First, a few things about the game itself:
I refer to “dirty words in the Dictionary” (hereafter #dwitd) as a game, although it lacks one of the more important features of games: it can’t be won or lost (maybe this makes it not-a-game; I don’t really care). Play continues as long as the player has patience.
#dwitd is an exploration of the gaps, omissions, lacunae, and loops in the definitions of sex-and-sex-related words in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. It is, literally, the Twine-enabled equivalent of flipping through a dictionary—and, like that activity, it is potentially endless.¹ Beginning with either fornication or debauchery, players “look up” the words used to define other words, building—at least ostensibly—a fuller picture of what it means to “commit lewdness.” Not every word in every definition is an active link to a new entry: only those words that I thought important to the task at hand have their own entry/passage.
#dwitd contains 73 playable passages, 69 of which are entries from the Dictionary; some passages contain multiple, related words. “CORRUPT,” for example, includes the definitions for three senses of that word (active [transitive] verb, neutral [intransitive] verb, adjective) as well as “corruption”—and it lists, but does not define, eight other derivatives of corrupt. Whore, sensual, and lewd are also compound entries. The entries themselves are quoted directly from Johnson’s Dictionary (which is why he gets an author credit). I’ve omitted the etymological notes and the example quotations (with one exception), and sometimes omitted some of a word’s definitions. (I’ve retained the order of the included definitions, but the numbers don’t always match the numbers in the Dictionary.)
There are four words for which I’ve made the subtext explicit (under a horizontal rule, in a different font)—and, with two of these, I’ve made leaps that aren’t strictly permitted by the game’s internal logic: from sex to genitals, and from genitals to castration. With the first, I just wanted to include genitals—but the second leap was suggested by the supporting quotation included with genitals (the only one I included, and I included the fuller quote from which Johnson [or his source] edited the example).
So, why did I make this thing?
I’m working on a conference-paper-draft-of-a-dissertation-chapter about Johnson’s Dictionary and Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. I’m arguing (at least at this point) that each of those texts works against its own organizing principle. Here’s part of the abstract:
In the Preface to his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Johnson writes that the lexicographer’s task is cultivation: he ‘toils’ to “remove rubbish and clear obstructions,” tending the language in order to preserve and prolong its earlier state of undefiled perfection. The Dictionary is, according to its compiler, an attempt to regulate and control an otherwise dangerously fecund and indiscriminate tongue. But in practice it is something else, containing as it does a number of “obsolete,” “low,” “vulgar,” and “cant” words; the lexicographer allows the language to remain defiled.
Sade’s 120 Days is structured, like the Dictionary, as a list: 600 perverse sexual “passions” are equally distributed under four major headings. But its ‘preface’ describes proliferation instead of pruning: it is the minute differences between two sexual acts that contain “precisely that refinement … which characterizes and distinguishes the kind of libertinage wherewith we are here involved.” The text works against its stated principle, however: with only 600 slots to fill, multiple variations on the same act are limited, and the ‘refinement’ necessary to pleasure is foreclosed. Indeed, where the lists are most in line with Sade’s theory of libertinage, they are the most monotonous.
Elsewhere in the abstract I write that I want to “read the Dictionary as erotica,” and that’s what #dwitd is an attempt to do.
It all began with the definition of “fornication”: to “commit lewdness.” Well, what’s lewdness? and what are lustfulness, and libidinousness? The Dictionary circles around “the physical act of love” without ever candidly defining it (even the words penis and vagina are absent). This circling can certainly be read as reticence and propriety on Johnson’s part, but it can also be read as lexicographic foreplay, a definitional tease-and-denial game. That’s the reading #dwitd foregrounds: clicking through the looping and intertwined definitions might be enjoyable (or not), but it offers no sense of closure or completion—there is no clear place to stop.²
I have no idea if the game is “fun” or not; I can’t play it for more than a few minutes at a time, but I also find myself clicking through it for no real reason. I built it as a way of visually organizing the connections between the words, because trying to sketch it on paper was insufficient. That didn’t quite work: with 73 passages and 228 connections, it’s hard to parse as a diagram:
[Also, Twine doesn’t count multiple links between passages: so debauch, for example, is only connected to corrupt and intemperate once each, despite each word appearing five times in the definitions for debauch and its forms.]
