On a Wanfukkit Funling
“The Flyting between Dunbar and Kennedy” is a writing as pointless and profuse as reality. It belongs to a genre that I have invented: it is fractal literature.
Some works of literature aspire to nature’s reckless abundance. Natural energy is exuberance, profligate creation of too much of the same. Venture into any forest and see a thousand trees, all more or less copies of one another, all relentlessly scuffed and scabbed, leaves gnawed into lacework by a million beetles also, more or less, duplicates of one another. Nature hurls off copies: forms endlessly, and absurdly, reproducing themselves, an infinity of mirrors in which slight distortions replicate images that are slightly imperfect copies of the original which was itself a slightly imperfect copy of another original and so on, ad infinitum. And there are books written after nature’s model, fractal compositions in which each page seems, more or less, identical with every other page, although no page, indeed, no sentence, exactly reproduces what preceded it, or what comes after. Finnegans Wake has this form: every sentence contains the DNA from which the entire book is generated: all sections are variations on a theme that remains maddeningly constant throughout the entire colossal edifice. The Old Testament, particularly its poetry, is another example of the Mandelbrot equation enacted as a series of utterances that are uniquely beautiful and intensely meaningful, while seeming to remain essentially tautological. In Hebrew verse, God’s greatness tolerates no argument – X is always equal to X and there is neither plot nor progression, neither crescendo nor decrescendo, not even any acceleration or tarrying in the rhythm of praise or lamentation. Isaiah is splendid and it is all, more or less, the same – not to mention the Psalms or the prophetic books or the Beckett-like drone of temple specifications in Ezekial or God’s statutes enumerated in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. As literature, the Old Testament is like the world: a nightmarish superfluity.
Other literary works have this same quality. Don Quixote has the character of the natural world. The novel is an enormous eco-system of endlessly proliferating narratives, most of them duplicating one another. Rabelais and the ornate filigree-work comprising Spenser’s Faerie Queen also present an impenetrable fractal labyrinth to the reader: an inscrutable abundance that, from page to page offers no traction to the mind. Where the surface of a text is like ice, a crystalline excess endlessly repeated, there is no place to stand – viewed in all directions, the semantic terrain is the same, a monotonous perfection.
Around 1500, two Scottish poets, William Dunbar and Walter Kennedy, insulted one another in verse in poetry called The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy. Apparently, the epic exchange of insults was immensely popular; the work is one of the first texts to be published in Scottish, dating to 1507. The Flyting has the character of a natural phenomenon: it is so expansive and vast that this encyclopedia of vituperation has the quality of swarm of bees or a flock of starlings squatting in their hundreds in a tree befouled by their droppings, emitting a cacophony of indignant shrieks. There are more than 530 lines to the poem and, to a modern reader, the verbal joust resembles Finnegans Wake, exotic or grotesque words and phrases displayed in grotesque abundance – it is all wonderful, all great, and all the same, a sprawling featureless midden of abuse.
Not much is known about the original context of The Flyting. William Dunbar was a court poet associated with James IV and a couple of his verses, most notably “The Lament for the Makaris” are still sometimes anthologized. Kennedy is less well-known – indeed, we are aware of him primarily through Dunbar’s “Lament,” a litany itemizing the great Medieval poets lost to death.
Gud Maister Walter Kennedy
In poynt of dede lyis veraly “Truly lies at the point of death”
Gret reuth it wer that so suld be “reuth” – pity / “suld” - should
“Timor mortis conturbat me.”
The verbal combat embodied in The Flyting seems to have involved some kind of public performance. Certainly, the verse, which is alliterative with a complex rhyme scheme, could not have been improvised, but must have been carefully composed in advance of the public joust. The two Makars, that is Scottish poets, address their arias of vituperation to presiding officials characterized as “Commissars” and, presumably, there were rules by which the ingenuity of the baroque insults could be judged. But it’s anyone’s guess how this Scottish version of “The Dozens” was actually played.
Set in type in 1507, The Flyting contains the first published use of the verb “fuck”. This word appears at line 38 in the 553 line performance. Kennedy is castigating Kennedy in exchange of three preliminary stanzas from each poet that sets the scene as it were for the Flyting:
Fantastik fule, trest weil thow sal be fleyit.
Ignorant elf, aip, owll irregular,
Skaldit skaitbird and commoun skamelar,
Wanfukkit funling that Natour maid ane yrle...
