Everything is fucked up, I'm dying of the pox

In 1619, a collection of poems by different authors was published in Paris under the title: Parnasse satyrique. The star poet in the group was Théophile de Viau. The poem he published went like this:

Par le sieur Theophille

Philis tout est f…tu je meurs de la verolle
Elle exerce sur moi sa dernière rigueur :
Mon V. baisse la teste et n'a point de vigueur
un ulcére puant a gasté ma parole.

J'ai sué trante jours, j'ai vomi de la colle
Jamais de si grand maux n'eurent tant de longueur
L'esprit le plus constant fut mort à ma langueur,
Et mon afficlition n'a rien qui la console.

Mes amis plus secrets ne m'osent approcher,
Moi-même cet estat je ne m'ose toucher
Philis le mal me vient de vous avoir foutue.

Mon dieu je me repans d'avoir si mal vescu :
Et si vostre couroux a ce coup ne me tuë
Je ne fais vuex désormais de ne …tre qu'en cul.

The translation goes like this:

“Philis, everything is f..ed up; I’m dying of the pox
which has me strictly bound in the last throes;
My D..k hangs its head, is on the rocks
and a stinking sore spoils my attempts at prose.

For thirty days I’ve sweated, vomited up bowls
I’ve never seen a sickness last like this!
my exhaustion would have killed firmer souls
and my affliction brings me no consoling bliss.

My most secret friends dare not approach me.
I don’t even dare to touch myself in this stew –
And all this Philis, comes from ..cking you.

My god, I repent of having lived so badly!
And if your anger doesn’t kill me with this blast
I swear that from now on, I’ll only ..ck in the ass.”

(Sorry for my distortions – wanted to see if I could find a few appropriate rhymes, though of course my rough draft scans like a hog in heat).

I’m interested in Théophile as one of the early freethinkers who are separated by a degree or two from Gassendi. He is also, famously, one of the regrets of French literature – what if the French baroque had been allowed to flower, much as the English Jacobin writers were? There is a view, first expressed I believe by the romantics, that the imposition of rules of literary bienseance emptied French poetry of what Theophile called the “natural”. And that old fight isn’t worth fighting.

More interesting is that Théophile was put on trial for this poem, and nearly had the same fate doled out to him as to the Protestant printer, Etienne Dolet - who is, or should be, to translators what the skull is to the contemplating monk – for Dolet, poor guy, trying to convey a bit of Plato in French, translated a line in the Apology Apres le mort tu ne seras plus rien de tout, instead of tu ne seras plus, and so – for that rien - was burned at the stake. That is one way to ensure literalism!

There’s an amusing gloss on the enterprising use of ellipses and acronyms in obscene poems in Joan E. DeJean’s The Reinvention of Obscenity, who claims that the startling thing about Theophile’s poem was the ‘cul’ – a vite as a V. or a foutre as a …tre was, in a sense, a bow to the common dignity, but that ass, stuck at the very end of the poem, it was practically mooning the authorities. I love these discussions that are close readings of readings – the third life’s life. They are so Nabokovian. DeJean introduces the topic like this:

“These four-letter words, primary obscenities, stand out as the principle mark of this basdy poetry’s sexual transgressiveness. With one exception, cul (ass), which was to become key in Theophile’s case, they are never written out. Instead, in an act of self censorship that initially may have helped save the volumes from official prosecution, the words were abbreviated in various ways, and different types of punctuation were inserted to stand as a visual mark representing the suppressed content. This punctuation is the typographical equivalent of the fig leaves that began appearing in Renaissance engravings to veil male and female genitalia without fully hiding the contours.

The typographical fig leaves are, however, less efficient than their visual counterparts. A leaf painted on a representation of a human body means that the viewer, even though he or she obviously knows what presumably is there behyind the cover-up, is nevertheless denied the right to see the offending sexual characteristics. In the case of a text, however, a reader – and there is no reason to imagine that seventeenth century readers were any more conscious of these textual barriers than are their counterparts today – simply replaces the missing letters without a thought, so much so that he or she is immediately unaware that anything has been left out. This is truly the zero degree of censorship. Since, however, it obviously served an important function, I will consider it for a moment more.”

And so she does. LI will return to Theophile’s trial, and then to some of his amazing prose pieces.


roger said…
I'm gonna cry. I was sure I'd get some poetasters to comment on this post!

