Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, August 29, 2014

"and my profit on't is..."

Swearing “seems to be” getting more common? Talk about an unnecessary qualifier. Obviously, it has gotten dramatically more common in the past twenty years or so, or, it’s better to say, more public. And of course anyone who complains about this — like anyone who complains about the hyper-sexualization of public culture — is immediately mocked and denigrated as a prude or worse. This is what happens when you question the object of anyone’s sentimental devotion.

Yes, sentimental. Wallace Stegner explained this fifty years ago, in an essay he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly called “Good-bye to All T—t!” The essay arose from Stegner’s experience as a teacher of creative writing: he has discovered that his students thought they were making their stories more powerful and bold just by inserting lots of swear words.

Now, Stegner used plenty of strong language in his own fiction; but he was not under the illusion that if some swearing is acceptable and appropriate and useful then more swearing is always more acceptable and appropriate and useful.

Words are not obscene: naming things is a legitimate verbal act.... Under the right circumstances, any word is proper. But when any sort of word, especially a word hitherto taboo and therefore noticeable, is scattered across a page like chocolate chips through a tollhouse cookie, a real impropriety occurs. The sin is not the use of an “obscene” word; it is the use of a loaded word in the wrong place or in the wrong quantity. It is the sin of false emphasis, which is not a moral but a literary lapse, related to sentimentality....

Some acts, like some words, were never meant to be casual. That is why houses contain bedrooms and bathrooms. Profanity and so-called obscenities are literary resources, verbal ways of rendering strong emotion. They are not meant to occur every ten seconds, any more than — Norman Mailer to the contrary notwithstanding — orgasms are.

There’s an old saying that sentimentality is loving something more than God does; in that sense you might say that the undisciplined and gratuitous swearer is sentimental. But sentimentality is not true affection. Super-swearers don’t love their words enough: they’re indiscriminate, careless. They toss powerful language around, casually, and over time diminish its power. Stegner mentions D. H. Lawrence’s commendation of having “the courage to say ’shit!’ in front of a lady” — that’s great, says Stegner, but then what do you say when your car breaks down on the Santa Monica Freeway during rush hour?

If you care about language, you’ll swear sometimes; but only sometimes. You’ll save the strong words for the proper occasions, which are few. If you want to know how to do it, read Les Murray’s poem “The Last Hellos.” Read it slowly, all the way to the end.

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