Vulgarity is one of those many qualities that it is easier to discern than to define; suffice it to say that there is a lot of it about, perhaps more than ever. At any rate, I notice it more, and it seems to me ever more extreme: a sign, no doubt, of advancing age.

In his essay-length book Vulgarity in Literature, published in 1930, Aldous Huxley was much exercised by the definition of vulgarity. He assumes, wrongly in my view, that if no viable definition of the phenomenon is tendered, then nothing true or useful can be said of it, and only nonsense can result. He draws an analogy with the then recent Geneva Conference for the suppression of the traffic in obscene publications:

When the Greek delegate (too Socratic by half) suggested that it might be a good thing to establish a preliminary definition of the word “obscene,” Sir Archibald Bodkin [the English Director of Public Prosecutions who, having read pages 690 to 732, banned James Joyce’s Ulysses] sprang to his feet with a protest. “There is no definition of indecent or obscene in English statute law.” The law of other countries being, apparently, no more explicit, it was unanimously decided that no definition was possible. After which, having triumphantly decided that they did not know what they were talking about, the members of the Congress settled down to their discussion.

Is this right? The question no doubt raises some of the deepest problems of philosophy. Are there primary qualities so indisputable that all other qualities are ultimately reducible to combinations of them, so that we can know for certain, at least in theory, that we are all talking about precisely the same thing? Personally, I rather doubt it. In any case, in normal discourse we do not demand that everyone defines his terms; if we did, we should become rather like those antiquarian booksellers who know everything about books except their contents. In a world of continua, words cannot be entirely categorical.

It is common knowledge that what is considered gross and vulgar impropriety in one society is regarded as refinement and the height of good manners in another.

Be that as it may, Huxley offers various definitions of vulgarity. He starts out by saying that he sometimes uses the word in its strict etymological sense: “When I say a man has a vulgar accent or vulgar table manners, I mean that his accent and his manners remind me of those current in the lower ranks of society—of the particular society in which I happen to live.” In other words, the attribution of vulgarity is a matter of snobbery. But this, of course, cannot be sufficient for our enquiry, or perhaps for any enquiry, for more than one reason.

We do not find it impossible to conceive of lower ranks of society that are not at all vulgar en masse. To be poor and of low social class is not to be vulgar. Conversely, we do not find it difficult to conceive of vulgarians who not only do not come from the lower ranks, but whose vulgarity is different from theirs. To be of the highest class is not a personal guarantee against vulgarity. Both across time and across geography, the lower ranks taken as a whole (and indeed all ranks) may be more or less vulgar, whatever our standards of vulgarity happen to be. Vulgarity, then, is not a matter of class.

There is also the cultural relativity of vulgarity to be dealt with or disposed of. It is common knowledge that what is considered gross and vulgar impropriety in one society is regarded as refinement and the height of good manners in another. Just as you cannot now mention the contemporary problem of public drunkenness in Britain without someone piping up about Gin Lane, so you cannot mention the relativity of vulgarity and refinement without someone piping up about post-prandial eructation, east and west of the Bosphorus. And indeed, Aldous Huxley does pipe up about it: “For vulgar here is not necessarily vulgar there. Eructavit cor meum. East of Constantinople, the action is said to be polite.”

Nothing is vulgar or refined, therefore, but thinking makes it so; it all boils down to a matter of taste, about which, of course, there is no disputing. As Hume put it in “Of the Standard of Taste”:

We are apt to call barbarous whatever departs widely from our own taste and apprehension: but soon find the epithet of reproach retorted on us.

Although vulgarity is a non-natural quality, few of us can long resist the thought that our judgment as to what is vulgar is not wholly arbitrary and actually has some kind of objective correlative. Sure enough, Huxley does soon try a definition of vulgarity that tries to give it ontological solidity: “Vulgarity is lowness that proclaims itself—and the self-proclamation is also intrinsically a lowness.”

Huxley seems hardly to notice here that “lowness” is no easier to define than vulgarity itself, but his definition does at least have the merit of drawing attention to one peculiar feature of modern vulgarity, namely its almost militant or quasi-ideological quality. It is not so much an unselfconscious absence of refinement, as it is the positive abhorrence of refinement, as if there were not room enough in the world for both vulgarity and refinement and they were locked in a struggle to the death: One must triumph, and since vulgarity is of the people, its victory is deserved.