In the course of building #dwitd, though, I realized that a clearly parseable word-web isn’t really what I wanted; the image above is about as clear as I want things, because the game—like the dictionary—is something to get lost in.
1. With one exception: there is one word which doesn’t loop back into the others; finding that word is as close to a win (or loss) as #dwitd gets. There’s also one—I think just one—unescapable loop (unless one deploys one’s browser’s ‘back’ button).
2. Again, with the exception mentioned in the first footnote. This is an exception I may remove in a future revision, though I also like that the only word offering closure is a bit of a disappointment.
In which I continue this post.
“You are what you eat”—a common enough phrase, and one to which every nine-year-old ever has snarkily responded, “Oh yeah? So I’m a(n) [whatever junk food is to hand]?”
A digression: Michael Pollan (apparently) amended it: “You are what you eat eats.” And as my father says: “It is the fate of all living organisms to become food for other living organisms.”
A further digression: I can’t find any information on the origin of this phrase—none of the dictionaries of phrases/idioms/clichés in the campus library had an entry for it. The internet at large wants to attribute it to Brillat-Savarin, who, in his 1825 The Physiology of Taste, wrote (in French): “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” That’s not the same thing at all, though it’s possible this aphorism is behind the cliché under consideration. This website cites one Dr. Victor Lindlahr as the person responsible for the stubbornly literal version of the phrase.¹
“You are what you eat.” Except, of course, we’re not: we are human, and humans are the one thing we don’t eat.
This is going to be a post full of digressions: other humans aren’t the only thing we don’t eat, of course. Even if we limit ourselves to “living organisms,” there are plenty of things we don’t eat—depending on who that “we” includes, of course. There are plenty of things white middle-class Americans don’t eat that are edible elsewhere—bugs, various organs, rodents, probably some plants too but those aren’t as gross, you get the idea.
And, of course, cannibalism happens: as a cultural practice, in extreme situations, and as—for want of a better word—an aberration.
What I’m after is this: if I ate a bowl of live cockroaches, most people who are culturally similar to me would find it—the act of eating the roaches—disgusting, and—depending on why I ate the roaches—some portion of that disgustingness would attach itself to me. The dude who eats roaches is a gross dude. However: a person who eats roaches is still human. A person who eats other humans ceases, I’m arguing, to be human.
I don’t know why that’s the case. I feel pretty certain that it is the case: see, for example, the word “subhuman” in the first sentence of the above-linked HuffPo article. Also: google “recent cannibal attacks” and scroll through a half-dozen pages of results: along with words like “horrific” and “terrifying” and “flesh eater,” you will probably notice how often the word “zombie” occurs (you may also notice that the CDC weighed in on the question).
Zombies are, of course, not human.² And the contemporary conflation of cannibals and zombies strongly suggests that cannibals—at least, those cannibals of the “aberrant” type—have, in the act of eating human flesh—lost or given up their humanity. Whether that loss is temporary or permanent, I don’t know. I do know that at least one (fictional) cannibal—Crusoe’s man Friday—was rehabilitated and “humanized” (and it’s probably significant that, in the second novel of the trilogy, Friday was killed during a sea battle with a host of cannibals).
But if zombies and cannibals are not human, they’re also not not human—which is a subject for another post.
1 This website seems legit enough, though I remain somewhat skeptical—I’d really like to see the 1923 ad, for instance. I’m also a bit disappointed by the scant attention paid to this phrase: it was in none of the dead-tree phrase dictionaries in the campus library (and I looked in at least a dozen).
2 That “of course” should bother you—because I haven’t actually demonstrated yet that zombies aren’t human. And I might not—maybe I’ll just assert it, and hope it sticks.
Let’s begin this post with an exercise. Take a moment, and try to bite a chunk out of your forearm. I’ll wait.
I’m going to guess that you couldn’t do it—if you actually tried, that is. I certainly couldn’t (and, for the record, I’ve tried on more than one occasion). But it’s a certain kind of couldn’t: what we might loosely call a psychological or instinctive couldn’t—our lizard brains prevent us.
I’m after a different kind of couldn’t: I’m curious whether or not it is physically, physiologically possible for a human being—say, a thirty-year-old male with reasonably well-preserved teeth—to bite into and tear a chunk off of another living human being’s limbs or torso. The biting-my-own-arm experiment is really unhelpful in answering this question: sure, I coud bite my arm harder than I’m willing to bite it, but I have no way of judging if that extra force would be sufficient to puncture and tear human skin and muscle.
