Leo [Stein, brother of Gertrude] went to Harvard in 1892 to study philosophy but soon got distracted. He described his problem: “There would be that same irresistible tendency to find out one day the truth about the Battle of Vicksburg, another the most recent determination for the date of the second Isaiah, then perhaps Hertwig’s answer to Jennings’ paper and on a fourth the relation of recalled future time to the possibility of a logically complete induction ... I’m all too easily distracted. If somebody asks me about the habits of giraffes I’m strongly inclined to look up their anatomy, physiology, and embryology. The amount of time I’ve wasted because foolish people asking foolish questions have started my mind off on things it hadn’t any business to monkey with.” — Gertrude and Alice, Diana Souhami
Is there such a word as “xenogastronomy”? (There should be; now there is.) While chewing over a stranger-than-fiction reference to mouse on toast in Gordon Grice’s Deadly Kingdom, I find myself thinking of strange cuisine.
How can I not think of ortolan, the thumb-sized songbird prized by gourmands in France, where the endangered animal—whose sale is illegal but whose consumption, perversely, is not—is force-fed to the point of delectable plumpness? Poetically dispatched by being drowned in Armagnac (there are worse ways to go), it is roasted whole and, ultimately, eaten entire, under cover of a napkin draped over the diner’s head “to preserve the precious aromas and, some believe, to hide from God” (not to mention the disapproving gaze of any PETA activists at nearby tables).
When prostate cancer handed Francois Mitterrand a death sentence, he hosted a fabulous Last Supper whose pièce de résistance was ortolan; shielded from the all-seeing eye by the traditional napkin, Monsieur Le Président had two. (The atheist in me loves the presumption that our omniscient, omnipotent Heavenly Father, who has numbered the hairs on our heads and can see from here to infinity, is defeated by a napkin.) “[T]here’s a lot of contemplation that goes on underneath that cloth napkin,” says the journalist Michael Paterniti, who has eaten the dish. He compares the experience to “being in a confessional. You have to own up to the fact that you’re not only eating this bird, but you have to own up to your own mortality. And I think that’s what Francois Mitterrand was most attracted to; trying to achieve some immortal gesture, [he] felt that this bird was the perfect ending of his life.” Paterniti claims Mitterrand “ate not another bite of food” until he dropped off the twig eight days later, an act of aestheticism Oscar Wilde would envy. (Presumably, he made a full confession before the celestial bench.) François Simon, the restaurant critic for Le Figaro, has called the experience of eating ortolan “monstrous” but sublime nonetheless: “Crunching the bones was like munching sardines or hazelnuts. I chewed a long time. When I finally had to swallow, I regretted the end of a very sensual experience.” Would roast mouse be equally toothsome? Who knows what monstrous sublimities we’re missing?
Which makes me think of the HBO series Rome; in one episode, a soldier chowing down at an unprepossessing osteria declares the dormouse on offer the best in the city. By all accounts, this little detail is historically accurate: the ancient Romans farmed the rodents, fattening them on walnuts; the bill of fare at the “Dinner of Trimalchio” in Petronius’s Satyricon includes “dormice sprinkled with poppy-seed and honey…served on little bridges soldered fast to the platter.” (Apparently, the Italian appetite for the Edible Dormouse, as it is helpfully named, didn’t die with the Caesars. Despite the fact that Glis glis is now a protected species in Italy, food inspectors discovered, in 2007, dormouse casseroles for sale from multiple restaurateurs at a festival in the Calabrian region of Southern Italy. Facing criminal charges, the suspects offered a novel defense: the “dormouse” in their dishes, they claimed, was actually rat.)
Talk of mouse-phagy makes my thoughts return, naturally enough, to mouse on toast. In Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler meditates on mouse on toast, eaten “fur and all,” as a remedy for bedwetting (who would, after that?) and mouse pie as a cure for childhood stammering. That leads—how could it not?—to Salvador Dali’s 1939 “readymade” Freud’s Perverse Polymorph (Bulgarian Child Eating a Rat), an innocuous photo of a smiling baby, accessorized by Dali with a half-gnawed cartoon rat dangling from the child’s mouth, oozing gore. Dali offered little in the way of explanation for this image, whose leg-pulling outrageousness is pure punk rock, although he does claim, in The Unspeakable Confessions of Salvador Dali, that at the age of five he “all but” bit the head off a bat. (The “all but” is a nice touch.)