Anyway, the last line is obviously fucked up. It should go: I swear that from now on, I’ll ..ck only in the ass.” Li'l Kim would have seen that right away.Such are the geniuses. Myself, I merely imitate. OWWN-LI Fuck is rough, making the -LY Fuck combo sound like two long beats, whereas "fuck only" sounds more bell curvy softer harder softer - as in "drink to me only with your eyes." Only is one of those odd words that we can scrabble about in a sentence, all German like.
Anonymous said…
Ah, a poem near and dear to my...

And how not to appreciate poor Dolet's harsh leçon. One can muck around with être - soit - but mess up rien, then la mort, she is near.

LI, you'll have to excuse me if I don't comment further. It's not that I don't want to but I'm just laughing too hard. Which is a good thing maybe? With such a poem, does one need to be all erudite and rub one's c.., I mean chin please! Pas mal to give way to laughter for a while, particularly when there is plenty these days that f...s one up the a.. .

So, I'm not going to get into the translation jobie right now, except to say that if you think your translation is a bit loose, that's not necessarily bad -or is it- considering Théophile's use of "rigueur" in the second line of the poem?

There is also that "thing" which translations often glide over as it is something that seems easy to carry over - proper names. Théophile, Philis. O syphilis, a rose by any other name...

P.M.Lawrence said…
Er... no, "cul" does not mean ass, "âne" means ass. "Cul" means arse (cognate with German "Arsch", not Latin "asinus"). And "mort" is feminine, but I'm terrible at remembering word genders myself.
roger said…
Mr. Lawrence, we've had this discussion before. Arse might be very English, and who knows, it might even be very Australian, but it doesn't exist in the U.S.A. I don't know why it is so difficult for you to admit Americanisms into your linguistic universe. But, whether you admit them or not, the language is as it is. Hie thee to, say, Henry Miller and check it out.
Anonymous said…
Mr. Lawrence, my HarperCollins/Robert dictionary's entry for cul has arse(Brit) and ass(US).
And, la mort is indeed feminine, as I I wrote in my previous comment. I think she is present throughout the above poem.

roger said…
Amie, she certainly is - in the form of philis. I never thought of syphilis, I confess - until you brought it up. Theophile, according to his enemies, belonged to the confraternity of bottles - it was as much about drinking as it was about sodomy at his trial - and indeed, he seemed to have been a cabaret poet.

Il faut escrire a la moderne - the sentence sneaks into his Fragments. It takes some time to realize that certain sentences are made not of ink but of fire, and will not be put out before they burn up libraries and kings. That is one of them.
roger said…
Hey, Amie, I was being a bit incoherent there - uh, or more than a bit. Oops. I meant to bring into contact Syphilis, philis and modernity - and the verole, in the early 17th century, was certainly the fashionable new disease. Everybody was getting it - and apparently they weren't until the 1530s or so. New worlds, new diseases, new rhymes - and we are off!
roger said…
Oh, I must add this, a great quote from Joan DeJean about the poem. I notice that her remarks are about the original printing, and - such is the hazard of copying stuff from the internet - my copy of the poem transposed or transformed typographic features from its first printing.

The poem gets its edge from Theophile’s manipulation of the poetic convention. In early seventeenth century pastoral literature, Phyllis was among the most common names for the object of the poet’s desire. The only difference is that the name is usually written – as, for example, in Honore d’Urfe’s pastoral classic, L’Astree – Phillis. In this sonnet, as in all the works that announced the reinvention of literary obscenity, the key is in the typography: by changing an I to a y and cutting one l, Theophile made his sonnet sexually transgressive in another way. He transformed a conventional name for the beloved woman into an evocation of the first great sexual plague. This, then, is the ultimate punch packed in the sonnet’s last line. Since the cul was the less risky orifice for lovers as well as for typographers, this modern poet was weighing the risk of contamination, rather than the more traditional advantages of desire. Theophile thus simultaneously recalls the infamous close of Catullus 16 (I will bugger you and I will fuck your mouths”) and updates it with the treat of a contagious disease unknown to antiquity. – Joan DeJean, The Reinvention of Obscenity: Sex Lies and Tabloids in Early Modern France.
Anonymous said…
LI, I'll be damned. Sometimes I surprise myself! I haven't even read DeJean's book, which sure seems worth reading. I just saw Syphilis written in the poem. I also hear something which I didn't mention as it might have seemed crazy. I hear in the poem, syphilis, si Philis. Yes, Philis.

roger said…
Yes philis, siphylis - Amie, I know you will forgive a wild associative foray, but so much in Theophile seems to come out over time in the French poetic tradition, and the idea of saying yes in the midst of one's disease (where otherwise there is no consolation) irresistably reminds me of my fave line from Joe Bosquet, "Ma blessure existait avant moi, je suis né pour l'incarner." Which is quoted in my favorite passage of Deleuze's logique du sens.

