FEATURE: John Waters On Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
Oct - 31 | By: Josh Nelson | no comments.
To say that director John Waters has a fondness for excess is perhaps to put things mildly. For the man William S. Burroughs once dubbed “the pope of trash”, Waters has carved out a reputation through his filmmaking for transgressing sexual norms and embracing social taboo. And while the early extremes of Multiple Maniacs (1970) and Pink Flamingos (1972) have mellowed to more playful fare (A Dirty Shame 2004), Waters’ provocateur tendencies remain.
It should come as little surprise then, that when Toronto Bell Lightbox curator Noah Cowan invited Waters to discuss a work from the Essential Cinema program, that the director immediately gravitated towards Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975). As Waters has managed throughout his career, Pasolini’s final film continues to inspire controversy, even after thirty-five years.
Introducing Salò, Waters begins by pointing out the film’s notorious reputation for “emptying out theatres in record time”. By contemporary standards though, perhaps it’s not the most discomforting film he’s seen. Having just watched Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried, a film he describes as “horrifying”, Waters concludes, “It’s the worst date movie ever”. Then, with a hint of a wry smile, he returns to Salò, “This ain’t a great date movie either”.
Based on the Marquis De Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom and relocated to a Northern Italian setting towards the end of WWII, Pasolini’s “flash of inspiration” (as he referred to it) has been banned at one time or another in almost every country. Waters explains that Pasolini had “simply planned to replace the word ‘God’ as Sade used it, with the word ‘Power’”. Like Pasolini, Waters too confesses an affinity for the work of De Sade.
The Marquis De Sade was incredibly important to me growing up. I went to Catholic school and they told me if I just shut up I could read, so I read The 120 Days of Sodom. But the were so stupid they didn’t know what I was reading. And they would say, ‘Isn’t it nice, John is reading.’ And Grove Press really saved my life by putting that book out. It was originally banned by Napoleon. That’s how long this has been causing trouble. And smuggled out of jail when he wrote it on prison toilet paper. That sounds like something I would make up. But it’s really true.
It was such a big influence on me that I bought this record. [Waters holds up a red vinyl cover] This is a 6-sided LP where actors read The 120 Days of Sodom. And I’m embarrassed to admit, we used to listen to this on LSD. [laughs] Which really was weird. You know ‘cos it’s really long and graphic. And I’ve always wanted to go to Lacoste. That’s the town where the Marquis De Sade’s ruins of his castle are. It’s the only thing they have in that town. And I wonder, is there a gift shop? Are there T-Shirts? I don’t know.
Given the setting of the film and its depiction of escalating sexual violence and brutality, Salò is commonly read as an allegorical depiction of WWII fascism. But Pasolini, a self-confessed Catholic homosexual communist intended the film to have a broader significance. Murdered just prior to the film’s release, Pasolini wasn’t merely concerned with the expression of fascism that occurred during the war but also with its contemporary manifestations. On this Waters notes, “Right before he died he said that he detested power in today’s world more than anything.”
So could a film like Salò be made today? Waters doesn’t believe so, and not simply because of the graphic scenes of violence. Referring to the film’s production he relates how:
…all the kids who played the teenagers that are kidnapped and abused [in Salò] were 14 to 18 years old, which is highly illegal in any country in the world. But the main problem they said when making the movie was to keep them from laughing, that they would burst out laughing right in the middle of the most hideous sex scenes because Pasolini didn’t tell them what was coming next, which is even more shocking. They would show up, and [Impersonating Pasolini] “Today, well you have to eat shit” and they would say, “What?!” But they said he was gentle with the actors. I love that. [laughs] And that the mood was jovial and immature. It was like Summer Camp. And they knew the comic quality of the film. And is it funny? Well maybe yes in a way. But imagine their memories today, ‘When I was 14 I was naked in Salo’. I wish I was. I wish my parents had given me to Pasolini to be in that movie. [laughs]
Beyond the film’s excesses or politics, and perhaps in spite of the shocking violence, Waters cites Salò’s ending as the most profoundly moving aspect of the work.
It has my favourite end of any movie I’ve ever seen. It’s incredibly beautiful and simple. And I pray to Pasolini. If I ever have to pray to a Catholic saint it will always be him.
After the screening, Waters sat down with TIFF Bell Lightbox curator Noah Cowan for a Q&A session in which they discussed among other things; Salò, the influence of Pasolini’s work upon Waters’ career, Jackass 3D, torture-porn, film furniture, and the work of Gregg Araki.
COWAN: When we approached you about doing a talk here at BELL Lightbox you really zeroed in on this film as one you wanted to discuss. Of all the Essential Cinema, the essential one hundred titles, what is it about this that made it the title to see?
