Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Profanity: a Young Man's Poetry"?

Marilyn Monroe, Laurence Olivier in "The Prince and the Showgirl"
I just came out of an advance screening of the film "My Week with Marilyn," touted as the true, 1956 encounter of a 23-year-old movie-set "gopher" (Eddie Redmayne) with "the most famous woman in the world," Marilyn Monroe.  Michelle Williams expertly plays the seductive, always-on-show actress who captivates all in her world while in London to film "The Prince and the Showgirl" (1957), starring and directed by Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branaugh).

The film was well-crafted, mesmerizing, and troubling, and my husband (who loved it) and I were discussing it as we walked into the elevator to the mall parking.  Inside, a very tall, young black man with long dreadlocks was talking loudly to two others; engaged in our conversation, we didn't really catch what he was saying.  As he left the elevator, he turned to all who remained and announced, "Sorry you all had to hear that, but hey, profanity is a young man's poetry!"

I was as stunned by his remark as by the tawdry, sad life of Marilyn Monroe.  He'd apparently been ranting in foul language among maybe 10 people enclosed in our confined space.  Profanity as poetry?

Then I came home and found in my email a newsletter from my friend and teacher Rabbi Daniel Lapin, describing the impact of degrading influences in our environments.  His great-uncle, the revered teacher Rabbi Elya Lopian, to whose North-Eastern England talmudical college he and thousands of other Torah students flocked, was asked to give permission for one of the boys to go home to attend a wedding.  Reb Elya asked if there might be under-dressed nubile guests in attendance.

The young man assured his teacher that he felt no temptation and would be unaffected if there were.  Reb Elya gave his consent but insisted the student speak to a particular person before leaving, and handed him a phone number.

Turned out that the required call was to a doctor, which the befuddled student thought must've been a mistake.  Rabbi Lapin related Reb Elya's explanation: " I am nearly eighty years old and blind in one eye, yet I am powerfully affected by the sight of women in scanty dress. Since you, a healthy young man, assure me that you are not, I know you must be suffering from a medical condition."

Rabbi Lapin's lesson: you're absorbing--and reacting to--influences in your environment whether you want to, or not.

Apparently my elevator-mate knew we might be offended by his tirade, but decided (for us) that we should re-define it as "poetry."  Once we accept it as "the new eloquence," our shock would disappear, perhaps replaced by approval.

Truth is, I've indeed been desensitized to profanity by its ubiquity.  But I wish I weren't.
Rabbi Elya Lopian (1876-1970)

Lately, my husband has been fascinated by the speeches of Abraham Lincoln, and launches into excerpts at random times, read from Bartlett's Quotations and his print-outs of Lincoln's oratories.  Our 16th President's parents were illiterate; he received just four months of formal schooling.  He lived in such poverty that he received his first pair of shoes at age 11, a gift from his step-mother (his own mother died when he was 9).  And yet his phrasing is poetic:

"In giving freedom to the slave we assure freedom to the free--honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth.  Other means may succeed; this could not fail.  The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just--a way if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless." (Conclusion to Abraham Lincoln's Second Annual Message, December 1, 1862.)

These aren't 50-cent words, in any sense.  But they are nobly-composed, spare but weighty.  The first book Abraham Lincoln owned, again, a gift from his step-mother, was the Holy Bible.  Interesting to compare the shapers of Lincoln's prose with what forms the "young man's poetry" of today.

Movies exert a huge chunk of media's influence, not only via films we choose to see, but in-your-face advertising for those we don't.  And dialogue over the past 30 years in scripts has slid in the direction of my elevator companion's "poetry."

Classic movies right up to the mid-60s refrained from profanity, managing to convey every emotion, including the frustration of most four-letter words, efficiently.  "My Week with Marilyn" is rated R, and includes a couple casual uses of the f-word; not enough to rile anyone, anymore.  Language is no big deal, which is why a string of expletives in an elevator earns no more than a flippant remark.

We can't put the toothpaste back in the tube (or the announcer back in The Tube, since TVs don't even have them anymore) to return to our more polite society.  But that's the problem for me--lack of concern for others' sensitivities in speech bleeds into a lack of concern for others' sensitivities in behavior, and worse, a basic lack of concern for others. We're so self-centric, managing our Facebook pages and Linked-In images, setting up our Spotify personal playlists and Google-plus circles that the rest of the world looks like a mere adjunct to me, me, me.  It's there as a platform for my own self-expression.  Other people become my audience, my responders, rather than recipients of my efforts, care and concern.

The other reason I was shaken by the notion of profanity as a young man's poetry is the very nature of those words.  You don't use profanity when you're delighted, enthusiastic or grateful. Instead, it expresses anger, frustration or at best, surprise.  If profanity is the medium of emotion for youth, they're really going through a tough time, and might benefit from some more lofty prose to improve their outlooks.

As the Civil War loomed, Abraham Lincoln concluded his first inaugural address (March 4, 1861):
"...we are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Perhaps our natures will be bettered by more careful selection of the phrases that form our poetry, and by greater appreciation for the unspoken verses of the universe.


  1. What an eloquent and precise article! Thank you for expressing so much of what I feel but cannot write so well!

  2. Diane,
    I have long been troubled by profanity in the public arena and cannot get used to its ubiquity. I stopped going to a particular dance class at my gym because even though the teacher is wonderful, the "music" is often filled with hateful profanity. I continue to believe it harms us all.
    BY the way, a new study also proves the obvious (yet again): Profanity in Media Associated With Attitudes and Behavior Regarding Profanity Use and Aggression
    Sarah M. Coyne, Laura A. Stockdale, David A. Nelson, and Ashley Fraser
    Pediatrics 2011;128 867-872

    Keep up your beautiful and incisive writing.