This noon I got to listen to Stephen Pinker deliver one of the most enjoyable lectures I’ve heard in years thanks to blessed Sybil for 1) letting me know about this up-coming event at the Mechanics’ Institute Library, 2) making sure I’d got my reservation in correctly, and 3) calling me up this morning to make sure I knew what time it was and warning me to get there early because it was gonna be jam packed.
So much fun. Pinker was just hanging out up front doing nothing before the lecture, so I went up and told him I might be the only person on the planet whose favorite of all his books was Words and Rules. He laughed (incidentally showing that he is far handsomer than the book jacket photos reveal) and said it was actually his favorite, too, which may have just been PR but it sure worked.
The lecture was fascinating, and even though I of course recall little of it now, I was able to follow all of it at the time. Better yet, when he was talking about the mental functionality of swearing, he brought up the case of U2’s Bono saying on live national television that something was “fucking brilliant” and right-wing congressmen being so outraged over the court ruling that the network couldn’t be prosecuted that the House passed HR 3687, the Clean Airwaves Act that actually listed words like “fuck” that were to be forbidden, not to mention saying that derivatives of these words including adjectives, gerunds, etc. but alas omitting adverbs, which “fucking” as used by Bono was.
All this gave me a flashback to Gore Vidal’s introduction to Myra Breckenridge, in which he lamented a then-recent Supreme Court decision declaring that certain words were, in and of themselves, obscene. The obvious solution to this problem, Vidal declared, was to substitute the names of the Justices for the nine most common obscene words whenever they had appeared in his book, thus avoiding any possible obscenity.
He concluded his introduction with the observation that he hoped that this would once and for all solve the problem since there had been by then entirely too much Burgering around with the language. (For those who are not history buffs, Burger was then the chief justice.)
It occurred to me that Pinker might be just young enough and such a serious scholar that he might not have read Myra Breckenridge. And luckily, as I was getting him to sign my copy of his latest book, The Stuff of Thought, which I had just purchased from a great stack oddly enough available on a convenient table, I had a chance to mention the Vidal coup.
He didn’t know it.
How utterly wonderful. After years of feasting on the works of this brilliant scholar, I was able to toss a crumb back.
Oh, and I just recalled one other point in the lecture. Pinker mentioned that when Norman Mailer wrote The Naked and the Dead in 1948, he had to substitute “fug” for “fuck” to get it published. The novel was an immediate commercial and literary success, and when Dorothy Parker met Mailer, she remarked, “So you’re the man who doesn’t know how to spell “fuck.”
Here’s an interesting paint job on Duboce: