Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, 1937-2008

Somewhere in the many layers of George Carlin's makeup was a gentle, tender, sensitive idealist who had sympathy for those who suffered and a passion for justice. I think that was more fundamental than his cynicism and his nihilism. It was this compassionate core that generated all his contempt of hypocrisy and cruelty, his railing against the stupidities of religion and politics, and his rebelliousness against demands for conformity that stifle life and creativity.

Sometimes he went too far and cut away healthy substance though aiming only at the rot. Nevertheless, I think he epitomized his own insight -- a cynic is a disappointed idealist. Anyone who does not struggle with cynicism in this troubled world of ours does not understand the situation or lacks compassion.

He was creative and marvelously funny, never more so than when he saw the humor in everyday life--the craziness in common ordinary events that make up most of our existence. Contrary to much opinion, however, I don't think he contributed anything useful by using the seven words you can't say on regular TV but which he used to nauseating excess on HBO. I don't want to hear them on TV or anywhere else most of the time.

The truth is that we need forbidden words. They serve a useful psychological purpose. They express strong emotion in circumstances where only the impermissible will do. They suggest a note of defiance, an assertion of autonomy against society's standard of decorum. But if all words are permitted, what will we say when we need an utterance that provides the peculiar, delicious pleasure of trespassing into the prohibited?

To think that bad words are just a hang-up we need to get rid of is shallow, superficial, and silly. Forbidden words are not just words. They carry social meanings and have psychological power when properly used. If we trivialize them by introducing them into ordinary speech, teach them to our children, make them common on TV, etc., we will rob them of their efficacy, and we will just have to invent new ones. I like the ones we've got, so keep your f!gh*kj%$#$ hands off them, and don't try to make them respectable.

Remember the Mississippi lawyer who defended his state's anti-liquor laws thusly: "I do not want to drink my whiskey under the stigma of legality." Exactly!

When I see someone who displays deep internal anger, I immediately want to know about his early childhood years. With respect to Carlin I discovered that his mother when pregnant with George was minutes away from aborting him and suddenly changed her mind. In addition. his mother and father separated when he was an infant. He says that his father drank and was a bully who viciously beat his older brother for the first five years of his sibling's life. I suspect that explains a lot. See:

I liked the gentle, sensitive Carlin best. One of his finest contributions was a moving comparison between football and baseball. In the former, huge men wearing protective armor try to knock their opponents to the ground. In the latter, players hit a ball with a stick, and the sweetest words are "safe at home." We could have used more of that kind of humor and would have been better off without all the dirty words.