Watch the Language: The Importance of Profanity in “Glengarry Glen Ross”

Shocking as the language in “Glengarry Glen Ross” may be, in terms of being punctuated by profanity, it could not be so artfully rendered without that necessary foulness. Not only do such offensive words underline the toxic masculinity that chokes the play, but they also provide a heightened realism to the dialogue of the word, and create a sense of the dynamics and personalities that otherwise might not be so easily interpreted in terms of the ‘pack order’ within the office. The language of a story is the soul of a story. It forms the heart and power of it; to withhold the necessary language out of fear of offending others would be to, this play’s terms, castrate it of all potency. In that case, it might as well never be written, for it cannot be received in the manner so intended by David Mamet; therefore, its meaning is changed and lost.

In “Glengarry Glen Ross”, the most notable theme is the socially destructive nature of toxic masculinity. Every unit of a civilization—from a family to an office—can be considered its own state in some manner. By understanding this, and seeing the ruin that toxic masculinity brings in “Glengarry Glen Ross”, it is understood that toxic masculinity also wrecks civilizations by breeding determinate aggressive, deceit, pressure, and viciousness. It cannot be checked in practice, because constraints only make it boil over further. Yet this is just what has been done in this setting; these men work in an office as salesfolk—and important ones at that, going by the need to weed out some workers, and the violent struggle for dominance among the ‘pack’. They have no guns or open battles. There are no dogs or hunts to be had. Most of the stereotypical, American masculine attributes have been stripped away. What does this leave? Cutthroat competition and constant fights in the ring for dominance. What makes the most dominant man? The one who can outspeak everyone and outstrip them in terms of sales. This is what they vie for, and in doing so, they use their language as a weapon, a force, a punctuation of emphatic blows. They cut others down, criticize their actions, call into question their masculinity, and cow others by puffing up their own egos with their voices. Without the plastering of profanity to emphasize this, the point would not be so heavily made.

It also heightens the realism. Such language is very commonplace. Honestly, even in an all-female group I worked with for a whole semester at the KSU Lifestyle magazine, it wasn’t unusual for me to hear my boss or others use a fair bit of profanity. People use profanity to make points, attract attention, and assert dominance. It is a verbal shorthand for imposing oneself. To “clean up” the language would be to take the reality out of the work. The play centers solely around dialogue; it takes a masterful ear and hand to capture the rhythm and integrity of a certain type of speech, as well as its violence and duplicity. In adeptly portraying this, Mamet breathes life into the characters that would otherwise be absent. They are so precise that people who come from the same environment echo their language today.

Furthermore, it presents clear-cut dynamics to analyze. In using words to dominate one another, the men create a visible hierarchy. Those who use more effectively forceful language—such as Roma and Aaronow—are the ones who can work the others and take charge. They become the more powerful businessmen because they can impose their will on others, which again feeds into their sense of masculinity and power. Others, such as Moss, use their language ineffectively. They present a hesitant and malleable front that is taken advantage of. Williamson stands apart in that, while he is not forced to use such language so often, he has the privilege of overseeing the general rabble; his position is more guaranteed, and therefore his reason for lack of desperation clearer.

Finally, while less can be more, a prolific amount of something can emphasize the places where it is barren. The times where less profanity is used—such as Roma’s first interaction with Lingk—become dramatically more noticeable. This is no accident; it is this quality of adaptability that truly makes Roma stand apart. He knows how to switch his style; he can flip from the most dominant in the office to a friendly, approachable, clever man who applies his masculinity in a more subtle and persuasive way. Here is a character able to—momentarily—escape the vat of toxic masculinity. He can set aside his violent act enough to make a deal and be the best in the office. Clearly, success is not so tied to the rigidity of what is defined as power, but instead to the ability to change one’s interactions and tactics to best corner the situation and fit into the larger society of all people.

