BY MATTHEW HERBERT
In my thirties I made two changes. I started using profanity and expressing louche thoughts. It was liberating. But what was it liberating from?
In America, you can still hear adults using corny, fake expletives such as “gosh darn it” or “bullcrap.” While these words sound deeply silly, I am mostly in favor of keeping up the decorum they help protect. Excessive or misplaced cursing almost always brings the tone down.
So, why, then, did I nonetheless come to embrace sentences like “Those fucking fucks, they don’t know what the fuck.” as appropriate, even stylish uses of English, and why did this change happen during the years when most folks button down rather than open up?
The plainest explanation for people’s restraint in cursing is sociological: we are raised that way. And, as I hinted, our upbringing serves a legitimate cultural purpose–it improves and facilitates discourse. So, why, given their solid credentials, do fake expletives sound as inane as they do? Ludwig Wittgenstein taught that the purpose of linguistic analysis was to unmask disguised nonsense. And it turns out there is profound and abundant nonsense lurking in our bans on profanity. But we have to dig below the level of culture to see it.
At a deeper level than culture, our reasons for avoiding profanity are metaphysical: we believe in an all-hearing sky god who wrathfully forbids the use of certain words having to do with reproduction or digestion. He also doesn’t like his name being trifled with. As a child, I learned (and earnestly believed) that I might be tortured eternally if I had even a fleeting thought that failed to praise God’s name and character in the highest. (Because the Bible told me so. See Matthew 12: 22-32 and Mark 3:22-30 for a short homily.)
At the age of 33 I could no longer pretend to believe in such a vain, vindictive god, or any other one for that matter. So as an expression of new-found freedom, I began to curse enthusiastically. It wasn’t that I suddeny felt free from god; I realized looking back that that belief had dissolved insensibly over the course of several years. But I was suddenly free from having to keep up appearances. So I cursed profusely and joyously, making up for lost time. Although I slowly restored my appreciation for the worthy function that polite restraint serves, I have never lost my taste for expert profanity. Call me a connoisseur.
And, yes, I do find fake profanity embarrassingly stupid, I suppose because it is jarringly hypocritical. In this nation that has so signally abandoned all the main principles of Christianity–love of peace, suspicion of riches, tolerance of others, bountiful mercy, unconditional love, and so forth–we cringingly persist in letting our language be policed by the very god we so blithely treat as dead when it comes to the big stuff. God forbids you to say “bullshit” but accepts your worship of celebrity, war and wealth? Give me a fucking break.
At the same time I lost my fear of word taboos, I also began to shed my restaints on sex talk. This was, I suppose, another act of rebellion against the old religious strictures I had abandoned. And again, bad metaphysics was at the bottom of the original conflict.
We Judeo-Christians are of two minds when it comes to sex. On the one hand, we have what Milan Kundera calls the “Genesis” view of creation: we pronounce it to be good. Now, you have to accept a lot of bumps in the road when you adopt this outlook, but it is, at the end of the day, a deeply affirming view of the human situation. Each generation, says Kundera, renews the optimistic claim that our world (in the philosophical sense) deserves to go on replicating itself. On this view, sex, which is possibly our raison d’etre, is a very good thing. Small wonder it is celebrated in song, story and casual conversation.
But on the other hand, sex is so weighty it can stir up deep trouble. The betrayed lover and the abandoned child are among the world’s most bereft and afflicted persons. The pain they experience is something like the loss of the whole world. Shouldn’t we calculate coldly before we give in to the hot passions that hazard such outcomes? But we can’t. We are not wired that way, and I’m not sure it would be much fun if we were. Our experience of sexual desire as something controllable by reason would not be recognizably human.
It is precisely our inability to control sexual desire that led to the other prominent mindset about sex–that it (sex) is fundamentally wrong. Ironically, this attitude is also rooted in the Genesis story, and I need not repeat its details here. It’s the part about original sin. Man is permanently fallen, and the thing that keeps him perpetually accursed is sexual reproduction. Try as you might, you can never become saintly enough to wash away the fact that you were brought into this world by fucking.
It didn’t have to be this way, of course, but somehow Saint Paul gained traction early on writing letters that said sex was fundamentally wicked. Anyone who grew up reading the Bible can recall Paul’s not-quite ringing endorsement of marriage: you would be better off staying celebate, but if you simply can’t, grit your teeth and get married. Better to marry than to burn with lust, he says.
Well, the cultural avatars in the Catholic Church were not quite satisfied with this way out of sin, because it was, well, a way out. They wanted people to be ashamed of sex all the time, even if they were married. To be fair, I am skipping over a whole–much more charitable–line of thought that says our Church-given sex taboos reflect socially useful norms about coupling and childrearing. Why beat up the Church for stepping in to enforce such “natural” rules that have buttressed the concept of the family and, more recently, advanced the idea that all parties to sex should be treated with dignity? All credit to the Church for the good work it (accidentally) accomplished, of course, but it remains an interesting story how one of its earliest saints, Augustine, took things way too far and pretty much ruined Western civilization.