(Fantastic fool, trust well that thou shall be flayed,
Ignorant elf, ape, owl irregular,
Scabby scavenger and common sponger, – for “scabby scavenger” read “scalded shitbird”
Wanfukkit funling that Nature made a dwarf.)
John Conlee, the editor of Dunbar’s “Complete Works” (TEAMS – Middle English Texts, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo 2004) notes that “wanfukkit funling” means something like “ill-conceived foundling.” An integral part of the insult-exhibition seems to have been the physical contrast between the two poets: Dunbar was apparently short and squat, hence insults describing him as an “elf” and a “dwarf”; Kennedy seems to have lean and long-shanked – Dunbar likens him to a ragged, half-mummified corpse stretched on the gallows and, then, somehow reanimated. A staple of an entertainment of this kind, of course, is aspersions on the other combatant’s parentage – Dunbar’s physical deformity and short stature arise from the coupling that is literally “ill-begotten”. (Elsewhere in the poem, Kennedy says that Dunbar is a “devil bear” – that is, the offspring of the devil and a she-bear, an insult that arises from an elaborate false etymology alleged as the origin of Dunbar’s name.) Kennedy’s phrase “wanfukkit funling” suggests that when Dunbar’s parents saw the hideous result of their sexual congress, they put the dwarfish creature up for adoption – hence, Dunbar is a “funling” (“foundling.”)
How does “wanfukkit” mean “ill-conceived”? “Wan” is cognate with our modern word for pale, leaden, sickly. Thus, the adjective means “wan-fucked”. To a medieval Scotsman, corpses had a “wan” complexion – that is, their features were dark, congested with pooling blood, dim and leaden. This would be particularly true of the face of a cadaver displayed on the gallows, a favorite insult both poets repeatedly trade. In this application, “wan” seems to result from the intersection of two related word-systems. “(Th)ann” is an Old English word for dark. Linguists divide color words into two broad semantic categories: hue and saturation. (Th)ann means dark in the sense of a color visualized in dim light – it is a term for light-saturation. (Conjectured prototype languages, root source tongues such as Indo-European, are imagined as making only the distinction between light/warm and dark/cold – that is, on a primordial, and, probably, mythical level, primitive languages differentiate colors only on the basis of saturation. This seems unlikely to me: have you met any Indo-European speakers recently?) “(Th)ann” fuses with a complex of astronomical words relating to the phases of the moon. The most notable, modern usage of this kind is “wane” to refer to a “waning” moon. When the moon wanes, lunar light diminishes – there is a “want” or absence of light. “Want” meaning “lack,” accordingly, is rooted in the notion of darkness and gloom associated with the waning of the moon. When the moon wanes, objects are perceived only dimly – that is, they appear to be “wan,” lacking color or desaturated. Therefore, “wan” in the word “wanfukkit” combines two meanings: the sexual act resulting in the dwarfish Dunbar took place in dim light, under a waning moon, a desaturated and relatively colorless copulation.
At line 101 in the Flyting, Dunbar says that Kennedy is “a wan-visaged widdefow”. A “widdefow” is a corpse, at least, according to Conlee’s notes on the poem; he glosses the expression as a “dark-faced corpse”. (I am not so certain that “widdefow” means corpse – “widde” seems to me “withy,” referring to fetters made from “withers” or stranded rope; “fow” seems to mean “fool,” but is conflated with ‘full” to denote a “fool who is drunk”. In fact, from context, I’m convinced that “wan-visaged widdefow” refers to a tethered drunkard – the entire line is “Wan-visaged widdefow, out of thy wit gane wyld,” that is, “wan-visaged and fettered drunkard, gone wild and out of your wits.”) Here the meaning of “wan” seems to be something like “congested,” bruised-looking, the livid gin-blossomed complexion of a drunkard. “Wan” occurs again at line 195 in a particularly nasty passage:
Wan wraiglane wasp, ma wormis hes thow beschittin
Nor thair is gers on grund or leif on lind.
(Wan wriggling wasp, you’ve shit more worms
Than there is grass on the ground or leaves on the trees.)