Therefore, it is obvious that use of profanity is necessary and desired within “Glengarry Glen Rose”, as violent as it is. It takes the place of physical violence, and forms a lens through which we can view how such people interact and what prompts them to act the way they do. It also raises further questions: if Roma and his ability to set this aside for even a bit is what makes the “top man” in terms of success, why do so few men follow suit?

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On the Style of ‘Lyric’

Reading Citizen: An American Lyric is an experience which captures a niche in my heart unlike any other book I’ve read. The connection her story gives me comes not only from the words themselves and their simplistic profundity, but also from their presentation and the lasting impact it leaves upon my memory. She wraps the unexpected in the expected, turning things against the reader in a way that builds a deeper understanding of her themes. She creates human connection with her unusual viewpoint and formatting. She uses images to reinforce her thoughts and prompt the reader to form their own conceptions on the meaning. She forces the reader to think and to empathize. Section III, is one of my favorites because of how crisply all her techniques come to fruition in it. Additionally, the image on pages 52-53 also bears testimony to the power of her stylistic choices.

In poetic terms, she breaks tradition. She both redefines ‘lyric’ and reaffirms its current definition. Usually, a lyric poem is written to express the writer’s emotions, is organized into stanzas, and is meant to rhyme. Rankine unequivocally expresses her emotions, but does not rhyme or stick to ‘traditional’ stanzas; rather, she uses paragraphs which give her words a novel-like form. By naming her novel ‘Lyric’, she puts us in mind of poetry. By writing “prose” poems, she turns the expected unexpected and increases the power of her message. In such a way, Rankine seamlessly combines poem and novel, and through that, by presenting her voice, labeled by one form, shown through another, she strikes home one of her greatest underlying points: that a core issue in the terms of race is that of the White American Public’s problem with ‘the Black body’—a human being who is packaged in a manner they did not expect and have been trained unconsciously to resent for that jarring moment when they recognize another as not fitting into their limited worldview.

With viewpoint, she again seized the reins of the unexpected, turning all narration over to the reader, in a way, by using ‘you’. It is not ‘her’. It is not ‘I’. There is no way it can be alienated or separated to be considered as the experience of ‘the other’. It is forced to be your experience, your vision, your memory played over again in your head in these tight, black-texted paragraphs on their backdrop of shiny white paper.

By using such short and sentences in contrast with long ones, Rankine creates a unique rhythm of stops and starts that mimic the flowing of memory: first focusing on a long clear image and then spiraling off into short and clipped ones. Or else it starts small and builds to a long ending that wraps it all together. She uses dialogue, but without quotations. Why? It is a narration of what you are doing and experiencing. When you talk to someone, you do not see quotations appear around their words; they have no place in real conversation, so they have no place here. Again, Rankine challenges form. She has dialogue, but she does not want to separate it. She is not writing a novel. She is writing memory and showing reality. By making the written situation more real for the reader, she increases the power it has.

The image on pages 52-53 read: “I do not always feel colored”, and “I feel most colored when thrown against a sharp white background”. This image, of splattered black words—thrown against a sharp white background—creates a visual not only of what the text there states, but also underlines the appearance of the entire book: how the pages are sharply white—made of paper designed to support detailed colored images—and the text is black and emphasized by the starkness of its backdrop. It also relates to my favorite passage, the one on page 44. There, Rankine recounts a situation of ‘you’ speaking with your manager and heading down to meet him in person—presumably for the first time—only for him to react with shock at realizing ‘you’ are Black. This image represents that well. ‘You’ did not feel colored on the phone with the manager. It was not important until ‘you’ were before his eyes, and then “thrown against a sharp white background” of ‘everyone else’. Both the passage and the picture demonstrate that, until you are being forced to notice a contrast in things, such as color, you do not always consider them in the same way. Without the contrast, ‘you’ are comfortable. When an emphasis is placed on how different ‘you’ are, ‘you’ have no choice but to be uncomfortable, because other people are making ‘you’ uncomfortable on their behalf; they don’t want to deal with ‘you’ as they are—so they make you deal with them. Rankine included this picture for just such a purpose: to visually link together this concept of contrast and show, in a new format, the meaning it had.