Now Huxley, who was very far from being a vulgarian, nevertheless felt that vulgarity could be salutary. In this he was undoubtedly right: for vulgarity is one of the means by which pretension may be punctured, and men of power, position, and authority brought back to confront their own fundamental equality with other humans. The great English caricaturist James Gillray was a great master of doing precisely this. There is no doubt, either, that there is such a thing as over-refinement, to which vulgarity can act as a corrective. The positive value of vulgarity, however, remains entirely parasitic on the existence of the refinement, to which it is a counterweight.

But Huxley, having been accused himself of introducing vulgar matter into his early novels by critics who retained a Victorian sense of propriety, was goaded, perhaps understandably, into going too far. He provides—unintentionally, because he did not imagine how far things might go—a vulgarian’s charter:

I myself have frequently been accused, by reviewers in public and by unprofessional readers in private correspondence, both of vulgarity and wickedness—on the grounds, so far as I have ever been able to discover, that I reported my investigations in plain English and in a novel. The fact that many people should be shocked by what he writes practically imposes it as a duty upon the writer to go on shocking them.

It is not difficult to see how, with this attitude, it becomes more and more difficult to shock people once shocking them has become the primary task, or the major measure of success, of the artist. For, as Huxley says,

retributive pain will be inflicted on the truth-haters by the first shocking truths, whose repetition will gradually build up in those who read them an immunity to pain and will end by reforming and educating the stupid criminals out of their truth-hating.

Accordingly, the artist has to turn up the current of the shock he must apply to produce his supposedly salutary effect; for immunity to shock cannot be overcome any other way.

It is an unfortunate effect of mankind’s propensity to make logical mistakes (a propensity perhaps not fully understood by Huxley, whose family was notoriously over-intellectual) that much of it supposes that if the truth shocks, then the shocking must be the truth. Before long, the vulgar become the bearers of truth, while the refined become the bearers of falsehood.

It is hardly surprising, then, that there should be a lot of vulgarity about: for who is not on the side of truth against falsehood? And every decent man these days feels the necessity to show not only his truthfulness, but also his solidarity with the poor and downtrodden (in whom the truth inheres) by expressing himself crudely and using bad language. For example, the day on which I read Huxley’s essay, which took an hour at most, I read also Iris and the Friends by John Bayley, published in 1999.

Bayley was Professor of English at Oxford, and the Iris of his title, of course, was his wife, Iris Murdoch, the philosopher and novelist. The book was the second of his three memoirs of her decline into Alzheimer’s disease: a genre about which I feel somewhat ambivalent.

No one who has been in medical practice can fail to have been moved by the quietly heroic devotion displayed by many old people who look after their demented spouses, often beyond what most of us would consider the bounds of endurance. (A question for the aging population of the future is who will look after the demented among them, the institution of marriage having in the meantime been almost destroyed.) Perhaps there are some among the devoted care-givers to whom it would come as a relief to read an account by someone else who had experienced the same problems as they, and the eminence of the two people involved in Bayley’s memoirs would only serve to increase that relief.

Nevertheless, I am not entirely convinced that it was to bring relief to others that Bayley wrote his books. Accounts of suffering brought about by illness are now in vogue, I suspect, because Divine Providence as the explanation of the suffering brought about by illness no longer brings comfort to many people. Authors therefore try to extract some meaning, or at least derive some benefit, from illness and its distresses, reducing its unfairness and capriciousness by writing about it. Every writer knows that a trouble described is a trouble halved; there is no better way of distancing oneself from one’s own unhappy experience than to commit it to paper, even in transmuted form, for all to see.

This can easily turn into vulgar exhibitionism, however. Perhaps Huxley goes too far when he says that “vulgarity [is] inherent in the profession of letters” because to write is inevitably to exhibit oneself, and “exhibitionism is always vulgar, even if what you exhibit is the most exquisitely refined of souls”: On this somewhat exigent view of the matter, only complete silence is truly refined, and the only truly refined book one that has no words printed in it. But just as the way to be a bore is to say everything, so the way to be vulgar (in literature) is to write as if there were nothing that should be passed over in silence, as if the whole of someone’s life should be exposed to everyone’s gaze. Truth may be a defense against an allegation of libel; it is not a defense against a charge of vulgarity. And it seems to me that, in exposing his defenseless wife’s increasing physical frailties to what must have been predominantly a prurient audience, Bayley overstepped the mark.

