To celebrate the New York Review of Books’ reprint of William H. Gass’s On Being Blue, we’re excerpting a section from the book in which Gass discusses the usage of “fuck you” and other curses, grampalingus, hairy photos, Wallace Stevens, and the Sublime.
WHEN, with an expression so ill-bred as to be fatherless, I enjoin a small offensive fellow to ‘fuck a duck,’ I don’t mean he should. Nothing of the sort is in my mind. In a way I’ve used the words, yet I’ve quite ignored their content, and in that sense I’ve not employed them at all, they’ve only appeared. I haven’t even exercised the form. The command was not a command. ‘Go fly a kite’ only looks like ‘shut the door.’ At first glance it seems enough that the words themselves be shocking or offensive—that they dent the fender of convention at least a little—but there is always more to anything than that.
For example, when rice is thrown at a newly wedded pair, we understand the gesture to have a meaning and an object. Sand thrown at the best man misses its mark. Yet the rice, too, is being misused—neither milled, planted, nor boiled. Of course, rice signifies fertility for us. It resembles (indeed is) a seed. It is small and easily handled. It is light and lands lightly on its targets. It is plentiful and easily come by. And it is cheap. In short, rice is like three cheers, good luck, and God speed. Rice is like language. Similarly, when we swear we say we let off steam by throwing our words at someone or at something. ‘Fuck you,’ I mutter to the backside of the traffic cop, though I am innocent of any such intention.
Crude as it is, the case allows us to separate what is meant from what is said, and what is said from what is implied, and what is implied from what is revealed. Cursing dares convention and defies the gods, yet, as conventional itself as the forms it flouts, cursing does not dare defy the conditions of wholesome clarity, and ‘fuck a duck’ is admirable in that regard. Nor did I labor to invent the phrase. No one invents them. ‘Jesus Christ on a raft,’ an expostulation of my youth, did not catch on. I may choose to throw rice at newlyweds, but I do not—cannot—create the gesture. ‘May shit fall upon you from a biplane’ will hardly earn a medal for the imagination; nevertheless it is clearly something someone composed, and therefore not a curse at all, but a joke (as ‘fuck a duck’ is). At great cost, comedians have such curses composed for them. They often concern camels.
Although the expression says ‘hunt up a duck and fuck it,’ the command quite routinely means ‘go away; pursue some activity suitable to your talents, something disgusting and ineffectual like fucking a duck.’ Nonetheless, of all the fish and fowl, all the plants, animals, images, and other elements of the earth which provide some sort of aperture, it was the uck in ‘fuck’ that selected ‘duck.’ I might have said ‘fuck a fox’; however, the modulation of uck into ox is too sophisticated for swearing, and a fox has, in every way, the nobler entry. ‘Fuck a trucker’ is equally sound (though it tails off doggily), but the command calls for courage and so scarcely carries the same disdain. In these days when letters to the editor may contain instructions on how to masturbate with a vacuum cleaner, cucumber, or cantaloupe, the directive, ‘fuck a fruit,’ has become facetiously indeterminate. I happen to like ‘fuck a lock,’ nevertheless this phrase proves my point. One may admire its subtle comparison of ‘pick’ with ‘prick,’ or the happy resonance of ‘lot’ and ‘lock,’ ‘or that humorous reference to the chastity belt, but successful swearing can afford to be baroquely outrageous only if it also remains as straightforwardly open and sharp and quick as a slap.
In ‘go to hell’ and ‘fuck you,’ the words have been glued together by thoughtless use and mindless custom. We do not speak them the way we speak ordinary sentences. They are not said, but recited, like ave marias; so if I say ‘damn you’ and really mean you to be damned by a vengeful god at my behest, I have said ‘damn you’ the way I daily say ‘let’s eat,’ and that is a way no one says ‘damn you’ any more, because curse-blue sentences are made of welded parts like the bumpers of automobiles, while with this revitalized ‘damn you,’ I have tried to make the phrase the way I once made ferris wheels and towers out of tinkertoy by following instructions.
