Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Age of Vulgarity

A friend from Zagreb forwarded me a blog written by a famous Croatian author and blogger, known for her astute, even if somewhat one-sided social commentaries, but more famous in and out of Croatia for her extremely vulgar language and primitive style. She is popular among the ordinary as well as educated people, who praise her expression as honest, straightforward and accessible. Yet, my friend sent this writer's latest blog as an example of how low the society has sunk when such crude scribbling attracts the widest following, while decent magazines and newspapers fold up one after another.

When we were growing up, one of the must-have books in every middle-class Croatian family was the one widely known as Bonton, regardless of what its real title was. From that book we learned how to behave at dinner table or in the office, how to dress for casual or formal occasions and in general how to be polite. Proper manners were an expression of respect for people around us. The bonton (originating from the French le bon ton) instructed that under no circumstances can you yawn in public, use rude language in a conversation, boast about your success and possessions, or insult other people. It advised that you should not shout to another person across the table or across the street, or laugh in a way that makes other people wince. Arriving to a theater dressed in casual clothes was unthinkable. In other words, bonton required a degree of control over your speech and behavior, and if you slipped, you were embarrassed and apologetic. Even more finesse was required in written expression.

Slowly and imperceptibly the bonton disappeared from our lives and if anyone still has the book, it's a rare antiquity. It is hard to tell when exactly the "modern" Croatian literature began introducing some of the street language into writing. At first the crudity was sparsely used for the sake of "authenticity". But writers soon began competing in their striving for "authenticity" and the trend has ballooned to such proportions that today no piece of fiction can earn serious regard unless it contains descriptions of bodily functions in the most disgusting terms and imagery that makes you vomit unless you have a very tough stomach. Since literature is supposed to reflect real life, readers have embraced it as normal, realistic and colorful. If they haven't, they would not admit it at gunpoint for fear of being labeled as prudish, backward or (godforbid) uncultured. An egregious example of such literature in Croatia is Miljenko Jergović's award-winning novel Dvori od oraha (The Walnut House), which opens up with a scene in which a sick old woman screeches in a foul language, wallows in her own excrement and causes mayhem in her home - a description of which needs to be read in the original for the full impact. Jergović has been enthroned as Croatia's top contemporary novelist, according to some critics destined for the Nobel Prize in literature. His rival Ivan Aralica responded with a novel eloquently titled Fukara (a vulgar term for low-class, semi-criminal population segment), with much less success. I haven't read the book, but can only assume that he was not able to beat Jergović in vulgarity.

Don't get me wrong; I am not criticizing real-life imagery in literature, or the use of explicit language. I am balking at the application of the ugliest, derogatory terms, used only for their shock value.  Like cayenne pepper, vulgarity can be spicy in small doses. Too much of it kills the flavor. In daily communication dirty words and terms intended to cause disgust are used rarely and most often anonymously (like in reader comments to political articles). Peppering fiction liberally with filthy  language implies that such discourse is widespread and common, which is completely untrue in most societies.

The spread of vulgarity is not a Croatian phenomenon, I hasten to assure my friend in Zagreb, who is an arbiter of elegance and good taste. Just look at our presidential candidates, and the public response to them! The naked "statues" of Donald Trump that recently showed up in several U.S. cities are the epitome of poor taste. They were meant to humiliate Trump, but they really humiliate those who came up with the idea, those who gleefully leered at the ugliness, and those who spread the images all over the social media. Trump does not need to be humiliated more than he has already humiliated himself, multiple times, before the statues were out, by calling his rival "crooked" Hillary, liar and co-founder of a terrorist group. What man uses such foul words to degrade a woman? He could have conveyed the same thoughts in a civilized idiom. Men still have too much power over women to be permitted to dispense with manners when dealing with them. But knowing what language would have the most impact on voters he seeks to attract, Trump opted to act low-class.

The kind of communication that was once reserved for gang members, pimps and riff raff is now mainstream and acceptable. It's interesting that in the country where certain words are completely banned lest they should offend someone; in the country that's polemicizing about the correctness of a football team's name, it is perfectly OK to sling mud at political opponents and other enemies, while decent manners are expendable.

I work in a place where people yawn with their mouth wide open and so loudly that you can hear them from one end of the office to the other (about the width of a street block), they shout to one another from several cubicles apart over the heads of co-workers who are trying to focus on their task, and they can pierce your ears at any given moment with screeching or howling laughter. The dress code is so unconventional that the clothes are often just one step away from the pajamas.

None of this is considered to be rude. Rudeness is if you dare to point out that such behavior bothers you. Some time ago, I took the Metro home from a theater performance. While I was reading the playbill and contemplating various interpretations I had just seen, a group of teenage girls entered the train and dispersed around to the remaining free seats. They yelled to one another across the carriage and over the passengers' heads and (naturally) no one complained. Neither did I until one girl sitting behind me shouted right into my ear. I turned around and asked quietly: "Are you hard of hearing?" There were several seconds of "dead air" - deafening silence - while the shocked girl wondered if she heard me right. The others, noting her distress from the distance shouted: "What sheee said?" When the outraged girl explained, a pandemonium ensued that would be hard to describe. The girls, who happened to be black, took my remark to be an insult to their race. Their anger knew no bounds. Furious screams - "We ain't slaves no more" and "I hate white people" - remain indelible in my memory.  The upheaval did not stop until the screamers had to exit. Sorry girls, but it was your noise that bothered me, not the color of your skin.

The decline of decorum and absence of shame in public domain today know no bounds. I am still trying to discern why a group of Olympic medalists would want to vandalize toilets in a hosting country. And why a judo player would refuse to shake hands with his opponent. And why a married politician, caught texting pictures of his genitals to various women, would want to run for office again.

Vulgarity was understandably attractive when it was limited to certain circles and represented "forbidden fruit" to mainstream society.  In small doses it added zest to art, literature and casual conversation. But now that it has reached a point where it threatens to occupy the Oval Office, what's forbidden about it? I am keeping my fingers crossed that the day is near when elegance in word and manner becomes the new tantalizing apple that everyone wants to pluck.

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