Like many of those who have to care for the demented, Bayley sometimes grows frustrated with his ward: “When freeing myself with what used—how long ago it seems—to be called filthy words, I sometimes push my head at Iris, saying, ‘I hate you, you know! I REALLY FUCKING HATE YOU!’” Here, I suppose, we are intended more to admire his frankness than to deprecate his conduct; for any reproach we might make immediately receives the echo in our mind’s ear of, “Well, who am I to judge, who have never been in his situation? But how brave of him so openly to acknowledge his hostile feelings!”

As for the filthy words, from what does their employment free him? It would surely not have been beyond the verbal resources of a man who had studied literature for more than half a century to have expressed anger and resentment without resort to them. “I LOATHE AND DETEST YOU!” would have been at least as strong an expression.

Thus, he was not freed by the employment of such words to express anything he could not have expressed otherwise. He was freed, rather, from the restraint with which he was brought up; he was displaying to the world, which Huxley might have said “is a lowness in itself,” that he was not so old that he could not mend his ways and lose his refinement. Here indeed was a case of lowness proclaiming itself. 

It is worth considering the progress of vulgar speech in British culture. In 1908, Rupert Brooke wrote a sonnet which began:

The Thing must End. I am no boy! i am
NO BOY
! being twenty-one. Uncle, you make
A great mistake, a very great mistake,
In chiding me for letting slip a “Damn!”
What’s more you called me “Mother’s one ewe lamb,”
Bade me “refrain from swearing—for her sake—
Till I’m grown up … ” By God! I think you take
Too much upon you, Uncle William!

In 1924, Eliza Doolittle, from Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, created a sensation by uttering the words “Not bloody likely!” on the stage. In 1965, the theater critic Kenneth Tynan was the first man to utter the word “fuck” on BBC television. And in 1999, an aging professor of English uses the word unimaginatively, to demonstrate his virtuous embrace of vulgarity. (It is not that the word cannot be used expressively. My brother once earned some money by working on a building site with Irish laborers. A machine that one of them was operating broke down, and the man operating it looked at with disgust and exclaimed, “Oh fock! The focking focker’s focking focked!” There’s verbal invention for you!)

Of course, it is difficult to hold any line from “damn” to “bloody” to “fuck,” without appearing as ridiculous as Brooke’s Uncle William. No one wants to appear a prig or a prude, and the fear of appearing so makes the defense of refinement difficult. Another passage from Hume indicates what the problem really is:

Where a man is confident of the rectitude of that moral standard by which he judges, he is justly jealous of it, and will not pervert the sentiments of his heart for a moment, in complaisance to any writer whatsoever.

What is true of moral standards is true of aesthetic ones as well, and where Bayley is concerned (and not only him, of course) there is no confidence, therefore there is only complaisance.

A little later in the book Bayley illustrates this perfectly. Iris and the Friends is not only a memoir of Iris Murdoch, but of other people Bayley had met; he describes a man called Dennis Potter when he was an undergraduate under Bayley’s tuition. Potter went on to be a playwright for the BBC:

Even as an undergraduate in those dear dead days of the fifties, Potter had the foresight to dedicate himself to the pursuit of the bad taste which later became the fashion.

This is a curious passage, for a number of reasons. It makes it sound as if Potter had said to himself, “Bad taste’s the coming thing, so to further my career I shall indulge in it.” But fashions have to be made—they are not cold fronts that occur spontaneously without anyone wishing them to; they need leaders, and it was precisely people like Potter who made the fashion for bad taste.

More importantly, Bayley is, at the very least, neutral about bad taste; he seems rather to approve of it, without in the least explaining why. This is indeed odd. What would we say of an architect who foresaw the later fashion for ugly buildings in England and proceeded to build them? Would the fact that they later became the fashion—the fashion, that is, among the architects, not the man in the street—be a defense of such an architect? Do we say that Houston Stewart Chamberlain had the foresight to make anti-Semitism the key concept of his thought? A fashion for ugliness, in the course of which brutalism actually became a term of approbation, did occur, its results now to be seen in every English town and city, where centuries of harmoniousness have been turned into eyesores in a few short years.

How deep can their interest in poverty be, as compared with that in vulgarity?

