Monday, September 29, 2014

Pitched in Judah: Addendum


Last month, a reader commented on my post, "Pitched in Judah," and I responded. Succeeding comments developed into a debate that aired some of the history and grievances of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It would be impossible to encompass the whole of the issue in one blog post and a handful of comments. But I think I could have expressed my frustration at the seeming impossibility of a resolution to the conflict somewhat better.

Firstly, my view of the conflict is that it is internecine - an internal conflict roughly comparable to the struggle in Northern Ireland between Protestants and Catholics. Catholics maintain that the six counties of the North that were retained by the United Kingdom when Ireland was granted independence in 1948 belong historically (if not ethnically) to the Irish Republic. When emigrated Jews fought for and won independence for the state of Israel in the same year, the non-Jewish people who were inadvertently living there when the Jews showed up were instantly transformed from a people subject to British occupation to a people subject to Israeli occupation - with the substantial difference that the 2nd occupying power claimed the territory as their ancestral home and have no intention of relinquishing it ever again.

Jews living outside Israel finally had the choice of staying where they were or moving to Israel. The legitimacy of Israel is a moot problem for people - like me - who have no stake in it. It's a root problem for the non-Jewish, Arab people who still think of it as home. Because the struggle of these two people for one piece of ground has produced a much wider regional struggle that now involves my country, I feel that I, too, now have a stake in it. But after watching the struggle for decades, I refuse to choose sides. It isn't that I don't believe that one side has more legitimacy than the other. It's because choosing a side will never help to resolve the problems.

As an Irish-American, I have watched the Troubles in Northern Ireland with sometimes partisan interest. I saw how many fellow Irish-Americans contributed money to organizations that led straight to the IRA. They believed the propaganda that the IRA was spreading - that the British Army in Northern Ireland was an army of occupation, rather than a force to keep the two opposing sides from open fighting. Without the British Army, there was every indication that the country would've collapsed into civil war. In many respects, the IRA misrepresented the interests of the Catholics. Their tactics were terribly wrong.  But that didn't compromise the legitimacy of the interests of the people for whom they fought.

I recently watched Alan Dershowitz plugging his latest book, Terror Tunnels: The Case for Israel's Just War Against Hamas. Dershowitz decided a long time ago that he had the authority to defend Israel's actions in the conflict.(1) While admitting that Israel has suffered a blow to its image because of its response to recent Hamas rocket attacks, Dershowitz insists that Israel's killing of civilians is defensible because Hamas is employing the "dead baby strategy," i.e., deliberately provoking retaliation from Israel that unavoidably kills civilians and showing Western media the bodies of innocents as proof of Israel's murderous intentions.

Dershowitz also defends Israel's record by using a "terrorists to civilians" ratio. The ratio of Hamas rocket attackers killed to civilians who just happen to get in the way is, Dershowitz claims, better than NATO's in its own attacks on terrorists. He says the ratio is about one to one - one identifiable Hamas terrorist for every one woman or child bystander. This represents, I think, a change in Israel's former official policy of avoiding civilian casualties as much as possible and replaces it with the policy of targeting Hamas improvised rocket sites whatever they may be adjacent to and letting the chips fall where they may.(2) The incessant use of the term "human shields" during the most recent war didn't distract anyone from the fact that the humans failed to shield anyone from Israel's counterattacks. If a criminal had taken a family hostage and the police response by bombing the house, killing everyone inside it, the police chief would have at least as much explaining to do as Netanyahu's government.

The problem of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seen from the outside is obvious--it's a landlord and his tenants struggling over control of an ancient apartment building undergoing expensive renovation. Many of the tenants have been forcibly evicted, but many more aren't budging. Trying to determine which side's claims are more legitimate is pointless by now. Successive Israeli governments shift between crackdowns and conciliations, neither of which seem to get anywhere. Apparently, coexistence is no longer an option. But the two state solution isn't likely, either, as long as a conservative government runs the apartment block. 