Why am I interested in this question, you might be wondering? Zombies, that’s why.
I’m currently working on a paper—and by “working on” I mean “I wrote and submitted an abstract to a conference and I’m not writing anything else until I hear if it was accepted”—…a paper about the connection between zombies and late-early-modern (1650-1800) European representations of cannibals. One of the things I’m interested in is tracing a genealogical path between the two—someday maybe I’ll write a post about that. Right now, I’m interested in teeth:
Gnarly-ass zombie teeth. They don’t look capable of chewing on a raw steak, which I’m guessing—but only guessing—is easier than chewing on tasty (again: guessing) human flesh. The point is that her teeth are prominent—like, say, this dude’s teeth:
Pointy damn teeth, and the defining feature of the photograph. Without the filed teeth, the photograph is something else, something less memorable: the teeth make the man.
I’m not sure I have a point yet, except to point out that teeth are perhaps the defining feature of both cannibals and zombies. The defining action of both is, of course, that they eat people; and, certainly, other physical features are more prominent—zombies are more or less decayed, cannibals are “black” (in the sense that they aren’t “white”). Both of those markers are external, on the skin, difficult if not impossible to conceal—but the teeth can be hidden until the moment of biting.
There’s something to that: think of the scene in The Fellowship of the Ring (the film) when Bilbo, old and decrepit, sees the Ring in Frodo’s possession and suddenly lunges at him—no, don’t think about it, watch it: scary teeth! I’m sure I could find examples in, I don’t know, Alien or any adaptation of Dracula ever made. The teeth are revealed at the moment when the threat is revealed as a threat: or, rather, the revelation of scary (read “pointy”) teeth is what reveals the bearer of the pointy teeth as a threat—one that is about to attempt to eat whoever it is that’s just seen those scary teeth.
Hopefully my abstract will be accepted, and I’ll have an excuse to keeping fleshing this out—and we can all ponder together whether or not human teeth are capable of what zombie teeth do, and why that might be important.
Imagine yourself in early 18th century London. You’re a domestic servant in some inn or other, and one of your duties is emptying the chamberpots. Where are you going to empty them? Into the streets, down the centers of which ran open gutters.
In 1710, Jonathan Swift published a poem — titled “A Description of a City Shower” — which describes the “Filth of all Hues and Odours” that rainwater running down a gutter carries with it: “Dung, Guts, and Blood, / Drown’d Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench’d in Mud, / Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.”
As filthy as all this is — and it’s definitely filthy, and a paradise for infectious diseases of all sorts — it’s preferable to littering.
Shit, piss, vomit, blood, guts, kitchen scraps, dead animals: all of this is organic, part of the enormous and perpetual process of decay and growth that we call life. Shit in the open sewer is going to be eaten by whatever it is that eats shit, and eventually that shit is going to end up in some sort of plant, which will be eaten by some sort of animal, and at least some of it will — after a long and transformative journey — end up eaten by a human being.
(As an aside: anytime you smile while eating, you have a shit-eating grin on your face.)
Think about the litter you’ve seen recently: what was it? Piles of excrement, dead animals, discarded entrails? Probably not. Rather: beer cans, glass bottles, wrappers of various food-shaped substances, styrofoam, cigarette butts. Diapers. Pieces of tire on the highway. Plastic. Rusted metal. Things that aren’t food for anything.
The fact that we throw away so much that isn’t edible — so much that, being inedible, just accumulates — is only part of the problem with littering. I’m not sure I can go in to the rest of the problem, though, because — at least as I look at it — littering is a synecdoche for everything (or most things, anyway) that are wrong with this country.
Laziness. Apathy. Disrespect. Self-centeredness. Vapidity. Stupidity. Cupidity. A total lack of concern for one’s fellow humans, and — worse — a complete and fundamental failure to realize that there are things on this planet other than human beings that have as much right to live and thrive as we do. People who litter are the same people that kick puppies. People who litter urinate on babies. People who litter are like Stalin or Pol Pot, except worse. People who litter should be forced to eat the shit they throw on the ground, and then they should be forced to eat actual shit.
In all seriousness: I don’t like people who litter. I especially don’t like people who litter deliberately. They are bad people.
And, for the record, I did actually pick up some litter today, in addition to writing this tirade.