mocking stork gesture in Persius and Comoedia Lydiae

In his first, programmatic satire, the Roman poet Persius addressed the relationship between writer and patron.  Acclaimed by the patron with “Bravo!” and “Lovely!”, the writer imagines saying to the patron:

You know how to serve up hot tripe, you know how to give some poor shivering fellow writer a worn-out cloak, and then you say, “I love the truth.  Tell me the truth about myself.”  How, actually?  Do you really want me to?  You’re a fool, baldy, your fat paunch sticking out with an overhang of a foot and half.  Lucky Janus, never banged from behind by a stork or by waggling hands imitating a donkey’s white ears or by a tongue as long as a thirsty Apulian dog’s.  You, of patrician blood, who have to live without eyes in the back of your head, turn around and face the backdoor sneer! [1]

The patron rewards the writer with neither meaningful appreciation for his work (only “Bravo” and “Lovely”) nor sufficient material support (only a “worn-out cloak”).  The patron only pretends to want to know the truth.  The writer imagines telling the patron the truth: the patron is old, fat, and a fool.  Then the writer describes three mocking gestures that are being made at the patron behind his back.  Waggling hands imitating a donkey’s ears is easy to understand as mocking the patron as an ass.  The mocking stork gesture hasn’t even been clearly understood formally.  The long-tongued, thirsty-dog gesture hasn’t been understood meaningfully.[2]

head of stork

Comoedia Lydiae, a late twelfth-century Latin elegiac comedy, provides key context to understand the mocking stork gesture.  In this tale, Lidia, the wife of the duke Decius, is deeply in love with the knight Pearus.[3]  To demonstrate the depth of her love for Pearus, Lidia wrings the neck of Decius’ prized falcon in front of Decius and guests, plucks hairs out of his beard, and yanks out one of his healthy teeth.  To further display her mastery of her husband, Lidia arranges to have sex with Pearus while Decius watches.  While Lidia is going with Decius and Pearus to the garden to perform that feat of cuckoldry, the servant-woman Lusca follows them.  She is in on the cuckolding scheme: “mouth agape, she trails along behind, making at Decius the gesture of the stork.”[4]  Lusca means in Latin “one-eyed.”  That name playfully contrasts with Persius’ Janus, a two-faced god who has eyes in the front and back of his head.[5]  Lusca’s mocking of Decius behind his back in Comoedia Lydiae evokes the mocking of the patron behind his back in Persius’ satire.  The context in Comoedia Lydiae suggests that the stork gesture ridicules male heterosexual failure.  Decius failed to fulfill his wife’s sexual desire and was thus cuckolded.

A gesture plausibly similar to the stork gesture has endured through millennia.  Near Boston in the late 1980s, a young man of first-generation Italian-American heritage and of strong, independent heterosexual desire would regularly make to his male friends a gesture plausibly similar to the stork gesture.  He would point an index finger straightly erect, and then droop it into a curved position.  That gesture declared a perceived lack of heterosexual vigor in the guy to whom it was directed.

finger in mocking stork gesture

The three mocking gestures in Persius have subtle complexity.  In the focal passage from Persius, I translated the Latin verbal form pinsit as “banged from behind.”  The most recent, authoritative academic translation of Persius translated pinsit as “pummeled from behind.”  The verb pinsit is difficult:

pinsit, ‘strikes’, an extension based on the analogy of the partial synonym tundit, pinso usually means “crushes, grinds, pounds”, but {Persius} seems to have none of these senses in mind.  pinsit, rather than say, ludit, is of course prompted by what the gesture represents. [6]

However, the stork gesture occurs in Jerome without any verb like pinsit:

They will fawn upon you with fulsome praise and do their best to blind your judgment; yet if you suddenly look behind you, you will find that they are making gestures of derision with their hands, either a stork’s curved neck or the flapping ears of a donkey or a thirsty dog’s protruding tongue. [7]

Moreover, the verb pinsit grammatically applies to the other two gestures:

The lines involve a zeugma.  From pinsit (58), the idea of ‘mock’ has to be supplied. [8]

With the stork gesture interpreted as mimesis of male erectile dysfunction, pinsit works as verbal irony.  A penis in the condition of the stork gesture is incapable of pinsit, meaning heterosexual intercourse of reproductive type.  Flapping could evoke lack of testicular tension as well as being an ass.  The thirsty dog’s protruding tongue adds a concluding note of male sexual frustration.  Rather than being crudely transparent, Persius’ three mocking gestures are highly literary.