Thoreau’s Human Consciousness

The human consciousness, and its power of insightful connections that enlighten us to deeper meaning, is our most valuable possession. Leo Marx claimed that, in Walden, Thoreau says ultimate meaning and value, “[do] not reside in the natural facts or in social institutions or in anything ‘out there’, but in consciousness. It is the product of imaginative perception, of the analogy-perceiving, metaphor-making mythopoeic power of the human mind”.  This is true, for Thoreau well-demonstrated how his focus on the natural world presented him with gateways into deeper thinking that permitted exploration, understanding, and connection with himself and his beliefs. The chapters: “Sounds”, “Brute Neighbors”, and “Spring” display the greatest examples of this in Walden.

In “Sounds”, Thoreau speaks at length of the Fitchburg Railroad’s impact on nature and humanity. Its interruptions to his greater narrative show that any tangent of life can allow the human mind to embark upon intense examination of the meaning and connections one can derive from the event. “To do things “railroad fashion” is now the byword,” stated Thoreau (127), lamenting that his fellows set their clocks and lives by the railroad’s ticking time, rather than embracing a more contemplative time, as he does: “[he] lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing…” (120). He continues more darkly: “We have constructed a fate, an Atropos that never turns aside”, linking the course humanity has set itself upon with that Greek Fate, whose charge it is to sever the thread of each human’s life. This profound connection continues to weave its thread through his narrative, echoing itself in his lamentation that the train cannot truly be heroic, for it brings unwelcome change in human behavior; not only altering the perceptions of time itself, but also in bringing air and noise pollution and reshaping the structure of the land and how society evolves and interacts with greater ability to travel and new focus on innovation of technology, leading us further from nature. Truly, this is a profound observation to come from a simple moment of an annoying train shattering his prior line of thought, and shows well the power and value of the human consciousness, in taking the passing fancy and extracting great meaning from it, as Thoreau understands it in his meditations.

Yet, not all thoughts must be profound to showcase the power of the human consciousness. Thoreau begins “Brute Neighbors” with a tête-à-tête between a ‘Hermit’ and a ‘Poet’, possible personas of himself that aid him in his exploration of human thought. The Hermit claims to have been experiencing a “serious meditation”, though his prior inner thoughts, are anything but (243-244). However, this haphazard thinking shows the how the human consciousness operates, springing from idea to idea, linking concepts and moments together, seemingly at random, upon an external prompt: farmer’s horn, to farmhands, to the work they do, to a dog on the farm, to the farmhouse and its keeping, to the effort it takes to keep a house, and then back to nature again with hollow trees and the woodpeckers who would make their homes within them. And through the conversation between the Hermit and the Poet, one mind—Thoreau’s—explores two, and so shows how one can come to understand the characters of different people. The Poet focuses on the beauty before him, in the moment. He wishes to fish and spend time with the Hermit. In turn, the Hermit struggles; he is caught between remaining and attempting to find a deeper and more ‘meaningful’ meditation—and so therefore ascend to ‘heaven’, metaphorically, by continuing spiritual pursuits, or else do likewise as the poet and reconnect with the immediate and concrete world. The ultimate result of the inner conflict is shown in the Hermit’s prior thoughts—his earlier ‘meditations’, while significant, carry not the profundity he desires; moreover, his greater focus already appears to be upon fishing, for he can describe the best worm-hunting spot and method to the Poet without hesitation, implying his scattered thoughts before were distracted by the immediate rather than the upward-thinking. This shows how the human consciousness holds value as a tool to understand both ourselves and others, how we might achieve our desires, and where our true interests lie.

