E S S A Y
By "Guido Veloce"
I became aware of the British genius for saying elegantly awful things about each other in my first year of graduate school, when I read Ved Mehta's Fly and Fly Bottle: Encounters with British Intellectuals. The British intellectuals he encountered seemed mostly to spend time eviscerating each other verbally, with enviable style.
I was terrified. Mistakenly believing that because we once shared a common language, we might share a common academic culture, I asked, "Do I want to become part of a profession that is so vicious toward its own?" The answer was yes. The alternatives were law school or the Army.
A recent reminder of how eloquent British verbal rudeness can be came when I was reading a book by a Cambridge historian, Richard J. Evans, titled In Defense of History. Professor Evans may defend history, but he savages historians. Among his judgments are "utterly implausible psychoanalytical account," "a book whose imaginative sweep is seriously compromised by its factual inaccuracy," and "disappointingly self-indulgent." Those comments are only in the footnotes and the section on "Further Reading." Things get really hot in the text. (Lest you think that the gunner never takes return fire, one of Evans's victims called him a "little dumpy scowling Welshman.")
Seldom can Americans play at such a high level of international competition. We do say terrible things about each other--anyone who has a family knows that. It is just that we don't do it with such elan, learning, and inventiveness as Richard J. Evans.
One of the few occasions I know when Americans did approach British-class invective began in the 1960s in a feud between two of our finest film critics, Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. A recent article recalled some of the gloriously vile rhetoric tossed about by the protagonists and their partisans. Kael compared Sarris's ilk to children "who prefer simple action films and Westerns and horror films to works that make demands on their attention." (That aligned me with Sarris.) For his part, Sarris said Kael's "critical apparatus has more in common with a wind machine than a searchlight." A Sarris supporter wrote of "the diva's unsettled psyche," and Sarris himself called her a "wench."
Even this supremely nasty episode may reveal an American problem in delivering the erudite insult. Our version of English is impoverished in literately demeaning terms. The only other time I heard "wench" in everyday discourse, for example, was at a theme restaurant capitalizing on the popularity of the movie version of Tom Jones. A young woman in a very off-the-shoulder period costume flounced to the table and introduced herself as "the serving wench." Pauline Kael did not come to mind.
If there is a rudeness gap, whom can we blame and who should be addressing it? As with so many other problems with the nation's youth, the fault clearly lies with the overpaid, underworked educators of America. They should be taking the natural, ill-shaped rudeness of our children and crafting it into something elegant and--as an American it pains me to say this--British.
Take college professors like me. A young man skulks into my office, no knock on the door, baseball cap backward, chewing gum. He hands me a paper and a lame excuse: "I overslept." It is three days late. Instead of getting in touch with my inner Richard J. Evans, I thank him. In the margins, next to unintelligible prose, I write "awkward" or "use verbs." I do not unleash my darker, Pauline Kael side and write "sounds like computers making love" or "translate from the Croatian." We are too poor at invective ourselves, too afraid of hurting feelings, and, most of all, too fearful of litigation, to instruct our students in the well-crafted insult. That's why we need junior year abroad programs.
Lest I seem unpatriotic, note that throughout this essay I have only been speaking of verbal rudeness. In physical rudeness, Americans do quite well in international competition, as a short drive in any major city would prove. Perhaps the moral to the story is that in the case of rudeness, we are not a People of the Word. We are a People of the Gesture.
"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.
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