Day 62. Coleridge: Cunt or Tosser?

Some debates are for the ages. Free-will or determinism; dualism or monism; empiricism or idealism. Today, I bring you another debate that the greatest minds will ponder, doubtless, till the end of time:

Coleridge: cunt or tosser?

How did I get embroiled in a debate of this magnitude, you wonder? Well, it was all thanks to my good friend Stacy. Surely, you remember her: my British colleague in the History department, the one with the luxuriant hair and the strong opinions on peanut butter? Surely you’ve been longing for her to make another appearance in this blog? Well, today, readers, is your lucky day!

There we were, the two of us, eating lunch, as we are wont to do, at an isolated table in the faculty center dining room. We were towards the end of our meal. The duck-rabbit was picking delicately at a bowl of cantaloupe (or “melon, the orangey kind,’ as Stacy reminded me we call it in Britain) while Stacy (who is blessed with a very fast metabolism) was wolfing down her second slice of cake. We had exhausted more interesting topics and so Stacy politely inquired what I was teaching next term.

A course on fictional worlds, I explained.

“Ooh, interesting,” she said, “What’s on the syllabus?”

“Let’s see … a bunch of criticism and theory on ‘world-building,’ and then, some fiction … so, Gulliver’s Travels—”

“Oh yes, very good,” Stacy chimed in.

“ … and Tom Jones,” I continued, at which point Stacy laid down her fork and looked at me fixedly.

“You are not doing Tom Jones,” she said.

“Uhh, yes, I am,” I said.

“But it’s such a fucking boring book!” she protested.

I may have actually winced slightly in pain at this.

“No!” I think I cried out, involuntarily and a little too loudly, “no, it’s brilliant, it’s one of my favorites actually.”

“It is not.”

“It is,” I insisted stubbornly.

“But why on earth do you like it?”

“Well, it’s a great story … and Tom Jones is so irresistible—”

Stacy frowned, “Wait, do you mean the book or the person Tom Jones?”

“Oh, the person,” I clarified. And then, after a brief pause, “I mean, not the person Tom Jones, you know, not the singer, the character Tom Jones.”

Stacy smirked, “right, not the singer, got it.”

“So anyway,” I continued, “so Tom Jones is this really endearing character, and then I also think the narrator is really funny, and also the plot is really clever.”

How is the plot clever?” asked Stacy with a look of deep skepticism on her face.

I paused. “Well … it’s very complicated and … and elegantly designed … there are all of these things that seem to be just incidental at the beginning and then they turn out to be really significant later. I mean, really,” I went on, warming to my theme, “it’s one of those books that you have to read at least twice, first for the story and the second time you can appreciate the cleverness of how Fielding sets everything up.”

Stacy looked at me flabbergasted. “Fucking hell …. But who wants to read it again … as if the first time wasn’t punishment enough… and then you have to read it again … Jesus.”

Now, I’ll admit, my hackles were raised. And here I should note that my hackles are raised easily in this fashion. In fact, the likeliest explanation for Stacy’s violent antipathy towards Tom Jones was because she knew that I would get all riled up and that it would be amusing to witness.

I broke out the big guns. “Look, it’s not just me who thinks it’s good, you do know that, don’t you? I mean Coleridge thought it was brilliant—”

Coleridge!” exclaimed Stacy incredulously. “It doesn’t sound like his sort of thing at all!”

“Well as a matter of fact he said its plot was perfect … no, the most perfect of any plot. It and Oedipus Rex and … and something else.”

Stacy regarded me skeptically. “And where did he say this, exactly?”

“Uh, I don’t remember,” I conceded. Then, indignantly, “but I swear he did! I’m not making it up.”

“Yeah, well, everyone knows Coleridge was a cunt,” Stacy declared flatly, and that was that.

I mean, how do you respond to that? Was Coleridge a cunt? Possibly; but who really knows? I was not going to hang my defense of Tom Jones on the claim that Coleridge was not a cunt. [1]

Later that day, back at my desk, I looked up the quote. Ahh, yes, there it was, in the Table Talk:

“Upon my word, I think the Oedipus Tyrannus, the Alchemist, and Tom Jones the three most perfect plots ever planned.”