In the penultimate chapter of Walden, “Spring”, Thoreau again demonstrated where he found meaning and value in life. He stated, “Few phenomena gave me more delight than to observe the forms which thawing sand and clay assume in flowing down the sides of a deep cut on the railroad through which I passed on my way to the village…” (330). While this beginning passage shows his value in the natural world—for it certainly cannot be denied that he places vast importance upon it and the appreciation of it—he also uses this connection and focal point of time as a mental ‘gateway’ to explore his own consciousness—which holds the greatest value to him, as every bit of nature or thing that he sees and involves himself in serves as a bridge for his consciousness to explore. The imagery of this passage flows through a stream of consciousness, examining interconnection of life and humanity, as Thoreau likens the patterns the clay and sand made to vines and leaves, then to animal parts, and then to human body parts. As he watches, he muses on word sounds and how similar shapes can be found in many things—such as butterflies, Earth, ice, and trees. Ultimately, he comes to view this phenomenon as a representation of spring and of nature’s interconnection to humanity, currently and historically: “but this [phenomenon] suggests at least that Nature has some bowels, and there again is mother of humanity. This is the frost coming out of the ground; this is Spring. It precedes the green and flowery spring, as mythology precedes regular poetry” (334). Clearly, the human consciousness holds great value in its ability to link together life, language, and nature— allowing us to understand the significance of these things and their relationship to one another.

Thoreau’s interest and exploration of the human consciousness cannot be denied, for it forms a central theme of Walden, touching on everything, for thought and self-awareness are vital to his contemplation of nature and the things surrounding him and the ways they might connect to a higher meaning. His appreciation of the value and meaning in the human consciousness remains clear: he obsesses over it, speaks for pages using it, and lets his surroundings serve as doorways into passages of intense thought and intricate linkage and understanding of the interconnections of life. Truly, Leo Marx spoke correctly: ultimate meaning and value are derived by the activities of the human mind and its power.

Binx: Why He Searches and What He Finds

Binx says the search, “is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.” (13) But how do we know what is everyday? We can imagine that, for everyone, everydayness becomes something different and personal, a unique coating of dust that gets in our joints and traps us in one routine, stiffening us until we can’t bend out of our rutted path long enough to find a rotation. Binx terms “a good rotation” as “the experience of the new beyond the expectation of the experiencing of the new.” (144) In The Moviegoer, his search is a center point for not only himself and the story, but for us readers as well. Yet, by the end, he has little to say on the matter, and merely continues on in summing up his life before politely leaving us and fading away altogether. Why would such an integral focu be so easily brushed under the rug? I would say it is best summed up by what Binx’s cousin, Kate, says to him when she explains how she has ‘found her freedom’ and quite her therapy: “But even if Merle knew [that a person is completely free] there is no way in the world I could have taken his advice. How strange to think that you cannot pass along the discovery.” (114) In essence this can be taken to understand that the search cannot be explained or told, but must be found individually by everyone. Binx has nothing more to tell of his search, at the story’s end, as we have walked with him the whole way and seen it for ourselves; and if we haven’t seen it, then he cannot explain it, because we must draw our own conclusions, for all searches can, in some way, help us in our own search, and no one but yourself can truly find that for you.

 

Binx’s search digs a hole through the text, and as it does so, it swirls us down a drain with it, sinking us into the malaise: the dull, dreary droning of life that must be experienced in order set us on the path to start our own search.  The malaise is natural; it is the beaten path that people wear themselves into. It is the laziness that steals upon you when nothing ever changes but the calendar day. And it is not so much a question of escaping it; for Binx does not manage to outrun his malaise throughout the book. Rather, you must learn to balance with it, and to find enough change and growth in life to reach a point where you walk with the malaise, but neither of you carry the other. The way to do this, is to find a route where you are not truly alone; this does not mean you must have a person as your companion, though Binx says otherwise and seems to outright disdain the thought of taking up a hobby or other passion instead, stating that such a thing, as he sees it, is merely a placebo and not a treatment for the lasting effects of the malaise. Given the transcendentalism laced within The Moviegoer, and the questions of religion—for when Binx first introduces “the nature of the search”, he teases us with the semi-rhetorical question: “What do you seek—God?”—it can also be understood that finding company and contentment in one’s own person or soul may prove the needed balance. But what Binx needs seems to be just what he both longs for and seeks to escape.

