Thursday, September 4, 2014

Foul is Fair

Reading Stanley Kauffmann's essays in back issues of The New Republic has been a pleasurable pastime for me for most of my adult life. Looking back on the origins of my own cinephilia, it seems inextricably mixed with the extraordinary writings on film that Kauffmann and a few other critics provided. I found him perennially judicious and diplomatic - and almost invariably right. A longtime resident of Manhattan, he sometimes went to great lengths trying to convince his readers that it wasn't just as narrow and parochial a setting as anywhere else. And this is nowhere more evident than in his 1961 review (1) of the belatedly published - thirty years late - Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, in which Kauffmann observed that Miller's use of four-letter words like "fuck" and "cunt" was merely for effect, to shock the reader, rather than an honest attempt to represent how people actually talk:

"To talk about complete naturalness in the use of those words by a member of our society is arrant nonsense. The only person who could use them completely naturally would be a mental defective unaware of taboos. The foulest-mouthed longshoreman knows that he is using naughty words and is wallowing in them. Miller uses them in an exultation very much like that of a college boy away from home for the first time."

 I won't claim (neither did Miller, but his fans did it for him) that there is anything "earthy" or "life-affirming" about using foul language. Nor can I vouch for the mental condition of virtually everyone I've met in and out of military service (note Kauffmann's pointed use of the term "our society"). But I've found that such language as Miller "exults" in is de rigeur conversational American English. Kauffmann even mentions in his review "Robert Graves' remark that in the British Army the adjective 'f-ing' has come to mean only a signal that a noun is approaching." I could've informed Kauffmann that the same goes for the U.S. Army (and Navy).

Evidently, Kauffmann hadn't read, or simply wouldn't acknowledge that he had, George Orwell's essay, "Inside the Whale," in which, among a great many other things, he gives credence to Miller's reasons for using the language of the gutter:

"In Miller's case, it is not so much a question of exploring the mechanisms of the mind as of owning up to everyday facts and everyday emotions. For the truth is that many ordinary people, perhaps an actual majority, do speak and behave in just the way that if recorded here. The callous coarseness with which the characters in Tropic of Cancer talk is very rare in fiction [in 1940], but it is extremely common in real life; again and again I have heard just such conversations from people who were not even aware that they were talking coarsely."(2)

Obviously Orwell's experience of the underside of society was far more extensive than Kauffmann's. But Kauffmann didn't stop there. He took his theory of common English usage to greater length more than thirty years later in his essay, "Up to Date":

"This country has become bilingual. The fact is that we now go to films and hear language at a level of vulgarity that most of the viewers would not themselves use. To put it a bit strenuously, but only a bit, we speak one language among ourselves and hear another in most American films. Of course there are people to whom this schism does not apply; and of course any of the rest of us sometimes salt our conversation and enjoy it. But it seems to me past question that most reasonable civilized people, younger and older, now go to films quite prepared to spend a couple of hours in sulfurous sound that is not their own usage."(3)

I get the feeling that, after the appearance of his article, Kauffmann must've got a more than usual amount of mail from his readers. The fact is the kind of language featured in American movies may be exaggerated, but only slightly to my ears. And there is also the fact that so many American films depict criminals, who aren't the sweetest or the most eloquent people in the world. Kauffmann was an admirer of David Mamet, whose plays and film scripts are armored with such a thick coat of coarse language that they nearly suffocate under its weight. Why was Mamet's use of foul language acceptable and convincing to Kauffmann, and Miller's was not?

In the 1980s, when Dick Cavett asked Eddie Murphy why he used dirty words - especially "fuck" - so frequently in his stand-up routines. Murphy replied that it wasn't as if he stopped in the middle of writing a joke and thought, "What word would work best here? I know! 'Fuck!'" Murphy insisted that it was simply the way he and everyone else normally spoke - without pretension or formality. Just everyday talk.

When I was in the Navy, stationed in Okinawa, a boy of barely 19 joined me in my workstation and, after a few days, the other sailors and I started noticing how his face was always turning bright red and how he would excuse himself and go into a back room whenever we talked together. Shortly thereafter, our Senior Chief called us into the front room and closed the door. The boy was at lunch, and the Senior Chief spoke to us about the foul language we were using in the workspace. The boy was devoutly religious and wasn't used to hearing such foul language around him, which is why he turned red in the face and made himself scarce when the rest of us were around.

The other sailors made typically coarse jokes about him, asking why they should be obliged to change, since the "new guy" should be the one to adapt. But the Senior Chief insisted that such language as we were using was unnecessary and "unprofessional." I saw the point he was making and I told him that I would try to "tone down" my language in the future, out of deference to the boy. The other sailors tried, but invariably failed. After all, they had their reputations - i.e., "Cuss like a sailor" - to live up to.

(1) "An Old Shocker Comes Home," The New Republic, July 7, 1961.
(2) "Inside the Whale ," 11 March 1940.
(3) The New Republic, November 17, 2003.

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