Sunday, March 19, 2017

285. Profanity and Why We Need It


Bill Hope: His Story: ($20: Softcover: 6X9”, 158pp: 978-1-68114-305-7; $35: Hardcover: 978-1-68114-306-4; $2.99: EBook: 978-1-68114-307-1; LCCN: 2017933794; Historical Fiction; May 17, 2017) is the second novel in the Metropolis series. New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his scorn for snitches and bullies; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; his brief career on the stage playing himself; his loyalty to a man who has befriended him but may be trying to kill him; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder. In the course of his adventures he learns how slight the difference is between criminal and law-abiding, insane and sane, vice and virtue—a lesson that reinforces what he learned on the streets. Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a yearning to leave the crooked life behind, and a persistent and undying hope.
          This is the second title in the Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York.  The first in the series is The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), mention of which appears at the end of this post. 

         The book can be ordered from Amazon and will be shipped after the release date of May 17, 2017.  But the paperback, which goes for $20, will cost an additional $4.95 for shipping, unless you order books totaling $25 or more.  The book is also available now from the author and will be mailed immediately ($20 + postage).  And now on to profanity.

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         Followers of this blog will recall post #263, “The Golden Age of Profanity, and Do We Have a Right to Swear?”  In that post, inspired by a Times review of the two books mentioned below, I confessed my frequent resort to profanity, albeit mostly in private and with no intention of shocking others or violating things they hold dear.  That post has since become one of the most popular, with many “hits,” so here is a follow-up to this most damnedly fascinating topic.

         In the New York Review of Books of February 9, 2017, Joan Acocella reviews two new books on the subject: What the F: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, by Benjamin K. Bergen, and In Praise of Profanity, by Michael Adams.  This article is much longer than the Times’s, allowing for a richer treatment of the subject.  Rather than summarizing the reviews, which all serious scholars of dirty words should peruse, I will merely list the values of profanity that the two authors and the reviewer cite.  Profanity is good because it

·      Relieves tension
·      Helps us endure pain (quite literally)
·      Registers a complaint against the human condition
·      Prevents violence (better words than fists or guns)
·      Encourages fellowship (we share our taste for – or tolerance of -- dirty words)
·      Expresses machismo (he-men swear, sissies don’t)
·      Enhances sex (for some, but count me out).

Ergo, we all should feel good about swearing.

         But the article shares other points as well:

·      Graffiti from a brothel in ancient Pompeii are “disappointingly laconic” (an example is cited)
·      The FCC, that vigilant guardian of our morals, levies fines, but has never published a list of taboo words
·      Jonathan Green’s Green’s Dictionary of Slang (2010) lists 1740 words for sexual intercourse, 1351 for penis, 1180 for vagina, 634 for anus or buttocks, and 540 for defecation and urination, which shows how rich our English language is, and how long the FCC’s list would be, if it existed
·      By way of contrast, the Japanese language has no swear words; to insult someone, you can tell him he’s a fool, but you can’t call him an asshole.
·      People have been giving the finger to each other for over two thousand years.

Illustrating this last observation is a photo of the Donald in Paris in November 2016, right after the election, rather grumpy-faced, confronted by several Gallic hands each with one finger defiantly extended.

         We also learn that in 2009 an author named McKay Hatch published a book entitled The No Cussing Club: How I Fought Against Peer Pressure and How You Can Too.  Mr. Hatch, we further learn, was fourteen at the time and disgusted by the swearing he heard at school.  Founded in 2007, his club now boasts 20,000 members, and teachers, the mayor of South Pasadena, and an international following have told him that he may have changed the world.  Infinitely varied are the paths to fame and glory; I wish him well.  But his website has been hacked by the website group “Anonymous,” which claims that his parents founded the club, write his material, and use his website for their own personal gain.  Mr. McKay’s  response: “I’m the most cyberbullied kid on the planet.”  Even though I don’t qualify for his club, I not only wish him well, I applaud his courage and initiative.

         At age thirteen -- one year short of Mr. Hatch’s year of inspiration -- I was so bereft of profanity that the other boys in my eighth-grade class apologized if they ventured a damn or a hell within my hearing, and did so with genuine chagrin and without a trace of mockery.  Yes, my speech was pure, but little did they know what I had been exposed to at home, when my parents had such heated arguments that the house all but burst into flames.  To this day I can hear my mother, usually the essence of gentility, telling my father, “You can go to hell!”  Too tame, you think, and verging on innocuous?  Not if uttered with passion.  You should have heard and seen her say it. 

