Attack of the kittenheads

Jodie Silsby, Portsmouth Vernacular 2008

"Pixies, Sheilas, Dirtbags, and Cougar Bait," an essay of mine on slang, appears in The Nation of 29 December 2008. Revealed: a glimpse into the interior world of a "literary" gay couple in Brooklyn, and the sordid truth about the low intellectual level of their home banter. Including: lots of words so dirty you may not know what they mean. Plus: the return of Gordon Bennett.

[Image above: Jodie Silsby's Portsmouth Vernacular, the dialect of Portsmouth, England, printed as a street map. Buy a copy here. Via Jacket Mechanical, who got it via Creative Review.]

My first lipstick-wearing pig

At the risk of dignifying an absurdity with attention, I happen to remember exactly when I first heard about pigs who wore lipstick. I first came across the turn of phrase in the Reagan-appointed Chief Judge of the Seventh Circuit Richard A. Posner’s book Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline, which I reviewed for The Nation in 2002. In chapter 6, a reprint of an essay originally published in 1998, Posner discussed the literary criticism of Wayne Booth and why he found it heavy-handed:

To prove the inescapability of the ethical in any final aesthetic judgment on a work of literature, even when it is a brief lyric, Booth does something very strange—I am tempted to say desperate: he changes the end of the second stanza of Keats’s “Ode on Melancholy” so that feeding on peerless eyes becomes stroking peerless thighs. But this is aesthetic butchery. The imagery of devouring (mostly poison) is pervasive in the poem, and this gives the image of feeding on the peerless eyes a resonance and hint of menace that Booth’s image of stroking thighs lacks. The substitution changes an image of great emotional power—because of the fusion of devouring with seeing—that is integral to the poem’s pattern of imagery into an irruption of soft-core porn that breaks the spell created by the poet. Not that pornography can’t be literature; but the “Ode on Melancholy” is not improved by being made risqué, just as a pig is not enhanced by wearing lipstick. Everything in its place.

To which one today feels obliged to assent, grimly, Indeed. In my review, “License to Ink,” I called these moments of bravura by Posner “highly entertaining” and I wrote of this passage in particular that it contained “a simile that becomes more disturbing the more it is considered.” Lipsticked pigs were new to me at the time, but since then I’ve seen them often in the prose of pundits, no doubt because they all make a point of reading my reviews and Posner’s books. (Kidding! I understand the image has been around for ages. I’m only pretending to be grandiose.) I leave it to John McCain to demonstrate that Posner was actually thinking neither of John Keats nor Wayne Booth nor even Immanuel Kant but only of a certain Alaskan.

On loafers

Did Walt Whitman attend Reverend William Patton’s 9 March 1852 lecture on loafers at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York? The somewhat derogatory term had been in circulation for at least a decade, and Whitman, not yet the poet of Leaves of Grass, had already used it in his journalism. But Patton put a torque on the word that would probably have stuck in Whitman’s mind, if he had been in attendance.

Patton gave a conventional etymology and definition. The word loafer “was supposed to be derived from the German laufen (to run). . . . A feature of the loafer’s character is unwillingness to work; he loves idleness.” But when Patton elaborated his idea of the loafer, he prefigured some of Whitman’s imagery. The loafer, he said,

would wonderfully enjoy Eden, where fruits grew without cultivation, and he would have nothing to do but enjoy himself. The probability is, if he could have directed his own creation, he would have had himself made a vegetable, not an animal, and that he should be planted in a deep soil.

In his 1855 poem, Whitman would write

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease . . . . observing a spear of summer grass.

The poem’s narrator goes on to consider the spiritual meanings of grass, again and again, until at last he seems to become one with it:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.

Patton told his audience that the loafer was “a poetical, transcendental philosopher, believing in the beauty of life per se.” Such a belief was expected to sound ridiculous; at lecture’s end, Patton reminded his listeners that idleness was the devil’s plaything and exhorted them to “Be a street sweeper, be a scavenger, if need be, but do not be a loafer.” But a poet might have listened with a contrary and selective ear, and taken the mockery as a compliment.

Patton seems to have devoted the bulk of his speech to a catalog of the

various characters of loafers—the youthful and adult vulgar loafer; the musical loafer, who is generally a brawny Swiss or Italian; the fashionable loafer, a very exquisite and highly finished variety; the wealthy and retired loafer; the military and naval loafer, . . . ; the political loafer . . . ; the aristocratic loafer . . . [and] the “ecclesiastical loafer.”

According to Patton’s complaint, the loafer is everywhere, because he “adapts himself to the most contradictory circumstances of wealth and poverty, ignorance and education.” In Whitman’s hands, of course, the range of identities available to the loafer-poet would become a boast:

In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barleycorn less,
And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.