Thursday, October 18, 2007

On RED, BLUE and (Fucking)

Steven Pinker, who I would describe as a cross between psychoanalyst and linguist, explains in a long, informative and entertaining article in The New Republic why people curse, or, as Sign and Sight indelicately put it, the difference between f**king and making love.

Let me just insert parenthetically, an odd tidbit about myself, before I go on. I never curse. I mean it. I may say "bloody this or that" or "darn" from time to time but I never, no even once, used the F-word, on anybody or on anything. Instead of "shit" I say "shoot", and forget about "asshole", no way. It is a fact I'm not proud of. I don't curse in my native tongue, too. I may say the equivalent of "lousy" ("Zift") or "bloody hell" (la'azazel) or "what the heck" (the closest in Hebrew is the rather bizarre expletive: Le'chol Haruchot, which means, literally, "to the winds"!). It's not for lack of a very rich genre of expletives, curses and profanity that thrives in Hebrew slang. I can't blame my linguistic puritanism on any poverty of the Hebrew language.

In fact, the curse vein in Hebrew is rich and versatile and feeds upon many resources: Biblical, Arabic, Russian, Polish (there is Polish equivalent of "motherf***er" which was very popular at one time, I swear. I wish I could represent the sound of it but I would badly bowdlerize it if I tried). The more recent curse slang has been fertilized by Americanisms, which I'm less familiar with, since I've been away from Israel in the last two decades or so.

I have a friend, an Israeli author, Rony Lakish, who wrote a novella which I'd love to translate into English. But I won't be able to do it without a consultant on curse words since the text is simply suffused with the most astonishing variety of curses and profanity. Not one sentence escapes, except when some of the other characters, not the protagonist, speak. Curses are impossible to translate, anyway. The only way is to re-locate the entire story into the receiving culture and adapt it. It's a wonderful story, by the way, of a strange and innocent soul, someone reminiscent somewhat of Dostoevsky's Prince Myshkin in the "Idiot". The dissonance between curse-laced language he uses and the purity of that heart is one of the swaying powers of this novella.

Anyway, to go back to Pinker's piece. I highlighted two passages on which I had some thoughts:

1) The response is not only emotional but involuntary. It's not just that we don't have earlids to shut out unwanted sounds. Once a word is seen or heard, we are incapable of treating it as a squiggle or noise; we reflexively look it up in memory and respond to its meaning, including its connotation. The classic demonstration is the Stroop effect, found in every introductory psychology textbook and the topic of more than four thousand scientific papers. People are asked to look through a list of letter strings and to say aloud the color of the ink in which each one is printed. Try it with this list, saying "red," "blue," or "green" for each item in turn from left to right:

red blue green blue green red

Easy. But this is much, much, harder:

red blue green blue green red

The reason is that, among literate adults, reading a word is such an over-learned skill that it has become mandatory: You can't will the process "off," even when you don't want to read the words but only pay attention to the ink. That's why you're helped along when the experimenters arrange the ink into a word that also names its color and slowed down when they arrange it into a name for a different color.

In the second example, our mind experiences a certain un-ease, caused by the dissonance created when the denotations of colour do not correspond to the colours implied. Something is wrong here. The two plates of signification, which should fit snugly one upon the other, to create harmonious meaning, instead grate upon one another, refuse to match. This could mean either a mistake was made, which needs to be corrected, or a lie is being attempted.

Anne Carson describes a similar phenomenon in her book of poems "The Beauty of the Husband: A Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos":

What really connects words and things?

”Human beings, tend to use language as Homer says

“the gods do. All human words are known to the gods but
have for them entirely other meanings alongside our meanings.

They flip the switch at will”.

In other words, when we see RED BLUE we instincively reject it as either a mistake, or, as Anne Carson more explicitly puts it, a lie. The gods know that Red is Red and when they speak to mortals, they use it in its proper denotation. But sometimes they prefer to pretend that red is Red. This is when they lie, or try to fiddle with our mind.

The Carson's essay is a poetical analysis of the narrator's love, marriage and divorce. She tells her readers that she loved her husband, though he was a liar who cheated on her constantly and stole her work to publish under his own name. Why did she love him? Because of his beauty. The beauty of RED. There was a dissonance between the beauty of the husband (as I understand it, more than just physical beauty is implied, maybe a way with words, a seductive entry into her soul) and the essence, the rottenness, the unreliability of the character, eventually unescapable.

2) "Fucking requires that the male act on one who has less power and this valuation is so deep, so completely implicit in the act, that the one who is fucked is stigmatized."

This observation took me in a completely different direction. Following the recent proliferation of interest in what homosexuality means in te Arab world, I found this explanation which is directly relevant to the comment made by Pinker:

In fact, homoerotic acts that did not involve penetration were not even considered major sins. Moreover, falling in love with a boy was regarded as an involuntary act and outside the scope of religious concern ...

Quite clearly, Islam was hostile to anal intercourse, and if this is regarded as the distinguishing characteristic of being homosexual, it was anti-homosexual. Islam was not as antagonistic to activities that many would now call homoerotic.... Women, because they cannot penetrate, were not considered capable of being homosexual.

Isn't this quite exraordinary, in that both perceptions or judgments seem to spring from valuing some primitive urge to dominate, invade, and humble? Both attitudes imply an unconscious repugnance of sexual activities in which the penetrated is held up for much more severe punishment, or derision, or social censure, than the penetrator.

If Pinker's theory offers any method for evaluating the fundamental urges at work in humanity, it clarifies how we humans are still, deep down, much enthralled to brute force.


At 10:01 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

remove the bad word

At 10:09 PM EDT, Blogger The Contentious Centrist said...

What bad word?

At 9:41 AM EDT, Blogger Ian Thal said...

That perception of the homosexual as only being a homosexual if he has been anally penetrated (and thus offering a great number of non-penetrative homoerotic acts for someone who does not identify as such) is hardly unique to the Arab world and is a viewpoint that shows up in some Western cultures as well.


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