Centuries of male scholars scrutinizing Persius’ satire failed to generate appreciation and insight into the mocking stork gesture.  Male scholars haven’t been reading texts with sufficient male consciousness.

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Notes:

[1] Perseus, Satires 1.53-63, from Latin trans. Braund (2004) p.53.  I’ve replaced “pummeled from behind” by “banged from behind” for reasons subsequently explained above.  I’ve also replaced “client” with “fellow writer” for clarity.  The underlying Latin word is “comitem.”  Gildersleeve (1875) provides an online version of the Latin text.  A.S. Kline has generously provided an online translation into English.

[2] “The exact nature of this ‘stork’ gesture is not discoverable.”  Harvey (1981), p. 33.  “Perhaps symbolising cacophony,” according to Bramble (1974) p. 116.  Id. notes that a sign of a thirsty dog, an ass, and a parrot occurs in Callimachus’ second Iambus.  How that recognition helps to read Persius isn’t clear.  In ancient Sanskrit literature, a parrot is linked with intended cuckoldry.  A recent scholarly work, “drawing upon recent scholarship in gender studies and Lacanian film theory,” interprets the mocking gestures in Persius as evoking elite male anxiety about anal penetration.  King (2006) p. 74, p. 249 n. 18.

[3] Elliott (1984), pp. 126-46, provides an English translation of Lidia, with some translation notes.  The poem is attributed to Arnulf of Orléans.  Boccaccio adapted Lidia in Decameron 7.9.

[4] My translation of the Latin, “Rictibus ora trahit Decioque ciconiat usu.”  Elliott (1984), p. 141, has as the translation:

Her lips curve up into a smile, and at Decius
she makes the gesture of the crane

That seems to me less exact.  The full Latin text is available online in Du Méril (1854).  See esp. id. p. 371.  Boccaccio’s version of Lidia, Decameron 7.9, doesn’t include the mocking stork gesture.

[5] The prologue to Lidia refers to a parrot imitating human speech.  A parrot imitating human speech also figures in the prologue to Persius’ satires.

[6] Harvey (1981) p. 33.  The relevant Latin lines from Persius, 1.58-60:

o Iane, a tergo quem nulla ciconia pinsit
nec manus auriculas imitari mobilis albas
nec linguae quantum sitiat canis Apula tantum.

From Braund (2004) p. 52.  Gildersleeve (1875) notes for l. 58:

ciconia pinsit = pinsendo ludit. The fingers of the mocker imitate the clapping of the stork’s bill.  Pinsit, ‘pounds,’ because the ciconia levat ac deprimit rostrum dum clangit, Isidor., Orig., 20, 15, 3.  ‘Pecks at’ is not correct; ‘claps’ is nearer.  What seems to be meant is mock applause.

[7] Jerome, Letter 125 (To Rusticus, dated 411) s.18, from Latin trans. Freemantle (1892) p. 597.  I’ve inserted “curved” within “stork’s neck.”  The underlying Latin:

si subito respexeris aut ciconiarum deprehendes post te colla curvari aut mans auriculas agitari asini aut aestuantem canis protenti linguam.

[8] Harvey (1981) p. 33.

[images] Ciconia ciconia, photographed in Mannheim (Baden-Württemberg, Germany). Detail from photograph thanks to 4028mdk09 and Wikimedia Commons. Finger gesture. Douglas Galbi’s photograph.

References:

Bramble, J. C. 1974. Persius and the programmatic satire: a study in form and imagery. Cambridge: University Press.

Braund, Susanna Morton, trans. 2004. Juvenal and Persius. Loeb Classical Library 91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Du Méril, Édélestand.  1854. Poésies inédites du moyen âge, précédées d’une histoire de la fable ésopique. Paris: Franck.

Elliott, Alison Goddard, ed. and trans. 1984. Seven medieval Latin comedies. New York: Garland.

Freemantle, William Henry, trans. 1892.  The Principal Works of St. Jerome.  Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. 6. Oxford: Parker.

Gildersleeve, Basil L. 1875. The satires of A. Persius Flaccus. New York: Harper & Brothers.

Harvey, R. A. 1981. A commentary on Persius. Leiden: Brill.

King, Richard Jackson. 2006. Desiring Rome: male subjectivity and reading Ovid’s Fasti. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

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