The work of cultural criticism never ends. A hundred years ago, Thomas R. Marshall, Woodrow Wilson’s vice president, proclaimed that “what this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar.” But who would say that now? Times have changed, tobacco has become an evil weed, and anyway, what the country needs now is a really good four-letter word.
No, I’m not talking about love, although that would be a decent guess, since love is highly desirable and always in short supply. I’m talking about the primordial human need for the genuinely dirty word, or, better yet, a few of them, a finite but reliable stock of good old-fashioned profanities—racy, pungent, transgressive, maybe even a bit radioactive. Words that can shock, provoke, even lead to a barroom brawl.
I hear you, gentle reader, saying that surely I must be kidding. We need more profanity? Aren’t we already being inundated with it? Aren’t we bombarded by f-bombs and c-shells and s-streams every hour of the day, whether from the television screen or from those ear-stabbing automotive boom-boxes that pass us in the streets? Don’t the current and recent New York Times bestseller lists include such deathless titles as The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck, F*ck Feelings, and Unf*ck Yourself, with the somewhat more elegant You Are a Badass rounding out the field?
And don’t we hear this particular f-word salting and peppering the speech of almost everyone these days, men and women alike, even in professional settings, whether used as an all-purpose intensifier—a “big f*cking deal” was Vice President Joe Biden’s gloss on the Affordable Care Act—or a semantically empty expression meant to convey one’s righteous anger—“I’m not going to let him f*cking ruin this project!” Locker rooms and military barracks have always resounded with such talk, but it is no longer restricted to these settings. We live in a society in which even well-behaved soccer moms demand “WTF?” in their texting exchanges. Apparently even “Hell!” is no longer a sufficiently strong expletive for them. Or maybe the acronym’s referents mean nothing in particular to them. That’s equally possible.
And that’s exactly the problem. Our curse currency has become grossly inflated and devalued. Inundation has led to desensitization, and to an evacuation of the dirty word’s power. Despite the faux modesty suggested by the asterisks, there is nothing even remotely scandalous in book titles like The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck. Try as the publishers might, the thrill is gone. The charisma has been routinized, and the intoxicating frisson reduced to the mild buzz of a spritzer. We’ve achieved herd immunity to the dirty word’s viral power. There is nothing left for the dirty word but the occasionally struck pose of fearless candor and righteous anger, displaying one’s superiority to bourgeois norms—not to mention one’s pathetically impoverished vocabulary. But soon even that will be gone. When what once was salty loses its savor, it becomes worthy only to be trampled underfoot.
Gone is the era described in Karl Shapiro’s 1947 prose-poem “The Dirty Word,” in which the title character is depicted as a giant vulture, which “hops in the cage of the mind” and tears at the brain. The young boy in the poem has to sneak the vulture into the house and keep it upstairs, “in his own room in the skull,” locked in the closet. Yet the boy furtively returns to the closet, often and compulsively, to examine and feed the bird, and observe how it leaps and rushes against the walls of the skull, “trying to escape from the zoo of the vocabulary”!
There is no doubt that the dirty word here possesses a kind of fascinating power and majesty, numinous even in its malignity, reminiscent in some respects of John Milton’s darkly magnificent depiction of Satan. The dirty word does what all important words do, gathering together the confusion of our experience and imparting an order to it—in this case, an uneasy coalition of disapproved meanings that are held together, like the denizens of Milton’s Pandemonium, by their shared stigma of banishment. There is also no doubt that the vulture urgently desires to come out and infiltrate “the vocabulary,” whether to mingle or, more likely, to destroy. But it is also clear that its confinement is right and necessary. The dirty word expresses something that needs expression, but its expression demands closed quarters. It is right that the vulture exists, and it is right that it should be kept behind bars.
So why is that era now gone? The change has been a gradual one over the past century, more or less following the path marked out in the enduringly important 1996 book The Repeal of Reticence, in which Rochelle Gurstein recounts the story of how “the party of exposure,” dedicated to the liberation of human expression from the coils of Victorianism and Comstockery, won victory after victory over “the party of reticence,” which sought order and propriety at the expense of vital expressive energy. It is a familiar narrative, almost the official anthem of postwar American baby-boomer culture. Yet Gurstein clearly foresaw the emptiness that was coming with the elevation of exposure into a dominant principle of life. By 1999 the critically acclaimed hit television series The Sopranos was saturation-bombing the American landscape with the f-word, in a moment that marked a kind of culmination. The f-word’s escape from the zoo into the general vocabulary was now complete. Or, to alter the metaphor, the barking dog of exposure had finally caught up to the car it had been chasing for a century or more, at least since the controversies over Ulysses and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The car had helpfully pulled over to the curb and stopped. Now what? Or should one ask, WTF?
It is part of the essential equipment of every living culture for it to have its taboos, its stock of unspeakable or inexpressible things. Sometimes these taboos involve reverence for the sacred, such as refraining from speaking the name of God, or from using the name of God lightly. More often they involve an enforced silence about potential sources of shame, such as the sex act or racial prejudice. It does not matter that euphemisms like “G-D,” “carnal knowledge,” or “the N-word” all manage to convey perfectly well the very meanings they are supposed to be concealing or softening. The taboos will still hold, even in our liberal culture, so long as the power of the words that are being suppressed remains strong.
To be “holy” is to be set apart. But unholiness merits the same deference, even if the use of lock and key is also required. We need to keep some things at a distance from our everyday life—penned up in our semantic zoo—but we need to acknowledge those things, and we need words that will be candid in giving a shape to the things they signify. Every solid object casts a shadow, and we are as much about shadows as we are about light. That will not change just because we forbid the use of certain words or, perhaps worse, rob them of their power by forcing everyone to be marinated in them.
Let me put it another way. Even the most virtuous city has its red-light district, serving as an underground element in the moral economy of the whole. There will always be reasons for reticence. But the ethic of exposure, in its own way puritanical, denies that possibility, and in the name of mandatory liberation refuses that concession to human frailty, to the inherent duplicity and perversity of our natures. It instead demands a vocabulary of the whole, a world without secrets—no zoos allowed.
The dirty word, however, is a necessary concession, and we need to allow it to continue to be secretive, unfit for polite company—dirty. This means striking a commonsense balance, between the mistake of banning it and the mistake of normalizing it. Between banishing the vulture or letting it rule the roost.