I suggested (humbly) that a third power should be the arbiter of a settlement, probably the United Nations. But I can't see the Israelis standing for such interference in what they ridiculously regard as their problem. By now, it's everyone's problem, thanks to the harsh awakening of Arab nationalism and Islamism.     


(1) As a self-appointed defender of Israel, Dershowitz torpedoed Norman Finkelstein tenure at DePaul University when Finkelstein accused him of plagiarism in another of his copiously-referenced books.
(2) They haven't exactly abided by the policy in the past.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Get Sleepy


Mike Hodges (born 1932) made as big a splash with his debut movie, Get Carter, in 1971 as any other British filmmaker since Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life. Get Carter was a bold and stylish addition to a genre - British gangsterdom - that was fairly played out at the time. Hodges added a great deal that had never been seen before - sex, drugs, and graphic brutality. He also made his anti-hero, commandingly played by Michael Caine, into an iconic figure by having him do the honorable thing, as nastily as possible.

Based on the novel Jack's Return Home by Ted Lewis, Get Carter is about Jack Carter, a London-based mob muscle, who goes home to a town "up north" (1) to find out what really happened to his recently deceased brother. Jack is warned by his boss that the local mob won't take kindly to his presence in their territory, but he goes anyway. After considerable effort - threats and intimidation - Jack learns the truth: that his brother was murdered when he saw his daughter in a porn film made by a powerful boss and attempted to defend her honor. Jack informs on the boss, kills four people who contributed to his brother's murder, but is himself killed by a paid assassin.

The ending seemed somehow appropriate in doom-ridden 1971 (Vietnam, Nixon). Hodges knew that censors wouldn't take kindly to Jack getting away with all the mayhem he wreaks in Newcastle. But, realistically, what could Jack have had to look forward to in London, after taking down a mob kingpin up north? The film was so successful that it's producer, Michael Klinger, formed a production company called The Three Mikes, with Mike Hodges and Michael Caine, and went off to Malta to film Pulp, a clever send-up of crime fiction writers that failed to arouse critical or box office interest. It has since taken on cult status.

Get Carter was remade in 2000 for Sylvester Stallone. Views of a rain-sodden Seattle were the film's only attraction, unless you wanted to see the original Jack Carter, Michael Caine, playing a supporting role. Perhaps it was the critical reception to the remake, which was chilly, that inspired Mike Hodges to make I'll Sleep When I'm Dead in 2003. Its plot is virtually identical to that of Get Carter: Will Graham returns to London to find out why his brother Davey committed suicide. Subtle clues indicate to us that Will was once involved with the London mob. He doesn't trust the post-mortem paid for by his brother's boss, and orders another. The second post-mortem reveals that Graham committed suicide after forced anal sex (the doctor calls it "non-consentual buggery" with a straight face). Will tells Davey's cronies that he was "buggered" and they all set out to avenge him. They (eventually) learn that a local boss, played with measured nastiness by Malcolm McDowell, didn't like Graham's success with the ladies and ordered him to be dealt with in kind. Before he enacts the last stage of his retribution, Will transforms himself from a bearded, unkempt forester (he worked as a logger and lived out of a trailer) into a dapper, James Bond-like assassin. He even unearths a classic Jaguar to transport him to his fate. 

Just as in Get Carter, Will's retribution provokes a response in the form of an IRA-trained gun-for-hire. Rather than show us Will's death, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead ends with a quiet scene of Will looking at the ocean (the Thames estuary?) before driving away in his Jag as the shooter waits patiently for him at his home. But the similarities between the two Hodges films ends with their plots. One would think that the exquisitely dynamic gangster movies of Guy Ritchie, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch, would've inspired Hodges to respond in kind. Ritchie had already expressed his admiration for Get Carter, but having another go at the subject inspired from Hodges a more deliberate approach. So deliberate, in fact, that everyone in I'll Sleep When I'm Dead seems to be sleepwalking. Was Hodges a fan of the doyen of deadpan, Robert Bresson? 