WATERS: Well a lot of them are awful respectable, the other one hundred. So I was immediately looking for something that could cause a little bit of trouble more than anything. When I saw this I thought, ‘Well what else am I gonna pick than that, you know? True Grit just ain’t up my alley, right. And I actually think that it is a great film, and a beautiful film, and an amazing film. And yes it’s a shocker but to me it was just a film that I remembered. I watched this movie this week cause I hadn’t seen it since it first came out and I remember seeing it at the New York Film Festival when it opened and just being amazed at the stunned reaction by the people and when I saw it again this time I thought, ‘well it’s still pretty far out there’. It hasn’t mellowed in that can after the last twenty years. And I’m a huge Pasolini fan, and you know I love the fact that I’m maybe the only person who ever noticed that Pasolini loved boys that have pimples. He loved pimples. And so I did a whole art piece where I just cut out pimples from all his movies and put them in a collage. I always watch pimples in his movies and there were some in this too. I wanted to make sure everyone knew about that; the reason I took the job.
COWAN: You’ve just published this book about these great influences in your life, and while Pasolini doesn’t feature as a character in it, is there something about this film and Pasolini and his career that has an affinity with the work that you do?
WATERS: I don’t know about my work, I’m a little too humble because Pasolini to me is such a great filmmaker and when I saw Teorema (1968) the first time round it was such a great shock. You know, the levitating and having someone come and have sex with the whole family. Then he leaves and people levitate and stuff. And I grew up with all his movies from the very beginning. Mamma Rosa (1962), [that’s a] great one. So I followed his career and everything and I always just thought he was such a powerful intellectual that also at the same time was against in a way the left-wing in the 60s because he believed that the policemen were the real blue collar, and so his politics were very, very complicated. And I thought that you know…I don’t really have any tattoos, but you should almost sometimes get his scars tattooed [on you], what happened to him, because he is a saint to me, a true Catholic saint. He is a role model to me without any irony in any way. And really, really a great filmmaker but not only was his film work great but he wrote books and was a poet, an intellectual and was just trying to live a life of dignity but it’s very hard when you’re like that. And his sexual tastes obviously led him into trouble. And there’s a great movie called Who Killed Pasolini (1995) I don’t know if you’ve seen it, and it’s pretty good, and I actually don’t believe he was killed for politics. A lot of people think that. There’s a lot of conspiracy theories that think he was. I think he just had a really bad night.
COWAN: There was, I guess the hustler who was presumed guilty of killing him after thirty years recanted it and said it was all guys from the south talking about this dirty communist…
WATERS: Yeah but he only served about nine years. He’s been out for a long time. He was really ugly too. I’m telling you he coulda done better. Maybe he liked that.
COWAN: I’m fortunate to be on your Christmas Card list and there was a Pasolini themed one a few years ago and I actually thought it was the killer.
WATERS: No, it wasn’t the killer, he was real ugly. Pino the Frog. That was his nickname. That wasn’t cos he was a hunk. He was a troll.
COWAN: There’s something about the trespasses of this film and Teorema, The Canterbury Tales (1972), and The Decameron (1971), that have a sense of play in them, that feels like he’s pushing buttons. It does make me think of Pink Flamingos (1972) sometimes.
WATERS: Well Pink Flamingos of course has the comparison of the shit eating you know. Mine was real. And Johnny Knoxville would’ve done it if I didn’t. But [Salò] was all done with chocolate. The whole thing, a fine chocolate person did it. But that scene, I love that he didn’t tell the actors what was happening. How bout the girl that ate it? [Impersonating Pasolini] ‘You, come over here. We’re gonna shoot this today’ Whaaat?! But you look at that film sometimes and that’s why it was linked together sometimes and Le Grande Bouffe (1973) another movie, did you ever see that, which is an insanely great movie about people that eat themselves to death, actually. And that was compared a lot too because it came all around the same time. Pink Flamingos came out later. But there is humour in Salò, certainly those women telling those great stories in those evening gowns coming down, is pretty hilarious in a way. I mean it’s grim and it’s horrible and that guy, that horrible guy, the cross-eyed one. He’s the most amazing. I used to go to Stadt for Christmas and in the hotel there was a guy who looked exactly like him and a friend and I called him ‘Salo’. That was his nickname. ‘Did Salo get your wake up call?’ Because he was totally cross-eyed and he’d be like, ‘Gooood Mooorning’ and you’d think ‘oh my God’. We’d be so afraid he was going to show us his asshole. [laughs]
COWAN: I think that’s a great time to open it up to the audience actually.
WATERS: Does anyone have a ‘Salo’ story for us?
COWAN: We’ll start with the questions…
AUDIENCE: I felt that a key part of the film was when the person says, ‘Why should I love my mother because she had a few moments of pleasure?’ And I felt that that was really behind the rage he must’ve felt for a very unloving mother. And the women, the older women, really had control over everyone telling the stories so my feeling is Teorema was brilliant, [but] this to me was an acting out of terrible pain that he seemed to have been feeling and what he needed was someone who he could really clear the issues with his mother about. That feels at the heart of everything.
