Calf and Other Loves
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.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
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!
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?
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?’
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.
Freddy Hurdis-Jones (Letters, 8 September) has not ‘encountered’ aabba. The rhyme scheme of ‘La Mère Michel’ is, as correctly printed, aabbb.
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.
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.
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?’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
Impotent Pozzo la solution porta:
Un portant Lucky domina et fouetta.
Qui troubla fort Didi,
Qui dit ‘on y va’ bien que le départ ratât.
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.
Hollis, New Hampshire
Not altogether in French, admittedly, but the following limerick in franglais may find a place in your collection.
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.
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.’
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!”’
Limericks will have to be unusually good to get into any future issue.
Editor, ‘London Review’
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.’
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
Port Charlotte, Florida