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  • “Curse This War”: Virginia Woolf and the Politics of Profanity
  • Erin Penner (bio)

“You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you / For learning me your language.”1 Caliban curses to assert his autonomy in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, neatly uncoupling the linguistic tool from the educator’s will. A subsequent line, however, imperils that distinction: “I needs must curse” (Shakespeare, Tempest, 2.2.4). Kate Brown and Howard Kushner seize on the “needs must” to argue that Caliban’s cursing is compulsory, the result of an involuntary linguistic overhaul that leaves him alienated from his own language and culture.2 Yet Caliban’s language reveals neither violent independence nor thoroughgoing capitulation, but rather the difficult task of discerning the difference.

The profanity that proliferated in the trenches of the First World War has not excited the same literary interest as Caliban’s curse, even though millions of servicemen found their language shifting over the course of the war. Like most critics, Ashley Montagu regards the soldiers’ curses as a sign of robust corporate identity.3 But just as Caliban struggles to ensure that his language and motive are not simply those of his master, the poet David Jones speaks to the difficulty of maintaining individual control over one’s language during the First World War. Jones regrets that men in bayonet-fighting drills were instructed to “look fiercely upon the enemy when engaging him and to shout some violent word . . . This attempt to stimulate an artificial hate by parade-ground Staff-Instruction was not popular among men fresh from actual contact with the enemy.”4 [End Page 849]

Profanity underscores the distinction between the soldier and his opponent; not incidentally, it also widens the gulf between soldiers and civilians, making it easier for soldiers to surrender themselves to the demands of bayonet fighting.5 Eugene Mc-Cartney published a glossary of “Trench Talk” in 1918 in an attempt to demystify the language of the front lines. Profane phrases were conspicuously absent from the lineup, allying profanity and war against the implied audience of civilians.6 John Brophy and Eric Partridge published a collection of soldiers’ songs in 1930, acknowledging that “one or two” had been omitted due to objectionable content, but the editors reassured readers that those were “merely lewd and not essentially soldiers’ songs.”7 Though the editors admit that soldiers’ conversation included a great deal of language that was “technically obscene,” Brophy and Partridge excuse the custom as merely habitual or mechanical (Songs and Slang, 15). In doing so, they echo the widespread assumption that the meaning of the profane or blasphemous word is not self-evident, but rather in need of contextual interpretation. Brophy’s and Partridge’s reluctance to include profanity in their volume, or to acknowledge its significance in soldiers’ speech and song, attests to their uncomfortable role as editors; they may have been active-duty soldiers in the war, but they are, a dozen years later, all too aware of civilian sensibilities. Soldiers cannot speak directly to those at home, but must instead impose their own blackout lines on the letters, memoirs, songs, and essays they write to those who do not share the soldier experience.

Virginia Woolf, however, challenges the identification of profanity with the war front. By tracing profanity’s use in civilian discussions in Britain, she reveals the division between frontline profanity and home-fire prudery to be a false one, and offers new tools for assessing agency in profane speech. Like Brophy and Partridge, Woolf recognizes that, whatever its etymology, much of what is characterized as profanity in the modern world is only “technically obscene.” Profanity may have been derived from the language of the church or taboos about bodily functions, but its modern force comes from the speaker’s intent. Brophy and Partridge would excuse profanity as mere habit; Jones strives to convince his readers that the foul language of the trenches “reached real poetry. . . . I say more: the ‘Bugger! Bugger!’ of a man detailed, had often about it the ‘Fiat! Fiat!’ of the Saints” (In Parenthesis, xii). Woolf recognizes that even intent can be manipulated, however...


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pp. 849-868
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