WATERS: That could be. I don’t know that much. I’ve read the biography of him but I can’t remember really about his relationship with his mother. I don’t know that.
COWAN: He’s an Italian man. Chances are…
WATERS: Yeah, and he hung around with Maria Callas. They were great buddies. So it could be very, very true. It’s certainly a movie that’s about issues obviously with women, but you’re right, the women seem the strong ones in there when they come in. But it’s also in the end about fascism. It’s so true about power. It is like the Nazis. The Nazis did have things like that, gay and straight. Did you ever see the movie The Wannsee Conference (1984)? It’s in the real-time the dinner party where they plan the Final Solution. And it is horrifying. That should be a double feature with this movie.
COWAN: I think the thing about Salò of course is that it’s rage if often talked about coming from his perspective as a communist and as a poet.
WATERS: Sometimes that was hard to see in some of it…in the wedding scene.
AUDIENCE: Just wondering John if anything actually offends you when you see films? Like after this one, does something like Pearl Harbour drive you crazy? [laughs]
WATERS: Certain romantic comedies offend me a lot.
AUDIENCE: Like Bridget Jones’ Diary? I don’t think that should be shown to children.
WATERS: No, I don’t say bad things about people. My specialty is praising things that other people don’t like. [laughs] It is really. I have a hard time sometimes with big gross-out Hollywood comedies that to me aren’t funny. I mean gross is easy but if it’s not changing how you see something…Now, I love The Hangover. Well I did like it. I thought it was a really good script. But I have most trouble with romantic comedies. They’re the ones that leave me the most cold. Yeah. I have a tough time with that.
COWAN: It’s interesting because we were talking about Jackass 3D at dinner a lot. Do you think there’s a connection between the anarchy or anarchism that that film exhibits and the wild, out there nature of Salò?
WATERS: Well there’s anarchy certainly in this film (Salò), but it’s fascist anarchy. Someone said fascists are the true anarchists. Well in a scary way I guess they could be. But Johnny Knoxville to me, and the new Jackass movie and all the Jackass movies are completely anarchic because they’re movies that seem like gay snuff films made for heterosexual blue-collar families. [laughs] That’s anarchy to me.
AUDIENCE: When I was watching the movie I was kind of struck by the fact that I was not really all that shocked. I’m kind of a weird person. I watched Fast Food Nation and at the end when they have the live cow come in to the slaughterhouse, get killed, skinned etc. and I thought, ‘I want a pot roast’. When I was watching this movie and I was watching the acts and thinking of the fascist parallels and all that but I kept going back to the furniture. And I was thinking ‘that is fantastic art deco furniture. I want all that furniture’.
WATERS: It is.
AUDIENCE: Do you ever find that kind of object fixation?
WATERS: Yes, have you ever seen the website Lurid Digs (www.luriddigs.com)? Look it up when you get home tonight. It’s all porn but it’s only criticising the couches and the people’s furniture. It is hilarious. And I’ve always said if you don’t like a movie just watch the lamps. Or look at the couches through the whole movie. And in this it was a beautiful set. And I thought the sound effect of those bombers were just so great, those bomber planes all through it. But yes, I understand what you’re saying.
COWAN: Actually a lot of it is still together. We did a gallery show of Essential Cinema objects and that crazy big lamp in the atrium and it still exists in a crate somewhere.
WATERS: But you were telling me at dinner that I didn’t know, that they tried to find the kids that were in it and no one would talk. Which I always thought [they’d be like], ‘Oh, we had so much fun that day, when I was a dog!’ But you said that the ones they found didn’t want to talk.
COWAN: I wonder in retrospect whether maybe because of the controversy of the film and who knows, maybe they got teased.
WATERS: Well, imagine if you were in that movie and then you go to your prom. You know, somebody’s got something to say. But the movie, was it banned in Italy? I think it was. It was banned in Canada, right?
COWAN: Yeah, it was banned here in Ontario. It was province by province. It wasn’t banned in Quebec. It was banned in Ontario for a long time. It was part of the horrible legacy of the censorship here in Ontario where major films by major directors whether it was Bertolucci or Bellocchio or Louis Malle, were banned in the 70s and 80s seemingly once a week. But I think Salò we were allowed to see it. Certainly the Ontario Film Institute, which pre-dated TIFF Cinematheque, were able to show it in the 80s. So [the ban] must’ve been lifted through something.
AUDIENCE: It could not be shown in public but a lot of people as a matter of fact went to Ottawa where it was shown in the National Library.
WATERS: So if it had proper intellectual sponsorship that was okay. You just couldn’t see it at a drive-in. [laughs]
AUDIENCE: I’ve read in your book that you only like drinking on Fridays. Today’s Saturday but I’d love to take you for a drink.
