“But implicit in the history of the First Amendment is the rejection of obscenity as utterly without redeeming social importance.”
—Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr., Roth v. United States (1957)
Interviewer: Speaking of blue, you’ve been accused of vulgarity.
Mel Brooks: Bullshit!
—Playboy (February, 1975)
On a spring evening in 1964 at the Café Au Go Go in Greenwich Village, several undercover officers from the NYPD’s vice squad arrested Lenny Bruce for public obscenity. Both Bruce and the club’s owner Howard Solomon were shouldered out through the crowded club to waiting squad cars, their red and blue lights reflected off of the dirty puddles pooled on the pavement of Bleecker Street. For six months the two men would stand trial, with Bruce’s defense attorney calling on luminaries from James Baldwin to Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer to Bob Dylan, to attest to the stand-up’s right to say whatever he wanted in front of a paying audience. “He was a man with an unsettling sense of humor,” write Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover in The Trials of Lenny Bruce: The Fall and Rise of an American Icon. “Uncompromising, uncanny, unforgettable, and unapologetic…His words crossed the law and those in it is. He became intolerable to people too powerful to ignore. When it was over, not even the First Amendment saved him.” The three-judge tribunal sentenced Bruce to four months punishment in a workhouse. Released on bail, he never served a day of his conviction, overdosing on morphine in his Hollywood Hills bungalow two years later. He wouldn’t receive a posthumous pardon until 2003.
“Perhaps at this point I ought to say a little something about my vocabulary,” Bruce wrote in his (still very funny) How to Talk Dirty and Influence People: An Autobiography. “My conversation, spoken and written, is usually flavored with the jargon of the hipster, the argot of the underworld, and Yiddish.” Alongside jazz, Jewish-American comedy is one of the few uniquely American contributions to world culture, and if that comparison can be drawn further, then Bruce was the equivalent of Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis—he was the one who broke it wide open. Moving comedy away from the realm of the Borscht Belt one-liner, Bruce exemplified the emerging paradigm of stand-up as spoken word riff of personal reflections and social commentary, while often being incredibly obscene. The Catskills comedian Henry Youngman may have been inescapably Jewish, but Bruce was unabashedly so. And, as he makes clear, his diction proudly drew from the margins, hearing more truth in the dialect of the ethnic Other than in mainstream politeness, more honesty in the junky’s language than in the platitudes of the square, more righteous confrontation in the bohemian’s obscenity than in the pieties of the status quo. Among the comics of that golden age of stand-up, only Richard Pryor was his equal in bravery and genius, and despite the fact that some of his humor is dated today, books like How to Talk Dirty and Influence People still radiate an excitement that a mere burlesque performer could challenge the hypocrisy and puritanism of a state that would just as soon see James Joyce’s Ulysses and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover banned and their publisher’s hauled to jail as they would actually confront any of the social ills that infected the body politic.
What separates Bruce from any number of subsequent comics is that within his performances there was a fully articulated theory of language. “Take away the right to say the word ‘fuck’ and you take away the right say ‘fuck the government,’” he is reported to have said, and this is clearly and crucially true. That’s one model of obscenity’s utility: its power to lower the high and to raise the low, with vulgarity afforded an almost apocalyptic power of resistance. There is a naivety, however, that runs through the comedian’s work, and that’s that Bruce sometimes doesn’t afford language enough power. In one incendiary performance from the early ’60s, Bruce went through a litany of ethnic slurs for Black people, Jews, Italians, Hispanics, Poles, and the Irish, finally arguing that “it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness.” He imagines a scenario whereby the president would introduce members of his cabinet by using those particular words, and concludes that following such a moment those slurs wouldn’t “mean anything anymore, then you could never make some six-year-old black kid cry because somebody called him” that word at school. Bruce’s idealism is almost touching—let it not be doubted that he genuinely believed language could work in this way—but it’s also empirically false. Dying a half-century ago he can’t be faulted for his ignorance on this score, but when we now have a president who basically does what Bruce imagined his hypothetical Commander-in-Chief doing, and I think we can emphatically state that the repetition of such ugliness does nothing to dispel its power.