The problem with sex, Augustine wrote, is that the actions of our sex organs lay outside our control. Augustine was mightily bothered by the fact that he had involuntary erections–and a host of emotions that went with them. To his credit, he set aside shame and examined his deepest beliefs on the problem. For humans to be proper candidates for God’s grace, he thought, they must be accountable for their actions. But the involuntary erection surpassed man’s control. How could he be accountable for its actions and consequences? Was the whole scheme of Christian sin and forgiveness shipwrecked on the involuntary aspect of sex?
I happen to have some plain-vanilla objections to Augustine’s way of framing of the problem. Our sense organs have “involuntary” experiences of the external world all the time, not just when we are being sexually aroused. Hard as it may be to tease apart our voluntary from involuntary responses to those experiences, we nonetheless remain morally accountable for our actions implicating them. I won’t bore you with the details.
The important part is that Augustine developed the idea of original sin as a way out of his sex problem. In Eden, he postulated, Adam could literally control his erections, but then Eve, the Snake and the Appled caused God to reverse this ability. The idea grew legs, and now something like a third of the world’s inhabitants believe (officially at least) what Augustine believed: that we are created sick and commanded to be well. If you are curious as to how Augstine reached this bizarre and masochistic conclusion, see Stephen Greenblatt’s excellent article in the New Yorker, “How St. Augustine Invented Sex.”
The changes I underwent in my 30s were pent up responses to two pieces of outrageous nonsense. One was the idea that dirty words made the sky god angry. I was ashamed for keeping this childish belief so long into adulthood. The other was the idea that sex was wrong. This one was trickier. Unlike mere words, sex involved real people and was admittedly a very serious thing. But the idea that it is so serious that it had to be treated as a topic of unremitting shame was intolerable. I could no longer take seriously the idea that the thing that brought us all into the world was essentially wicked. Kundera loomed over my attitude: if all this is good, how can we say it was born of evil?
Almost any time I feel like I have something worth saying, it was actually already said by Orwell. This time is no different. I have two things to say, and they are both from Orwell.
The first is that “harmless rebellions against virtue” are good for us. Cursing has a tonic effect, and it is almost always a victimless indulgence. But a binge brings more than a momentary release from overbearing solemnity. As Orwell argues, our saturnalias help puncture a deeply dishonest myth evident in the social conventions that protect our sense of self-importance. If you are a morally serious person (and I hope you are), you will admit you are a mixed bag of low and noble impulses:
There is one part of you that wishes to be a hero or a saint, but another part of you is a little fat man who sees very clearly the advantages of staying alive with a whole skin. He is your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul. His tastes lie toward safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer, and women with voluptuous figures. He it is who punctures your fine attitudes and urges you to look after Number One. . . . Whether you allow yourself to be influenced by him is a different question. But it is simply a lie to say that he is not part of you, just as it is a lie to say that Don Quixote is not part of you either, though most of what is said and written consists of one lie or the other, usually the first.
Orwell goes on to say that there is a “worldwide conspiracy to pretend” that our Sancho Panza side does not exist or does not matter. Profanity and dirty stories are, I believe, part of a rebellion against this conspiracy. They are a way of standing up to the puritanical view of the world and saying to its partisans that they have never been honest with themselves or right about the metaphysics of the human person. We are not meant to think of ourselves as chronically failed saints.
Orwell sets this idea down in a passage in the essay “Reflections on Gandhi.” Gandhi clearly served a righteous political cause, Orwell writes, but the great man’s insistance on self-mortification was misguided. Orwell thought that many of life’s little vices, like smoking, drinking, and feasting were conducive to love and other excellent kinds of fellow feeling which seemed to repel Gandhi. While Orwell’s thoughts on the matter are nothing so crass as the eat-and-drink-today-for-tomorrow-we-die attitude, they are tied to the idea that mortal humans have only so much room for perfectibility and we should avoid waging a campaign to become angels:
In this yogi-ridden age, it is too readily assumed that “non-attachment” is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint.
For Orwell, the puritanical belief that one should suppress or transcend one’s appetites was not just doomed to end in shameful, recurrent failure; it was also philosophically insidious. It betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of what we humans are. I think there is much wisdom in Orwell’s final pronouncement on the saintly urge:
If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one would, I believe, find the main motive for “non-attachment” is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work. But the point here is not to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideals is “higher.” The point is that they are incompatible. One must choose between God and Man, and all “radicals” and “progressives,” from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme anarchist, have in effect chosen Man.
There are natural limits on human virtue, and we ought to respct them rather than spin out sacred fantasies about demons from afar invading our lives and poisoning our souls. Those “demons” are us; they are just Sancho Panza side. Get over it. You might even admit you enjoy Sancho’s presence now and then.