 

Binx dislikes the everydayness of life; it can be said he might consider himself above it, much as his aunt considers herself above a certain “lower” class of people. Binx proves himself acutely aware—almost hypervigilant even—of his environment, and especially of the people in it. He remains fixated on people, be it one of his string of girls he plays around with, seeking companionship through, or through some member of his family or looser acquaintances. Yet, he does not click with many at all; they seem to float through one another like ghosts—a symptom of the malaise that blankets all, as Binx says, of it, “The world is lost to you, the world and the people in it, and there remains only you and the world and you no more able to be in the world than Banquo’s ghost.” (120) Otherwise, they remain unable to approach one another at all; in Binx’s meeting with Harold, a supposed close acquaintance of the past, he describes their disconnection as “[standing] off the peninsula like ships becalmed—unable to move.” (210) The only two he does truly understand, and who sincerely understand him, are his cousin, Kate, and his half-brother, Lonnie, who both ironically represent one of the two most humdrum paths that you might imagine in the search for your place and yourself: normalcy, and religion.

 

In order to understand what “normalcy” is, especially concerning Kate and Binx, who are not truly as “normal” and humdrum as other people are portrayed in The Moviegoer, we have to define normalcy by the times of the novel. In the 1950s, despite the great changes that had begun rocking the country, there remained a powerful current of convention, especially in the South. Women, especially those of higher standing, like Kate, were expected to marry and carry on the family line. Men, too, were generally expected to marry, get a good job, and become a pillar of society. Part of Binx’s search seems to be to escape this, yet he also seems to long for it by how he runs through strings of girls and seeks some way to be happy with them. A discovery he makes, in his journey for the search, is that normalcy isn’t a river with a single current and direction, but an ocean that spreads out vast possibility, with thousands of niches that he can fit himself into, in his own way. By marrying Kate, someone he can understand and who understands him, he has taken up the role of someone who does his duty and becomes what is expected of him. But he also does this on his own terms. Though he does marry the person his mother desired him to, and he does choose to follow his aunt’s suggestion of studying medical school, he does them in his own time and his own way. A central concern Binx seems to have is that he will become “nobody nowhere” or “anyone anywhere” and lose his sense of self by becoming merely another conforming member of the masses. Yet in his fear of failing to distinguish himself, he fails to progress much and continues to rattle around, unsatisfied, until he finally happens upon the choices: helping Kate, talking with Kate, spending time with Sharon, going to see his mother’s family, going to Chicago with Kate, deciding to marry Kate– in essence, choosing to choose something that forces him to truly take a step forward.

 

As for religion, Binx says, “Other people, so I have read, are pios as children and later become skeptical. . . Not I. My unbelief was invincible from the beginning. I could never make head or tail of God.” (145) This might seem an odd quote, especially given his statements of how devote his mother’s family is, and seeing strong example of this through his interactions with his half-brother, Lonnie, who proves himself highly devoted and interested in the subject of religion. And it does seem that the inner searching for the soul and religion– an aspect of the transcendentalist tones pervasive in parts of The Moviegoer– is as typical a search, to the average American, as Jay Gatsby’s American Dream was, and still is. But it is not the search that Binx can comprehend; in fact, he states: “If God himself had appeared to me, it would have changed nothing. . .I have only to hear the word God and a curtain comes down in my head.” (145) This may be because God, while He can be found, He cannot be found in His pure form, unaltered by human interpretation. And it may be that everyone’s search is from a different aspect of themselves; Binx’s is not spiritual, but physical and emotional. He needs something to do with himself, and he needs someone to do it with.