WATERS: Oh thank you so much. I always, when I’m here – what’s that male strip club?
WATERS: Remington’s, right. I always go there. I had the big party when A Dirty Shame premiered at the festival here, for all the executives, and it was there. And it was hilarious. With all the wives, and they were horrified. Selma Blair told the story on The Tonight Show, and she said, ‘Well it was all, I thought, gay men, but they were naked and it looked like some of them liked me’. And she told that on The Tonight Show which I thought was great. So you know, I always go back there. It’s my kinda place.
AUDIENCE: Compared to this, what’s your opinion on the torture porn genre? You have Saw and Eli Roth’s Hostel, and people just go to it in droves.
WATERS: Yeah I’m not against it at all. I know that they just did I Spit On Your Grave, one I remember from a long time ago. I personally am not so moved by them, but I’m for it. I’m not against it for censorship. Even the stupidest person doesn’t go see Saw and say, ‘Are those people really injured?’ Everybody knows that’s fake. Even the dumbest moviegoer in the country knows it’s fake. I have a tough time watching real violence on the news. If they show somebody being shot I can’t look at that. But fake violence I have no problem with. But I do have problem with watching real sex or murder. I don’t wanna watch it. I don’t wanna see documentaries where they shoot people in the head. I don’t wanna see that. But I don’t mind seeing Saw or I Spit on Your Grave and all that. It’s fine. Horror movies go through so many stages. You know they went through a stage where it finally had to be funny, when the Scream movies started, and then that was used up so it had to go back to being really scary again. And that seems to be kind of ending, the torture porn. So what’s next? What’s horror gonna be next?
COWAN: Do people actually send you lots of crazy real life things, because of your transgressive reputation?
WATERS: No, to be honest people give me movies and I never watch them because I’ve got a hundred of them sitting there and then I work ten hour days. What am I gonna watch ten movies? [To Cowan] You know more than anyone. No they don’t send me real footage of terrible things and if they do I don’t look at them so I don’t know. But I certainly don’t encourage that. [laughs]
AUDIENCE: Is there footage of [Salò] that we have never seen?
WATERS: That B-roll? I have never seen, you know on the DVD, extended footage or scenes that were cut out. I have never seen that.
COWAN: We think that there’s other material. Probably not extensive amounts, because of how constrictive the shooting would’ve been, with the kids and everything. But we, as part of this exhibition we had downstairs there was actually original contact sheets from the on-set photography. And a lot of the famous stuff like the shit, the dog stuff, was in the contact sheets. But there were a few photographs which weren’t in the film. So whether they were just rehearsed or they were shot or not we don’t really know.
WATERS: And how bout the costumes? That amazing dresss?
COWAN: We looked around but we couldn’t find any. I’m surprised though. A lot of Italian costumes were made as replicas after the fact. So Claudia Cardinale’s dress from The Leopard (1963) was made within three months of making the film. But they wanted to make it in order to use it as promotional. I don’t know whether she’d sweat through the other one.
WATERS: Or they had three of them usually?
COWAN: Exactly. But I guess they didn’t really want to make replicas of anything from this movie. So they probably didn’t qualify for that.
WATERS: And the fact that he was murdered right before it came out really put another dampener on it.
COWAN: Yeah, so it wouldn’t be celebrated.
AUDIENCE: This version that we saw I think is around 115 minutes long, is like a half an hour shorter than the version that premiered.
AUDIENCE: The first version was around 145 minutes long.
COWAN: Yeah, but that was cut immediately.
WATERS: I don’t think it was ever released that way.
COWAN: No, it was never released that way. It was actually just a kind of rough-cut of the movie.
AUDIENCE: I was just going to say, ‘Have you ever considered making a sequel?’
WATERS: I think we should all come next time and wear the costumes like Rocky Horror. And yell out the lines. [laughs] I do that with 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. [laughs] I love abortion movies.
AUDIENCE: Salò doesn’t hold back at any moment in the film. We’re privy to everything except at the very end when we see the killing through the binoculars. So why do you think that is?
WATERS: I think that through the binoculars the violence is at the end more voyeurism. And it’s more evil because you’ve ordered this but you’re not there. You get to watch it truly as evil voyeurism, masturbatory pornography rather than having to do it. If you were the killer it would be in a [different] way. This is even one more remove. You’re ordering it up to watch it, which is probably even more evil in a way. I think that is probably why.
COWAN: It’s funny we were talking to Atom Egoyan and he was saying he can’t watch the last twenty minutes of the movie. Like everything else in the film he has no problem with. It’s obviously affecting and disturbing but he just can’t watch that last twenty minutes because there’s something about that extra remove, the iciness of it that he just finds incredibly disturbing.