Clive Owen, as Will, is so taciturn that it's difficult to guess what must be going through his mind. Will's ex-wife is played by Charlotte Rampling, who never alters the expressionless look on her face. I honestly couldn't tell, in the last shot of her, sitting with the assassin on the stairs awaiting Will's return, whether she was already dead or not. Get Carter is rife with the flavor and character of a provincial city, but I'll Sleep When I'm Dead is completely lacking in local color. Newcastle in 1971 seemed so much more real, more lived-in than this London, which looks like a well-apportioned movie set. Everything Hodges may have learned in thirty years was obviously no help to him.

  
(1) Though the town up north is unidentified, the film was shot in Newcastle upon Tyne.

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Window on the Abyss


Moritz Thomsen is one of my heroes, one of a handful of people who decided to live his life according to principle - one of which was forsaking his comfortable life in California for a hard life among the poor in Ecuador. He's a hero of mine because, while I am sympathetic to his reasons for leaving America, I am nowhere near as tough as he was. He wound up living in the coastal city of Guayaquil because he no longer had the strength to farm, and because his lifelong smoking habit made breathing in high-altitude Quito too hard for him. He died in Guayaquil in 1991.

Since coming to live in what I (half) jokingly call the Sticks here in the middle of the Philippine archipelago, I have found insight and invaluably reassuring sanity in Thomsen's irreplaceable Peace Corps chronicle, Living Poor. Although the circumstances with which he contended were very different from mine, I think he would recognize his Ecuadorean friends among the Filipinos I see every day. And Thomsen went to Ecuador to help some of its poorest people. I came to the Philippines to help myself - even though I wound up in surroundings strangely similar to those on Thomsen's farm on the River of Emeralds.  

As close as he came to becoming one of them, Thomsen reached a point in his relationship with Ramon Prado, his closest Ecuadorean friend, when "a frightening thing happened which seemed for a time to open an abyss between us and to throw into a despairing light the difference in our cultures and our sensitivities to life." What happened was Ramon had taken some of the powerful herbicide called 2-4-D, which had worked wonders on the small fields they were working, and bathed his dog, named Tarzan, in it, to kill his fleas. It killed all the fleas, and Tarzan into the bargain. But it took more than a week for the dog to die. When Thomsen saw the poor animal, he knew immediately that something was seriously wrong with it: 

"I thought for a while that one of Ramon's neighbors - who used a machete or pots of boiling water on animals that came near her kitchen - had hurt Tarzan again, but Ramon explained that there was nothing wrong with the dog. He had been weakened by flea bites, Ramon explained. He had bathed the dog in 2-4-D,and now all the fleas were dead.

"But you've killed your dog, too" I told him in exasperation. "Look what you've done; he's dying."

"Oh, Martin, calm yourself," Ramon said. "Just wait a couple of days; he'll be like new."

"Well, at least pack him home," I said. "I can't stand to have him here dying all over the place."

"He walked here, let him walk back," Ramon said coldly.

"But he can't walk, he's dying."

After laying outside his house for two days, Thomsen carried Tarzan the half mile to Ramon's house. 

"He was not my dog, and I didn't want to be burdened with his death; I wanted him [Ramon] to suffer a little."

But the dog managed to drag himself back to Thomsen's house. Finally, he paid Ramon's brother a nickel to carry the dog back to Ramon's house. About a week later, expecting the dog to have died in the interim, Thomsen showed up at Ramon's house for lunch:

"In the old hog pen fifty feet from Ramon's house, lying in his own filth, his body a mass of open sores and maggots, lying where I could see he hadn't been moved in a week - Tarzan. He raised his head at my voice; his eyes were filmed over and blind; his body, which trembled violently with the effort of moving his head, was wasted. He wagged his tail a couple of times and dropped his head. Choking with rage, sorrow, and guilt, I climbed over the fence to touch him and talk to him.

From the house they all watched me in consternation - Ramon, Ester, Ester's mother and brother. Ramon called for water and brought me a gourd full.