Discussions about obscenity often devolve into this bad-faith dichotomy—the prudish schoolmarms with their red-pens painting over anything blue and the brave defenders of free speech pushing the boundaries of acceptable discourse. The former hold that there is a certain power to words that must be tamed, while the later champion the individual right to say what they want to say. When the issue is phrased in such a stark manner, it occludes a more discomforting reality—maybe words are never simply utterances, maybe words can be dangerous, maybe words can enact evil things, and maybe every person has an ultimate freedom to use those words as they see fit (notably a different claim than people should be able to use them without repercussion). Bruce’s theory of language is respectably semiotic, a contention about the arbitrary relationship between signifier and signified, whereby that chain of connection can be severed by simple repetition, as when sense flees from a word said over and over again, whether it’s “potato” or “xylophone.” But he was ultimately wrong (as is all of structural and post-structural linguistics)—language is never exactly arbitrary, it’s not really semiotic. We need theurgy to explain how words work, because in an ineffable and numinous way, words are magic. When it comes to obscenity in particular, whether the sexual or the scatological, the racial or the blasphemous, we’re considering a very specific form of that magic, and while Bruce is correct that a prohibition on slurs would render resistance to oppression all the more difficult, he’s disingenuous in not also admitting that it can provide a means of cruelty in its own right. If you couldn’t say obscenities then a certain prominent tweeter of almost inconceivable power and authority couldn’t deploy them almost hourly against whatever target he sees fit. This is not an argument for censorship, mind you, but it is a plea to be honest in our accounting.
Obscenity as social resistance doesn’t have the same cache it once did, nor is it always interpreted as unassailably progressive (as it was for Bruce and his supporters). In our current season of a supposed Jacobin “cancel culture,” words have been ironically re-enchanted with the spark of danger that was once associated with them. Whether or not those who claim that there is some sort of left McCarthyism policing language are correct, it’s relatively anodyne to acknowledge that right now words are endowed with a significance not seen since Bruce appeared in a Manhattan courtroom. Whatever your own stance on the role that offensiveness plays in civilized society, obscenity can only be theorized through multiple perspectives. Four-letter words inhabit a nexus of society, culture, faith, linguistics, and morality (and the law). A “fuck” is never just a “fuck,” and a shit by any other name wouldn’t smell as pungent. Grammatically, obscenities are often classified as “intensifiers,” that is placeholders that exist to emphasize the emotionality of a given declaration—think of them as oral exclamation marks. Writing in Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing, Melissa Mohr explains vulgarity is frequently “important for the connotation it carries and not for its literal meaning.” Such a distinction came into play in 2003 after the Irish singer Bono of U2 was cited by the Federal Communications Commission when upon winning a Golden Globe he exclaimed “fucking brilliant.” The Enforcement Commission of the bureau initially decided that Bono’s f-bomb wasn’t indecent since its use clearly wasn’t in keeping with the sexual definition of the word, a verdict that was later rescinded higher up within the FCC.
“Historically,” Mohr writes, “swearwords have been thought to possess a deeper, more intimate connection to the things they represent than do other words,” and in that regard the pencil-necked nerds at the FCC ironically showed more respect to the dangerous power of fucking then did Bono. If vigor of emotion is all one was looking for in language, any number of milquetoast words would work as well as a vulgarity, and yet obscenity (even if uttered due to a stubbed toe) is clearly doing something a bit more transcendent than more PG terms—for both good and bad. Swearing can’t help but have an incantatory aspect to it; we swear oaths, and we’re specifically forbidden by the Decalogue from taking the Lord’s name in vain. Magnus Ljung includes religious themes in his typology of profanity, offered in Swearing: A Cross-Cultural Linguistic Study, as one of “five major themes that recur in the swearing of the majority of the languages discussed and which are in all likelihood also used in most other languages featuring swearing.” Alongside religious profanity, Ljung recognizes themes according to scatology, sex organs, sexual activities, and family insults. To this, inevitably, must also be offered ethnic slurs. Profanity is by definition profane, dealing with the bloody, pussy, jizzy reality of what it means to be alive (and thus the lowering of the sacred into that oozy realm is part of what blasphemously shocks). Obscenity has a quality of the theological about it, even while religious profanities have declined in their ability to shock an increasingly secular society.
