Profanity

Last  September, Neil McMillan and his lovely wife and daughter spent the weekend with us at our house. The house is described by Dellar as “a huge, decadent, sprawling mansion bought by Geoff’s billionaire wife for a song from gullible locals, full of rare paintings by Spanish artists like Rubens and Caravaggio, looked after by scores of starving slaves smuggled in from Brixton, where many of my friends live, yeah?”. It is, in fact, a restored ‘casa rustica’, which offers guests a comfortable bed and a shower down the corridor. Neil gets a bedroom with an en suite bathroom, but that’s because he sweats a lot.

Anyway, during the weekend, Neil and I had the chance to talk into the wee hours (as he insists on calling them) about my favourite subject: the life of the profane. The profane are outsiders: those who, whatever tribe, clan, religious grouping or nation they’re supposed to be part of, just don’t “get” what belonging means. One important part of their dislocation is their relationship with the inanimate world. Somehow, not getting the nuances of social norms, not respecting them because they don’t make sense (a far cry from those dedicated rebels who early on reject them) has a profound effect on how they walk through life. Existential literature concentrates on “being before essence” – we make ourselves up as we go along – but it doesn’t pay enough attention to existence when it comes to dealing with the “things” that we interact with.  I’ve always been fascinated by the way some people waltz through life, effortlessly engaging with the inanimate world; walking down stairs hardly bothering with the banisters; nonchalantly catching the piece of toast that pops up from the toaster; pushing, never pulling, the doors that need pushing; stepping adroitly onto buses and out of taxis;  slotting their credit cards the right way up into the right slot; pressing the right buttons in lifts; and all that and all that. Generally, they stroll along unaware of obstacles: they automatically turn the right key in the right way in the right lock, so to speak.

Compare that to the life of the profane: those whose lives are marked by exactly the opposite experience of daily life. It’s not just a question of being clumsy, it’s that the inanimate world seems to conspire against them. An  extreme example is Inspector Jacques Clouseau, he of the Pink Panther films. When Clouseau walks down the stairs, his sleeve gets caught in the banister; when he tries to catch the toast, he misses; when he uses a cigarette lighter he sets himself on fire; when he pushes the door, it smacks him in the face, and on and on. He turns the wrong key in the wrong way in the wrong lock. The inanimate world is out to get him: he’s the constant ‘fall guy’, the victim, the unfairly done to, one might say.

Another good example is Benny Profane, the hero of Thomas Pynchon’s novel “V”. He’s not called “Profane” for nothing (Pynchon is never in want of a name for his characters): he’s called Profane because he’s not on the inside, he’s not in the know, he’s his own hopeless, honest self, not finely-tuned enough to the way society works. So he’s the perfect vehicle to walk through Pynchon’s marvellous novel; who better to stumble through everything that happens, an innocent non protagonist if ever there was one. And an essential feature of his character is his constant bumping up against the inanimate world as if it were hostile, though no silly conspiracy theories are ever invoked. The inanimate world is constantly waiting to play trivial or life-threatening tricks on him; lamp posts are badly placed, well made beds collapse, phones don’t work;  buses aren’t there when they should be; street signs point the wrong way; numbers on houses are out of synch. A great scene in “V” is when Benny, standing in an empty street, annoyed at something, kicks the wheel of a car. “I’ll pay for that”, he says to himself.

Profanity is described in dictionaries as  ‘bad language’, but its etymology goes back to ‘lack of respect for things that are held to be sacred’. And there’s the clue. Profanity, the thing that Neil and I wanted to discuss that night, is better described as dislocation, an inability to  “get”  what this respect for sacred things is all about. Never articulated, it stems from an inability to come to terms with the ways things are. Why does the social world we live in pretend to respect so many things that it so obviously flouts? Why is our society so horrendously hypocritical? Why does a third of the world’s population live in such horrendous conditions? Why … well, you get the idea – although Inspector Clouseau and Benny don’t.

Of course, in any political sense, the vast majority of the world’s population is profane –  outside the fold – and that, no doubt, should be the focus of our attention. In psychological terms, Neil’s heroes – Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan particularly – insist on profanity (the rejection of respect) when examining how individuals experience their lives emotionally and intellectually. Lacan returns to Freud, but famously does something which strikes me as similar to what Marx did to Hegel. (I know a bit about what Marx did to Hegel, but I know as much about Lacan as Neil has forgotten while eating a deep fried Mars bar, so it’s probably all bollocks, and I hope he’ll reply.) Lacan’s Mirror stage claims that the ego is an object rather than a subject: the ego is not the seat of a free, true “I” determining its own fate, rather it’s neurotic to its very core. The ego is something exterior – crystallized as “the desire of the Other”. Amen to that.  

I take this to be one of many theories of alienation – which have in common that we are, as it were, besides ourselves, lacking authenticity. My favourite attempt among philosophers to “explain” this has always been Camus’; the least philosophically sophisticated, the most appealing somehow (a bit like Krashen’s theory of SLA, maybe!). Alienation is our biggest problem, and to get over it, we need to live in societies described best by anarchists, which means we need a revolution which overturns the State.  

Meanwhile, what about the particular manifestation of alienation that Neil and I were talking about, that profane, awkward, annoying bumping up against the inanimate world? How can we negotiate the inanimate world more smoothly? How can we avoid so many infuriating encounters with the stuff around us? How can we avoid our sleeves getting snagged on banisters? How can we nonchalantly walk through those revolving doors? How can we turn the right key the right way in the right lock?  Only revolution will do it. We can’t be who we want to be while capitalism rules us. But maybe we can learn from Eastern stuff – Zen and all that. The Beatles’ “Let it be” is probably the most stupid song ever sung, but Zen and Taoist texts are full of good advice.  I think of things like “Saunter along and stop worrying”… “If the mind troubles the mind how can you avoid a great confusion”, which I’m sure are misquotes. They suggest that we can alter our behaviour, put the right key in the right door because we don’t care or something. And maybe, just maybe, challenge Lacan’s view of us.    

I hope my chum Neil will respond.       

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