"Get out of the pen," Ramon said. "Wash your hands; you can get sick touching something so diseased."

"Why haven't you killed him?" I asked in a choked voice.

Ramon looked back at me without understanding. "Get out of the pen and wash your hands."

"When did he have water last?"

"We gave him water every day, Martin. Now, for God's sake, get out of the pen."

"But why don't you kill him? He's yours; he depends on you; you're responsible."

"Come on, Martin," Ramon pleaded. "Lunch is all ready; we're having your favorite - lobster. Come on, wash your hands."

"I grabbed Ramon by his shoulders and started shaking him. "Listen, Ramon, answer me. Why is he still alive? Why haven't you killed him?"

The question shocked and embarrassed him. "I'm not the type who goes around killing his dogs," he said. "What kind of a man do you think I am?"

We stood there for a long minute staring into each other's eyes, really separated. I felt a real loathing for him, for the whole barbarous country. I kept wanting to tell him to go to hell and then walk away. The one truth that for two years I had not had the strength to face, that I had been unable to accept - that one day I would leave this place and never come back - this truth flashed across my mind stripped of its terror.

We were standing there staring at each other like strangers, and Ramon's face was very troubled. He said my name a couple of times. "Martin, what's wrong?" He held the mate out before him, still offering me the water. After a while, trembling, I took the water and washed my hands."

Unlike Thomsen, I haven't grown as close to a Filipino as he had to Ramon. But, like him, I've seen the unacceptable treatment of dogs by my neighbors - tying them up permanently on a short rope, providing people with an alarm if anyone was snooping around the house at night. (These dog alarms are as much ignored as car alarms are in the States.) Or when a dog bit a child in the face and there was a risk of rabies (why pay for shots for a dog when you can't afford them for your children?), I turned up with my machete and volunteered to destroy the dog. Even if it were free of rabies, the dog could never again be trusted around children. But the dog's owner had hidden it and promised to pay for the child's rabies shots himself, promising to "watch" the dog for a week to make sure it wasn't rabid.

I have never drawn the conclusion, as so many expats do, that Filipinos are barbarous or that the country's customs are crazy by any rational standards. I accept the fact that "this is not America," and that it's absurd to measure everything by American standards. They do things differently here - that's all. But there is a distance (I won't call it an abyss) that separates us that I can't cross. It's simply too far to go to persuade them that the reason why I cultivate - luxuriate - in my privacy and spend so much time inside my house is not because I'm hiding from the police. And I don't take part in their shindigs not because I'm conceited but because I can't stand the horrible music they habitually play at ear-splitting volume. And I don't routinely get drunk with them because, unlike every other foreigner they ever heard of, I'm not a millionaire, nor ever likely to be one - even by their inhumanly straightened standards.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Puppy Love



Recently, a Facebook friend shared a news article about the funeral of a police dog in Oklahoma. According to the report, on August 28 more than a thousand people attended a funeral for a three year old Belgian German shepherd named Kye, an Oklahoma City Police Department K-9, that was mortally wounded "in the line of duty." In attendance was the dog's "partner," Sgt Ryan Stark, who was shown in a photo kissing the animal that was lying inside an open casket - made for a human being - that was ceremonially draped with an American flag. The report also mentioned that "dozens of police dogs gathered at Kye's funeral." The interment was performed with "full police honors" and a 21-gun salute.

I've heard of many other such police and military ceremonies for K-9s killed in the performance of their "duties." I've also seen ceremonies in which military and police K-9s were presented with medals for their "valor." And every time I see one of them I can't decide whether to cry or to laugh. The people attending the dog's funeral were clearly, to me, actors in a popular fairy tale - the fairy tale that many people tell one another, based on an unspoken conviction that dogs are people trapped in the bodies of animals.

I don't own a dog, but my siblings and many - in fact nearly all - of my friends do. (And I'm sure that I'm pissing them off as they read this.) On Facebook, they share cute photos and videos of dogs, and recount stories about their strangely human, and sometimes superhuman, traits. I take every one of their shared offerings with a grain of salt, since I have never bought into the cult of dogs. It's a very ancient cult, that extends to long before recorded history, when human beings and dogs first made their unique acquaintance. I've written before about how dogs are afforded a quite special status in many people's lives, far above that of any other animal. To me, dogs never ceased being animals, but to my siblings and friends, dogs seem to occupy a special middle ground between animals and people - higher than animals but never quite as high as us.

To me, these claims have sometimes seemed endearing, but always grossly exaggerated. The power that people have of projecting onto their pets qualities that they don't possess is evidently inestimable. One of the reasons why I've learned to see through them is my experience of living in a poor country, where dogs seem to be of little use to people. The dogs' diet consists entirely of what they can scrounge - leftovers from people's meals. And since there is so little left uneaten by these poorest of people, the dogs have to fight for what few scraps are available. Even the ownership of dogs is questionable, since they're all strays. Their adoption by a household is comparable to the dog's adoption of its fleas. 

The stunted, mongrel canine specimens that I see all around my house are never much bigger than a terrier, and they all carry the scars of survival among all the other half-starved dogs, that piss so much around my stoop that on rainy days the stench of ammonia is overpowering. Whenever a female is in heat, male dogs come from all over the area to have a go at her. And the melees that ensue are terrible to witness. Once I stood looking out of my kitchen at a crowd of male dogs swirling around a female, all of them biting one another, and I threw a stone to break them up. Alas, the stone struck the beleaguered female, who gave me a look of such beleaguered sadness that I had to turn away and close my door. If a member of PETA were to visit my neighborhood and watch how the dogs have to live, they would realize how impossible it is to expect animals to be treated ethically in a place where the people aren't much better off.

The police funeral that took place in Oklahoma City was part of a fairy tale in which only people living in prosperous countries can indulge. The dog's fellow policemen would be indignant if anyone were to suggest that the term "in the line of duty" is nonsensical when applied to K-9s. 

I remember watching the TV series Lassie when I was a boy, about a clever collie involved in weekly adventures, saving peoples' lives, foiling attempted robberies, and fostering love and understanding among humans beings. The handler of the dog (or dogs, since there were several Lassies over the years) that was enlisted to perform in the series was clearly a genius. He could elicit actions and poses from the dogs that appeared to communicate actual emotions, convincing the viewing audience that Lassie was feeling happy or sad or worried or whatever the scene required. The dog did nothing but respond to commands from the handler, and do whatever it was trained to do. 

K-9s are doing exactly the same thing - obeying commands and training. The only difference is that the situations in which the police handlers take their dogs is potentially lethal - something of which the dogs have no comprehension. When the first NASA astronauts were introduced to the press in the Sixties, some reporters wondered what made them any different from the chimpanzee that was sent into space on a prior mission. The differences were many, but the most obvious one was that the chimp had no understanding that it was sitting atop a rocket ship about to be shot into outer space. At the end of every Hollywood movie in which animals are used, there is a disclaimer from the Humane Society stating that none of the animals were harmed during the making of the movie. Unlike stuntmen, who voluntarily expose themselves to hazardous situations, the animals were there because their handlers - or wranglers, as they call themselves - had been hired to supply them for the production. 

Obviously, K-9s are used by the police because they are much more intimidating. A snarling dog, baring it's teeth, is terrifying. Is it "bravery" they exhibit when they chase down a criminal or is it simple obedience? A human cop knows when his or her life is in danger, and knows the risks the job often involves. Does the dog? Or is it, like Lassie, simply following its training and its handler's commands? 

Of course, the ultimate stage of dog worship is a pet cemetery - although I suspect that Kye, and other K-9s who die in the line of duty, are being buried in proper cemeteries, alongside their fellow policemen or soldiers. Or am I, in this case, projecting too far?*


*One more obvious question: was the dog's body sent to an embalmer or a taxidermist?     

