“Then shall I dare these real ills to hide
In tinsel trappings of poetic pride?”
English must be kept up. It rarely is. But what a splendid collection of offenses against it is in D.J. Enright’s book of euphemism. Those who delight in the instructions for Japanese small appliances will here encounter the ultimate in linguistic self-destruction. Here is a pair of advertisements for continental hotels anxious to sound contemporary: The first offers “two rooms with a vulgar balcony and excommunicating doors” along with a gift-shop where you can buy “jolly memorials for when you pass away.” I particularly like the second, which says of its rooms, “I am superb in bed,” and which advertises for breakfast “patty of fungus a specialty.”
The word euphemism is older than we think. Both word and idea suggest middle-class hypocrisy but hypocrisy—and ingenuity and over-refinement and rhetorical play—are much older than the middle class. The word itself goes back to the mid-17th century, when it was defined as “a good or favourable interpretation of a bad word.” Its great uses then were as now in detailing, or in camouflaging, realities of politics and sexuality. It is important to realize that euphemism can do both: it can hide, or it can delineate even more sharply with metaphor than we can by image.
How could public language go on without using intimacy in place of sexual intercourse; underprivileged instead of poor, turf accountant instead of bookie; social security for a program that has gone broke? Some of the great phrases of our time are euphemisms—especially those for military retreats or civil disasters or ignominious personal failure. But it does get to be tiresome and morally dangerous, I think, to be reminded that TV cameras spy on us in stores “for your own protection” or that commercials for some profitable cause are done as “a public service.” The editor reminds us that public euphemism is Orwellian and does more harm beyond the rhetorical realms of “sex, bowel movements, menstruation, money, sickness, and natural death.”
The historical information in Fair of Speech seems to hold more water than its criticism. I don’t think I’m convinced that Jane Austen is being coy in Pride and Prejudice when she tells us why Darcy falls in love with Elizabeth. The novel tells us repeatedly about “the beautiful expression of her dark eyes.” Darcy mentions them often and the narrator tries to offset other things by their mention. Elizabeth does not conform to the tall, full-chested, white-skinned type of Regency beauty. She makes up for being medium height and sunburned by those intelligent and attractive eyes. But the modern euphemist thinks otherwise and tells us that “a fine pair of eyes” really means a fine pair of “big tits.” Suddenly Jane Austen looks either puritanical or sneaking—and Elizabeth Bennet looks a lot different herself.
Jane Austen is famously honest and doesn’t mind telling us about mistresses or bastards or anything else. It seems unlikely that she would bother with camouflage here. And the euphemist is probably too suspicious without being critical enough—novelists in the 19th century made their sexual points through symbolism. Dickens is a very sexy writer when he talks about eyes in David Copperfield—either those of Mr. Murdstone or of Rosa Dartle. They suggest sexuality in themselves, not other parts of the body. And of course novelists do what they want anyhow—Jane Eyre is completely open about the heroine being flat-chested. She and Mr. Rochester can even joke about her well-endowed (I think that’s a euphemism) rival being “a real strapper.”
I like Plausible Prejudices, not least because it too has to make good out of bad. The critic of current fiction is forced to discuss the social meaning of texts because the stuff he is reviewing is generally not first-rate. I don’t mean that it can’t compare with Shakespeare, or even with good, gray, respectable third-rate talent like Galsworthy. It’s not that good, either. The modern reviewer, of whom Epstein is a very good example, has to deal with people like Mailer or those even worse, if they can be found. It’s like getting Berenson to lecture about the dirty pictures in Pompeii. Epstein is fully aware of the problem—he suggests to the culturati that “if it doesn’t offend you that American literary academics are able to publish structuralist studies of John Irving, then you probably ought to be in another line of work.” Well advised. Epstein is a sharp knife cutting into Spam.
It’s almost too bad that Plausible Prejudices is a trade book. It really should be a kind of counterweight text for a course on contemporary American writing. It covers Mailer, Roth, Updike, Malamud, Stone, Beattie, etc. And it is very much aware that what it has to say differs tremendously from what publishers, newspaper critics, and academics have to say about the same books. Epstein is hostile to these writers and others in orbit around them not entirely because of cultural politics. He has some heroes: Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling. There are viewpoints he respects—those of Mencken and F.R. Leavis. And he has standards. He does something very sensible about those standards, which is to compare Mailer, Roth, and company with Lawrence or Conrad or other great modernists in order to see what exactly has been accomplished by the passage of literary generations.
Epstein is one of the good descriptive critics. We find out by the end of one of his reviews what kind of event has gone on and what kind of language has described it. He keeps track of everything: “Fancy fornication in one form or another is never far off in any of John Irving’s novels, and it ranges from adolescent sex to lesbian love to couple swapping to incest. Fellatio in a car. both moving and parked, is another Irving spécialité de la maison.” Anything written by Kazin about modern writers ought to be coupled with Epstein’s imperative of categoricals. You will find out the extent of physical distortions in Beattie or most possible connections between the different novels of Philip Roth.
There is an added attraction to Plausible Prejudices: its extensive coverage of the literary situation in New York and on campuses. Epstein really is engaged in a war of words, and he lets us know who the antagonists are. The reader will find out the score about the Harvard Guide or black literature or women’s studies or even who is writing the best or the worst of what is being flogged by the plutocrats of publishing.
[Fair of Speech: The Uses of Euphemism, edited by D.J. Enright; Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press]
[Plausible Prejudices: Essays on American Writing, by Joseph Epstein (New York: W.W. Norton) $17.95]