         As for my purity of speech, that fell by the wayside eons ago, though my profanity today lacks true originality, the kind expressed by Shakespeare’s Kent in King Lear, when he calls someone “a knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats, a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave,” and so on for a whole rich, savage paragraph.   

         But those naughty words we condemn and delight to use – most of them four-letter words ending in an emphatic consonant (vowels are too liquid, too soft, too wimpy) – are late arrivals in the arsenal of oaths, their emphasis on bodily functions being a symptom of our secular and perverted modern age.  Back in the Middle Ages, that blessed epoch of faith, those words hardly counted as vile; what really counted was blasphemy, the taking of the Lord’s name in vain.  In Shakespeare’s plays “s’blood!” is a common oath, meaning “God’s blood,” and as such can perhaps be viewed as not breaking (not quite) the Third Commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”  Similarly,  “zounds” derives from “God’s wounds,” while “gadzooks” and “ods bodikin,” which I have always thought deliciously quaint, come from ”God’s hooks” and “God’s bodkins,” meaning the nails of the Crucifixion.  Whether these expressions really avoid blasphemy I leave to the viewers of this blog – and to scholars and the arbiters of taste and decency.

          Concern about blasphemy did not die out with the Middle Ages.  In Catholic France, as late as 1866 the poet Baudelaire, was thrown out of a hospital for uttering the phrase sacré nom (“holy name”).  But today who would be offended by such utterances as criminy, cripes, gee, bejesus, gee whillikers, jiminy, or jeepers creepers, all of them variants of “Christ” and “Jesus”?  Or by gosh and golly, stand-ins for “God”?  No, for cussing we prefer references to sexual body parts and acts of copulation and excretion.  So it goes in this modern, and very secular, golden age of profanity.  

           Are there islands of purity of speech in this world of blatant profanity?  Yes, for I'm told on good authority that Hoosiers, the residents of Indiana and a good and decent folk, eschew (my favorite verb) profanity.  A woman newly arrived in the state asked a cousin of mine, "Don't Hoosiers cuss?"   But I'm also informed that two genteel relatives of mine, a cousin and her mother, are known to get less Hoosier behind the wheel, when another motorist cuts them off or otherwise offends them.  "Asshole!" the mother often exclaimed, within hearing of her young daughters.  So maybe the urge to curse is inherent in us, just waiting for the right provocation to explode.

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         A note on stars:  The Science section of the New York Times of Tuesday, March 14, informs us that extraterrestrial dust – in other words, dust from vanished planets, asteroids, and stars – rains constantly upon us, though we are unaware of this shower of micrometeorites.  Only experts can tell these tiny particles from the contaminants generated by human activities like construction, fireworks, and home insulation, but the fact remains that, all around us and even in our food and our hair, there is stardust.  Which confirms a poem that I wrote long ago (and which I will spare my readers), announcing that our bodies are made of bits of stars.
         And speaking of stars, another article in that same paper – a review of Marilyn in Manhattan: Her Year of Joy, by Elizabeth Winder, reminds me how Marilyn Monroe, then at the peak of her stardom and between husbands Joe Dimaggio and Arthur Miller, fled Hollywood to spend the year 1955 in New York, an event that inspired in me no little anxiety and downright fear.  Why should the displacement of the world’s most celebrated blonde, fleeing a movie industry that had trapped her in sexpot roles, affect me, a nobody, in any way?  Because she was coming to New York, where she planned to enroll in the Actors Studio and perhaps also improve her mind by taking courses of adult education.  And what was I doing at the time?  Teaching French in General Studies, the adult education program at Columbia University, and probably the most obvious place for her to enroll.  The very thought of that stellar beauty enrolled in one of my classes terrified me.  How could I deal with her objectively, when everyone in the class would know who she was, and would be scrutinizing my feeble attempts to treat her like any other student? 
         By chance, I escaped Marilyn by getting an appointment to teach in Columbia College, where I had as one of my students Arthur MacArthur, the general’s son, who was well-behaved and caused no problem.  And Marilyn never set her lovely foot in the Columbia campus, spending her time instead drinking, reading Russian novels (not in the original, I’m sure), confiding in Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, and enticing Arthur Miller into wedlock.  But soon after that I joined the Playwrights Unit of the Actors Studio and saw, posted on a wall, a photo of one of the classes with Marilyn sitting alone and apart, radiating not just beauty but that intangible known as star quality.  Yes, her presence in a classroom, however well intended, would have been vastly disruptive.

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          BROWDERBOOKS:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series,  tells the story of a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client   It is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

         Coming soon:  The Mafia and Me.  And then, Patients from Hell, to counterbalance post #283, Doctors from Hell.

         ©   2017   Clifford Browder