Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

The Bird and the Word: France's Literary Parrots [1]

Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

The Bird and the Word: France's Literary Parrots [1]

Article excerpt

COLIN NETTELBECK [*]

Thanks to Julian Barnes, Flaubert's interest in parrots is well known. But what Barnes does not tell us is that the parrot has spread its wings over much vaster literary territory. Readers of English literature will have grown up with the parrot of Long John Silver, and may also recall John Skelton's challenging and obscure Speak, Parrot, from the early sixteenth century. For German literature, as Klaus Lindeman demonstrated in his 1994 anthology, parrots have exerted a consistent fascination on writers across the centuries, both as an emblem of the exotic and as a metaphoric mirror for their own culture. [2] In French, significant examples range from medieval times (with the Chevalier du papegau) right down to the very recent past, with Queneau's Zazie dans le metro (1959), Jean Echenoz's Cherokee (1983) or Denis Guedj's Le Theoreme du perroquet (1998). [3] Across time, the symbolism attached to these literary birds changes: in the Middle Ages, they are figures of quasi-mystical respect, associated with memo ry, knowledge and tradition; later, their indiscriminate mimicry can make them objects of suspicion or ridicule; Flaubert, for his part, uses Loulou as an instrument of relativity and contingency; but in some more recent writing, the parrot makes something of a comeback as a figure of mystery to be sought beyond the chaotic ruptures of contemporary culture.

Whatever their complexities, one of the constant connotations of parrots is, not surprisingly, language. They raise the obvious questions associated with psittachism: words without thought, utterances without ordered sequencing, and the links (or lack of them) between signifier and signified. But more than this -- more than the issue of how language works -- they reach to the more radical question of what language is, and how it relates to history, time and spirit. Finally, they lead us to even more probing speculation: some of it metaphysical, some of it more pragmatically related to notions of intertextuality and the development of literature from the medieval to the classical, and from there to the pre- and to the post-modern.

At the medieval end of this study, the relationship between parrots and language is enmeshed with a number of different animal traditions: there is a whole classical tradition carried through authors such as Aristotle, Ovid, Pliny, which is concerned with understanding the relationship between human beings and the rest of the animal kingdom. It sometimes yields curious observations:

Above all, birds imitate the human voice, parrots indeed actually talking. India sends us this bird; its name in the vernacular is siptaces; its whole body is green, only varied by a red circlet at the neck. It greets its masters, and repeats words given to it, being particularly sportive over the wine. Its head is as hard as its beak, and when it is being taught to speak, it is beaten over the head with an iron rod -- otherwise it does not feel blows. When it alights from flight, it alights on its beak, and it leans on this and so reduces its weight for the weakness of its feet. [4]

There are the bestiaries which evolved from the Physiologus, and while the bestiary animals do not talk, some of the bestiary birds have qualities that medieval French parrots seem to have assimilated; there are the fables deriving from the ancients; and there are what Ziolkowksi [5] calls the Latin 'beast poems' (adapting his term from the German 'Tierdichtung') -- which certainly do include some significant parrots.

The following analysis will concentrate on French literature proper. From the corpus selected, we can hypothesize that a study of the changing symbolic role of the parrot over the whole of French literature, from its beginning to the present, is a reliable guide to increasing our understanding of how perceptions of language have changed: of language in itself, and also of language as literary act. …

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