(Dali, by the way, was an ortolan fan. In his autohagiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali, he enthuses, “How wonderful to crunch a bird’s tiny skull! How can one eat brains any other way! Small birds are very much like small shellfish. They wear their armor, so to speak, flush with their skin. In any case Paolo Uccello painted armor that looked like little ortolans…” And so on, in the usual Dalinian fashion, delivered with impeccable comic timing and a perfectly straight face. Exit through the gift shop, please.)
From there, it’s just a free-associated hop, skip, and jump to the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-‘71, when rat was on the menu. (“People are making rat pâté,” Victor Hugo noted, matter-of-factly, in his memoirs. “It is said to be quite good.”) A menu from the Jockey Club, touting delicacies such as Salmis de rats à la Robert, lives on in weird-food legend. (A salmis is a rich ragout; in his Diary of the Besieged Resident in Paris, the journalist Henry Du Pré Labouchère pronounces salmis of rat “excellent—something between frog and rabbit,” adding, philosophically, “The older one grows, the more tolerant one becomes.”)
Speaking of Robert, could there be a connection, here, to William Burroughs’s scabrous satire on haute cuisine in Naked Lunch? In the Burroughs novel, the “Transcendental Cuisine” served by a snooty restaurant called Chez Robert goes downhill by degrees until it is literally “garbage, the clients being too intimidated by the [restaurant’s] reputation...to protest.” Judging from Robert’s spécialités de la maison, its chef must have trained at the Jockey Club: the restaurant’s menu includes siege-of-Paris-style offerings such as “After-Birth Suprême de Bœuf, cooked in drained crankcase oil, served with a piquant sauce of rotten egg yolks and crushed bed bugs.” No mouse, though.
Returning to Murinae (the mammalian subfamily comprising mice and rats), rats must have been plentiful and frolicsome in the Missouri of Mark Twain’s childhood, since they scamper through the novels he sets in the antebellum South. In Tom Sawyer, when Tom cons the neighborhood boys into trading their prized possessions for the opportunity to take over his whitewashing chore, Johnny Miller antes up “a dead rat and a string to swing it with”; later, Huck Finn has a premonition of disaster in the form of “a rotten bad dream last night—dreampt about rats.” In Huckleberry Finn, a country woman bemoans her poverty, lamenting that the rats in her shanty “was as free as if they owned the place”; deriding Huck’s easy-as-pie plan to free the recaptured runaway slave Jim, Tom groans, “Why, cert'nly it would work, like rats a-fighting.”
My favorite rat reference in the Twain canon—an arcane category, admittedly—is Tom’s blissful inquiry in Tom Sawyer, while spooning with Becky, “Do you love rats?” Is there a more perfect expression, in all of American literature, of the joys of carefree youth? Ever since I first clapped eyes on that line, its happy-go-lucky perversity has been a source of inexhaustible pleasure to me, surpassed only by the exchange that follows: “No! I hate them!” says Becky, to which Tom replies, reasonably enough, “Well, I do, too—live ones. But I mean dead ones, to swing round your head with a string.” Oh, to be young again, with all the time in the world, and a dead rat, and a string to swing it on!
That rats scurry and squeak in the Victorian unconscious, popping up in fact and figure of speech in Twain’s novels, and others of the period, should come as no surprise. The 19th century was a good time to be a rat; hygiene and sanitation, or the lack thereof, favored rats, and they were fruitful and multiplied, especially in the squalid, overcrowded cities. Knee-deep in garbage, with overworked horses left to die at curbside, streets in the slum districts were a rat’s idea of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Slaughterhouses and bone-boilers’ shops, too, were a gift to vermin, as were the crammed tenements with which they often sat cheek-by-jowl.