“Wan” as it relates to “want” or something that is lacking is also intrinsic to the notion of a “wanfukkit funling”. At line 489, Kennedy tells Dunbar that he is a “monstir” (“monster”) because “thou was consavit in the grete eclipse” – “conceived in the great eclipse.” Underlying these insults is the notion that a sex act performed under particularly inauspicious astrological influences results in defective progeny. A child conceived when the moon has waned due to the earth’s impingement, that is during an eclipse, is particularly “wanfukkit” – and, therefore, will likely be born as a monster. From the concept of dimness and gloom, we derive an idea of desaturated and colorless hue. Desaturated colorlessness, faint or pale hue is bland and uninteresting. Accordingly, “wan” evolves from a term meaning “dark” into an abstraction: something that is “wan” is bland, a bit vague and undecided, and uninteresting. This is the final, and, perhaps, most damning aspect of being the result of “wanfukkit” intercourse – “wan” fucking is sexual congress in which the participants are only vaguely interested in one another. “Wanfukkit,” in this context, means something like sex without passion, a mechanical, indifferent operation performed in a dull and uninteresting way. Medieval Scottish physiology suggests that a child born from “wanfukkit” copulation will be missing something vital – it is not surprising that the “wanfukkit funling” Dunbar is a dwarf. In this respect, Kennedy’s insult seems to echo the physiology implicit in Edmund’s boast in “King Lear” that as a bastard, the product of lusty copulation, he possesses
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth within a dull, stale, tired bed
Go to creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got ‘tween sleep and waking.
Someone produced by sexual intercourse involving partners “‘tween sleep and waking” might be characterized as a “wanfukkit funling.”
Of course, “wanfukkit funling” is but one corpuscle in the mighty torrent of abuse comprising the poem. We might turn our exegetical magnifyng glass on other equally amusing or bizarre epithets: Kennedy is said to be “cuntbitten” – meaning, perhaps, “pussy-whipped,” but, also, probably, afflicted with syphilis. He is also, according to Dunbar,
(A) muttoun dryver, girnall ryver, yardswyvar...
That is, one who herds old sheep (mutton), a grain thief, and mare-humper (“yadswyvar” means “jade-fucker,” where “jade” is a term for an enfeebled female horse.) This sequence of epithets illustrates a pattern in the “Flyting”: at the climax of each denunciation, the poet’s virtuosity exceeds the complex metrical pattern of the rhymed, alliterating stanzas and each line is built from internally rhymed insults that follow an end-rhyme pattern as well). Dunbar tells us that Kennedy is a petty thief, a gallow’s bird, a scabby, incontinent Gaelic-muttering vagabond. Kennedy’s slanging bites deeper: he accuses Dunbar of treason, alleging that he is a Judas who has sold the Scottish nation to the English heirs of “Edward Langshanks” (Edward I) who “twelf thowsand trew Scottismen...keild”. More prosaically, both poets accuse the other of suffering from the “hurle” – that is, explosive diarrhea. With Rabelaisian excess, Dunbar says that Kennedy’s “hostand hippis lattis never (his) hos go dry” (“spewing hips that never allow his pants to dry.”) Not to be outdone, Kennedy claims that Dunbar’s “dok of dirt drepis will never dry / to tume (his) tone it has tyrit carlingis ten” – that is, “(his) asshole drips with filth and will never dry / to scrub his bottom has tired-out ten old women.” Each man says that the other is filthy, drunken, sexually perverse, cowardly, and in league with the devil. And so it goes, the two opposing parts of the poem self-canceling, more than 550 lines that sum to exactly zero.
What do we make of Dunbar and Kennedy’s Flyting, a linguistic universe comprised entirely of malediction? My conjecture is that this symphony of invective was, indeed, composed for public performance. And it is also my surmise that the point of this abuse-oratorio was not, so much, the recitation of outrageous slander, but, rather, the passive reception of those insults by the person to whom they were directed. The actor spewing invective at his opponent is uninteresting, merely a contorted mouth and lips with tongue spitting abuse. Far more fascinating would have been the demeanor of the victim of that abuse. How did the person upon whom the maledictions were heaped respond? Did he writhe in real or pretended discomfort? Did veins in throat and brow bulge with rage? Did the victim of the obscene peroration blush with shame? Or rather did he sit with poker-face, bland and immobile, the serene center of the typhoon of insults? My suspicion is the latter – that is, that the Flyting was intended ultimately as a demonstration of the ancient truism that “sticks and stones may break my bones / but words will never hurt me.” There is no way to prove this conjecture but, I think, that the genre of Flyting was devised to demonstrate the equipoise, dignity, and restraint of the person undergoing verbal assault. The contest illustrated a gentleman’s proper response to scurrilous insult – not a duel or a lawsuit or, even, indignation, but a cool and amused indifference.
The endlessly inventive and completely tedious proliferation of insults in The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy illustrates the same melancholy point impressed upon the reader of Isaiah or Finnegans Wake. Words comprise the human universe. Our world is inevitably made of words. But words, in themselves, aren’t really anything at all.