the hour of the freak

As I’ve written before, Daniel Tiffany’s Infidel Poetics is full of wonderful things, paragraphs that make me want to lay it aside and write long, gulflike commentaries. For instance, in exploring the “canting” literature of the 17th century, he writes this: “Before it entered modern usage, “slang” meant, in canting jargon, “to exhibit anything in a fair or market, such as a tall man, or a cow with two heads.”38 Hence, “slang” originally referred to the exhibition of freakish things—a kind of social and economic profanity.” Anatoly Liberman, a historian of lexicographer, surveys the theories about the etymology of slang and comes down on the use of slang as the word for making the rounds of a territory – being “out on the slang”. This could apply to actors, prostitutes, or mountebanks. But Liberman, too, concedes that the use of slang to denote a kind of language came from some linguistic sub-group – either thieves’ jargon or hawkers’ jargon. There is a “secret language” named Shelta, combining Irish and English terms, which was common among itinerants in the 17th century – we get the word bloke from this coded speech – and perhaps slang as a word for movement went into Shelta and came out as the word for words like slang.  Another rather charming nineteenth century theory was propounded by one of those English churchmen with too much time on their hands, Isaac Taylor, who combined the “out on the slang” phrase with a story that there was once, in the wilds of Derbyshire, a village called Flash, where all the tinkers used to meet. Hence, this is where the term “flash” – which in the nineteenth century referred to that louche magnificence that any American first grader will tell you is pimping – came from, and where the equivalence between flash language and being out on the slang was forged.

As well – and this is where Tiffany’s theory of the lyric is both brilliant and highly poetic – this is where the connection between obscurity and the obscure, between the indirection that misleads the police and the people who don’t count, who slip like shadows, or, sand, or dirt, or any mysterious commonness between the cracks of history, was forged. Tiffany wants to re-assert the prole nature of the poem in the epoch of capitalism. He’s mining a vein that has been worked both by Wordsworth and by Baudelaire – the latter when, in Les paradis artificiels, he wrote that under the effect of haschich:

“…is developed that mysterious and temporary state of mind where the depth of life, spiky with its multiple problems, is revealed completely in the so natural and so trivial spectacle that one has under one’s eyes – where the first object we come upon becomes a speaking symbol. Fourier and Swedenborg, one with his analogies and the Fourier et Swedenborg , the former with his analogies and the latter with his correspondances, are incarnated in the vegetable and animal realms that fall under your gaze, and instead of teaching vocally, they indoctrinate you by their form and color. The intelligence of allegory takes on, in you, proportions you never dreamt of; we will note in passing that allegory, that spiritual genre, which clumsy painters have accustomed us to despise, but which is really one of the most primitive and natural form of poetry, re-establishes its legitimate domination in the intelligence illuminated by intoxication. In this way, haschich extends itself on life like a magic gloss. I colors it solemnly and throws a light into its depths.”

Of course, Baudelaire did not buy his buzz on the street corner – he was one of the subjects of the good Dr. Moreau, who – like so many doctors who are found in the shadowy corners of the intersection between the art world and the underworld – gave little experimental parties to which such gents as Baudelaire and Balzac were invited.

You could say that what Tiffany calls the “sociological sublime” is the hour of the freak. The freak marks the spot where the powers that be encounter something that is not so much resistance as a portal to a realm in which the ideology of strength, the backbone and boner of the patriarchy, has no dominion.


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