Saturday, July 10, 2004

While composing that gloomy standard of all middle-school poetry textbooks, “The Raven,” Edgar Allan Poe fixed on a single word to anchor his melancholy refrain: “Nevermore.” But what would be a suitable pretext for repeating this word continually?

It couldn’t be placed in the mouth of a human speaker, Poe decided — when “immediately [there] arose the idea of a non-reasoning creature capable of speech,” as he was to recall some months later in the April 1846 issue of Graham’s magazine.

So at that moment, the eponymous jet-black bird appeared before his eyes? No. “[A] parrot, in the first instance, suggested itself,” Poe wrote. Only then did a raven come to mind, and he rejected the idea of a parrot as mouthpiece, explaining unnecessarily that a raven was “infinitely more in keeping with the intended tone” of his poem.

As Bruce Thomas Boehrer cheekily writes of this near-disastrous brush with bathos: “Pretty boy, nevermore, pretty boy, nevermore, cracker, cracker, cracker: one can sense Poe’s dilemma here.”

In “Parrot Culture: Our 2500-Year-Long Fascination With the World’s Most Talkative Bird,” Mr. Boehrer, a scholar of Renaissance literature and (in his words) “a life-long parrot fancier,” retraces the long and unusual odyssey (flight?) of this colorful bird through Western history.

Western, because this is a book about how the peoples of Europe and the European New World have interacted with various species of parrot, all of which are native to non-European places (India, Africa, the Americas, Australia). Of course, exoticism has always been a key ingredient in the parrot’s appeal — and, as Mr. Boehrer shows, in its denigration by humans.

The parrot was a rara avis indeed in the late 300s B.C., when Alexander the Great brought several home as souvenirs from India. Nearchus, the general of Alexander’s fleet, considered the hook-billed birds to be “miraculous,” but by the time Rome had established an empire in Alexander’s wake, parrots were familiar enough for the historian Arrian to claim that “everyone knows” what they looked and sounded like.

And what they tasted like: Alone among Western peoples, the ancient Romans prized parrot-flesh as a delicacy. The cookbook writer Apicius (first century A.D.) recommended boiling the bird and serving it with a sauce of cumin, coriander, mint and dates.

The practice of parrot-eating (“psittacophagy,” to give it its scientific name) was revived briefly among European explorers in the New World, where it was a culinary last resort rather than an indulgence. Mr. Boehrer proposes an interesting theory as to why perroquet au vin never caught on: “[T]he earliest accounts of New World exploration incidentally associate parrots and parrot-eating with cannibalism, so that psittacophagy silently begins to elicit the same revulsion …”.

Nor, as his book amply demonstrates, is this the only negative connotation to bedevil parrots over the centuries due to their exotic origins. Beginning in ancient Greece and Rome, the birds were often seen to represent the supposedly inferior status of conquered or non-Western peoples.

At his accession to the throne of Egypt in the early 200s B.C., Pharaoh Ptolemy II gave a lavish pageant that featured servants bearing parrots in cages. Presented this way — i.e., in the manner of foreign spoils — they “exemplify both nature’s subservience to culture and the subservience of certain social groups … to others.”

According to Aristotle and Pliny the elder, parrots are fond of wine and prone to outrageous drunkenness (patently untrue, says Mr. Boehrer); their mimicry of human speech is not a sign of intelligence but a trick that can be taught only through physical violence (namely, striking the bird’s head with an iron rod).

Likewise, writers of the Renaissance frequently used parrots as emblems of “mindless inferiority,” claims the author. In Ben Jonson’s comic masterpiece “Volpone,” the two most idiotic characters among Jonson’s cast of knaves and dupes are nicknamed Sir and Lady Pol, on account of their constant, empty chatter. (“Pol” or “Poll” as a slang term for parrot was coined by Jonson.)

Prior to this, however, parrots enjoyed a long period of cultural eminence, when Europeans looked to them as quasi-divine marvels. Who knew that, during the Middle Ages, these birds enjoyed a special affinity with the Virgin Mary?

Among the black-and-white plates in this richly illustrated book is the painting “Enthroned Virgin and Child, With Angels” by Vittore Crivelli (c. 1481). At the right hand of Crivelli’s Madonna, directly under an angel, perches a parrot — or a popinjay, as it was then called. Hence the 15th-century English poet John Lydgate hailed the Virgin Mary as “a popynjay, plumed in clennesse.”

The second half of “Parrot Culture” takes on a more macabre hue (or a sardonic one, depending on your perspective), as Mr. Boehrer probes the oddly enduring cultural motif of the Dead Parrot. From John James Audubon — who shot now-extinct Carolina parakeets in order to draw them “from life,” a crime that Mr. Boehrer will clearly never forgive — to Gustave Flaubert, over the course of the 19th century “there develop[ed] a marked preference for dead birds over the living variety.”

And this association between parrots and death has persisted, Monty Python’s surreal “Dead Parrot” sketch perhaps being its apogee. In Chapter 5 of “Parrot Culture,” the author assembles myriad artistic and literary uses of parrot symbolism from the 20th century, most of them touching on human mortality.

Here Mr. Boehrer’s argument seems too constricting, given the diverse material he presents. For instance, Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits with parrots seem to me far more vital than he allows (how can those full, red lips and strong arms suggest deadness?).

Overall, though, “Parrot Culture” is a smart, lively and informative study, grounded in solid scholarship and brightened by many winning personal anecdotes. Bruce Boehrer’s abiding love for these birds is sure to win some converts. I admit to being charmed when, at a pet store recently, a gorgeous macaw cocked its head at me and stuck out its strange black tongue. If I didn’t have two cats at home …

This is an enjoyable, eloquent paean to all things psittacine.

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