There follows a passage in Bayley’s book that is absolutely emblematic of the moral and aesthetic pusillanimity of the English intellectual class (a characteristic not unique to that nation or that class, of course):

The old cinema dealt in public dreams, in some sense shared by everybody, and that gave them a kind of dignity, no matter how ridiculous they were. The Potter–type sex-dream is horribly intimate, and seems deliberately intended to embarrass us as individuals by an intimacy of bad taste. The critics who slated Blackeyes for its sickly brand of adolescent fantasy were being both self-righteous and hypocritical for they could hardly have missed seeing that this was really the whole point and purpose of the charade.

To what does the “this” in the last sentence refer? If it is the deliberate intention “to embarrass us by an intimacy of bad taste,” it surely needs to be explained why this is a good, desirable, or worthwhile thing to do. It is far from immediately obvious; I would say, rather, that the presumption is against it. And in what sense is it hypocritical to deplore self-consciously bad taste?

The pretentiousness of the passage disguises an unease, or even a bad conscience, I suspect: for Bayley knows that he is defending “lowness that proclaims itself,” and is therefore doing work on behalf of ideological vulgarity. And this he does (I surmise) from fear of ridicule, if he opposes its seemingly inexorable march.

Enough of Bayley. Putting his book down, I picked up my newspaper—that is to say, the newspaper that most British intellectuals read—The Guardian. A supplement entitled People Power fell out, and on one of its pages was a large color photograph of some young men, their mouths stretched wide open (the iconographic sign nowadays that people are enjoying themselves), making exaggerated gestures. They were at a concert staged by the charity Bollocks to Poverty, or B2P. The charity’s activities seemed to consist largely of holding rock concerts at which thousands of young people shout “Bollocks to poverty!” together (and presumably give some money afterwards), while making undignified gestures in the kind of unison that would have pleased the arrangers of the Nuremberg rallies.

The first thing to note is the ambiguity of the exclamation “Bollocks to poverty!” It is not difficult, for example, to imagine the following dialogue:

“What about poverty in Africa?”

“Bollocks to poverty! Why should I care about it?”

In fact, the slogan “Down with poverty!” would be much clearer and free from such ambiguity, but it was not chosen because, as the “Youth Campaigns Manager” of B2P explained, “You can’t expect them to seek you out … if they like the sound of it, they might even get involved.”

In other words, you can interest young people in the problem of poverty only if you are prepared to be vulgar: to which the question naturally arises, how deep can their interest in poverty be, as compared with that in vulgarity? Here I recall two things. The first is a sentence of Huxley’s: “There is a vulgarity in the sphere of morals, a vulgarity of emotions and intellect, a vulgarity even of the spirit.” The second is the three and a half years I spent in Tanzania, then said to be one of the poorest countries in the world (though the World Bank’s estimate that many of its people lived on less than a dollar a day I regarded as the purest and most unadulterated drivel).

On the whole, the people of Tanzania were exquisitely well-mannered. Indeed, they were, en masse, the best mannered people that I have ever met. They were ceremonious and courtly in their mode of address. (So, apparently, are the Botswanans. It is surely this quality, lovingly described by Alexander McCall Smith, that accounts for the worldwide popularity of the Mma Ramotswe books.) I had a house servant there who invited me to her house in the village. It was a mud hut, but of elegant shape, beautifully and soberly painted with an abstract design (the common loss by peasants of aesthetic sensibility as soon as they move to town is surely a subject of some psychological and anthropological interest). You approached the hut by a path through a field of tall green maize. It was in the shade of mango and avocado trees. Though lacking in running water and electricity, it was spotlessly clean, and the area around it immaculately swept.

She called her children to bring me a chair: or rather, the chair, for chairs, as against stools, were prized objects in the village, and she had only one. She made sure that the children greeted me in the appropriate manner, which was to reach up and touch me lightly on the crown of my head once I had sat down. A widow, she had to teach her children how to behave: aged six and eight, they already had exquisite manners. She was confident of the rectitude of the moral standard by which she judged.

In fact, I met with this kind of beautiful politeness often in Africa, and, into the bargain, the women there moved with a physical grace entirely lost in the Western world. I do not romanticize or deny the consequences of poverty: the lack of security; the vulnerability to oppression; the dependence on the vagaries of the weather; the absence of medical treatment in case of illness; and so forth. But when I think of those hideous young British vulgarians, typical of their time and place, shouting “Bollocks to poverty,” and imagining thereby that they were improving Africa, I feel a fury in the fiber of my being. Was there ever such vulgarity of spirit?

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 27 Number 9, on page 75
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