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Digitized Memories

Forget What Did

Stopping the diary
Was a stun to memory,
Was a blank starting,

One no longer cicatrized
By such words, such actions
As bleakened waking.

I wanted them over,
Hurried to burial
And looked back on

Like the wars and winters
Missing behind the windows
Of an opaque childhood.

And the empty pages?
Should they ever be filled
Let it be with observed

Celestial recurrences,
The day the flowers come,
And when the birds go.

Philip Larkin, 6 August 1971




There is a marvelous scene in the Richard L. Brooks film How Do You Know?, in which Annie, who has just had a baby, is receiving visitors in her hospital room. Al, Annie's boyfriend, has brought a camcorder and he hands it to a friend of Annie's named George, played by Paul Rudd, and tells him to record what follows. Al then proposes marriage to Annie in a beautiful, rambling speech, and she tearfully accepts. Then George looks down at the camcorder and notices that it isn't turned on. It didn't record Al's proposal. "Oh my God!" he says. "I didn't get it!" They yell at him, "You didn't get it?" Rudd says it's ok, they can re-do it. So they all have to reconstruct, this time for the recording camera, the speech he made, with everyone helping him with what they remember of it, and the scene ends happily.

How strangely we nervously strive nowadays to record every crucial moment of our lives, and to collect them and keep them for years. Once it was just photographs. Now it's digital video. The anger of the people at George's blunder is funny, because they sound as if, by failing to push the "record" button, the experience was somehow spoiled, and lost. But of course it wasn't. It happened, and the people who were there are perfectly capable of remembering what they said and did and witnessed. So, why do they still need the video?

When my nephew was two years old, my brother (also named George) took him to Disney World. When I told him that his son was too young, and wouldn't remember any of it, my brother simply replied, "It's OK. He'll have the video."

Over the years since the appearance of camcorders (my first was a huge, shoulder-mounted RCA model), I have accumulated a lot of video of my own. I even had to transfer the obsolete video to DVD (which is itself becoming obsolete). Some of it is irreplaceable, like the shots I took from the signal deck of the USS Belleau Wood entering Hong Kong harbor in 1992. Or a tour of the trailer I lived in on a "guest ranch" in Fallon, Nevada. Or a visit to Shuri Castle in Okinawa. Or window-gazing at snow from my 2nd-floor apartment in Des Moines. I also have two weddings, at which I was the groom, from 1991 and 1995. All of them were great moments, italicized forever - or so I once believed.


A sci-fi movie was released in the 1990s, and remade a few years ago, called Total Recall,(1) that is based on what I consider is a central fallacy. The movie's "gimmick" is why go to all the trouble and expense of a vacation when you can, for a nominal fee, have detailed memories of a relaxing vacation implanted in your brain? This gimmick is based on two faulty assumptions: the first is that, if you have the memories implanted, won't you also remember having them implanted? The second and much bigger assumption is that a memory of an experience is just as valuable as the experience itself.

A few months ago I surprised my girlfriend, who has been an inestimable addition to my life here on my Philippine island, when I took a few of my DVDs, ones on which those two weddings and sundry memories of those marriages were immortalized, and destroyed them. They were nothing to me any more but a few bridges I burned, back roads down which I no longer wished to travel. Of course, I will always remember what was on those DVDs. I was there, after all, taking it all in as greedily as I ever did. The absurdity of keeping them around, moments in my life that I chose to italicize but that have long since lost their value for me, was counterbalanced by the sheer silliness of the practice. They were irreplaceable days in my life, regardless of what's happened since. The marriages ended. So, why keep a record of the weddings any longer?

More than 500 years ago, Montaigne wrote "What I commit to paper, I immediately dismiss from my memory." Aren't we doing the same with digital video? Montaigne was trying to impress on his readers how important memory is, and that the best way to utilize knowledge is through memorization. To what extent are we relinquishing our memories in favor of digital video? 


(1) The remake isn't worth recalling.

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.