Krassner’s Complaint

What ever happened to obscenity?


| July-August 1996



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 DeadThe 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”).