The Alchemist! Of course! That was the one I couldn’t remember! I emailed it to Stacy in a spirit of triumphant, I-told-you-so smugness at being able to pull up the quotation so quickly. She replied swiftly as follows:

“Ah, very good: Table Talk. Nice to have the reference. Still think Coleridge is a tosser, though.”

Now, call me pedantic, but my first thought was, is it too much to ask for a little consistency? Which is it now, Stacy, is he a cunt or is he a tosser? On the other hand, I mused, tosser was actually a more fitting term of abuse for Coleridge. Because, as I said, is he a cunt? Possibly. But possibly not. Which is to say, possibly he is only insofar as we are all cunts to some degree.

But is he a tosser? That I think, is a statement we can all agree with unequivocally; of course he’s a tosser! [2] He is quite the epitome of tossery and that quality is integral to why we love him, is it not? I mean, how could one possibly have the conviction necessary to being Samuel Taylor Coleridge without being a complete and utter tosser?

I mean, what if he’d thought to himself, really, do I need to invent a whole new theory of The Symbol, or is that just a bit precious? Or, if he’d thought, honestly, this Ancient Mariner does waffle on, doesn’t he? Perhaps I should rein him in. Or, if he’d thought, “wailing for her demon lover”; bit much, isn’t it? Or, if he’d thought “esemplastic”; hmm, does my theory of the imagination really demand a neologism … or is that a tad pompous?

In short, think of the enormous loss to literature if Coleridge had for one second thought, “hang on, am I being profound here, or am I just being a tosser?”

And it’s not just Coleridge, it’s so many great thinkers. I’m not going to go out on a limb and say that all men of genius are tossers … but let’s just say that most are. [3] Consider the evidence: Jean-Jacques Rousseau? Clearly a tosser. John Milton? Indisputably a tosser. T.S. Eliot? Wanky beyond belief.

And that is why, when He-Who-Must-Be-Preserved declared to me a little while ago, that he personally found my blog “a bit wanky,” did I deny it? Why, no! I took it as a great compliment. This blog is a bit (a lot?) wanky, it’s true.

But—and I’ll leave this with you as my parting thought (and don’t rush over this part: I think you’ll find, if you truly clear your mind and allow yourself to just float upon your esemplastic imagination, that this part of today’s post is really quite profound)—just think how much more wanky this blog would be if it were written by Coleridge, the tosser.

Notes

[1] Here it’s important to note that for a British person to call a man a cunt is not equivalent to what might seem to be its equivalent in America, calling a man a pussy. The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang (2nd ed.) glosses cunt, when used as a term of abuse, to refer to “a foolish or despicable person, female or male.” This seems right to me. It’s a very general term. I also maintain that it can even be a term of affection, at least between women, as in the phrase, “you silly cunt!” but I’m really gullible, so I could be entirely wrong and it could quite plausibly be the case that my friend Mary just convinced me of this when I was eleven and that it’s completely and utterly untrue. In which case: well played, Mary, well played.

[2] In what sense am I using the term “tosser,” here, you may ask. Well, in the sense synonymous with wanker, not most especially in the sense of OED definition 1 (one who masturbates) nor even of OED definition 2 (an objectionable or contemptible person), but with the nuance that we get in The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang: “spec. an incompetent, pretentious, or ostentatious person.” This definition still lacks texture and, here, the Amises both senior and junior are of enormous help. See, cited in the OED definition for wanker, the following dialogue from Kingsley Amis’s Jake’s Thing (1978): “‘Damon, what’s a wanker?’.. ‘These days a waster, a shirker, someone who’s fixed himself a soft job or an exalted position by means of an undeserved reputation on which he now coasts.’ ‘Oh. Nothing to do with tossing off then?’ ‘Well, connected with it, yes, but more metaphorical than literal’” (123). Amis senior provides a more formal definition in The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage (published posthumously in 1997) where he characterizes wankers as “prissy, fussy, priggish, prim, and what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own” (23). Amis junior is cited under the OED definition for “wanky.” Smirk. But, no, seriously, he is; the OED cites his first novel, The Rachel Papers (1973) in which the protagonist Charles’s best friend Geoffrey advises him on how to bed the titular Rachel: “No, man, don’t get too wanky with her. And cut out all this intellectual shit” (78). As Geoffrey’s advice indicates, Charles, whose wooing technique involves holding forth in ghastly fashion (“there’s so much sexual energy in the horizontal … movement of the painting …”) on art and poetry, is quite preposterously wanky. As the New York Times review of the novel observed witheringly, he seems like the type who’ll “grow up to work for The Times Literary Supplement.” ’Nuff said.