Swearing consists of a series of cultural quotations, and although others may have said ‘let’s eat’ before me, and although I may have said ‘let’s eat’ many times already myself, I am not reciting or quoting, repetition is no part of my intention, I am hungry again, that’s all; while if I say, to the lady lying under me, ‘hurry up, please, it’s time,’ I am quoting, and my fucking may be quoting, too, if it endeavors to recover another copulation and a previous joy by magical adherence to the past.
Crude as it is, then, the case allows us to separate sentences and phrases which are truly created from those which are merely routine; and those which are squeezed out of daily life like the juice of a lime, however customary, from those which are tongued or sung or spelled or recited. The sentences of ordinary speech, of hunger and seduction, gossip and commerce, are sewn from patterns, put together according to blueprints and plans. We have been taught several simple ways to ask for water, grant physical favors, spare a dime. For water, ‘water!’ does very well, and anything much more complicated, anything original, discriminating, or interior, suggests that our thirst is not any deeper than the bottom of our throat.
‘Fuck you,’ I mutter to the backside of the traffic cop. Fuckyous are in fact the principal item of macho exchange. Since I do not want to fuck the cop I must want someone else to, and since that ubiquitous ‘you’ is almost certainly another male (as it is in this instance), I can only desire your sodomization. To be entered as a woman is, to be so demeaned and reduced and degraded: for us gaucho machos, what could be worse? In a business deal, if you find you have been screwed, what should have been up theirs is disconcertingly up you. These aggressive wishes, expressed so fervently and often and in practiced ignorance of their meaning, reveal the depth of the desire for buggery among our bravos and our braves.
So ‘fuckyous’ are welded and spelled rather than stitched or freely created. They say, ‘fuck you,’ but they mean, ‘may you suffer a sex change,’ They imply defiance, and reveal a desire for power. Furthermore, in the Freudian sense, they disguise certain sodomous inclinations. Fucked-up situations fuck us up. They make us ineffectual and passive. Since the power cursing requests is never forthcoming, one’s actual impotence is hid by a small act of verbal defiance. ‘Piss on you’ is a relatively straightforward dominance claim. ‘Shit on you’ serves the same function. All these anal-sex-and-smear swears serve the same function, and are largely interchangeable like turds, for one stool is as good as another in the democracy of the mouth.
Crude as they are, such cases force us to distinguish not only between use and mention, as logicians normally do, but also between these and what might be called simple utterance or outcry. Key chains, drapes, and dishes are used, wagonwheels, tuning forks, whistles, words. What else are they for? Drapes hang heavily from their bars. Chains key. Wheels turn. Pass the butter. Take off your bra. The Blue Ridge Mts. are in Virginia. Or they may instead be mentioned, as I shall this moment mention ‘swive,’ a term which Barth has beautifully blown his breath upon and thus attempted to revive. I, myself, have had no success with ‘grampalingus,’ ‘meatus foetus,’ or ‘mulogeny’—a sentence which, if you could not see the quotes around the words you might think meant I’d tried them all and failed. Well, no one listens to what they see.
In babyhood and through moist infancy, the penis is a ‘peepee.’ When worn by boys, it becomes a ‘peter’ or a ‘dick.’ Later we refer to the instrument (even our own, and not, alas, unhappily) as a ‘whang.’ We call it a ‘dong.’ We say it is a ‘dork.’ Imagine. Meanwhile, the lovely Irish ‘langolee,’ or ‘wheedledeedle,’ my concoction, get no backers. Though ‘bluebeard’ and ‘blue-skin’ have once upon a time been used, no one is forgiven. Still, in a world of prick-skinning women, perhaps a twanger is what one needs. These days are drear. However . . . ‘fuck,’ in ‘go fuck a duck,’ is neither used nor mentioned; it is merely uttered. These ‘fucks’ are phatic like the delivery of ‘good morning,’ the wearing of evening clothes, giving of handshakes, painting of smiles, adding the complimentary close.