Today a word like “bloody” sounds archaic or Anglophilic, and almost wholly inoffensive, even while it’s (now forgotten) reference to Christ’s wounds would have been scandalous to an audience reared on the King James Bible. This was the problem that confronted television director David Milch, who created the classic HBO western Deadwood. The resultant drama (with dialogue largely composed in iambic pentameter) was noted as having the most per capita profanity of any show to ever air, but in 1870s Dakota most of those swears would have been religious in nature. Since having Al Swearengen (a perfect name if ever there was one) sound like Yosemite Sam would have dulled the shock of his speech, Milch elected to transform his characters’ language into scatological and ethnic slurs, the latter of which still has the ability to upset an audience in a way that “by Christ’s wounds!” simply doesn’t. When Swearengen offers up his own theory of language to A.W. Merrick, who edits Deadwood’s newspaper, he argues that “Just as you owning a print press proves only an interest in the truth, meaning up to a fucking point, slightly more than us others maybe, but short of a fucking anointing or the shouldering of a sacred burden—unless of course the print press was gift of an angel,” he provides a nice synthesis of the blasphemous and the sexual. The majority of copious swears in Deadwood are of the scatological, sexual, or racial sort, and they hit the ear-drum with far more force than denying the divinity of Christ does. When Milch updated the profanity of the 19th century, he knew what would disturb contemporary audiences, and it wasn’t tin-pot sacrilege.
All of which is to say that while obscenity has a social context, with what’s offensive being beholden to the mores of a particular century, the form itself universally involves the transgression of propriety, with the details merely altered to the conventions of a time and place. As an example, watch the 2005 documentary The Aristocrats directed by magician Penn Jillette, which features dozens of tellings of the almost unspeakably taboo joke of the same name. Long an after-hours joke told by comedians who would try to one-up each other in the degree of profanity offered, Jillette’s film presents several iconic performers giving variations on the sketch. When I saw the film after it came out, the audience was largely primed for the oftentimes extreme sexual and scatological permutations of the joke, but it was the tellings that involved racial slurs and ethnic stereotypes that stunned the other theater goers. It’s the pushing of boundaries in and of itself, rather than the subject in question, that designates something as an obscenity. According to Sigmund Freud in his (weirdly funny) The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, vulgar humor serves a potent psychological purpose, allowing people “to enjoy undisguised obscenity” that is normally repressed so as to keep “whole complexes of impulses, together with their derivatives, away from consciousness.” Obscenity thus acts as a civilizational pressure valve for humanity’s chthonic impulses.
That words which are considered obscene are often found in the vocabulary of the marginalized isn’t incidental, and it recommends spicey language as a site of resistance. English swearing draws directly from one such point of contact between our “higher” and our “lower” language. The majority of English swears have a Germanic origin, as opposed to a more genteel Romance origin (whether from French or Latin). In keeping with their Teutonic genesis, they tend to have an abrasive, guttural, jagged quality to their sounds, the better to convey an onomatopoeic quality. Take a look at the list which comprises comedian George Carlin’s 1972 bit “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” Four of them definitely have an Old English etymology, traceable back to the West Germanic dialect of the Angles, Saxons, Frisians, and Jutes who occupied Britain in the later centuries of the first millennium. Three of them – the one that rudely refers to female genitalia, the one that tells you to rudely do something sexual, and the one that tells you to do that thing to your mother – may have Latin or Norman origins, though linguists think they’re just as likely to come from what Medievalists used to call “Anglo-Saxon.” Most of these words had no obscene connotations in their original context; in Old English the word for urine is simply “piss,” and the word for feces is “shit.” Nothing dirty about either word until the eleventh-century Norman invasion of Britain privileged the French over the English. That stratification, however, gives a certain gutter enchantment to those old prosaic terms, endowing them with the force of a swear. Geoffrey Hughes writes in Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths, and Profanities in English that the “Anglo-Saxon element… provides much more emotional force than does the Normal French of the Latin. Copulating pandemonium! conveys none of the emotion charge of the native equivalent fucking hell!” Invasion, oppression, and brutality mark those words which we consider to be profane, but they also give them their filthy enchantments.
