Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Mark Twain leads by example, or, Out, d---n'd swears!

Longtime readers know that while I try not to work blue here, I am an unabashed fan of swears. I hold with Mark Twain, who argued that we all swear--sinning in our hearts, if not in our mouths:
For it is not the word that is the sin, it is the spirit back of the sin. When an irritated lady says, "oh!" the spirit back of it is "damn!" and that is the way it is going to be recorded against her. It always makes me so sorry when I hear a lady swear like that. But if she says "damn" and says it in an amiable, nice way, it isn't going to be recorded at all.
I depart from Twain (as, based on his more considered writings on the subject, he seems to have parted with himself) when it comes to the image of a goodly recording angel, but it's hard to disagree with the sentiment. He continues with his argument:
The idea that no gentleman ever swears is all wrong. He can swear and still be a gentleman if he does it in a nice and benevolent way.
Or, I would add, a creative way. Creativity in swearing, it's important to note, is not a risk-free endeavor: while the well-timed, unexpected combination of vulgarity, punch, and descriptive force can be an unmitigated joy, if you get too creative you risk having your auditors, angelic or otherwise, suspect you of idling away the day imagining swears, which is not a situation in which one wants to be pictured after reaching, say, fifteen. Life, it's been said, is a goddam struggle.

Twain was a wonderful man for giving advice, less a one for following it, even when it was his own. Edgar Lee Masters records an incident of less than nice swearing as an aged Twain wrestled with a balky faucet in a DC hotel room in 1906:
God damn the Goddamned son of a bitch that invented that faucet. I hope he'll roast in hell a million years.
I think describing those swears as benevolent would also constitute a stretch. Masters uses the tale as an example of Twain's decline. Calling him an "irritable, foolish old man" on the verge of "spiritual collapse," he points out the faucet's true inventor:
It was God, you see, who created the fool who invented the faucet. And at that Twain may merely have failed to operate the faucet properly.
In schoolyard parlance, Twain here would be rubber, Masters glue. When he's done outwitting Twain, I've got a stack of Stephen King books out from the library in which Masters can white out all the F-words.

Speaking of F-words, what started me off on this path tonight was an elided swear word in Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews. A connoisseur such as myself ought not to be tripped up by the em-dash–filled shells of words too shocking for eighteenth-century eyes, and for the most part I've not been: "B---" and D--n'd" present no problems. This one, however, from the foul mouth of an innkeeper's wife whose attentions Joseph Andrews spurned, stumped me:
"My dear," said [her husband], "common Charity won't suffer you to do that." "Common Charity, a F--t!"says she.
All day this bedeviled me . . . but, in an instance that would lend support to the arguments of those who urge us to work through puzzles and problems by writing about them, the mystery has been solved. As I was typing, rocketlass asked what I was working on, and I pointed out the expurgated expletive. "It's 'fart,'" she instantly said. "Did my annoying coworkers put you up to this?"

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