I'll stop! I'll stop! Playin' the dozens, here.
Anonymous said…
LI, please do go with the associative foray. I'm hardly the person to say nay to that. Particularly if it involves Theophile and Bousquet.

I have to admit your association to JB threw me for a loop, as Joë B. is a writer I am very fond of. Do you know his letters to his beloveds - Un amour couleur du thé or Lettres à Poisson d'Or? Oh, I have to resist quoting from them, but if you give permission I will quote just part of one letter which has everything to do with writing in fire, sickness and sweetness.
But thinking to JB and his propensity to give beloveds a "nickname" - a secret name - I have to correct a very stupid thing I said in a comment above. Philis is not a proper name. A nom propre in french is something else. Phylis is a prénom. Which makes a world of a difference.

Sickness and sweetness. LI, where is the sweetness in Happiness Truimphant, a question that you often ask in your posts?

To say si phylis, is not just to say yes to sickness. Or to say yes to contamination and contagion and death - thought it is that. It is also to say yes - in the same breath - to sweetness.

Such sweetness is perhaps unavowable in the culture of happiness triumphant. Which is sad - to put it mildly- as is the fact that more than often the opponents of such a culture will also dismiss such sweetness as simply sickness.

Somehow we need to find a way to say si philis today!

roger said…
Amie, you are on the roll of rolls. Preach!
roger said…
Oops - and I'm rendered obscure by enthusiasm. What I meant was, please, please quote Joe Bousquet, who is undeservedly unknown in these here states.
P.M.Lawrence said…
The answer to your objection is simple: commandeering the perfectly good word ass to mean arse deprives the language of a valuable tool, ass in its proper meaning (by which I do not mean "our" meaning, but the meaning traditionally attached). I have no objections to Americanisms of other sorts, but I do object to theft of meaning (and no, donkey is not an adequate substitute - donkey is a subset of ass, the domesticated variant).
roger said…
mr. lawrence. I'll continue to use the word ass to mean bottom. So will 300 million Americans. And I guess I'll just risk the cognitive confusion that results when, encountering a tap dancing jackass, I turn to my companion and say, did you see that ass? But spare a thought for the poor hunters of fowl, having to deal with the noun duck and the verb duck. That's a language confusion that can lead to nasty results.
Anonymous said…
LI, I appreciate the invite to go on about Joë Bousquet and I'd love to. But the sobering light of dawn brings a certain hesitation to my enthusiasm. It would be crass or worse for me to, without further ado with a glib gesture, throw out a quote from his amazing letters. They demand and deserve more than that. Particularly because his writing is so little known.
And then again, I think I have inflicted LI and its readers with more than enough of my rambling ravings recently!
But, I would like to quote something from JB. Ah, you knew I couldn't help myself!
It is from the Deleuze pages your comment sent me back to. LI, I'd somehow forgotten what it is like to read GD. One is standing in a room looking for a Deleuze book and picks it up and starts reading and all of a sudden one is on a jet flying at Mach 10, several leagues above sea-level.

Here is JB as quoted by GD:

"attacher aux pestes, aux tyrannies, aux guerres les plus effroyables la chance comique d'avoir régné pour rien."

I cannot but love this, just as I couldn't help but laugh my head off while reading the above Théophile poem. (I suspect that if one doesn't one belongs with Abel Hermant types in the Académie Française.)

But the humor and the comic is not something facile, one pays for it. Just think to what happens to Joë and Théophile.

Just before quoting the above lines from Bousquet, Deleuze writes this:

"L'humour est inséperable d'une force sélective: dans ce qui arrive (accident) il sélectionne l'événement pur. Dans le manger il sélectionne le parler."