espinstère à Tours,
Un peu vite, et qui porte toujours
Un ulsteur peau-de-phoque,
Un chapeau bilicocque,
Et des nicrebocqueurs en velours.


‘Cassez-vous, cassez-vous, cassez-vous,
O mer, sur vos froids gris cailloux!’
Ainsi traduisait Laure
Au profit d’Isidore
(Bon jeune homme, et son futur époux).

That tails off a bit, admittedly, after the soaring inspiration of the first two lines.

Anthony Paul

No limericks in French? This hasn’t been true for at least a century, as witness the following by George du Maurier:

Il était un homme de Madère
Qui frappé le nez a son père;
On demandait: ‘Pourquoi?’
Il repondit: ‘Ma foi!
Vous n’avez pas connu mon père!’

As it happens he prepared an English version:

A young man from Madeira arose
And punched his progenitor’s nose;
When the people asked, ‘Why?’
He responded, ‘My eye!
You don’t know the old man, I suppose!’

Both versions appear in Langford Reed’s Complete Limerick Book, from which I take them, curious French and all.

Mark Wainwright

Vol. 16 No. 23 · 8 December 1994

I do not know what Bernard McCabe means by ‘chauvinism’ (Letters, 10 November), but if he thinks that I believe the limerick is a boon of which the English language should have the monopoly, he is sadly mistaken. His tone of heavy archness weighs down an essentially light-hearted subject. The limerick is an English word game that does not export; in English it is often flat: it is most successful when succinctly philosophical or grossly obscene. An example of the first is provided by P.G. Wodehouse. I quote from memory:

There was a young fellow named Stover
Who bowled 35 wides in one over
Which had never been done
By a clergyman’s son
On a Thursday, in August, at Dover.

This shows us how rare is justified use of the superlative: ‘never’ is for once not ‘well, hardly ever’. Another, which is noteworthy for not being in the second category, is:

There was a young lady named Tuck
Who had the most terrible luck
She went out in a punt
And fell over the front
And was bit in the leg by a duck.

Another favourite of mine which I have never seen recorded plays on a familiar name:

There was a young girl of Pretoria
Who was raped by Sir Gerald du Maurier,
Jack Hylton, Jack Payne,
Then Sir Gerald again.
And the band of the Waldorf Astoria.

People should be content with such amusements; I do not see why they wish to play English games with the French language. The doggerels, in part macaronic, quoted by your correspondents may be limericks but they are in no case French. Versifiers may flout the rules of prosody and produce splendid results; what they may not and, if they are poets, cannot do is to destroy the music of the language; the limerick does not march to the music of French. Having said that, I must confess that I found George du Maurier’s gendarme poetic and charming, the exception that proves the rule.

Du Maurier achieved few such effects. He can be forgiven: bilingualism sometimes leads to confusion of vocabulary. One must suppose that it is whimsy rather than ignorance that causes him to spell ‘knickerbocker’ ‘nicrebocqueurs’. The transfer of the term, in the spelling ‘knicker-bocker’, is attested by Prosper Mérimée in a letter dated 21 March 1863. The Robert Diçtionnaire des Anglicismes notes that the abbreviated spelling ‘knickers’ mostly denotes nowadays an article of female underwear, adding: ‘et dans I’exclamation “knickers!" “merde!"’

Gerald Long

Limericks will have to be unusually good to get into any future issue.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Vol. 17 No. 4 · 23 February 1995

I should like to ask Helen Tookey and Michael Teague, the humourless ideologues who have rebuked Gerald Long for finding a limerick about rape funny (Letters, 22 December 1994 and Letters, 12 January), what they think of the millions who condone serial murder yearly by laughing at various productions of Arsenic and Old Lace.

Bob Grumman
Port Charlotte, Florida

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