WATERS: Except when they dance though, at the end. That’s so touching. It’s really beautiful. Did anyone have a ‘Salo’ story for us? I was hoping one person could tell us a ‘Salo’ story of their own.
AUDIENCE: I have one.
WATERS: Speak loudly so we can all hear.
AUDIENCE: My uncle’s a general practitioner in Nova Scotia and about fifteen years ago my cousin either through an act of defiance or some Freudian retention issue you know, refused to take a shit for a few days. And it was building and becoming such a great degree of acrimony throughout the entire household, and I think it was like Christmas Eve, and they were just having some wine and just kind of looking at each other and he’s like, ‘Why don’t we give him an enema?’ And being a general practitioner he has all the actual stuff to be able to do one. And they bring him downstairs and they give him one. And he’s just like defiant as hell. And then they just leave it and then give him another one. And it was one of those great happenstances of poor judgements, the dishwasher was propped open ajar and you know, his trajectory was quite solid, so…needless to say…
WATERS: Keep going. [laughs]
COWAN: You wanna take notes, John?
WATERS: [Makes quick masturbatory gesture]
AUDIENCE: [laughs] Am I done mortifying you guys?
WATERS: No. What happened? The end?
COWAN: He sprayed into the dishwasher.
WATERS: Oh, he sprayed into the dishwasher? That’s a good one. Anybody have another one? [pauses] I’ll tell one. You know once I thought up tea-bagging in my movies so I thought, ‘Well, we need more new sex acts’. So I thought at Christmas we need some. So everybody’s heard of a pearl necklace? So I think we should have a string of lights. That’s when you eat multi-coloured vegetables and have multi-coloured loads and that’s the string of lights. And then once you’ve done that, everybody’s heard of the facial? Well in the winter, you live in Toronto, you get a facial and then you go outside and you let it freeze, and you come back in and call it a snowman. Merry Christmas! [laughs]
COWAN: [In a deep voice] Snowman! [pause] Check in at Remington’s for that one.
AUDIENCE: My question has to do with the fact that there are sort of rare depictions of seeming pleasure or consensual sex in this film. Like the isolate acts where the guy is with the woman –
WATERS: And dies for it!
AUDIENCE: And the two women breaking the rules. And I was just wondering how you felt given that everything else is sort of about displeasure, sadism, and non-consensual sex?
WATERS: Well that’s very De Sade. The one normal thing you’re punished for the most. Where everything that’s the most perverted, worst stuff is rewarded. So Justine in the novel, she was good and everything bad happened to her. Juliet was evil and [gets] all the good stuff. So it was always backwards. That was what Sade was, really. Talk about famous. His name became a sex act. I’m jealous really. And that became the humour of it almost. That is was so terrible and so crazy that nothing ever was rewarded for good. It was the opposite of karma basically. And so that’s why I think there is some humour in there. Because it’s so ludicrous and so crazy, and so I think that is why it is so effective to me.
AUDIENCE: John, I bought your book today. And I have two words for you: Summerfall Winterspring.
WATERS: Thank you very much. That was Princess Summerfall Winterspring, one of my idols when I was as a child. That was a good name, wasn’t it? She was the Indian on the Howdy Doody show and I guess it was my first goddess. A puppet. No she wasn’t a puppet she was a human. And she later was in Jailhouse Rock (1957) with Elvis Presley and was killed in a car accident.
AUDIENCE: It’s another film, but I went to go see Gregg Araki’s Kaboom (2010) at the film festival and I was just wondering how you would explain why you liked that movie…
WATERS: That’s his new movie and I haven’t seen it. I’m a huge fan of his work. I love every one of his movies. I’m a friend of Gregg’s. I’ve known him from the very beginning. The only one I haven’t seen is the new one.
COWAN: Well, he tells this story that you came up to him and said, ‘Well these wonderful films you’re making are great and all but I really miss old Gregg Araki’. And that inspired him to make Kaboom.
WATERS: Oh well I’m dying to see it. I love Mysterious Skin a lot too! I’m a big fan of the novel and I’m a big fan of Scott Heim who wrote it. I think Gregg’s great and I think he has great soundtracks. I have all the soundtracks. So I’m dying to see it.
AUDIENCE: So how would you explain his other films?
WATERS: To me they’re original. They’re completely an auteur’s work. And you can immediately tell it’s a Gregg Araki movie by watching it. It’s about L.A., about music, about sex, about youth, about yearning to rebel, it was about AIDS. He was the first person ever that made a transgressive AIDS movie. I think he believes in the sexual politics that I believe in; no separatism, and defying by anarchy with sexuality, and hetero-flexibility and everything mixed up and sexual anarchy and I think that’s what he’s about in a beautiful, sexy way. Lets end it on that positive note.
COWAN: What a lovely tribute. Thank you very much John Waters. That was great.
