Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ursula, I Love You

Below you will find another exemplary commentary by my favourite American 'children's book' author and purveyor of great truths in The Left Hand of Darkness. It was sent to me this morning by a dear friend in North Dakota, a woman who understands the value of 'a word'. Hope you enjoy as much as I have.

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I keep reading books and seeing movies where nobody can fucking say anything except fuck, unless they say shit. I mean they don’t seem to have any adjective to describe fucking except fucking even when they’re fucking fucking. And shit is what they say when they’re fucked. When shit happens, they say shit, or oh shit, or oh shit we’re fucked. The imagination involved is staggering. I mean, literally.

There was one novel I read where the novelist didn’t only make all the fucking characters say fuck and shit all the time but she got into the fucking act herself for shit sake. So it was full of deeply moving shit like, “The sunset was just too fucking beautiful to fucking believe.”

I guess what’s happened is that what used to be a shockword has become a noise that’s supposed to intensify the emotion in what you’re saying. Or maybe it occurs just to bridge the gap between words, so that actual words become the shit that happens in between saying fucking?

Swearwords and shockwords used to mostly come out of religion. Damn, damn it, hell, God, God-damned, God damn it to hell, Jesus, Christ, Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ Almighty, etc. etc. A few of them appeared, rarely, in nineteenth-century novels, usually as “——” or more bravely as “By G—!” or “d—n!” (Archaic or dialect oaths such as swounds, egad, gorblimey were printed out in full.) With the twentieth century the religious-blasphemy oaths began to creep, and then swarm, into print. Censorship of words perceived as “sexually explicit” was active far longer. Lewis Gannett, the book reviewer for the old NY Tribune, had a top-secret list of words the publisher had had to eliminate from The Grapes of Wrath before they could print it; after dinner one night Lewis read the list out loud to his family and mine with great relish. It couldn’t have shocked me much, because I recall only a boring litany of boring words, mostly spoken by the Joads no doubt, on the general shock level of “titty.”

I remember my brothers coming home on leave in the second world war and never once swearing in front of us homebodies: a remarkable achievement. Only later, when I was helping my brother Karl clean out the spring, in which a dead skunk had languished all winter, did I learn my first real cusswords, seven or eight of them in one magnificent, unforgettable lesson. Soldiers and sailors have always cursed, what else can they do? But Norman Mailer in The Naked and the Dead was forced to use the euphemistic invention “fugging,” giving Dorothy Parker the chance, which naturally she didn’t miss, of cooing at him, “Oh, are you the young man who doesn’t know how to spell ‘fuck?’”

And then came the Sixties, when a whole lot of people started saying shit, even if they hadn’t had lessons from their brother. And before long all the shits and fucks were bounding forth in print. And finally we began to hear them from the lips of the stars of Hollywood. So now the only place to get away from them is movies before 1990 or books before 1970 or way, way out in the wilderness. But make sure there aren’t any hunters out in the wilderness about to come up to your bleeding body and say Aw, shit, man, I thought you was a fucking moose.

I remember when swearing, though tame by modern standards, was quite varied and often highly characteristic. There were people who swore as an art form – performing a dazzling juncture of the inordinate and the unexpected. It seems weird to me that only two words are now used as cusswords, and by many people used so constantly that they can’t talk or even write without them.

Of our two swearwords, one has to do with elimination, the other (apparently) with sex. Both are sanctioned domains, areas like religion where there are rigid limits and things may be absolutely off-limits except at certain specific times or places.

So little kids shout caca and doo-doo, and big ones shout shit. Put the feces where they don’t belong!

This principle, getting it out of place, off limits, the basic principle of swearing, I understand and approve. And though I really would like to stop saying Oh shit when annoyed, having got on fine without it till I was 35 or so, I’m not yet having much success in regressing to Oh hell or Damn it. There is something about the shh beginning, and the explosive t! ending, and that quick little ih sound in between….

But fuck and fucking? I don’t know. Oh, they sound good as curses, too. It’s really hard to make the word fuck sound pleasant or kindly. But what is it saying?

I don’t think there are meaningless swearwords; they wouldn’t work if they were meaningless. Does fuck have to do with sex primarily? Or sex as male aggression? Or just aggression?

Until maybe 25 or 30 years ago, as far as I know, fucking only meant one kind of sex: what the man does to the woman, with or without consent. Now, both men and women use it to mean coitus, and it’s become (as it were) ungendered, so that a woman can talk about fucking her boyfriend. So the strong connotations of penetration and of rape should have fallen away from it. But they haven’t. Not to my ear, anyhow. Fuck is an aggressive word, a domineering word. When the guy in the Porsche shouts Fuck you, asshole! he isn’t inviting you to an evening at his flat. When people say Oh shit, we’re fucked! they don’t mean they’re having a consensual good time. The word has huge overtones of dominance, of abuse, of contempt, of hatred.

So God is dead, at least as a swearword; but hate and feces keep going strong. Le roi est mort, vive le fucking roi.

Ursula K. Le Guin
Her most recent book is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country,