Monday, August 28, 2006

Why all that Cursing?

by Tibor R. Machan

Is everyone getting more and more mad, angry with the world? Judging by the popularity of HBO's Deadwood and Lucky Louie, I would have to conclude that that's just right.

How could such offerings otherwise be so well received? On those few occasions when I have watched these shows, mostly at friends' homes, the volume of swearing -- in particular the uttering of every variety of the word "f**k" -- has been immense. Sentence after sentence produced by the writers for their characters on Deadwood, for instance, contained the term, so much so that when my friends were watching with subtitles, so as to comprehend the dialog better, these didn't even manage to reproduce all the uses of "f**k." I assume it was too much even for them!

I looked at the Lucky Louie pilot and it had great promise. An exchange between a little girl and her father was hilarious. Yet the next scene featured two adult males who simply wouldn't stop cursing. Not just once or twice during an exchange but each time one opened his mouth.

What is it with these folks? I am certainly no prude and curse now and then freely, with no inhibitions. But that's now and then when I feel upset or angry or disgusted, not always! And that is my experience with nearly everyone I know well, where talk flows freely, no holds are barred.

Do I not realize that these HBO programs are fiction? Of course, I know. But I dispute that the aim of fiction is to present humanity in a disgusting light. For clearly all these people -- and they are nearly all of them on Deadwood and Lucky Louie except for small kids -- are a pathetic lot, what with their relentless profanity, their unstoppable cursing. At least they seem very angry with their lives, with nearly everything surrounding them. Why else would they be made to produced all this foul language?

I don't normally lament the state of our culture. In my estimation there has always been a mixture of good and bad in most cultures -- the arts, manners, fashion and such usually mixed it up so that no era is exempt from its share of the ugly and nasty, nor the beautiful and swell. Yes, there are vacillations and in some years the muck is in greater supply than in others. Thus, all that grunge stuff of the 80s (or whatever decade it was) pretty much consigned those years to the pits for me, along with the "music" of the likes of Nirvana. But if one digs hard enough one will unearth plenty of disgusting stuff in any era and it is only because of the therapeutic properties of nostalgia that most people overlook this fact. (Those good old days look so much better in retrospect than they actually were, mainly because we manage to forget about all the worries we had about our future back then, worries that injected a goodly dose of misery in what now looks so good!)

So, please don't get me wrong. I am not arguing the case for how awful things are today as opposed to what they were back then! No. (I suspect certain old people incline to think that way because they project their own impending doom on to the rest of the world!) My only point is that these shows are peculiar, as far as I can tell -- and I have been a cultural detective for a long time, so I have some qualifications for saying this -- for containing an inordinate amount of swearing. Somehow by this means they also manage to preclude anyone who is genuinely likable in their cast of characters, at least if what I have seen is representative of what they usually offer up to viewers.

Quite coincidentally, just as I checked out these shows, I was also resuming my reading of Tom Wolfe's I am Charlotte Simmons and on page 35 Wolfe produces some insightful observations on the use of "f**k," mostly, however, by college undergraduates. (It is worth checking out what he says if only for the variety of modalities in which the term can be deployed.) But in Wolfe's fiction "f**k" is a term mostly used by the immature who wish to fake some measure of maturity yet only have this pathetic device whereby to do so, namely, cursing. In Deadwood and Lucky Louie, however, everyone but infants indulges. I am clueless, I admit, why the writers and HBO think all this is so precious.

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