[3] Yes, I do mean “men of genius.” Why? Well … I’m just not sure that most women of genius—or at least the women of genius who were the contemporaries of Milton, Rousseau, and Coleridge—have historically had the requisite conviction of their own intellectual self-importance to be truly adept at the art of tossery. I’m sure there are exceptions, however.

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2 thoughts on “Day 62. Coleridge: Cunt or Tosser?

  1. Claire says:

    I don’t think you can gloss the word ‘cunt’ for your non-british readers without highlighting how political a word it is. By far the most powerful of all insults, and therefore complex – should this use of the most intimate female body part to damn and defame be embraced or rejected by women, is it just too mysogynistic? No insult intended to your friends Stacy and Mary, but for a long time it’s been the principal preserve of wankers and tossers of the Amis variety.

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  2. I’m really glad you wrote this; it’s a hugely important point. I think the reason I didn’t highlight the term’s power as a misogynistic term of abuse is because I think, if anything, it actually functions this way even more powerfully in the U.S. than in Britain. It’s just not a word that I really ever hear either men or women using here. To say that word out loud in American company (not, to be clear, that that’s something I try regularly at parties just to see what happens) makes people visibly flinch.

    So, non-British readers, for humorous evidence that “cunt” is indeed, as Claire puts it, the most powerful of all insults, see this column by Jon Ronson, which I like as much today as when I first read it in 2007.

    There’s also this more recent column by Nina Stibbe, which is basically a version of the same story, not quite as well done as Ronson’s, but interesting for its illustration of the importance of context; she tells a story about her (male) partner calling her a cunt when she slips over on icy ground when heavily pregnant and he is absolutely terrified that she’s hurt. It’s almost, in that moment, a term of intimacy because it’s the most powerful of all insults.

    I really do think that how “cunt” (or any other swearword) functions depends entirely on who’s using it and in what context. Here’s an example. Take my friend Mary (I’ve updated this post and your comment, Claire, to change her name); I was fine with her calling me a silly cunt. It clearly functioned as a term of huge affection. But there was one day when she asked me, entirely neutrally and in a spirit of curious enquiry, “you’re half-caste, aren’t you duck-rabbit?”

    I can’t remember what I said in the moment but that term made me flinch so much so much more than the term cunt, and I couldn’t even say why. For one girl to call another girl a cunt is one thing; but for Mary, who is white, to call me half-caste felt utterly different.

    The next day I told Mary that I didn’t like that expression. And she listened and apologized and said she didn’t realize it might be offensive (and it’s important to say that in Britain this term is still in use and not everyone does find it offensive) and that she would never use it again. And that was that. The next time I think I heard the term half-caste was at Cambridge and, ironically, it was at an event run by the Black and Asian Caucus. A very beautiful Black British undergraduate with an extremely posh accent, upon learning of my parentage, grew very excited and proceeded to introduce me to people as follows: “this is duck-rabbit! She’s an Indian half-caste! Isn’t that brilliant?” If anything, I was more upset by being called a half-caste by posh Black British lady than by white, working-class Irish-Catholic Mary. In the first place, it felt like a joke. Like, seriously? This is the university’s group for minority students? Has no-one here read Quicksand? (“Helga herself felt like nothing so much as some new and exotic breed of dog being proudly exhibited.”) Secondly, it made me feel hopelessly naïve. Why on earth would I have even assumed that the Black and Asian Caucus wouldn’t be run by posh tone-deaf wankers? It was still the Cambridge University Black and Asian Caucus! And I also felt ashamed of myself, because, while I had no problem telling Mary I didn’t like the term, I was way too intimidated by the gentility of the Cantabrigians at the Black and Asian Caucus to raise any objections.

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