Tuesday, September 6, 2011
There was an Old Man of New York, Who murdered himself with a fork;
But nobody cried though he very soon died,-
For that silly Old Man of New York.
Umori d'Albione: Il libro dei nonsense di Edward Lear
di martino negri
Alice cominciava a non poterne più di stare sulla panca accanto alla sorella, senza far niente; una volta o due aveva provato a sbirciare il libro che la sorella leggeva, ma non c’erano figure né dialoghi, «e a che serve un libro», aveva pensato Alice, «senza figure e senza dialoghi?» 
Il libro dei nonsense di Edward Lear, finalmente pubblicato da Einaudi in edizione economica , con testo a fronte, è una raccolta di brevi componimenti in versi accompagnati da altrettante vignette disegnate dall’autore, alle quali i primi sono indissolubilmente legati. Caratterizzati da una medesima, rigorosa struttura compositiva e da un gusto letterario eminentemente ludico, i limericks – come sono universalmente conosciuti, sebbene Lear non li abbia mai chiamati in tal modo – si inseriscono nella ricca tradizione britannica della letteratura nonsense: scevra da ogni impegno di natura didascalica o morale e intesa piuttosto al puro diletto degli occhi e del pensiero.
Lear iniziò a disegnare «buffi animali e omini, spesso accompagnando i disegni con versucoli scherzosi, che rappresentano il seme delle future rime nonsensical» , negli anni ’30 dell’Ottocento, a uso e consumo dei nipoti e pronipoti di Lord Stanley, dodicesimo conte di Derby, dal quale aveva ottenuto l’incarico di raffigurare gli animali che vivevano nel serraglio della sua tenuta di Knowsley Hall.
Pubblicati tra il 1846 (A Book of Nonsense) e il 1871 (More Nonsense, Pictures, Rhymes, Botany, etc.), i limericks di Edward Lear, o learics come alcuni li chiamano , sono considerati un classico della letteratura britannica per l’infanzia.
Il merito di Lear fu quello di portare a una più rigida codificazione, nonché a una maggior diffusione, una forma letteraria che affondava le sue radici nella tradizione orale – filastrocche, ninna-nanne – ma che aveva, già al suo tempo, conosciuto l’onore della carta stampata; tra il 1820 e il 1822 erano infatti comparsi tre volumetti di poesie illustrate che presentavano la struttura metrica e i temi tipici del limerick leariano: The History of Sixteen Wonderful Old Women, illustrated by as many engravings: exhibiting their principal Eccentricities and Amusements (1820), Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Gentlemen (1821) e Anecdotes and Adventures of Fifteen Young Ladies (1822) , i quali si inserivano nel contesto dello straordinario sviluppo che la prima editoria illustrata di massa – appoggiata «sull’invenzione e la messa a punto della litografia e sul perfezionamento della tecnica riproduttiva delle incisioni su legno» – ebbe proprio nel terzo decennio del XIX secolo.
Il limerick, dunque – inteso come forma poetica mista di versi e disegni, con caratteristiche formali e tematiche riconoscibili e costanti – esisteva già molto tempo prima che Lear cominciasse a scriverne, anche se furono proprio i suoi a decretare il definitivo successo e la straordinaria diffusione del “genere”. Consistenti in singole strofette di cinque righe , con versi a ritmo giambico anapestico – comune nella poesia ‘umoristica’ inglese – e schema di rime aabba, i limericks hanno tre versi di tre piedi (i primi due e l’ultimo) e due più brevi, di soli due piedi (terzo e quarto verso).
There was an Old Person of Pinner,
As thin as a lath, if not thinner,
They dressed him in white,
And roll’d him up tight,
That elastic Old Person of Pinner. 
Ogni composizione introduce un personaggio bizzarro che agisce o patisce situazioni che esorbitano dalla sfera della logica e del buon senso comune, lasciando il lettore di stucco. L’eccentricità di comportamenti o situazioni è il perno intorno al quale ruota il meccanismo del divertimento; ma a innescarlo sono il tono del racconto – «ovvio, tranquillo, privo di qualsiasi moto di stupore»  – e la presenza dei disegni, che danno corpo visibile al cortocircuito logico suggerito dalle parole. Significativo, in questo senso, appare il titolo della più antica raccolta di limerick conosciuta – la già citata Storia di Sedici Meravigliose Vecchiette, illustrate con altrettante incisioni: le quali mostrano le loro principali Eccentricità e Spassi – nel quale è sottolineata l’importanza che in tale forma poetica assumono sia l’elemento visivo (le incisioni, tante quante sono le storie) sia il motivo dell’eccentricità, ovvero di una distanza dalla norma che disorienta e produce allegria, divertimento. Lear stesso decise di aprire il suo primo volume di rime ‘senza senso’ con un limerick che pare quasi una dichiarazione di poetica:
There was an Old Derry down Derry,
Who loved to see little folks merry;
So he made them a book,
And with laughter they shook
At the fun of that Derry down Derry.