What’s clear is that the class connotations of what Bruce called an “argot” can’t be ignored. Swearing is the purview of criminals and travelers, pirates and rebels, highwaymen and drunks. For those lexicographers who assembled lists of English words in the early modern era, swearing, or “canting,” provided an invaluable window into the counter-cultural consciousness. The Irish playwright Richard Head compiled The Canting Academy, or Devil’s Cabinet Opened in 1673, arguably the first full-length English “dictionary,” complied decades before Dr. Johnson’s staider 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language. Decades before Head’s book, and short pamphlets by respectable playwrights from Thomas Dekker to Thomas Middleton similarly illuminated people on the criminal element’s language—other examples that were included as appendices within books, such as Thomas Harman’s A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors, go back well into the 16th century. Such “canting guides,” exploring the seamy underbelly of the cockney capital, were prurient pamphlets that illustrated the salty diction of thieves and rogues for the entertainment of the respectable classes. One of the most popular examples was the anonymously edited A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, first printed in 1698. Within, readers could learn the definitions of insults from “blobber-lipped” to “jobber-not.” Such dictionaries (that included words like “swindler” and “phony,” which still survive today) drew from the English underclass, with a motley vocabulary made up of words from rough-hewn English, Romani, and ultimately Yiddish, among other origins.
A direct line runs between the vibrant, colorful, and earthy diction of canting to cockney rhyming slang, or the endangered dialect of Polari used for decades by gay men in Great Britain, who lived under the constant threat of state punishment. All of these tongues are “obscene,” but that’s a function of their oppositional status to received language. Nothing is “dirty” about them; they are, rather, rebellions against “proper” speech, “dignified” language, “correct” talking, and they challenge that codified violence implied by the mere existence of the King’s Speech. Their differing purposes, and respective class connotations and authenticity, are illustrated by a joke wherein a hobo asks a nattily dressed businessman for some change. “’Neither a borrower nor a lender be’—that’s William Shakespeare,” says the businessman. “’Fuck you’—that’s David Mamet,” responds the panhandler. A bit of a disservice to the Bard, however, who along with Dekker and Middleton could cant with the best of them. For example, within the folio one will find “bawling, blasphemous, incharitible dog,” “paper fac’d villain,” and “embossed carbuncle,” among such other similarly colorful examples.
An entire history could be written about early instances of noted slurs, which of course necessitates trawling the Oxford English Dictionary for examples of dirty words that appear particularly early. For “shit,” there is a 1585 instance of the word in a Scottish “flyting,” an extemporaneous poetic rhyme-battle held in Middle Scotts, which took place between Patrick Hume and Alexander Montgomerie. The greatest example of the form is the 15th-century Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy, containing the first printed instance of the word “fuck.” In the OED, our good friend the dirty lexicographer Richard Head has the earliest example given in the entry for the word “fuck,” the profanity appearing as a noun in his play Hic et Ubique: or, The Humors of Dublin ,wherein a character says “I did creep in…and there I did see [him] putting the great fuck upon my wife.” And the dictionary reflects the etymological ambiguity concerning the faux-francophone/faux-Virgilian word “dildo,” giving earliest attribution to the playwright Robert Greene in 1590 who in his comedy Never Too Late wrote “Dildido dildido, Oh love, oh love, I feel thy rage rumble below and above.” Swearing might be a radical alternative to received language, but it pulses through literature like a counter-history, a shadow realm of the English tongue’s full capabilities. It is a secret language, the twinned-double of more respectable letters, and it’s unthinkable to understand Geoffrey Chaucer without his scatological jokes or Shakespeare minus his bawdy insults. After all, literature is just as much Charles Bukowski as T.S. Eliot; it’s William S. Burroughs and not just Ezra Pound.
Sometimes those dichotomies about what language is capable of are reconciled within the greatest of literature. A syllabus of the immaculate obscene would include the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, Charles Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Joyce’s Ulysses, Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (smuggled out of a Barnes & Noble by yours truly when I was 16), and Irving Welsh’s Trainspotting. Along with his fellow Scotsman James Kelman, Welsh shows the full potential of obscenity to present an assault on the pieties of the bourgeois, mocking Madison Avenue sophistry when he famously implores the reader to “Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.” Within the English language, looming above all as the primogeniture of literary smut, is the great British author John Cleland, who in 1748 published our first pornographic novel in Fanny Hill: Or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, wherein he promised “Truth! stark naked truth, is the word, and I will not so much as take the pains to bestow the strip of a gauze-wrapper on it.” Cleland purposefully wrote Fanny Hill entirely in euphemisms and double entendres, but the lack of dirty words couldn’t conceal the fact that the orgiastic bildungsroman about a middle-age nymphomaniac was seen as unspeakably filthy. The novel has the distinction of being the longest banned work in U.S. history, first prohibited by the Massachusetts Supreme Court in 1821, only to be sold legally after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that its censorship was unconstitutional in 1966. The same year that Bruce was found face-down, naked and dead, in his California bathroom.