Most of the time we are content to cry out ‘fuck!’ as if pinched, but the function of our wall words in slightly more elaborate curses, such as:
may your cock continue life as a Canadian,
may the houseflies winter over in your womb,
may you be inhaled by your own asshole,
is more complex. Although each expression is merely uttered (curses without a curse, they contain only archery and cleverness like a purse full of chocolates and needles), every element has an internal use, so that we can say that single words can be used within mention or mentioned within use, mentioned in an utterance or uttered in a mention, uttered in an utterance, mentioned in a mention, and so on like a fugue. This cleverness in one sense mitigates the shock by calling attention to the quirks and capabilities of the mind that shapes the mouth that makes them, just as those obnoxious little jokes which leap like startled frogs into the center of every conversation do, or those pointless puns some damply nervous souls are obsessively driven to compose. In any case, their being lies in their occurrence.
It is not alone words about which these distinctions can be profitably made, and I hope the difference will help interpret many of my earlier remarks. If I shed my clothes to make love or take a shower, I am using my nakedness; if I wear a daring gown, I may be mentioning it; but the bared behinds on the modern stage aren’t mentioning themselves, nor are they ever used. They are merely uttered. I know situations where the devil has appeared with no more function than a shout. This is often the role of the star who doesn’t do anything but twinkle. In the Cantos, Pound only mentions his Chinese words, he rarely really uses them. Although the sexual descriptions of the pornographer are frankly employed to produce erection, and the sex in Kinsey or Kraft-Ebbing is mentioned for the sake of study, the sex in Oh, Calcutta! is simply sworn.
The blue list with which I began was celebrational. I did not use the phrase ‘blue devil’ but I was delighted to mention it: blue line, blue note, blue plate. If I were uttering these words (as I am presently trying to formulate the distinction), I would not particularly care what they meant, I would only care what people thought of their appearance in my speech: would they think them friendly, or not; appropriate, or not; predictable, or not? And consequently I would only care what people thought of me for using them: blue nevus, blue vinny, bluetongue, blue tangle, blue star, blue bells. Noises or notes: what do I care? What is their public pay-off for me?
Unfortunately these three—utterance, mention, and use—as well as the other distinctions I’ve dragged across the page, are overly crude, and have names which mislead beside. Their cuts are like cracks between buttocks, and philosophy should be ashamed to contain them in such an untrained, yappy, and pissy condition. There is, first of all, a more fundamental bifurcation, overriding every other, namely between those blues whose continued existence is as obnoxious as a pile of sanitary napkins, the blues we expect to dispose of after use (or utterance or mention), those we’ve set fire to, or eaten, or blown our noses in, those blues, in short, which appear to disappear, and are otherwise linguistic waste:
gee, look at the little blue butterfly,
give us a B, give us an L, give us a BLU,
how am I? glad you asked, yes, well, yesterday I was kinda gray, but today I’m downright blue,
buster, baby, you bastard, you blew it.
No one wants that sullied air and spoiled paper about. There are acts which we are glad are gone and gone without a trace, too: gaucheries, spit-ups and spraying sneezes, broken promises, prematurities of all kinds, arguments and chores, the one-night stands with fortunately not a single fuzzy Polaroid to bluemail them or piece of tape to tangle. There are thoughts, postures, attitudes of the same sort, consciousness itself, some say, who regard it as no more than the belching of the body . . . and who wants a collection of throat-farts fastened though floating around their source like a tree full of soft blue Italian plums?
Then there are the blues we’d love to have loom large and linger long around us like deep sofas, accommodating women, and rich friends: the blues in dictionaries, grammars, spelling books; the blues in all the manuals that lay out figures, facts, and their relations, so definitively we continue to consult them . . .
the Eastern Tailed Blue,
or Spring Azure, whose larvae secrete what the ants call ‘honeydew,’ the Western Tailed Blue,
Orange-bordered or Melissa Blue, which has two broods,
Reakirt’s Blue, which feeds on mesquite, the Silvery Blue,
whose worms chew upon locoweed and the blossoms of the wisteria, or the blues of the great poems . . .