A rat’s only regret was the rat-killer (whose dogs, traps, and poisons weren’t exactly an existential threat in those innocent days before state-of-the-art rodenticides) and rat-baiting, the most popular betting sport of the period. (At a time when tickets to illegal prizefights went for 50 cents, the price of admission to a ratting match could rise as high as five bucks, depending on the number of rats a dog was to face.) The seedier drinking establishments in New York and London turned a handsome profit from their basement rat pits, where upper-class swells rubbed elbows with lowlife, placing bets on how many rats a terrier could dispatch within a given time.
The contests took place in open enclosures whose wooden walls were over four feet high, too high for rats to leap, and lined with polished zinc or tin, too slippery for rats to climb. Henry Mayhew, in Volume III of his London Labour and the London Poor (1861), sets the scene: “When [the rats] had been flung into the pit, they gathered themselves into a mound which reached one-third up the sides, and which reminded one of the heap of hair-sweepings in a barber’s shop after a heavy day’s cuttings. These were all sewer and water-ditch rats, and the smell that rose from them was like that from a hot drain.” Set loose, the dog tore into the squealing rodents, seizing them, snapping their necks with a quick shake, and tossing them aside. A good ratter “could kill a hundred rats in half an hour to 45 minutes,” Luc Sante writes, in Lowlife: Lures and Snares of Old New York, “although the modern record was set by Jack Underhill, a terrier belonging to one Billy Fagan, who slew his hundred in 11 and a half minutes.” There was a brief vogue, in the late 19th century, for pitting rats against men in heavy boots. And Mayhew, in his portrait of “The Rat-Killer,” quotes his subject’s somewhat shamefaced admission that, wagering he could beat a bulldog’s time, he climbed into the pit and took on the rats “like a dog.”
There was a bull-dog a-killing rats, so I says, “Oh, that’s a duffin’ dog; any dog could kill quicker than him. I’d kill again him myself.” Well, then they chaffed me, and I warnt goin’ to be done; so I says, “I’ll kill again that dog for a sov’rin.” The sov’rin was staked. I went down to kill eight rats again the dog, and I beat him. I killed ‘em like a dog, with my teeth. I went down hands and knees and bit ‘em. ... On the hind part of my neck, as you may see, sir, there’s a scar; that’s where I was bit by one; the rat twisted hisself round and held on like a vice.
Rats scurry down the bolt holes of my unconscious. They’ve always inspired in me a mixture of revulsion and fascination, the tension between the two perfectly calibrated. In New York, where a sizeable number of the city’s two-legged denizens embrace the city’s grime as proof positive of its street-tough authenticity, I fit right in. New Yorkers have a perverse relationship with rats: they shudder at the sight of the vermin gorging themselves at garbage-bag buffets, they gasp in appalled fascination at “track rabbits” gamboling on subway tracks, yet, at the same time, they evince a kind of hometown pride in the rat as Manhattan’s unofficial mascot, fair warning to tourists that they aren’t in Kansas anymore. A sardonic T-shirt appropriates the logo for Cats, the sort of schlocky Broadway musical beloved by out-of-towners, retitling it Rats and replacing the pupils in the iconic cat’s eyes with rat silhouettes; another hacks the ubiquitous “I (Heart) New York” slogan, replacing the cartoon heart with a prancing rat. To a certain species of New Yorker—aging Lou Reed fans, prototypically, who grouse about the Disneyfication of Times Square and groan at the irony of the Met’s “Punk: Chaos to Couture” show—the rat is the totem of the city’s underclass, too tough and too streetwise to be eradicated completely by the real-estate developers and other forces of upscale gentrification determined to price them off the island. It’s no accident that Dustin Hoffman’s two-bit Times Square con man in Midnight Cowboy goes by the nickname “Ratso” Rizzo.
The rat as pet, though: that’s groaningly overdone—a mall goth’s idea of shock treatment for the squares, as the rat owner profiled by Jerry Langton in his book Rat: How the World’s Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top makes resoundingly clear. A die-cut nonconformist who calls herself—what else? —Raven, she sports the regulation-issue tattoos and pierced tongue; her pet rats are named—what else? —Lucifer and Bela and Bubonic and Aleister (after Aleister Crowley, the notorious occultist, naturally).
