The world has lost a brilliant mind and a continual source of hilarity and honesty (two things that, surprisingly, are always compatible). George Carlin died last night in a Santa Monica hospital of heart problems. I was lucky enough to see Carlin perform once (at the Laugh Factory in LA), and had long thought he was easily the most brilliant stand-up comic of the last three decades. Oddly, I was planning on buying tickets for a show he was scheduled to have in Chicago this fall.
Carlin and George Orwell had a lot in common. Both were fascinated and horrified by the evolution, more appropriately the devolution, of language. Orwell's 1984 is renowned for its creation of "Newspeak" a language that continually shrinks, taking away people's abilities to express themselves, and thus their ability to rebel against totalitarianism. Carlin was repulsed by indirect language, terms that sought to camouflage reality. He adored direct language and thus, naturally, adored curse words. His tracing of the devolution of shell shock, from "battle fatigue" to "operational exhaustion" to "post-traumatic stress disorder," is a classic example. (If you're interested, it's on track 14 of his Explicit Lyrics album.) So it seems appropriate to commemorate his death with his following discourse . . . on death. Or rather, on the terminology of old age and death---
"And we have no more old people in this country. No more old people. We shipped them all away, and we brought in these senior citizens. Isn't that a typically American twentieth century phrase? Bloodless, lifeless, no pulse in one of them. A senior citizen. But I've accepted that one, I've come to terms with it. I know it's to stay. We'll never get rid of it. That's what they're going to be called, so I'll relax on that, but the one I do resist. The one I keep resisting is when they look at an old guy and they'll say, "Look at him Dan! He's ninety years young." Imagine the fear of aging that reveals. To not even be able to use the word "old" to describe somebody. To have to use an antonym. And fear of aging is natural. It's universal. Isn't it? We all have that. No one wants to get old. No one wants to die, but we do! So we bullshit ourselves. I started bullshitting myself when I got to my forties. As soon as I got into my forties I'd look in the mirror and I'd say, "well, I...I guess I'm getting...older." Older sounds a little better than old doesn't it? Sounds like it might even last a little longer. Bullshit, I'm getting old! And it's okay, because thanks to our fear of death in this country, I won't have to die...I'll pass away. Or I'll expire like a magazine subscription. If it happens in the hospital, they'll call it a terminal episode. The insurance company will refer to it as negative patient-care outcome. And if it's the result of malpractice, they'll say it was a therapeutic misadventure. I'm telling you, some of this language makes me want to vomit. Well, maybe not vomit. Makes me want to engage in an involuntary personal protein spill!"