And the color, the overcast blue
Of the air, in which the blue guitar
Is a form, described but difficult,
And I am merely a shadow hunched
Above the arrowy, still strings,
The maker of a thing yet to be made;
The color like a thought that grows
Out of a mood, the tragic robe
Of the actor, half his gesture, half
His speech, the dress of his meaning, silk
Sodden with his melancholy words,
The weather of his stage, himself.
(Wallace Stevens: ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’)
Or the emblematic blues, the color in which Joyce bound Ulysses, its title like a chain of white islands, petals shaken on a Greek sea, he thought, and the heraldic blues, the celebrational and symbolic . . .
Gargantua’s colors were white and blue. . . . By these colors, his father wished to signify that the lad was a heavenly joy to him. White expresses joy, pleasure, delight and rejoicing; blue denotes things celestial.
I realize quite well that, as you read these words, you are laughing at the old toper, for you believe this symbolic use of colors to be crude and extravagant. White, you say, stands for faith, and blue for strength. But without getting excited, losing your temper, flying into a rage or working yourself into a tongue-parched passion—the weather is dangerous—tell me one thing! . . . What moves, impels or induces you to believe what you do? Who told you that white means faith, and blue strength?
‘A shoddy book,’ you reply, ‘sold by peddlers in remote mountain hamlets and by weatherbeaten hawkers God knows where. Its title? In Praise of Colors.’
or the blues we rebreathe, always for the same reason: because the word in each case finds its place within a system so supremely organized it cannot be improved upon—what we would not replace and cannot change. Of how many racy tales or hairy photos can that be said?
So sentences are copied, constructed, or created; they are uttered, mentioned, or used; each says, means, implies, reveals, connects; each titillates, invites, conceals, suggests; and each is eventually either consumed or conserved; nevertheless, the lines in Stevens or the sentences of Joyce and James, pressed by one another into being as though the words before and the words after were those reverent hands both Rilke and Rodin have celebrated, clay calling to clay like mating birds, concept responding to concept the way passionate flesh congests, every note a nipple on the breast, at once a triumphant pinnacle and perfect conclusion, like pelted water, I think I said, yet at the same time only another anonymous cell, and selfless in its service to the shaping skin as lost forgotten matter is in all walls; these lines, these sentences, are not quite uttered, not quite mentioned, peculiarly employed, strangely listed, oddly used, as though a shadow were the leaves, limbs, trunk of a new tree, and the shade itself were thrust like a dark torch into the grassy air in the same slow and forceful way as its own roots, entering the earth, roughen the darkness there till all its freshly shattered facets shine against themselves as teeth do in the clenched jaw; for Rabelais was wrong, blue is the color of the mind in borrow of the body; it is the color consciousness becomes when caressed; it is the dark inside of sentences, sentences which follow their own turnings inward out of sight like the whorls of a shell, and which we follow warily, as Alice after that rabbit, nervous and white, till suddenly—there! climbing down clauses and passing through ‘and’ as it opens—there—there—we’re here! . . . in time for tea and tantrums; such are the sentences we should like to love—the ones which love us and themselves as well—incestuous sentences—sentences which make an imaginary speaker speak the imagination loudly to the reading eye; that have a kind of orality transmogrified: not the tongue touching the genital tip, but the idea of the tongue, the thought of the tongue, word-wet to part-wet, public mouth to private, seed to speech, and speech . . . ah! after exclamations, groans, with order gone, disorder on the way, we subside through sentences like these, the risk of senselessness like this, to float like leaves on the restful surface of that world of words to come, and there, in peace, patiently to dream of the sensuous, imagined, and mindful Sublime.
William H. Gass (b. 1924) is an essayist, novelist, and literary critic. He grew up in Ohio and is a former professor of philosophy at Washington University. Among his books are six works of fiction and nine books of essays, including Tests of Time (2002), A Temple of Texts (2006), and Life Sentences (2012). New York Review Books will republish his story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968) in 2014. Gass lives with his wife, the architect Mary Gass, in St. Louis.