Commentary | How my father learned to swear

I made my dad read Dave Eggers this summer. Having read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius the summer before, I delighted in seeing him take the plunge into heartfelt Americana while experimenting with the joy of profanity. The car became “the fucking car” and the economy became “the fucking economy.” When he was stuck in traffic, he would grip the steering wheel, screw up his face, and yell “Jesus fucking Christ!” and this would amuse the hell out of him. He’d laugh with that almost soundless laughter, tears coming out of his eyes. Those were the funniest three words for him, and it killed him to say them.

My father, whose native language is not English, relishes each new word like a child toying with the limits of acceptable self-expression. He came of age in a country rocked by instability and military coups. Imagining alternatives to the Turkey of his day was the vital stuff of college life and was resolved in two ways: clandestine Marxist learning and escapist forays to the “Great West.” The two, although along the same plane, eventually proved incompatible – his life in the New World was marred by the disappointment of working at something his heart disagreed with. Not so much my dad’s unique experience as the popular modern condition, really. But he became even more of a caricature of that condition, an ideologue relentlessly talking the talk without walking a step of the walk. Any action short of violent, orgasmic revolution was accomodationist, reformist. A fairly pat example: my attempt to sell him on fair-trade chocolate at the grocery store was greeted with derision. I was advocating a feeble and inconsequential move. I shouldn’t be buying chocolate at all – chocolate was a paradigm of luxury that should be toppled along with the rest of the supermarket, made into rubble as we ravished the cashier woman-cum-peddler-of-two- decades-worth-of-meaningless-cash-transactions. That whole bit was my literary imagination, but it’s an accurate expression of his basic political vision: annihilate the fucking structure.

Dad felt slightly disinterested toward the end of Staggering Genius. He understood all of the anger, the rebellion, the joyous outpour, but failed to see where it might lead. Perhaps there is something distinctly American about anger, rebellion, and joyous outpour without resolution. Or just literary: what can a book really resolve other than the mathematics of fitting neatly between two covers? I never got my dad’s final take on the book, but I know something stuck with him. Maybe it was mainly the joyous obscenity. In any case, I certainly don’t think that the book was just an inconsequential anecdote in his summer.

He went on to attend a series of career workshops hosted by the community centre. He figured out that he had a “blue” personality type, and would have expanded on that theme with another workshop the next morning had he not lapsed into drinking the night before. That act of despair reminded me of myself. I think many of us are well-practiced in the game of trying to create something positive and concrete despite all of our misgivings and failed attempts to rationalize our decisions. At the critical moment, one has to take respite from the capricious mind in pure, unadulterated action: we also have the choice to sabotage everything we’ve accomplished and melt into, say, the forgiving auspices of a distilled spirit. How does an engineer meaningfully say adieu to 20 years in the auto industry when the next plausible move is to return to the job market he so morosely despises? Yes, the gap between a bleak present and an unknown future is often bridged with the bottle. Isn’t the rather mechanistic hedonism of nights and weekends intended to spit us back into our daylight world of work and scruples?

From a systemic perspective, maybe. But we’re all just fucking people, trying to eat and sleep and feel a good belly laugh once in a while. Last time I checked, systems don’t publish literature. Systems don’t conspire with other systems on how to overthrow still other systems. Maybe in fiction. Maybe in reality, too, but my point is that not everything is about cause and eventual effect. Expression is perfectly timeless because it can be both the cause and the effect. Is there anything more self-contained and self-serving than a sincere impassioned “OH!”? It may be prompted by something else but I think it originates in the human. Irreverence is the needed respite from the incoherence of our lives. A breaking through the system, if you will.

My dad and I devour the satirical rags that his friend has brought home from the mother country. I am learning the vernacular of my mother tongue, rich with its own peculiar irreverence and vulgarity. I realize that my dad says, “Let me sell his mother!” every time he wants to swear in his native language. I wish I could adapt his vulgarisms with the same ease that he has essentially adapted mine. Sometimes it’s not so much the words that count as the space between them. It can be our chance for emotional catharsis, oral or otherwise. In fewer words, it can be a chance for action.

Rana Encol is a U2 English literature student. Write her politely but with vulgarity at rana.encol@mail.mcgill.ca.


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