Tuesday, 9 September 2008

In Praise of Invective

Reading Zizek's recent piece in In These Times on the 'audacity of rhetoric', and on the heels of my vituperative tirades against leftist apologia for Serbian ethno-fascism in a lengthy exchange of comments on Lenin's Tomb (of which I will write more later), an SWP mouthpiece operated by blogger Richard Seymour ('Lenin'), I was reminded of this piece (below) published in the 'Readings' section of Harper's a few years ago. Despite its vaguely anti-Communist or at least apolitical stance, I like the way it smacks soothingly of Heideggerian 'resoluteness'. In fact, given that Simic is writing here as an American for an American audience, the neutralising sentiment perhaps isn't even vaguely anti-Communist; it aims precisely at leveling, insisting that even in "our democratic society" one must equally be alert as in any the 'Communist countries', suggesting that the liberal notion of 'freedom of speech', in its negative determination defined according to constitutional prerogative - a freedom embedded or 'objectified' in collective thinking in a liberal society - is, well, a bit of a myth. (I love the bit about the boy writing to President Johnson.) So perhaps it isn't even so much apolitical as anti-ideological, encouraging the cleansing operation of undermining or disturbing the background, encouraging one to reveal the hidden suppositions embedded in our speech and thought, the almost inevitable embeddedness of our daily existence, the pernicious presence of 'the they'. (And mind you, given Simic's Yugoslav background, I might add, if there is a single reason for any foreigner to learn our needlessly complex and obscure language, it is for its notoriously rich and varied 'stock of maledictions'):



From an essay by Charles Simic in Orphan Factory, a collection of Simic's writing to be published in October by the University of Michigan Press. Simic was born in Yugoslavia; he now lives in New Hampshire. Simic received the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.

At the end of a murderous century, let's curse the enemies of the individual. If, in order to do so, we must fall back on the vocabulary of abuse, so be it.
This is what I learned from twentieth-century history: Only dumb ideas get recycled. Every social reformer longs to be the brains of an enlightened, soul-reforming penitentiary. Everyone who is vain, dull, peevish, and sexually frustrated dreams of legislating his impotence. The image of a billion people dressed in Mao's uniforms and shouting from his little red book continues to be the secret hope of new visionaries.
So, against ideologies from nationalism to racism, let us wield what the poet Cornelius Eady calls "the tongue we use when we don't want nuance to get in the way."

The first and never-to-be-forgotten pleasure that language gave me was the discovery of "bad words." I must have been three or four years old when I overheard my mother and another woman use the word "cunt." When I repeated it myself, when I said it aloud for all to hear and admire, I was slapped by my mother and told never to use that word again. Aha, I thought, there are words so delicious they must not be said aloud!
I had a great-aunt who used such language every time she opened her mouth. My mother would beg her, when she came to visit, not to speak like that in front of the children, but my aunt paid her no mind. To have a temper and a foul mouth like that was a serious liability in a Communist country. "We'll all end up in jail because of her," my mother said.
There are moments in life when true invective is called for, when it becomes an absolute necessity, out of a deep sense of justice, to denounce, mock, vituperate, lash out, in the strongest possible language. "I do not wish to be weaned from this error," Robert Burton wrote long ago in his Anatomy of Melancholy. I agree. If there is anything I want to enlarge and perfect, it is my stock of maledictions.

Once one comes to understand that much of what one sees and hears serves to make fraud seem respectable, one is in trouble. For instance, long before Parisian intellectuals did so, my great-aunt had figured out that the Soviet Union and the so-called people's democracies were a scam and a lie from the bottom up. She was one of these women who sees through appearances instantly. To begin with, she did not have a good opinion of humanity. Not because she was a sourpuss and a viper's nest of imaginary resentments. Far from it. She liked eating, drinking, a good laugh, and a quick roll in the hay behind her elderly husband's back. It's just that she had an unusually uncluttered and clear head. She would tell you that our revolutionary regime, which regarded loose tongues and levity as political crimes and those caught in the act as unhealthy elements, was a huge pile of shit, and that included Marshal Tito himself. Her outbursts were caused by what she regarded as other people's gullibility. As far as she was concerned, she was surrounded by cowards and dunces. The daily papers and the radio drove her into verbal fury. "Admit it," she'd yell at my mother and grandmother. "Doesn't it turn your stomach to hear them talk like that?"
If they agreed and confided in a whisper that yes, indeed, these Commies are nothing but a bunch of murderous illiterate yokels, Stalinist stooges, and whatnot, she still wasn't happy. There was something about humans as a species that worried her to no end. Cursing them, I imagine, gave her royal pleasure and, unknown to her, gave pleasure to me too, listening behind the closed door with a shameless grin.

I knew a thirteen-year-old boy who wrote a letter telling off President Johnson for the conduct of the Vietnam War. It was some letter! Our president was an idiot and a murderer who deserved to be napalmed himself, and worse. One evening, as the boy and his mother and sister were sitting around the kitchen table slurping their soup, the doors and the windows leading to the fire escape flew open at the same time, and men with drawn guns surrounded the table. "We are the FBI," they announced, and they wanted to know: Who was Anthony Palermo? The two women pointed at the boy with thick glasses and crossed eyes. Well, it took a while to convince them that he was the one who wrote the letter. They were expecting a full-grown assassin with long hair and an arsenal of weapons by his side.
The obvious point here is that the vileness and stupidity my aunt found so enraging is not limited to Yugoslavia or Eastern Europe or Communism but is alive and well and should be railed at, with our most pointed and inventive tongues, in our own democratic state.
"What do you want from me, blood?" I once heard an old woman shout at the workers in a New York City welfare office. She then kept cussing for another five minutes, not because she had any expectation that the wrongs done to her would be righted but simply in order to make herself feel good and clean for one brief moment.

-Charles Simic


Amen and Hallelujah. So, here's to Richard Seymour 'Lenin' and all the other proto-fascist imbeciles and leftist apologists for Serb genocidal pretensions, at the SWP and elsewhere, for whom my only wish is that they rot forever in hell, preferably under intense Serb artillery bombardment with their friends Karadzic and Mladic at the helm.

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