Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Adulteration of the Adult


 "The Seven Ages of Man" by William Mulready (1838)

I suspect that like many other underemployed Americans I have been wasting far too much of my time of late scouring various news outlets with ears alert for a dull clunk announcing the fall of the second shoe in one of the several presidential episodes only half-completed and therefore still pending.  Conspicuous among these is the curious caper of the Stormy Daniels Retirement Fund.  Stormy Daniels, of course, is the stage- or rather screen-name of a specialized film actress whose claim to have once been intimate with Donald Trump has been met with stout denials and a circuitously “funneled” check for $130,000.

There is in this still murky matter a large potential for titillation, shock, embarrassment, and indignation.  The indignation of an English professor will perhaps strike you as somewhat eccentric in its genre, which is lexical.  The American press, almost without exception, regularly identifies Stormy Daniels as prominent in or even as the “star” of numerous adult movies.  Now I am an adult, and I have been to a movie or two in my time.  I had never even heard of Stormy Daniels let alone ever seen her on the screen.  Of course she has nothing to do with adult movies.  Her specialty is pornography.   Having been goaded into some philological research I can tell you that the first recorded use of the word “adult” as a euphemism for “pornographic” dates only from 1958.  And as the reference work in which I find this information puts it, the development “does no honor to the word adult.”

When Hollywood claims an “adult theme” for one of its products, you can be pretty sure that the subject they have in mind is some form or another of adolescent sex.  It is true that Latin adultus is the past participle of adolescere, but since the sociological emergence of modern “adolescence” in the last century, Americans have displayed a decreasing interest in actually growing up.  Adolescence, which began as a stage, seems increasingly to be permanent life style aspiration.  Any connection between adolescere and adulterare (to corrupt or debauch) is purely fortuitous, though perhaps in the current moment perhaps also poetic.

We tend to divide the span of human life into six parts: infancy, childhood, adolescence, youth, middle age, and the Republic of Senior Citizens.  The traditional list of olden days was slightly more expansive.  Human life had “seven ages”.  The classical expression of the topic in our literature will be found in a well-known soliloquy of Jacques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first [1] the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then [2] the whining schoolboy with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then [3] the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then [4] a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then [5] the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age [6] shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is [7] second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

As you see, for Shakespeare the yukky-love stuff of adolescence was gotten out of the way pretty early on before one advanced to two stages of social gravitas—one in the military, the other in the civic sphere.  Here our President, who is of course both commander-in-chief and executor of the laws, seems to fit the pattern tolerably well.  On the belligerent side “full of strange oaths”, “sudden and quick in quarrel” sound pretty close to the mark.  As for the judicial side, “capon-lined” is a reasonable if perhaps somewhat fanciful description of the midriff; and though our leader is beardless, “formal cut” does at least make a stab at the general tonsorial vibe.  Full of wise saws?  One cannot expect exactitude from a poet.