Egli dunque non inventò il “genere”: si limitò piuttosto a perfezionare ciò che la tradizione gli offriva, limitando le varianti possibili allo schema di base e accompagnando i versi con illustrazioni stilizzate e surreali, connotate – in senso espressivo – assai più di quelle presenti nelle prime raccolte pubblicate. Ed è facile notare come la maggior parte dei limericks leariani non solo segua rigorosamente lo schema di rime e il ritmo stabiliti dalla tradizione, ma utilizzi anche alcune “formulae verbali” – come le chiama Marco Graziosi – ricorsive e limitate .
Il primo verso introduce il personaggio, del quale – o della quale – è generalmente indicato il luogo di provenienza o quello in cui si sviluppa la sua azione:
a) There was an Old Man of the Hague,
b) There was an Old Man in a Marsh
Nel secondo verso trova spazio la caratterizzazione del personaggio, del quale si raccontano abitudini insolite o particolarità fisiche e d’indole:
a) Whose ideas were excessively vague;
b) Whose manners were futile and harsh;
Terzo e quarto verso sono in genere strettamente narrativi, assumendo addirittura, spesso, la forma dialogica: mentre il primo e il secondo verso offrono una visione in qualche modo extra-temporale del personaggio, questi ultimi lo collocano in un punto preciso del tempo, il momento cruciale della sua fulminea esistenza, quello, anzi, in cui il suo destino pare compiersi e trovare un senso o, ancor meglio, un ‘non senso’.
a) He built a balloon
To examin the moon,
b) He sate on a Log,
And sang Songs to a Frog,
L’ultimo verso, infine, ricalcato sul primo, chiude la composizione riportando l’attenzione sul personaggio, al quale viene ora attribuito un aggettivo nel quale, come in un emblema, sia racchiusa la sua natura più profonda.
a) That deluded Old Man of the Hague. 
b) That instructive Old Man in a Marsh. 
Significativa – tra le ‘formule verbali’ ricorrenti – quella iniziale, ‘There was...’: presente in tutti i limericks leariani, la sua funzione è la stessa che riveste, nelle fiabe di ogni tempo, l’espressione italiana del “C’era una volta...”  , ovvero di introdurre il lettore in un mondo altro, una dimensione parallela ma distanziata nello spazio e nel tempo, in cui non vigono le categorie, immaginative e razionali, alle quali abitualmente ci si attiene.
L’universo in cui vivono i personaggi di Lear, infatti, è «l’incongruità trionfante. È l’assurdo trasportato in un’atmosfera poetica. È una felice vacanza dal mondo dei sensi, un rapido scorcio d’un altro mondo...».
Un rapido scorcio di un altro mondo, scrive John Boynton Priestley, utilizzando un’espressione che se da un lato sottolinea l’immediatezza, la rapidità con la quale Lear riesce a tratteggiare i suoi personaggi – la cui vita pare condensarsi in un unico gesto o avventura emblematici – dall’altro induce alla tentazione di accostarlo a un suo contemporaneo francese, inventore anch’egli di universi paralleli: Grandville, che dava alle stampe il suo libro più complesso, il celebre e bellissimo Un autre monde, nel 1844, giusto un paio d’anni prima del Book of Nonsense di Lear.
Fitta, in entrambi, la presenza di pesci, uccelli e altre bestie con i quali una varia umanità interagisce, dando vita a situazioni paradossali, o ai quali le persone finiscono per assomigliare : eppure Lear non si serve degli animali, come invece fa Grandville, per portare avanti un discorso fortemente polemico – per quanto stemperato dalla satira – nei confronti della società del suo tempo .
Legata senza dubbio alle inclinazioni personali dell’artista, che fin dalla prima giovinezza s’era distinto per le sue abilità nella raffigurazione del mondo zoologico, la forte presenza di animali nei limericks leariani è dovuta anche, io credo, al peso di una tradizione favolistica millenaria nella quale – si pensi anche solo a Esopo, oppure a Fedro – proprio loro sono i protagonisti delle storie: con la differenza che nessuna intenzione didascalica, moralistica o pedagogica, muove l’estro di Lear, per il quale parole e figure sono semplicemente trampolini di lancio per qualche felice capriola del pensiero.
There was an Old Man who said, ‘Hush!
I perceive a young bird in this bush!’
When they said, ‘Is it small?’
He replied, ‘Not at all!
It is four times as big as the bush!’ 
There was an Old Person of Skye,
Who waltz’d with a Bluebottle Fly:
They buzz’d a sweet tune,
To the light of the moon,
And entranced all the people of Skye. 