Then again, the Surrealist filmmaker Luis Buñuel, as charmingly unselfconscious an iconoclast as ever there was, exhibited a lifelong fondness for rats, and kept them as pets as a boy and again in later life, when at one point his rat collection exploded, as rat collections will, to 40. In his autobiography, My Last Sigh, he quotes his sister’s reminiscences of their childhood pets, most memorably “an enormous rat, as big as a rabbit, a rather filthy beast with a long, rough tail” who nonetheless “was treated like one of the family,” accompanying the Buñuels on trips in a bird cage. “The poor creature finally died, like a saint, showing obvious symptoms of poisoning.” The Buñuels had five servants; none would admit to dispatching the creature.
The murderer, whoever he was, has all my sympathies. Pet rodents—hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, mice, rats—have always made my flesh creep. I make an exception for Leporidae, whose association with Trickster figures like Bugs Bunny and Harvey, the invisible six-foot rabbit in the Jimmy Stewart film of the same name, charms me. Not so rodents, who’ve always impressed me as depraved in some way I can’t quite put my finger on. Maybe it’s their long yellow incisors, their manic production of droppings, their nocturnal squeaking, their frantic rooting in their nests of cedar shavings, their obsessive sniffing, their neurotic twitching, their hardwired compulsion to gnaw. There’s something of the furtive fetishist about them, the unsatisfied masturbator, the clammy palmed deviant; if rats were human, they’d be Peter Lorre in M, Dylan Baker in Happiness, John Malkovich in anything. Urban myths about “gerbiling,” the entirely imaginary practice of inserting, for sexual pleasure, small rodents into your rectum—one’s rectum, I mean, not yours—only heighten the vague sense of unsavoriness that clings to small rodents, the baselessness of the libel notwithstanding.
Of course, it’s what rats have in common with us that accounts in no small part for their creepiness. To be sure, our commensal friends are repugnantly Other in some obvious ways—their habit of cannibalizing their neighbors’ newborns, for starters—but they’re uncomfortably similar to us, too, an inconvenient truth underscored by their ubiquitous use as human surrogates in laboratory research. Their neuroanatomy and internal organs resemble ours; like us, they’re social animals, and live in communities. They display a disquieting cunning—ask any exterminator—and problem-solving abilities (famously, in mazes and in B.F. Skinner’s “operant conditioning chambers”) that while no threat to Homo sapiens’s inflated sense of himself as the crown of creation are nonetheless impressive. True, they lack our capstone achievement, language, but they do communicate, in their own ratty way, through pheromonal messages coded in their urine, feces, and scent and decoded with a specially evolved olfactory tool called the vomeronasal organ. As well, they signal each other with a repertoire of squeaks and squeals. Dale Peterson, in his book The Moral Lives of Animals, quotes a team of neuroscientists who have discovered that rats, when tickled, let loose with ultrasonic chirps, which the researchers believe is a form of “primitive laughter.”
(They may in fact have the last laugh: musing on the possibly apocalyptic consequences of global warming, Jan Zalasiewicz, a paleobiologist at the University of Leicester, thinks rats will inherit the Earth. If he’s right, the Anthropocene, as some climate scientists call the period of anthropogenic climate change that began with the Industrial Revolution, will be succeeded by a posthuman age that will witness the rise of Rattus. Some species, Zalasiewicz speculates, may evolve to be the size of the world’s largest rodent, the capybara, which can tip the scales at 176 pounds. “Rats are one of the best examples of a species that we have helped spread around the world, and that have successfully adapted to many of the new environments that they found themselves in,” he said.
Rats, he thinks, are well-positioned to come into their own, “in the mid to far geological future,” asserting their claim to the “ecospace” where Homo sapiens once strutted and fretted his hour upon the Darwinian stage.)
Rats are like us in other, less flattering ways: they like to eat, and they like to have sex, and they indulge in both as often as they can, with gluttonous gusto. When it comes to dietary preferences, rats are amusingly Bubba-esque, shunning raw vegetables for Elvis-approved fare like mac and cheese, white bread, fried chicken, peanut butter, and beer (which gets the better of them, because as one exterminator tells Robert Sullivan, in the New York-centric Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, “they drink a lot and then they can’t throw up”). Also like us, they’re supremely adaptable: Sullivan quotes an exterminator who theorizes that New York rats come to like the signature dishes of the ethnic neighborhoods they call home, an opinion borne out by scientific studies, which call this adaptation “local food dialect.”
