Friday, October 21, 2016

Underground Filth

By Jean Roberta

OMG, I’ve been wrong for years about the original meaning of “obscene.” I used to think the concept of “obscenity” was connected with ancient Greek drama, and what could not be part of a scene, i.e. acted-out on stage. For the ancient Greeks, sex was okay (in fact, sex was hilarious, and was part of a comic tradition), but violence had to be described by a wailing chorus, not acted out. (The Big Three Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, would have been horrified by Shakespeare’s tragedies, which all end with a corpse-strewn stage. In Shakespeare’s own time, the people in the first three rows would be sprayed with pig’s blood during the sword fights. This was part of the glamour of the theatre.)

I used to think the actual meaning of “obscene” shifted with each era and culture. I still think I was on the right general track, but I didn’t understand the root of the word until I looked it up.

“Obscene” apparently comes from two Latin words, a prefix meaning “to” or “towards,” and a root word, “caenum,” meaning filth. At one time, “obscene” apparently meant “inauspicious” or unlucky. This seems like a stretch, but there is some logic in it. If you accidentally step in dog poop or rotten food, you are definitely not lucky. The concept of filth has continued to be central in the ways the word is used. So whatever is considered dirty, literally or metaphorically, can be described as obscene.

On that note, Spouse and I used to have some obscene carpeting in our basement. In one corner, one old carpet had been placed atop another. Another side of the space was completely covered. When we first moved into our new home in December 1999, the carpets on the concrete floor made the place look cozier. I remember Spouse saying, “This looks like a room, not a basement.”

Fast-forward to October 2016, and the basement still looks like a storage space for junk, but the junk has shifted with my sporadic efforts to clean up and sort out. I have actually done a lot of work down there, but no matter how much I throw away, or load into boxes and bags and donate to a second-hand store, there is still stuff left that might be useful someday, to someone.

In my own defense, let me show you a sample of the junk: a huge amplifier in one corner, a leftover part of Older Stepson’s stash that he stored with us years ago, after he moved back to the prairies from a port city where he was a minor rock star whose girlfriend left him for the drummer, a mess worthy of Rolling Stone magazine. Since then, Stepson has regrouped, now lives with a better girlfriend and her children, but he hasn’t said anything about the amplifier. Even still, I can guess what would happen if I quietly disposed of it: a complaint that he had drawn up a will leaving all his musical equipment to his stepchildren and their descendants, and how could I (not a trained sound tech like Stepson) possibly know the diff between broken-down equipment and a collector's item?

But I digress. Months ago, I decided the carpets (at least) had to go, so I armed myself with rubber gloves, an industrial mask, and a carpet-cutting tool that looks like a scimitar. The carpets were too big for me to haul upstairs and out the door by myself, and my two stepsons’ vague offers to help didn’t have deadlines attached to them.

On Canadian Thanksgiving, our “family” (mostly the family of our friend Sue, her four grown children, their kids and Significant Others, plus whoever we knew who wasn’t otherwise committed) was invited to our house. There were two babies, two preschoolers, and approximately twenty adults in three age-groups.

As we prepared, Spouse complained that she could smell the basement, and that the vapours from below were competing obnoxiously with the aroma of roasting turkey. So I descended with my tools, and sawed away until I had strips of carpet that I carried to the wheeled garbage bins in the lane that our city government brought out a few years ago. (Most of us residents hate them, but we have to wrestle with them.)

Getting that stuff out of the house was a great relief. Pets of ours who are no longer living (as well as the current pack) had clearly enjoyed the softness of carpeting on their bums as they had peed and pooped there. Generations of flies had laid their eggs in the mess. Even though the mask made it hard for me to breathe while I was working, I think it was necessary.

Those carpets were so filthy that doing anything “obscene” on them (in the usual sense) would have been unthinkable, at least to those of us who live here.

Who would really associate sex with garbage, mess or rot? Censors would. But sex can also be associated with messes in a way that seems appealing. Stay tuned for Part Two of this post.


  1. Such a relief to get rid of the ick.

  2. Your etymological investigations are so interesting! I came across the Greek explanation (the one you debunked) while trying to think of what to write for my post. Funny how pervasive that one seems to be.


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