Our friend T. in New York City just sent us a letter about The Book of the Prick. This surprised us, as we had been thinking of the review of that book ever since we read it in the December 8th New Yorker. The reviewer was the biographer of Colette, Judith Thurman, and she expressed a common prejudice in her review:
�Cazzo is the vulgar Italian word for the male organ, hence the title, whose "closest English rendering," Moulton writes, "is probably 'cockery'-but that is too close to 'cookery.' . . . 'Prickery' might work, but it lacks the specificity of the Italian word. In English, 'prick' is a word with many meanings; in Italian, 'cazzo' can mean only one thing. In the text, I have translated 'cazzo' as 'cock,' but 'Book of the Cock' sounds like it might have something to do with poultry, so for the working English title, I settled on 'Book of the Prick.' " Anglo-Saxon sexual slang, however, has a much harsher impact on the ear than its mellifluous Romance counterpart, and equivalent terms don't carry the same charge. The percussive monosyllables and/or double final consonants of cock, balls, shit, dick, buttocks, jerk-off, prick, cunt, and fuck have a blunt, expletive force that isn't rendered by (and betrays the puckish delicacy of) cazzo, potta, culo, fica, scopare, merda, coglioni, and cacca. The verbs incazzare and inculare, especially used reflexively, are certainly rude, but hardly so heavy-handed as "to take it up the ass." It's the difference, perhaps, between Ariel's nimble tongue and Caliban's thick one.�
This is an old college wife�s tale, one that we have all heard. Yes, English is devoid of the subtlety vis-�-vis ars amore, especially in comparison with those French and Italians. This clumsiness � Caliban at the bat, so to speak � is, according to Ms. Thurmon, all in our velars. Instead of the harem like slither and insinuation of the sibilant, English vulgarities come right at you like the most vulgar of car salesmen drunkenly serenading a stripper jumping out of a cake.
Ourselves, we doubt the puckish delicacy of cacca is lost in the steaming pile of shit it becomes in English. In fact, lately � doubting much -- we�ve certainly doubted the whole sexual divide that notoriously mirrors the English channel.
Let�s take the yeoman �fuck,� which is, in its way, a general stripping off of the overalls. Is it really so �heavy-handed,� or is it that our squeamishness has found an intellectual excuse, a compromise between the responsibility of fuck and the Puritanism endemic to certain parts of our culture? We�ve been reading a biography of Robert Burns, and the one striking thing about Burns is how willing he was to strip off the overalls � there�s fuck all over his letters and poetry. In fact, if you compare him to almost any of the 19th century French poets � the ones who lifted the seal, so to speak � he comes off surprisingly well. Here�s Nine Inches will please a lady:
Come rede me dame, come tell me, dame,
My dame come tell me truly,
What length o' graith, when weel ca'd hame,
Will sair a woman duly?
The carlin clew her wanton tail,
Her wanton tail sae ready -
I learn'd a sang in Annandale,
Nine inch will please a lady.
But for a like mine,
In sooth, we're nae sae gentle;
We'll take tway thumb-bread to the nine,
And tha's a sonsy pintle;
O leeze me on my Charlie lad,
I'll ne'er forget my Charlie!
Tway roarin handfu's and a daud,
He nidge't it in fu' rarely.
But weary fa' the laithron doup
And may it ne'er ken thrivin!
It's no the length that maks me loup,
But it's the double drivin.-
Come nidge me, Tam, come nidge me Tam,
Come nidge me o'er the nyvel!
Come lowse and lug your battering ram,
And thrash him at my gyvel!
What, we wonder, would Thurmon make of the double drivin' of Burns� �souncy pentle�?
This, remember, comes from a very hardcore Presbyterian culture. But one, perhaps significantly, that is still very gaelic. We suspect that the erotic lacuna in our literature after the eighteenth century owes more to the class system and less to the percussive sound of �dick,� as opposed to, say, the lilting sound of �cul�.
By the way, Walt Whitman wrote a very nice essay on Burns -- of course, it was on the nineteenth century's Burns, for whom there was no such a poem as Nine Inches, not to speak of the rest of Burns' smut. Still, Whitman saw what was interesting about Burns as a koontrie cunt:
His brightest hit is his use of the Scotch patois, so full of terms flavor'd like wild fruits or berries. Then I should make an allowance to Burns which cannot be made for any other poet. Curiously even the frequent crudeness, haste, deficiencies, (flatness and puerilities by no means absent) prove upon the whole not out of keeping in any comprehensive collection of his works, heroically printed, "following copy," every piece, every line according to originals. Other poets might tremble for such boldness, such rawness. In "this odd-kind chiel" such points hardly mar the rest. Not only are they in consonance with the underlying spirit of the pieces, but complete the full abandon and veracity of the farm-fields and the home-brew'd flavor of the Scotch vernacular. (Is there not often something in the very neglect, unfinish, careless nudity, slovenly hiatus, coming from intrinsic genius, and not "put on," that secretly pleases the soul more than the wrought and rewrought polish of the most perfect verse?)