What ever happened to obscenity?
Lenny Bruce’s first arrest for obscenity occurred at a San Francisco nightclub 35 years ago when—in the voice of a cynical theatrical agent—he referred to a transvestite dancer as a cocksucker. At the time, public tolerance for “dirty” language was low and the shock value was extremely high. Not any more. Recently, an interviewer on the TV show Inside the Actor’s Studio asked Holly Hunter on air, “What’s your favorite curse word?” She smiled and replied “cocksucker.” The syllable cock was bleeped out, but that was a mere formality. In the ‘80s, Meryl Streep won an Academy Award playing a character in Sophie’s Choice who uses cocksucker instead of seersucker to describe a man’s summer suit. So Lenny Bruce has finally gotten his wish: Dirty words have been demystified. Taboos, it seems, evolve along with everything else.
In 1963, I published a red-white-and-blue Fuck Communism! poster that several people got arrested for displaying. At a Midwestern college, a graduating senior held up one of the posters while he posed for his class photo. Campus officials found out and insisted that editors of the yearbook airbrush out the word fuck. But then the poster would read Communism!, so they airbrushed that out, too. The photo that appeared in the yearbook showed the student holding up a blank poster.
Today, the Fuck Communism! poster probably would not be censored. It no longer seems shocking, funny, or paradoxical because the word fuck has become an integral part of the rhythm of daily speech. Witness the arrival of The F Word (Random House), a lighthearted, yet exhaustively researched glossary of the word once considered so unprintable that Norman Mailer had to coin an alternative, fug, for his first novel, The Naked and the Dead. The F Word contains all kinds of variations: fuckface, mindfucker, fuck-your-buddy week, and the ever popular absofuckinglutely. Editor Jesse Sheidlower warns, however, that “the increasing acceptance of fuck in American society is not a sign that its use should be encouraged—nor should this book be considered such a sign. Any sort of language has a time and a place appropriate to its use, and it is often unsuitable to use the word so thoroughly chronicled in this book. It would be as misguided to say that fuck should be used everywhere as it would be narrow-minded to insist upon its suppression.”
As for communism, it essentially collapsed with the Berlin Wall, although vestigial Pavlovian resistance to the concept continues to appear. When Václav Havel—the playwright cum political prisoner who was elected president of Czechoslovakia—addressed a joint session of Congress in 1990 and said that “consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim,” there was sustained applause, not because politicians on both sides of the aisle were enthusiastically savoring the philosophical implications of his statement, but rather because it sounded so anti-communist. In Speaking the Unspeakable: A Poetics of Obscenity (SUNY Press), which takes a political turn through the world of dirty talk, theorist Peter Michelson asks why Havel made that pronunciamento: “Could it be his own material circumstances, a writer turned politician who had just emerged battered from under the hammy fist of communism but apprehensive about putting himself and his country under the prosperously gloved but distinctly meaty paw of capitalism?”
Speaking the Unspeakable posifuckingtively reeks of dull scholarly research, but Michelson makes a few telling observations. “If liberal capitalism has now made the world safe for Havel” he concludes,“so has it made the world safe for obscenity and pornography. Pornography has always flourished under the entrepreneurship of capital, for liberalism is not merely secular, it is downright profane.”
Opus Maledictorum: A Book of Bad Words (Marlowe & Co.)—an anthology edited by Reinhold Aman, iconoclastic publisher of Maledicta, the international “Journal of Verbal Aggression”—is more lively than Michelson’s tome and takes on a broader range of targets: suggestive song titles (“Come, Josephine, in My Flying Machine”); offensive rock band names (Lubricated Goat); medical slang (“quack, a patient who fakes symptoms to gain unnecessary hospitalization or drugs”); colorful speech (“colder than the devil’s prick,” a feminist reprise to “colder than a witch’s tit”); and slogans for National Condom Week (“Encase your porker before you dork her”).
A few years ago, a college professor told U.S. News & World Report that if she were to say fuck in a classroom nobody would blink, but she would never dare to use a racial epithet in any context. Now, in Opus Maledictorum, an essay by Merritt Clifton entitled “How to Hate Thy Neighbor” includes a glossary that might well have served as a guide for Marlon Brando’s misguided tour of movie stereotypes on Larry King Live: “We’ve seen the nigger, we’ve seen the greaseball, we’ve seen the chink, we’ve seen the slit-eyed dangerous Jap, we’ve seen the wily Filipino, we’ve seen everything, but we never saw the kike.” It was a moment of supreme political incorrectness, topped only by CNN itself, still suffering from an overdose of the N-word at the O.J. Simpson trial. The network bleeped out only the word nigger from replays of Brando’s litany of ethnic slurs.
In A Dictionary of Euphemisms: How Not to Say What You Mean (Oxford University Press), R.W. Holder explains that euphemism “is the language of evasion, of hypocrisy, of prudery, and of deceit.” Gap is a euphemism for vagina. I hear what you say means “I do not agree with you.” Honk: to feel the genitals of a male. Restore order: to invade and conquer a country. Look at the garden: to urinate outdoors. States’ rights: the continuation of discrimination against blacks. Holder admits that “it is a poor week when I fail to note two or three new euphemisms.” So downsize (“to dismiss employees”) made the cut, but not Procter & Gamble’s euphemism for one of fake-fat Olestra’s side effects: anal leakage (which sounds like a rock band to me).
Who knows why all of these books are coming out right now? But obscenity is certainly a timely subject. When Bill Clinton recently attempted to outprude Bob Dole in squelching obscenity on the World Wide Web by signing the infamous telecommunications bill, which makes it illegal to discuss abortion, among other things, anywhere on the Internet, he inspired a new form of civil disobedience—a chain e-mail letter to the president stating: “I object to the U.S. government’s prohibition of any discussion of abortion on the Internet.” Every signer was refusing to resort to euphemism in this, the new Age of Euphemism.
Paul Krassner—co-founder with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin of the dirty-talking Yippie Party and publisher of the satirical magazine. The Realist (which kick started the underground press) for almost four decades now—has been an unrehabilitated countercultural icon ever since he served as a young Lenny Bruce’s obscenity coach. The definitive collection of his satirical writings, The Winner of the Slow Bicycle Race (Seven Stories), and his compact disc We Have Ways of Making You Laugh (Mercury), was released in 1996.