In his notes to Lolita, Andrew Appel says of Sammy Kaye, Jo Stafford, Eddie Fisher, Tony Bennett, Peggy Lee, Guy Mitchell, and Patti Page that “their sentimental songs of love and romance were very corny, and backed by ludicrously fulsome string arrangements”. My response was to suggest that Appel and possibly also Nabokov had tin ears*, and more specifically, that “Peggy Lee and Tony Bennett were jazz singers who don’t deserve that shit.” This elicited the following comment from one “marcol”:
“who don’t deserve that shit”
Who writes like that? Are you unable to express yourself?
Well, obviously I write that way. If you ask me, I express myself OK, but if Marcol has his doubts there’s plenty of stuff up for him to check rather than just asking. I’ve always been baffled by the idea that you can make language richer by excluding a certain set of words. Profanity is a resource which can be overused like any other, but taboos impoverish. Warnings against excessive reliance on profanity are sometimes necessary for introductory and remedial writing students (during Thoreau’s brief HS teaching career he had to make this point), but I’m not one of those.**
My comment was about jazz, and since profanity is pervasive in the jazz world this usage was quite fitting. (If you want a dose, read Miles Davis’ autobiography). In this context “shit” is not necessarily pejorative and means something like “stuff”; it can stand in for any mass noun or plural noun. (As a singular, a shit is an individual of whom the speaker thinks poorly).
What’s really in question here is linguistic register. Most writing about Nabokov is academic, and the word “shit” outside scare quotes is inappropriate in academic writing, which insists on Maude Lebowski gentility even when discussing nasty forms of transgressive sexuality. But guess what? I’m sixty-five years old, and those academic motherfuckers haven’t done a thing for me yet. So why should I care what they think? (Since most of the next generation of PhDs will fail to get academic jobs and thus will be allowed to curse freely, maybe I can serve as a role model for them).
In my Daisy Miller piece I had a lot of fun saying “goddamn” and leaving off scare quotes. There are number of words and phrases in this piece which can be referred to in academic writing, but which cannot be used without distancing; simply leaving off the quotation marks around these words changed my squib into an entirely different and rather odd kind of writing. Examples: “put out” (vulgarism); “score” (vulgarism); “booty” (R.I.P. Mark Wahlberg); “lewd” (the society ladies’ judgment on Daisy); “loose woman” (the society ladies’ judgment on Daisy in the form of a vulgarism), and finally “villainous miasma” (James’s ludicrous overwriting) .
As for “ate more chicken than a man ever seen”, I don’t know how anyone would ever be able to work that into an academic paper, but it’s an apt description not only of Alfred de Musset, but of Victor Hugo, Théophile Gautier, and nineteenth century French literature generally (except maybe George Sand).
* All the evidence is that Nabokov wasn’t much involved in any kind of music, though Appel talks about his high musical standards. In his attitude toward American music, Kurt Goedel is an interesting contrast to Nabokov: according to his biographer Hao Wang, he came to prefer American to Viennese pop. (With Sinatra and Ellington on one side of the line and Nazified versions of Johann Strauss and Franz Lehar on the other, that shouldn’t have been a difficult choice). Of course, by the end of WWII much of Austrian culture (including Arnold Schoenberg) had migrated to Hollywood, which was the natural continuation of fin de siècle European decadence. (Ben Hecht, a scriptwriter who had a hand in dozens of great movies, began his writing career as a American decadent-expressionist).
UPDATE: In “Speak, Memory” Nabokov mentions his father’s “very early, and lifelong passion for opera” and adds that “along this vibrant string a melodious gene that missed me glides through my father from the sixteenth century organist Wolfgang Gran to my son.” (Portable Nabokov, pp. 52-3. Nabokov’s son was an opera singer).
** Wittgenstein’s teaching career was also short. It’s fun to try to imagine either one of these guys in a classroom.