Nel 1861 A Book of Nonsense venne pubblicato in edizione ampliata e fu accolto con straordinario favore dal pubblico: tale successo segnò la consacrazione definitiva della forma poetica e dell’uomo che l’aveva saputa coltivare e distillare, Edward Lear, consideratone spesso non solo il maestro, ma addirittura l’inventore. Da quel momento in poi il genere ha conosciuto sempre più estimatori, e non solo fra i comuni lettori, ma anche fra i grandi della letteratura contemporanea, che ne sperimentarono spesso, e con gusto, anche la declinazione erotica o addirittura triviale :
There was a young plumber of Leigh
Who was plumbing a girl by the sea.
She said: “Stop your plumbing,
there is somebody coming!”
Said the plumber, still plumbing, “It’s me!” 
In qualche misura debitore di Lear è persino, io credo, l’americano Tim Burton, che nel 1997 pubblicava The Melancholy Death of the Oyster Boy & Other Stories, uno scarno volumetto di poesie illustrate che si presenta come una galleria tragicomica di creature allucinate ed emarginate, delle quali sono raccontate le vicende amare e straordinarie: ogni poesia introduce un personaggio ed è accompagnata da uno o più disegni dell’autore, a seconda della sua lunghezza ;ma se in Lear ogni cosa pare fatta d’aria e di luce, di scintilla e di sorriso (anche laddove la morte fa la sua comparsa), in Burton è tutto ctonio e caliginoso, intriso d’angoscia esistenziale e solitudine:
There once was a morose melonhead,
who sat there all day
and wished he were dead.
But you should be careful
about the things that you wish.
Because the last thing he heard
was a deafening squish. 
E d’altra parte, lo humour che pervade i suoi versi tende a essere tetro più che nero, a volte persino raccapricciante:
The Boy with Nails in his Eyes
put up his aluminium tree.
It looked pretty strange
because he couldn’t really see. 
In Italia la fortuna del limerick è iniziata molto più tardi che in Inghilterra, naturalmente. I pochi che ne conoscevano l’esistenza li facevano girare tra gli amici , componendone magari a loro volta, soprattutto di salaci, ma fu proprio Carlo Izzo, traduttore nonché curatore dell’edizione tascabile Einaudi, a darne per primo notizia al pubblico, nel 1935, sul numero di novembre dell’Ateneo Veneto:
E fu ancora Izzo a portare a compimento la prima traduzione in lingua italiana di tutti i limericks del poeta britannico, pubblicata nel 1946 dalla casa editrice Il Pellicano di Vicenza con il titolo di Il libro delle follie ; nel 1954 l’editore fiorentino Neri Pozza – che un paio d’anni più tardi avrebbe pubblicato la prima edizione della Bufera di Montale – ne rimise in circolazione  le copie invendute, ritirate poco tempo prima dall’editore vicentino che aveva chiuso i battenti.
Nel 1970, infine, Einaudi ripubblicò la traduzione di Izzo – con testo originale a fronte – nella prestigiosa collana "I millenni", sancendone definitivamente il successo anche nel bel paese : nella stessa collana figuravano i maggiori classici della letteratura per l’infanzia, dalle favole di La Fontaine alle fiabe dei fratelli Grimm, da L’isola del tesoro di Stevenson al Giro del mondo in ottanta giorni di Verne .
Era stato nell’autunno tragico del 1943 che Izzo, su sprone di alcuni amici aveva deciso d'imbarcarsi nel progetto della traduzione completa dei limericks leariani, trasformando in una sorta di dovere morale quello che fino a quel momento era stato solo un divertimento privato, un’occasione, tutt’al più, per amicali buffi parlamenti. Nel dicembre dello stesso anno aveva già terminato la traduzione. Una traduzione che è diventata, a sua volta, un "classico" della nostra letteratura, nonostante l’inevitabile perdita – nel passaggio alla lingua italiana – di tutta una serie di elementi di natura ritmico musicale nei quali risiede una parte non certo esigua del fascino originario dei limericks.
Perché leggere, oggi, le poesie nonsensical di Edward Lear? Raccontano ancora qualcosa della realtà che ci circonda? L’hanno mai fatto? Non lo so. Eppure sono convinto che leggere – o rileggere – oggi Il libro dei nonsense potrebbe rivelarsi una sana operazione di igiene mentale: viviamo in un’epoca in cui l’oppressione dell’individuo si manifesta in forme più sottili e subdole di quando un gruppo d’amici convinceva un giovane studioso di letteratura inglese a tradurre un’opera folle e intraducibile. Il pregio maggiore del volume di Lear è forse proprio quello di essere semplicemente un libro, un bel libro scritto con piacere, con amore per le parole e i disegni. Punto.
«Ehi! – direbbe molto probabilmente Alice – Ci sono dialoghi... e anche figure!»
Cosa si può desiderare di più da un libro?