Saturday, March 29, 2008

profanity, art, and toj

there's some great content up at the other journal. the current issue is on atheism.

also, i really like this poster.

but today i'm returning to an opus that i abandoned several months ago. the psychopathology issue of
toj features the poem "hedonist's prayer,"a dark parody of the pater noster. the poem approaches the theme of moral depravity with harsh, honest language as the narrator confesses an appetite for "smut and sex" and an allegiance to "the satiation of desire." the poem even drops a participial adjective f-bomb.

so how does such a poem find its way into a christian journal that is primarily staffed by evangelicals?

there are several ways to approach the issues raised by "hedonist's prayer," but i'd like to deal with my mom first.

i expect that my mom would object most strongly to the profanity. indeed, i remember getting my mouth washed out with soap for calling someone
stupid. at the time i was probably being naughty and belligerent in other ways too, but my mom used the opportunity to illustrate a biblical mandate for thoughtful, conscientious, and clean action. as the scriptures say:

do you not know that your body [e.g., mouth] is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body [i.e., with your mouth] (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
and the lesson stuck. i don't cuss and i don't use profanity in my writing, and although i see the distinctions that separate some swear words from non-swear words as somewhat arbitrary cultural designations, i still cling to a belief that there is value to keeping my mouth clean, that this non-divisively sets me apart from a culture that could care less, that this somehow honors God.

my personal rejection of profanity is universal yet nuanced. there seem to be several uses of profanity, and although my personal usage has yet to waver, i recognize distinctions between these uses.

many people seem to use profanity as a normal character in their everyday alphabet. perhaps this pattern of usage supports the view that profanity is no longer profane because some pockets of culture have adopted it into the general lexicon.

yet here comes my mother again, thrashing her broom against those four-letter words, crowing that profanity is unnecessary, that there are better, more eloquent ways to convey one's meaning. were my mom an editor, she might say that when someone's sentences are peppered with profanity, they are falling into the trap of someone who uses
like to convey every little thought or who has fallen exhaustingly in love with (nasty) adverbs.

and to this critique, the language lover in me raises his glass and cries, "cheers!" although creative writing that attempts to recreate a foul-mouthed dialect may succeed at realism, i hardly ever find it poetic. likewise, i'm not sold on literature that appears to have missed the copyediting desk--if it uses alternate spellings or attempts to excuse odd pronunciations with a boatload of apostrophes, it's probably not for me--and if the profanity is grating in its insistent repetition, it's probably not for toj.

others seem to use profanity to express anger, shock, or surprise--coffee in the lap, rat in the room, spouse in the doghouse. although these emotional outbursts share an authenticity with the first pattern of usage, they generally are accompanied with more oomph and pack a more powerful punch. if a character drops an anvil on his toe, a lone word can communicate a lot. when the anvil crushes the toe, it really isn't necessary for the character to say anything intelligible, but a brief curse certainly has more literary merit than a weak "ouch, that hurt!"

returning to paul's letter to the corinthians, i find that scripture seems to be speaking to precisely this kind of profanity, this harsh un-love-ly response to life lemons. personally, this is the point where i choose not to swear. but what about my characters? what about a poem in the editorial slush pile?

and finally, the occasional speaker of profanity seems to use their swear words literally, that is, their profanity means what it says. when profanity is used for the purpose of clear explication, when no other word conveys the same meaning as the ostracized word, i think this is where the editorial gates must open wide and begrudgingly let the word stay.

art and morality seem to be in a strange match of tug-o-war, and as a young editor, i'm caught in between, wondering how things turned out this way. if i truly believe that art is our way of communicating some sense of truth, of unconsciously channeling messages from the divine, how do i balance artistic integrity with moral integrity?

i don't really know, but i stand behind art like "hedonist's prayer," art that navigates the precipice of profanity with care, that uses every word to serve the purpose of the work without succumbing to shock and awe, and that seeks to show us something of ourselves, the world around us, and perhaps God.