As for sex, they engage in it constantly—a dominant male may mate with as many as 20 females in six hours, Sullivan claims—and they don’t scruple at niceties: rats mate with underage rats, pregnant rats, and even dead rats caught, headfirst, in snap traps. Male rats’ testicles are enormous, and are thus the subject of much merriment among rat fanciers; according to Langton, a 400-pound gorilla’s are less than half the size of a rat’s.
Let’s play the Association Game. (Which I’ve been playing from the beginning, of course). What does the word “rat” bring to mind? I think of the 1971 horror movie Willard, about a Norman Bates-ian dweeb who exercises a mesmeric power over a pack of homicidal rats. Which makes me think, naturally, of Freud’s Rat Man, plagued by obsessional thoughts of rats gnawing their way up his fiancée’s anus, as well as his father’s—a gothic vision, if ever there was one. Of course that doesn’t hold a candle to the scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s criminally underrated Dracula, where the blood count shapeshifts into an enormous man-bat, sneering down the crucifix Van Helsing is shakily brandishing. “I, who served the Cross,” the monster thunders. “Look what your God has done to me!” When the vampire-hunters empty their pistols into him, he simply spreads his wings into a grotesque parody of Christ on the cross, then metamorphoses into a crucifix made of rats; the image hangs on the wall for an instant, mocking God and man, then collapses, exploding into a squeaking, skittering horde when the rats hit the floor, scrambling over the men’s feet.
Critics who insist on psychological depth or intricacies of plot or Big Ideas miss the point that, in cinema, surface is depth; images are ideas. Coppola’s Dracula is a gothic rebus, a dreamlike procession of signs and symbols worthy of Fuseli and Klimt and the ghosts and ghouls conjured up by Japanese woodcut artists of the Edo period. If a movie gives us even one unforgettable image, a vision that does an end run around language and strikes a responsive chord in the unconscious that never stops echoing, isn’t that enough? For whatever inscrutable reason, the image of Coppola’s Dracula mocking the God who promised eternal life but gave him living death, aping the crucifixion then dissolving into a cross of rats, is deeply satisfying to this aging atheist. I like to revisit it, from time to time, in my memory palace, and am always happy to discover its power undiminished by age.
Right beside Coppola’s cross of rats, in the galleries in my head, is the Rat King, that fabled phenomenon in which rats become inextricably entangled by their tails. The result is a circle of outward-facing rats, held fast by the knot of tails in the center of the ring. Enshrined in European folk belief, the existence of the Rat King is substantiated, in some eyes, by relics such as the mummified specimen on display at the Mauritianum Museum in Altenburg, Germany, a skin-crawling clump of 32 rats still tethered to one another in death, like some chain gang from pest-control hell.
To the skeptical inquirer, the Rat King has a whiff of the cryptozoological about it, but both Langton and Sullivan treat the phenomenon as established fact. “There have been Rat Kings ranging in size from three rats to 32 rats,” Sullivan claims. “Sometimes the rats die, sometimes they are fed by the other rats and stay alive for a time in the nest.” It bears pointing out that neither Langton nor Sullivan is a biologist; the assumption that an animal capable of chewing through concrete, with a bite force of 7000 pounds PSI, would resign itself to starvation rather than just gnawing its tail off requires a greater suspension of disbelief than I can manage. (As any pest-control professional will tell you, finding hind legs in glue traps, chewed off by a rat desperate to free himself, is far from uncommon.)
One especially fanciful aspect of the Rat King myth is not in dispute, however: it’s certifiably a fiction that “the rats’ tails were tied together by other rats to form a sort of living throne for the Rat King, whose regal paws they supposed were far to important to touch the ground” (Langton). While rats are highly social creatures who live in colonies, they have no leader, although according to Langton a dominant male “will usually emerge as the rat that mates most often and gets the most food.” But his dominance is lightly worn, more nominal than the brute authority exercised by the Alpha male in, say, a wolf pack.
