Profanity as a Resource
IN the course of a recent hunting trip through the northern wilderness my philosophy was rudely tested by the elaborate profanity of my guides. One of them was a native of Maine, graduated from the logging camp and the river drive, a loquacious though under-vocabularied Saxon, whose oaths were dropped with the fine unconsciousness of a child. His companion was a Norseman, who had seen many cities and men, and who bore the blameless name of Theodore. By nature sensitive and taciturn, Theodore preserved on most occasions a silence as unbroken as that of the woods. But a habit of solitary reading through the long winter months — The Three Guardsmen and Treasure Island were his favorite books — had quickened his linguistic faculty, and when sufficiently moved he revealed astounding mastery over the words one should not use. The merits of a certain rifle and the obliquity of a former employer who still owed him seventeen dollars were themes to which he was wont to recur shortly before bedtime, and they invariably stimulated him to a prodigal display of epithets forbidden by the virtuous. The minor annoyances and accidents of camp life rarely stirred him to blasphemies. If the gut broke with your biggest trout, or you missed an easy shot, — exigencies that sting the amateur into swift speech, — Theodore was contemptuously silent. His ferocities and ardors awoke under the touch of memory alone; no clergyman could have been more decorous when starting a fire in the rain, or stumbling along a slippery carry.
I must acknowledge that Theodore’s example has set me to philosophizing upon the subject of profanity as a resource. Never, to my knowing, have I used an oath. The precepts of the most excellent of mothers have been faithfully observed through a tolerably ample cycle of experience. There have been many occasions when I have wanted to swear, and — shall I admit it ? — these occasions seem to grow more frequent as I get older. I made this confession the other day to a maiden aunt, who listened to it with more sympathy than I had anticipated. “ Perhaps,” she commented dryly, “ you are beginning to see things in their true light.” But this acidulous, not to say cynical explanation of the increasing temptation to profanity does not wholly satisfy me. May the desire not be an evidence of development in emotional capacity, and even in moral fervor ? The lifelong habit of self-control in speech is indeed an acquisition not lightly to be thrown aside ; but is dumb rage in the presence of irremediable injustice, let us say, any better than honest Homeric oaths ? Is it not as much the sign of a congenitally cold temper as of acquired self-command, never to unpack one’s heart with words ? If Grant never swore, and Washington did swear on a supreme occasion, is that not one more proof of the relative greatness of those two great men ? Nay, are there not two races of men, at least as fundamentally separate as those who borrow and those who lend, — namely, those who have, and those who have not, internal fire enough to erupt, at due though long intervals, the lava of high-sounding terms ?
To such hazardous speculation had my friend Theodore’s accomplishments incited me, when I found unexpected support in this passage from the Letters of T. E. Brown, about the death of Carlyle :
“ And ‘ True Thomas ’ is gone. What has he not been to the men of my generation ? And the younger men come and ask one, What was it ? What did he teach ? and so forth ; and of course there is nothing to be said in that direction. And if one mumbles something between one’s teeth (impatiently, rather like a half-chewed curse) — something about a Baptism of fire — my graceful adolescents look shocked, and, for the most part, repeat the question, ' Yes, yes, but what did he teach ? ’ To which (I mean when repeated) there is no possible reply but the honest outspoken ' D——.'”
There dawns the light! This wrathful disciple of Carlyle, clergyman though he was, illustrates the real function of the much-abused expletive. The great merit of profanity is that it voices those deeply felt but dimly outlined truths that can never be uttered in a conventional mode and with the accepted syntax. How plain it all seems the moment one reflects upon the prophet of Chelsea! An unprofane Carlyle would have been no Carlyle at all.
“BUT, sir, I must live! ”