 

Another aspect of Binx, that surely factors into his search and drive for something that clicks, is that he may well suffer from PTSD. He has served in the Korean War, and he was traumatically physically injured; it is stated that a friend actually saved his life, implying the circumstances he found himself in become quite seriously dire. Moreover, he suffered infection of his wound, as he later tells Sharon. These are quite enough to open the door to his suffering this ailment, and his behavior throughout the story may prove it. Binx’s great fixation on people and description of them and things around him may be taken as a facet of the hypervigilance that often stalks those suffering PTSD. Perhaps even his search itself, his need to find something, is fueled by a disquiet in his mind that somewhere, something may be wrong and he has to find it before he can truly rest. Yet, he also has difficulty focusing on things, such as when he recounts his ‘brief stint’ into research and found himself constantly distracted and seeking elsewhere. He also suffers insomnia, and says, “I do not try to sleep.” (86) He has odd dreams and sleep disturbances; at his mother’s house he wakes very suddenly and early, “amid the smell of dreams and of the years come back and peopled and blown away like smoke.” (144) He also says similar things when first beginning his explanation of the search: “I dreamed of the war, no, not quite dreamed but woke with the taste of it in my mouth, the queasy-quince taste of 1951 and the Orient.” (10) He goes on to recount, vaguely, the time he was injured and lying under a bush. He has had a flashback, though does not cage it in such terms; PTSD still was not well-understood until during and after the later Vietnam War, and even then it remained ‘shameful’ and understudied for some time. When he wakes at his mother’s house, he experiences distress and anger:

In a sudden rage, as if I had been seized by a fit, I roll over and fall in a heap on the floor and lie shivering on the boards, worse off than the miserablest muskrat in the swamp. Nevertheless I vow: I’m a son of a bitch if I’ll be defeated by the everdayness. (145)

This reads reminiscent of the stories of returning veterans struggling to fit into civilian life again. Part of Binx’s connection with Kate, and his search, stems from his feelings of not fitting in and being generally uncomfortable and dissatisfied with things. He also appears to suffer from depression, having constant ‘low fits’ like Kate’s downward swings, and often viewing the world in a gloomy and isolated manner. As a final similarity between Binx and battle-wearied soldiers, his statements in Chapter Two, Section 9, regarding seeing death in humans, mirrors a statement by the narrator of A Rumor of War. Binx says: “For some time now the impression has been growing upon me that everyone is dead. . . It happens when I speak to people. In the middle of a sentence it will come over me: yes, beyond a doubt this is death.” (99) In A Rumor of War, author, Philip Caputo, says:

I saw their living mouths moving in conversation and their dead mouths grinning the taut-drawn grins of corpses. Their living eyes I saw, and their dead eyes still-staring. Had it not been for the fear that I was going crazy, I would have found it an interesting experience, a trip such as no drug could possibly produce. Asleep and dreaming, I saw dead men living; awake, I saw living men dead. (A Rumor of War)

Furthermore, the author, Walker Percy’s, opening quote: “…the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair,” by Søren Kierkegaard. (The Sickness Unto Death) This rings powerfully with Binx’s character as well. He does not merely walk under the shade of a malaise, but, without something to do, and steps made forward, he is a malaise himself, possibly suffering from conditions he has little name or thought for, and that keeps him from being able to advance, as he otherwise might, along the road of his search.

 

In conclusion, I would say, that Binx has made great strides in his search for himself, his place, and his meaning. He has understood that settling down is not a chain to prevent his search, but affords him a companion he can search with and thus venture further on in his journey. His spirituality remains in question; he seems to find no real use for it, or interest in it, but so did he with the thought of really marrying and doing what his aunt and family wanted– he repeatedly stated he lacked the inclination for it. So it may be that the next leg of his search will be to turn towards God, or further puzzle out his feelings towards such things. For surely the search is never over and done until you yourself have passed, and even then, your former existence might be helping someone else to begin or go through their search. It continues on, rotating and cycling like Binx’s ‘experiments’ of the same experience years apart. Binx has, for now, resolved the true beginning of his search. But in the future, it might come about that he begins again, and again, and each time finds himself the same, but each time stretches further, until he can at last reach the heart of what he seeks, which only he himself can truly know and understand. We, as readers, can but interpret it and seek to find our own meaning through his.