Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"A triumph of profanity"

Near the midway point of Harry Stephen Keeler's The Box from Japan (1932), the hero, Carr Halsey, gets a piece of advice from an old friend, reporter Artemus Baxter, at the conclusion of a phone call:
"Thanks. Good-by." Halsey hung up. And added: "Damn!"

"Never swear," cautioned the veteran newspaperman. "It betrays an unstable nervous equilibrium."
Those are unexpected words from a newspaperman, whose profession ranks behind only those of the sailor and the gun moll in its facility with an epithet--and unlikely to be well received by Halsey, who had earlier in the novel seen the worth of expertly wielded profanity. In a chapter titled "Mr. Heavenward Displays Some Unusual Talents," Halsey watches as his uncle's "thin, tall, ecclesiastical-looking clerk," Heavenward, who sports "a kittenish black windsor tie under his receding chin" and "pious eyes that gazed mildly out of a deacon face" is deputized to harangue the telephone company about a monumental--even life-threatening--mistake they've made. Doubting Heavenward's fitness for the task, Halsey argues that he himself should handle the task, to which his uncle's other employee, the faithful Babson, after apologetically clearing his throat, responds,
"Er, Mr. Halsey, let--let Mr. Heavenward handle it. He'll--he'll do it quite well."
Babson clearly knows whereof he speaks:
Mr. Heavenward got the telephone. He was very urbane as he asked in a mild voice for the general manager. He eveidently did not get the man he wanted, for he suddenly grew cholerically red. "Damn it to hell!" he roared. "I said the general manager! Do you want me to come over there in person?"

Halsey stared at this remarkable servant of the American Projectiscope Company.

The latter evidently had his party. "Say, what in the--" His next words were a triumph of profanity--"--do you mean by deliberately chopping off incoming service on OLD LOOP 99291 and SATURN 0022?"
Later in the conversation Heavenward cries,
"And if I have to call in person, I'm going to land you one on the snoot that'll make you think you're walking backward! I'll make it so--" Again he poured forth a perfect torrent of Billingsgate into the phone--"--damn hot for you that you'll fly down to the equator to cool yourself off."
A triumph of profanity! A perfect torrent of Billingsgate! Needless to say, Heavenward's inventive invective has the desired effect--while the lover of swear words in me thrills at the very idea of the man's achievement. A life goal, that: to reel off an undisputed triumph of profanity!

Fairness to the estimable Artemus Baxter dictates that I also note, however, the one case in the novel where profanity unquestionably betokens an unstable nervous equilibrium: that of Halsey's landlady's parrot, Captain Kidd, who, as Halsey explains to a new tenant,
"Rides around on her shoulder, and swears like a trooper. Like three troopers, in fact. Most blasphemous bird, when he wants to be, that I ever saw in my life."
Which is a problem, for, as Halsey notes,
"Mrs. Morely, however, is a very religious woman; she reads a chapter in her big Bible every evening. And so she has to carry two wax-soaked cotton ear plugs continuously suspended around her neck by a cord, and pop them in pronto when the Captain lets loose. But she resents highly any comment about his language. In fact, she maintains that he is insane, or has been so for years, and is not morally accountable, therefore, for anythign he says or does."
I would not likely do well if suddenly cast in the role of vengeful parrot god, for I am inclined to be willing to grant a moral exception to any and all blaspheming parrots on the grounds of sheer joyful novelty.

When we do finally hear from Captain Kidd himself, he is singing the praises of the new lodger:
"Girl? A hell of a damn fine girl," squawked Captain Kidd imperturbably. "A hell of a--" But like lightning Mrs. Morely had popped into her thin ears two almost unnoticeable cotton-formed plugs suspended about her neck by a black string.
In this case, though it's likely the profanity that drove Mrs. Morely to stop her ears, it's just within the realm of possibility that her action was instead precipitated by Kidd's praise of the lodger, as Mrs. Morely had earlier in the day been at a wedding that confirmed her low opinion of the young ladies of the era. Dripping venom, she describes them to Halsey:
"Jezebels of today with their bold bare knees walking the streets brazenly. . . . A woman that shows her unclad knees might as well be plumb naked and--and be done with it. That's what I say."
Alas, some of the young ladies had even carried silver hip flasks, from which they drank openly--eliciting both Mrs. Morely's horror and opprobrium. Which brings me to the greatest triumph of profanity I know, one that I featured in Sunday's post--though you'd certainly be forgiven for not noticing it. Take a closer look at the label on the hip flask in this photo by rocketlass:

Several years ago, we lent that flask to a friend; it was returned bearing that label, copied from an article from a July 1933 issue of the Onion, "FDR's Fireside Chat Last Night Just a String of Cuss Words." The article itself, which contains some of the most goofily entertaining swearing this curse-o-phile--one who has (admittedly while cringing) used the term "grandmotherfucker" on his blog--has ever seen, appears to be only available online near the bottom of this post from July 8, 2000 at corkscrew-balloon.com. It's worth clicking through and reading the whole thing.

Clearly FDR was suffering from an unstable nervous equilibrium. But good god, it was 1933 and unemployment was running at 25%--for fuck's sake, can you blame the man?

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