February 18, 2010

The More you Know...

One of the many things about myself which sometimes skirts the line of pertinence to my work as a scholar is my sense of humor. I think it is of utter importance to have a good sense of humor, and moreover for an academic to be able to laugh at herself and her work. If she cannot do this, how can she have any degree of fun with it?

That being said, I have a horribly, wonderfully wicked and hideously dirty sense of humor. It is difficult to have studied Shakespeare for so long and not. I repeatedly say to my students “you haven’t studied Shakespeare until you’ve studied it with a dirty old man”. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had several dirty old men in my life who also happened to be brilliant scholars, actors and mentors. As a result, my mind is a twisted place more often in the gutter than anywhere else. I try to take an Oscar Wilde approach to this (“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” (Lady Windermere’s Fan, Lord Darlington, Act III) ) and also attempt (sometimes in vain) to keep this aspect of myself out of the classroom. It is hardly appropriate in polite company, and certainly can get a girl in trouble.

That being said, what can I do with myself when presented with readings from John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester? Really, there is nothing subversive or discrete about the blatant sexuality and bawdy humor of this man’s writing and thereby I chose to wallow in it rather than turn a blind eye. You have been warned, this post will contain suitably lewd language and humor (sorry, mom).

For those not in the historical know, the Earl of Rochester (portrayed by Johnny Depp in the 2004 movie the Libertine was perhaps the most fleshly and venereal gentleman in English history. Born April 1 1647, he died at the age of thirty-three due to any number of venereal diseases (gonorrhea and syphilis being the most popular theorized causes of his demise). While alive, he wrote and was actually fairly handy with verse. One of his largest mistakes is a poem lacking a title but often referred to as “Satyr” or “A Satyr on Charles II” which proclaimed that King Charles II was as impotent a King as he was a sexual partner. The poem was accidentally delivered to the King himself, causing the Earl to flee court and be unable to return.

But what really caught my eye in Rochester’s readings was a little ditty entitled “Signor Dildo”. Written in late 1673, the poem enumerates all the wonderful qualities of “A Noble Italian call’d Signior Dildo” (4).

You, like me, may be aghast that the word “dildo” was in use in 1673. A little internet digging reveals that the first dildo actually dates from much earlier. Uncovered in a German Cave in 2005, archeologists seem to have found a stone-age dildo which is about 28,000 years old. According to this article, the scholars seem hesitant to actually label the smoothly polished stone as an Ice Age sex toy, though those of a more liberal persuasion take my attitude of “clearly, it’s a large penis”. …interestingly enough, it was also used to knap flints. Talk about a multi-tool.

But that does not explain where the word came from. A jaunt into the OED actually defines “dildo” as “A word of obscure origin, used in the refrains of ballads” and in much smaller type underneath says “…Also, a name of the penis or phallus, or a figure thereof; spec. an artificial penis used for female gratification” (first used by Thomas Nashe circa 1593 in his poem “The Choise of Vanentines or the Merie Ballad of Nash his Dildo" see lines 261 and 237) It seems to me like ye olde sweater-vest-wearing, glasses-polishing, library-card-toting scholars may have a little shame about this word. The fact that “obscure origin” comes in the definition of the word before “penis” seems strange to me. Like the wordies are trying to hide the facts. Like they are saying to us “oh, well, if you must know…” I mean clearly if I am looking the word “dildo” up in the OED I have some inkling of scholarly persuasion and interest in the topic, what is there to hide?

In case you haven’t clicked on the above link and actually read Rochester’s poem, I would highly recommend it just for kicks and grins. I have never seriously considered how many words rhyme with “dildo” and I’m certain our beloved Earl didn’t even cover all of them. The poem, written in rhyming couplets (and actually in slightly strained heroic couplets at that unless my scansion is off), is actually and honestly a delightful little piece of debauchery. At some point I will have to analyze it further, but right now I am content to bask in the glow of its divine dirtiness. My favorite bit, lines 74-78, is just so wonderfully packed with imagery that it simply must be shared, “This Signior is sound, safe, ready, and Dumb,/As ever was Candle, Carret, or Thumb:/Then away with these nasty devices, and Show/How you rate the just merits of Signior Dildo.” Candle? Carrot? Really? I don’t know whether to be shocked, appalled or amused. I think I’m a little of all of the above.

…incidentally same jaunt into the OED revealed two items which my inner middle schooler is still giggling about. Apparently there exists a “dildo-glass” which is a “cylindrical glass test tube”. There also exists a “dildo-tree, dildo-bush, dildo pear tree” which is “a tree or shrub of the genus Ceresus family Cactaceae”. Apologies, but google searches to find a picture of the illusive dildo tree only yield smut. I do not recommend entering those search terms into any search engine. Searching by scientific name proved equally fruitless as the species of cactus was not given (only genus and family, that amounts to a lot of cacti). Though personally, the thought of any cactus being called a “dildo tree” just gives me the shudders.

If you are still reading and I have not offended your finer sensibilities, I wish you a good day filled with raunchy poetry and protection from dildo trees and syphilis.

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