The Vulgar and the Profane

I was wrestling with what situation – if any – constitutes a justifiable use of profanity. And I actually had to get my dictionary out before then re-examining a couple of statements I had made earlier on. And this post reflects the argument I was having with myself during my morning run.

I wrote yesterday in the postscript of the previous post ‘I am rereading Henry Miller’s profane masterpiece, ‘Tropic of Cancer…’

And as I sit here thinking about it – really thinking about it – I find it interesting that nowhere else could I put profane and masterpiece together in the same sentence. But somehow Tropic of Cancer is just that. And for indiscernible reasons, it bothers me to say that.

And two posts before that, in the note, I wrote ‘I am generally not a profane man but I find the use of the word fuck to be almost obligatory applied to the vulgarities inherent to certain classes and conditions…’ (and even to some things and objects).

As I’ve said, I really had to step back and examine my true position. Saying what I said, I qualified the use of profanity. Was that rational? Is profanity ever justifiable? In hindsight this seems like a pretty stupid thing to be wasting one’s time thinking about but the annoyance factor in not running a resolution to ground quite frankly bothered me more.

Was it fair to argue, as I tried above, that the fair use of profanity was situationally dependent? In the light of day that position seemed pretty weak. But as I began to reason my way through this I found there might be some legitimacy given some inter-dependency between profanity and those certain aspects of life that one could categorize as vulgar.

So the question is – is it justifiable under certain circumstances or conditions to use profanity? In other words, could I with a clear conscious absolve myself of saying the occasional fuck?

Let’s see what the dictionary says. The strict definitions are:

Vulgar – adj. – lacking sophistication or good taste; unrefined.making explicit and offensive reference to sex or bodily functions; coarse and rude.

Profane – adj – relating or devoted to that which is not sacred or biblical; secular rather than religious. (of a person or their behavior) not respectful of orthodox religious practice; irreverent.

Note: It is interesting that the definition of vulgar lists profane as a synonym whereas the definition of profane doesn’t reciprocate. Why is that? (Ahh, it’s not intuitive but I see why now.*)

Also by definition, profane can be used as a verb as in ‘to treat (something sacred) with irreverence or disrespect’.

So an example of fuck used as a verb could be something as simple as ‘Fuck you’, which if you potentially disregard the subject ‘you’ as sacred, given most inanimate objects (and some people) aren’t particularly  sacred; at least in the conventional sense of the definition – then an occasional fuck you might be okay.

But I am getting off point here. What I was really looking for was the relationship between both the vulgar and the profane, those two words – and my recent usages – as they played out during my run today.

Citing Tropic of Cancer as a profane masterpiece – is that completely full of shit or can I really get away with saying that?

The story itself is a first person narrative about an impoverished writer trying to make it as a successful author in Paris in the ’30s. The book is written about coarse and crude events. But then again poverty** is coarse and crude. What makes the novel a masterpiece is the sheer originality and brilliance of how the language is deployed via the phrases and sentences used to create the descriptions, scenes and stories told.

The poverty of his situation acts much like a central character in the  story much as the desolate landscape of a great western is often cast as the most defining aspect of the narrative.

And it is that locus of brutality, hunger and deprivation from which Henry Miller strives (and succeeds) to commit great acts of creation. I’ll come back to this.

The novel follows a relational model of man vs. poverty which is completely different than that found in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ – another period piece centered around the same subject. Whereas the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath endured (underline endured) their continual misfortunes and setbacks, Miller on the other hand didn’t endure his poverty so much as he shook his fist at it.

This post got away from me a little bit. And I apologize. I wanted to produce a single coherent unified statement on what I truly believe concerning the subjects of profanity, vulgarity, and now poverty.

But really I need to just let go of this. Robert Pirsig – author of the ’70s cult classic, ‘Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ – ended up in the loony bin after desperately trying to chase down the nebulous aspects of quality. What a silly crazy man he was.

So to end this possibly tail-chasing discussion, I will say in conclusion that profanity – if it must be used at all – should be limited to the occasional fuck you or confined to a some  case where a specific profanity is needed to properly describe one of the more vulgar things in our world.

* It’s almost a Venn diagram kind of thing where the set vulgar most definitely contains the subset profane but whereas the set profane doesn’t necessarily contain the subset vulgar.

**On the other end of the spectrum those tacky logos representing supposed upscale brands displayed on one’s clothing, bags, or shoes, not to mention any over the top garish flaunting of wealth, can also be considered vulgar. Only Elizabeth Taylor and the Queen of England had/have sufficient class to pull off the whole big jewelry thing.

BTW – And forty years after the fact, ‘Zen in the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ is both tedious and impossible to reread.

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