Cultural Caviar

Adding Injury to Insult

January 20, 2018

Multiple Pages
Adding Injury to Insult

I went last week to a production of Rigoletto, the revival of a production first staged in 2001. A criticism that I read in advance informed me that the initial orgy scene had been toned down somewhat by comparison with what had gone seventeen years before. Was this progress or regression? The critic did not venture an opinion on this vital question; he merely recorded the change as a fact.

It seems that all opera productions these days need an orgy scene, just as doctoral theses in the Soviet Union used to need at least one quotation from Lenin. There was a time when an orgy would have been censored, but now it is obligatory—no opera without one. There was a brief orgy scene in the last Flying Dutchman that I saw, and it was a bit of a relief when they got it over with because I knew that it must be coming and tension mounted until it did. It was a bit like childhood diseases in the old days: The sooner you had them, the quicker you got over them.

“The tragedy and glory of Haiti are inextricably mixed, and somehow seem to symbolize the tragedy and glory of human life itself.”

The problem with orgies is that once you’ve see one, you’ve seen them all, and these days they are staged literally rather than suggestively, as if the aging audience has to be reminded of what sex actually is. Moreover, they are staged like a tableau of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis, the fin de siècle compendium of what used to be called, in those far-off judgmental days, perversions. The implicit, however, is more powerful than the explicit, or it used to be. The explicit, in fact, is the enemy of the voluptuous.

Ours is not an age of subtlety, however technically sophisticated it may be. Insults and even ordinary criticisms seem to me crude by comparison with those of my youth. We seem to prefer the elephantine to the feline. My favorite insult is that offered by the political philosopher to his more famous rival, Sir Isaiah Berlin. Oakeshott called Berlin the Paganini of ideas, which is wonderful because it can be received also as a compliment, for Paganini was the greatest violin virtuoso of his time, universally acknowledged as such. He was also regarded as flashy and superficial, a judgment borne out by his own musical compositions. How one would take such an insulting compliment, or complimentary insult, would rather depend on one’s self-estimate and the state of one’s vanity. Berlin knew perfectly that Oakeshott’s remark was more insult than compliment, and may even have suspected that it contained within it a grain of truth. His own phenomenal fluency was not a guarantor but perhaps a symptom of his superficiality—relative, that is, to a genuinely profound or original philosopher, not to the average barfly.

These days, by contrast, insults tend to be crude and vulgar. When Mr. Trump reputedly called certain countries by an epithet that I shall not repeat, he was only employing the type of language that, to my regret, is now in very common use even among intellectuals. We seem either to go in for the false delicacy of political correctness, speaking as if some words were as injurious law-hammers brought down on the skull, or employ the language of stevedores (if any such still exist) or of building workers to express our political ideas. One might have hoped for a happy medium, the possibility of frankness without crudity.

I have to admit that Mr. Trump’s characterization of other countries at least had the merit of exposing a certain contradiction in the minds of his opponents. Those who objected to his language were inclined also to object to his proposal to return migrants from those countries to their countries of origin on the grounds that—well, that those countries were as Mr. Trump said they were, and that it would therefore be cruel and inhumane to return them there.

However, this is not quite the end of the matter. One of the countries to which Mr. Trump so disdainfully referred was Haiti. It is, of course, perfectly true that Haiti is in many respects a terrible place, which is why so many people want to leave it. And yet, at the same time, it pained me to hear of it spoken of in such terms, because there is so much more to it than the vulgar epithet suggests. The history of Haiti is a profoundly moving one, if not altogether encouraging, the people valiant and their culture of enormous interest. I have been to the country only twice, but I can say that it exerts a hold on the imagination that can never be released. The tragedy and glory of the country are inextricably mixed, and somehow seem to symbolize (at least for me) the tragedy and glory of human life itself.

If I were a Haitian who had fled Haiti in search of a better and much easier life, I should nevertheless not have been pleased to hear it spoken of in this dismissive way, indeed I would have been hurt by it. I do not presume to know how familiar Mr. Trump is with Haitian history, culture, and so forth, although I have my suspicions; and of course he has principally to consider the interests of the United States and Americans, not those of Haiti and Haitians. But what he said was not witty or wise, it was merely hurtful and insulting.

It is perfectly true that when speaking or writing of political matters, you must have said very little if you have offended no one, if it is even possible to offend no one. If you say the world is round, you will have offended the flat-earthers. But I cannot see the giving of offense by the mere employment of crude and vulgar language as anything but a vice, and it is difficult to say whether it is worse if the person employing it knows or does not know what he is doing. If he knows, he cannot care; and if he does not know, he is a something of a brute.

This is not, incidentally, a defense of political correctness.

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