Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Street-corner Discourse

Last night, we took my mother-in-law out to dinner to celebrate her birthday. We were in Berkeley, and parked the car right down the block from People's Park. (If that name doesn't mean anything to you, you're either far too young to be reading this, or you desperately need to go read the linked history! A somewhat more objective view is here.)

As I was attempting to negotiate my way into the parking space (always a treat parallel parking on the left side of a one-way street in an unfamiliar car), I rolled down the window to see how I was doing, and the vehicle was suddenly filled with the sounds of the "discussion" among several people on the sidewalk. Perhaps "argument" is a better description. I never did discern the substance of the disagreement, but whatever it was, it sounded as if someone were playing the soundtrack from Casino out there. (The MPAA rating noted "pervasive strong language" in that; I know there are plenty of other examples, but that one stuck in my mind.)

It was, quite literally, a conversation dominated by "F-bombs." Now, sitting there in the car with my six-year-old daughter, I wondered what this must sound like to her. It's not as if she's never heard one of us use the occasional profanity, but I doubt she's ever heard a torrent of that sort. As I finished parking, the participants headed off, still yelling, in the direction of the park.

As we sat down in the restaurant a few minutes later, my mother-in-law commented that she hadn't heard anything like that in quite a while. She used to be a teacher in an urban high school, and her husband spent many years in sports administration, so she has certainly heard her share of profanity-laced tirades. Even my niece, a college student who is more frequently immersed in the current coarsened idiom, noted that this was a particularly vehement example.

We discussed for a bit the fact that while one might use profanity as an intensifier in conversation, a "conversation" that consists of little but intensifiers expresses emotion at the expense of substance. The phrase that kept coming to my mind was "...full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Of course, the well-known context of that quote is "...it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." And clearly, it is easy to dismiss the participants in last night's tirade as idiots with no meaning.

But the full context of the sentence in Macbeth's soliloquy upon learning of his wife's death, is not about the idiot, but about life:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
It's brilliant writing ("Duh, Chard...it's Shakespeare!"). The single line, "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow," is one of the greatest lines of poetry ever written. But behind all the froth and fume, what underlies it all is life.

Meanwhile, my daughter, immersed in a game of
Brickbreaker on mom's Blackberry, seems to have ignored the whole event and discussion thereof. I hope that's a good thing, but I can't help wondering what portion of the soundtrack penetrated her subconscious. I know she hears everything, especially when she doesn't seem to be listening.

1 comment:

Laura E. Goodin said...

We've always followed the tack, with Margaret, that swearing is a tool to express meaning and intent, and you must use it mindfully and with a full appreciation of and respect for your listener. Swearing in the schoolyard is something we'd rather you not do, Margaret, and swearing at Grandma is something you absolutely will not do; see the difference?

Margaret gets that it's about the power of language and respect for the listener, and that there is a stepped system of swear words that are appropriate (or less inappropriate) as one gets older.

I have no doubt that a kid as smart as Laurel will have no difficulties in figuring out how she wants to use intensifiers mindfully in her language to get the effects she wants!

(Note: I am, embarrassingly, much less restrained about using profanity than you are.)