A goddamn unequivocal fucking triumph of the human spirt that any fucking wanker can march up into a public library and check out a copy of Fanny Hill. That liberty is one that was hard fought for, and we should look askance on anyone who’d throw it away too cavalierly. But there is also something disingenuous as dismissing all those who suppressed works like Fanny Hill or Ulysses or Lady Chatterley’s Lover as mere prigs and prudes. A work is never censored because it isn’t powerful; it’s attacked precisely because of that coiled, latent energy that exists within words, none the more so than those that we’ve labeled as forbidden. If the debate over free speech and censorship is drenched in a sticky oil of bad faith, then that slick spills over into all corners. My fellow liberals will mock the conservative perspective that says film or comic books or video games or novels are capable of altering someone into action, sometimes very ugly action—but of course literature is capable of doing this. Why would we read literature otherwise? Why would we create it otherwise? The censor with his black marker in some ways does due service to literature, acknowledging its significance and its uncanny effect. To claim that literature shouldn’t be censored because all literature is safe is not just fallacious, it’s disrespectful. The far more difficult principle is that literature shouldn’t be censored despite the fact that it’s so often dangerous.
Like any grimoire or incantation, obscenity can be used to liberate and to oppress, to free and to enslave, to bring down those in power but also to froth a crowd into the most hideous paroxysms of fascistic violence. So often the moralistic convention holds that “punching down” is never funny, but the dark truth is that it often is. What we do with that reality is the measure of us as people, because obscenity is neither good nor bad, but all power resides within the mouth of who wields it. What we think of as profanity is a rupture within language, a dialectic undermining conventional speech, what the Greeks called an aporia that constitutes the moment that rhetoric breaks down. Obscenity is when language declares war on itself, often with good cause. Writing in Rabelais and His World, the great Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin defined what he called the “carnivalesque,” that is the principle that structured much medieval and Renaissance performance and literature, whereby the “principle of laughter and the carnival spirit on which the grotesque is based destroys…seriousness and all pretense.” Examining the Shrovetide carnivals that inaugurated pre-Reformation Lent, Bakhtin optimistically saw something liberatory in the ribald display of upended hierarchies, where the farting, shitting, pissing, vomiting hilarity of the display rendered authority foolish. “It frees human consciousness,” Bakhtin wrote, “and imagination for new potentialities.”
An uneasy and ambivalent undercurrent threads through Bakhtin’s argument, though. If the carnival allowed for a taste of emancipation, there was also always the possibility that it was just more bread and circus, a way to safely “rebel” without actually challenging the status quo. How much of our fucks and shits are just that, simply the smearing of feces on our playpen walls? Even worse, what happens when the carnival isn’t organized by plucky peasants to mock the bishops and princes, but when the church and state organize those mocking pageants themselves? Bakhtin didn’t quite anticipate the troll, nor did Bruce for that matter. Gershon Legman writes in the standard text Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor that “Under the mask of humor, our society allows infinite aggressions, by everyone and against everyone. In the culminating laugh of the listener or observer…the teller of the joke betrays his hidden hostility.” Can’t you take a joke? Because I was just joking. Legman’s reading of obscenity is crucial—it’s never just innocent, it’s never just nothing, it’s never just words. And it depends on who is saying them, and to whom they’re being said. Because swearing is so intimately tied to the theological, the use of profanity literally takes on the aura of damnation. It’s not that words aren’t dangerous—they are. But that doesn’t mean we must suture our mouths, even as honesty compels us to admit that danger. What we do with this understanding is the process that we call civilization. Because if Lenny Bruce had one unassailable and self-evident observation, it was that “Life is a four-letter word.” How could it be fucking otherwise?
Image Credit: Flickr/Jeniffer Moo