The Rat King’s enthralling horror owes much to the Dantean awfulness of the creatures’ plight, and to the instinctual revulsion the rat inspires. The scourge of humankind since civilization first put down roots, rats are harbingers of pestilence and death. The Black Death of the 14th century, spread by contagion-bearing fleas riding on rats, cemented that association; Dracula movies, from Nosferatu (1922) to the 1931 Bela Lugosi classic (in which Dracula’s thrall Renfield has a vision of “Rats! Rats! Rats! Thousands! Millions of them!” controlled by the vampire) to the Werner Herzog remake (1979) to the Coppola film, ensured its survival in the age of mass media. Herzog’s film testifies to the post-traumatic echoes of the rat-borne plague that ravaged Europe from 1347 to 1350, killing as many as 75 million: in one scene, Nosferatu’s army of rats overruns a town square where, amid coffins stacked high, a handful of townspeople mock death by banqueting amid the horror, apparently oblivious to the rats underfoot, on the table, everywhere.
The Rat King’s repulsion distills the essence of one of the rat’s more queasy-making traits: its characteristic tendency to merge with the seething mass, to lose whatever individuality it has in a fast-running tide of squeaks and scrabblings whose only thought is to gnaw and whose only direction is toward you. Langton describes a corn farmer lifting a piece of plywood to give the author a sense of his rat problem: “The horde of rats underneath, temporarily blinded by the sunlight, ran around and into each other in the confusion—the overall effect was that of a bubbling, flowing carpet of brownish-gray fur.” It is this engulfing multiplicity, as much as the rat’s associations with disease and filth, that inspires our primordial loathing; like the demon that calls itself Legion, and the centipede with its numberless, frantically wriggling legs, the onrushing wave of rats has no identity, other than that of a faceless, mindless mass. Worse yet, it threatens to obliterate ours, swallowing us up figuratively, then literally. To be drowned in a living flood, then devoured: that is the special horror the rat holds in store.
Ultimately, however, the Rat King’s occult power has more to do, I think, with its inscrutability. The Rat King is a semiotic black hole, infinitely dense with apparent meaning but, at bottom, an enigma. It’s open to all the Freudian or Jungian or Lacanian or Derridean readings you’re clever enough to balance on its knot, right where the Rat King himself is supposed to squat, carried by his underlings like an emperor in his sedan chair. We can read it as a dream symbol of the futility of human existence, or of our tendency to cage ourselves in prisons of our own making, psychologically speaking, or of the black comedy of human relations, in which we sometimes find ourselves caught up in what our 12-step culture likes to call mutually destructive codependencies. But why read it at all? Why not regard it, rapt, as a message written in an inhuman script, a cipher in fur from the scurrying world beneath the floorboards of our minds, a tangled tale of tangled tails whose meaningless meaningfulness we’ll never unriddle? Like Meret Oppenheim’s fur-covered cup or Duchamp’s bicycle wheel grafted onto a kitchen stool, there’s a perfection to its Surrealist logic. On first encounter, we’re boggled by its logical impossibility—a wreath made of rats!—but on second thought it seems ineffably right, somehow: nature imitating art, and doing it with whimsical perversity. Lusus naturae, as they used to say of marvels and monstrosities: nature’s jokes.
— Mark Dery
I’ve omitted endnotes in order to avoid an academic feel that some readers might find off-putting, not to mention the design eyesore presented by a text infested with superscript numerals. But readers, especially the science-minded, should rest assured that every assertion of concrete fact in this essay that isn’t directly supported by a link is derived from a book on the subject, an article, or a scholarly paper (although readers will, of course, have to take that on faith!).
Those interested in the rat, in fact and fancy, and who want to delve deeper into the subject, may want to start with the sources I relied on most heavily: Jerry Langton’s Rat: How the World’s Most Notorious Rodent Clawed Its Way to the Top and Robert Sullivan’s Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. Concrete Jungle: A Pop Media Investigation of Death and Survival in Urban Ecosystems, edited by Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman, has a chapter on rats, the most useful part of which is Michael Crewdson’s interview with the man who popularized the term “super rat,” Randy “Butch” Dupree, the then-Pest Control Director of New York City’s Department of Health. And the section on rats in Gordon Grice’s Deadly Kingdom: The Book of Dangerous Animals is, like everything from Grice’s pen, delicious.