Cojones & ButterfliesTuesday, February 20, 2007
On December 22, 1944, German General Heinrich Von Lütwitz demanded that Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe surrender with his US troops in the beleauguered Belgian town of Bastogne. McAullife's reply was terse: "Nuts." German speaking army medic, Ernie Premetz, was dispatched with Colonel Joseph Harper to hand the reply to the German couriers. They did not understand the slang word. Harper told Premetz to indicate that the Germans could take a flying f----Premetz wanted to be clear. He told them, "Du kannst zum Teufel gehen," "You can go to hell!"
I believe that General McAuliffe really meant,"I'll sacrifice my nuts before I surrender to you bastards!"
I have come to understand that in our concept of the brotherhood (or sisterhood) of man (and woman) there seems to be divergence and individuality in the national insult that does not transcend borders. My camera repairman Horst Wenzel, has confirmed that they do not use testicles or any allusions to them when they insult.
After many years of living in Mexico City, in 1965, I was crossing the street in Buenos Aires when a car suddenly turned and almost hit me. I screamed at the driver, "¡Pinche, cabrón!” which in Mexico loosely means something like, “You cuckold and despicable pimp!” The man stared into my face and nothing registered. By the time I rethought it all and yelled a very Argentine, “¡La concha de tu hermana!”(Your sister's cunt) he was long gone.
As a boy in Buenos Aires , my parents would take me to the yearly PNE-type La Rural that featured lots of livestock. I would always stare at the huge Simmental bulls that could barely walk, their huge scrotums dragging on the floor. Perhaps this is why Argentines use boludo (big-balled) to insult you if they think you are mentally slow. If you are even more challenged they switch to the stronger pelotudo (extra-big-balled). In Mexico this does not register as an insult since Mexicans would rather command you into having sexual relations with your mother. The more Roman Catholic Spaniards would rather “defecate” on God ( ¡Me cago en Dios!) than deal with your relatives.
But it is the Spanish (Castilian) expression for testicles, cojones , that has crossed international borders and transferred itself into English so that if you have them ( cojones ) you are perceived as either being macho, gutsy, or brave. Spanish author Arturo Pérez-Reverte has written a treatise on the word. He cites that a preceding number is important. The expression “to be worth one cojón,” means that the project in question could be costly. If someone has two of them he or she is brave. One more or three as in, “I don't care three cojones ,” signifies a low priority.
In 1990 I wanted to travel to Peru to photograph the famous Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa , who was running for president. I was unable to find anyone who was interested in photographs of the man without an accompanying article. It dawned on me that I would have to interview him and to do this I would have to read his books of which many at the time were unavailable in English. In four months I read his whole literary output, including the extremely dense Conversación en la Catedral. One hour before my interview with Llosa at his Miraflores home in Lima , the butterflies in my stomach were the size of the Brazilian tropical variety. I told myself that if I survived the ordeal I would never ever have to worry about anything as being impossible or too difficult.
While I would never claim that I have cojones , I would assert that my testicles crossed some sort of Rubicon on that Lima day in 1990. I am often asked if I was not nervous shooting authors William Safire, the scary William F. Buckley , George Plimpton and the even scarier James Ellroy, in photo above. Was it tough to photograph Annie Leibovitz? I will admit to faint flutterings in my stomach on all of these occasions but nothing in comparison to my Peruvian adventure. The moment any photographic assignment is not accompanied by stress I would think my retirement would be imminent. Whatever it is they are called, we photographers have to have them.