‘Bad’ Language: Communicating in a Profane World

As we create work that communicates effectively, we must be able to use the language of the world we live in.

By Huw Evans / Tue 24 Jul, 2018

In this, the second part of my post, I am stepping out from behind my C S Lewis-shaped stalking horse to address my final question: how do we as artists represent and reflect a vulgar and profane world, particularly as much of our business is directly concerned with its vulgarity and profanity? Or, to be fairer, how do I, as an artist, create work that interacts with this world and its people with their (and my) profanity and vulgarity?

Before I go any further, let me get two things out of the way. First, niceness, pleasantness, loveliness and keeping everyone happy are not the primary business of the artist: we have a job to do, and success is not measured by contentment.

Neither is the opposite true: offending for the sake of offending is pointless. I have no interest in Épater la bourgeoisie (shocking the bourgeoisie). That is not to say that no one will be offended: some people might, but that should never be a primary consideration.

Secondly, the boundaries of offence also change, with words, expressions and representations moving from one side of the line of acceptability to the other as society’s attitudes change. When George Bernard Shaw wrote his play Pygmalion in 1913 ‘bloody’ was a shocking enough word for the stage: when they came to film My Fair Lady, the musical based on the play, in the 1964 ‘bloody’ wasn’t enough: it had to be ‘arse’. (We can, in passing, note the hypocrisy of men in the audience who between themselves would use language far ‘worse’ than ‘bloody’.) Those boundaries are never entirely logical, and often seem counter-intuitive: currently film-makers can show grotesque killings, but cannot show a penis.

So how do we go forward?

Communication is the Context

As I have written elsewhere on this site, our fundamental business is with language (again, language, not merely speech or words). We are attempting to use language to communicate emotional truths to the audience: and the truths are no less true for being emotional. The communication is not exactly the feeling, which is too deep to be transferred to another person, but what R G Collingwood refers to as ‘the emotional charge’. It is that ‘something’ in Elgar’s cello concerto which we know as a deep melancholy, or the ‘something’ in Dylan’s Tamborine Man which evokes a near-unidentifiable longing for a world beyond the song.

That is what lies behind the frequent injunction to writers to ‘show not tell’. Telling (‘Carl was angry’) places Carl’s experience outside ourselves. Showing (perhaps how Carl has been subject to subtle persecutions throughout his childhood) enables us to receive the emotional charge of anger. As the Sung Dynasty poet Wei T’ai put it: ‘Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling. It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.’

That understanding of what we are about as artists supplies an objective, communication, and a methodology for evaluating an artistic expression. We can interrogate a piece of work and ask of any aspect of it ‘does this contribute towards the intended expression or away from it?’ We can address that question to a style of costumes, a choice of instrument, the casting of an actor, a particular slash of colour, a movement of a hand. Each of those will tend to work with or against the communication.

As we create, we grope towards the expression of that inner ‘something’ which is nagging us for existence. We ask whether that particular word, image, scene, contributes to the communication of that ‘something’.

That may sound like a tick-box approach, but in practice, the questioning of the work by the artist is embedded in the creative process. I may not explicitly ask myself whether this word or that word is right or wrong, but in the course of writing a poem I will use one word instead of another, replace a phrase, strike out an expression, and so on, until I get to something that is ‘finished’. Yet if I was asked to explain those decisions there would be many points where I could not say much more than ‘that word wasn’t right’ or ‘that’s a better phrase’, where ‘right’ or ‘better’ are my occult (ie. hidden), subjective judgements of how the word or phrase contributes to the overall thrust of the poem.

As we create – painting, sculpting, choreographing, filming, writing – we grope towards the expression of that inner ‘something’ which is nagging us for existence. We find the means within our practice to give that ‘something’ a form. Along the way we assess what we have made to see if it is ‘good’; that is, whether it adequately conveys that ‘something’. The growth of this faculty of evaluation is an essential part of every artist’s development and makes the difference between the ‘this will do’ of the beginner and the perpetual dissatisfaction of the mature artist.

We engage this faculty when we look at matters of vulgarity and profanity, and either explicitly or implicitly ask whether that particular word, image, scene – even though it may be vulgar or profane – contributes to the communication of that ‘something’, or does not. If it does, it stays. If it does not, then it goes.

Protecting the ‘Weaker Brother’

‘That’s all very well,’ you may say, ‘but what of the “weaker brother”?’ Ah yes, the person whose faith may be shaken by my use of vulgarity or profanity in a work (see Corinthians 8). Well, bluntly, they shouldn’t read the poem, see the film, look at the picture. Such a work of art is unlikely to be displayed in church, so there isn’t much chance of them coming across it accidentally. If they deliberately seek it out, when they have been warned not to, well, that’s their look out.

However, that does not preclude someone asking whether my artistic judgement was correct: that is a reasonable question, one which may be most helpful for artists who are getting to grips with their craft and are still developing their evaluating faculty. (Note that asking question ‘does this contribute to the work?’ Is not the same as saying, in an anguished tone, ‘why on earth did you include “that” in the work?’)

In the end, I think I am not that far from Augustine: love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.

See the first part of this blog post, here.

A writer based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I write fiction, poetry and script (for theatre, schools and puppets). I am currently working on a YA book and a volume of poetry.