The Fine Art of the Insult

What makes an insult transcend a mere curse? Mexican-Arab writer Maruan Soto Antaki, visiting New York and finding himself insulted by an Iraqi taxicab driver, investigates.

If you read the press, pay any attention to social networks, or keep an ear open on the street, you might agree that the insult is a concept that is losing its force. Its power has become minimal, rudimentary; insults have become pedestrian. There are no lack of custodians of good taste who call them just bad manners, who forget the vast anthology of insults laid down by so many authors before them, an anthology that still grows by the day.

The insult is sometimes confused with the curse word, with a simple imbecilic crudeness that is a mere adjective; this bothers people who still make a serious project out of trying to offend someone. But the true insult is something much grander, requiring an aesthetic effort in which – as in literature—the way something is articulated can be even more important than what is articulated.

This quality can be found not only in the greatest pieces of writing, but also in certain languages.

In Arabic, it was something along the lines of “I would like to have sex with your sister” that an Iraqi taxi driver in New York told me. The episode helped me identify his accent, somewhat less lyrical than the Syrian Damascus accent. The phrase he used, badly pronounced, is sufficient provocation to merit a physical assault on the person who produces it.

The guy, sullen from the minute I met him when I got into his cab, did not even imagine, until I replied, that I would understand the insult that he flung when I got out of his car. The reasons for his anger are unimportant and rather subjective. But this phrase which he flung at my back- when I heard it I had already gotten out of the car to continue my trip on foot- nevertheless had the virtue that it had traveled thousands of miles to find this one person who could understand it. In their insults you can discern something of the culture of a people.

Since I am an only child, my sister, in addition to being nonexistent, did not have to worry about whether or not she was attracted to this person who wanted to have relations with her. For me, what my nonexistent sister does or does not do in bed is as inconsequential as the carnal undertakings of anyone else in the world. But this insult, which was pointed at me rather than her, carried more weight than a simple taunt.

The words he used were powerful, the phrasing rising above some triviality; he insinuated–meaning no insult to my hypothetical family—that she, who awakened in him such an outpouring, was a deformed freak, stinking and shining like the night; one who would need more intelligent virtues to attract attention than a beauty that the Iraqi might only sense after getting to know her. Like every insult, the purpose was an attempt to stun the opponent with a rapid and deadly weapon.

Not speaking Arabic often, its words slip from my mind. If right now, as I write, I were asked something in this language, I would have to pause for at least a few instants- I don’t know how long-to articulate a decent response. But in that moment, without even realizing it, I began to reply to the taxi driver in an appropriate manner, and I continued to do so for several minutes, in cadences best appropriate to verse.

In Arabic, as in other languages, the insult is a thing of great beauty. It intermixes animals, intentions, and close anatomical studies of the individual. Such words, though they certainly arouse a certain amount of medical curiosity, are nourished above all by what is considered unacceptable by a culture, as opposed to any literal significance. In the Arab tradition dogs are despised; therefore if someone offends me, using in his insult the figure of one with four legs- or even more offensively, a three-legged one doomed to go through its life lame- it matters little that I, personally, love dogs; and the violence of my corresponding anger would be entirely justified.

If the offensiveness of an insult starts with the language, and this is a product of its times, it would clearly have done me little good to follow the advice of Cyrano de Bergerac to Valvert, and comment on the taxi driver’s exceptional nose: “What do you use that nose for: a scissor case? Or an inkwell?” But it is not only language that is important for a good insult; it depends on cleverness as well, as Cyrano insisted to his opponent when he suggested how he might confront him, pointing at his own nasal extension: “It’s a rock, a peak, a cape! It’s an entire peninsula!”

But the cleverness of this insult starts with irony; and it is irony that opens so many doors in what Schopenhauer called The Art of the Insult.

To be effective, irony takes advantage of a certain confusion; it disguises itself from the conscious mind. An ironic taunt must superficially appear sincere. Cyrano after all would not have been able to make fun of his facial protuberance if it had not actually been there, if he had instead had the button nose of a doll (have you ever seen a doll with a spectacular nose?). The insult would have been even less effective if his interlocutor hadn’t known the difference between a peninsula and some other geographic feature. It is irony’s closeness to reality that allows it to flirt with morality and rise above mere wordplay. With its cruelty, it makes comedy.

In addition to these qualities, the ironic insult, though it is an elegant thing, needs something else that the coarse, ephemeral everyday vulgarity lacks: a bit of time. Clearly, if we are in a hurry to put an end to an argument, we are not going to waste seconds on formulating an ironic phrase; we will simply give ourselves over to an adjective: Bribón, mallugo, bellaco, patán, granuja, canalla, guante, zopenco, sinvergüenza, bufón, baboso, alfeñique, berzotas, capullo, mamarracho, gañán, lerdo and pelele, words which in other eras and farther latitudes were an invitation to pull out a pistol, a challenge to duel; now they slip out with ease. Let the reader come up with his own.

Better, in other words, to simply inform, say, a politician that he is an imbecile than to cite Falstaff in Henry the Fourth, telling him “There’s no more faith in thee than in a stewed Prune.” That his imbecility is a flaw is a given, and doesn’t require further elaboration; nobody would consider it a virtue after all. But in his simplemindedness and incuriosity, there remains the possibility that such a politician might have a certain fondness for old stewed prunes; with little effort, this would permit a second insult. For all they might have gone rotten, I have no doubt that in the end the prunes will be the sweeter.

An insult is ineffective if the aggressor is the only one who finds the words offensive, and in the end it is up to the recipient’s judgment to determine how much damage has been done by what he has said. This takes place on every level, from the rhetoric of the powerful man who, shielding himself in cynicism, makes false declarations to pull the wool over the eyes of the unfortunate masses, down to the level of the common man.

So, just for example, a guy who one time took issue with me over my positions on the war in Syria describing me as “a shitty humanist,” only succeeded in pleasing me, in spite of his scatological claim that I imagine had the opposite intention. His judgment of me, in spite of its contrary effect, had all the apparent conditions of an insult: if space or metal ability do not allow for constructing an argument, it becomes a matter of petty honor to be the one who casts the last stone, one that needs no truth, acuity, knowledge or intelligence. The attack is on the person, not subject of the debate, his discourse or ideas.Even if they are subtly expressed, the “you are wrong,” “it isn’t like that,” and “look who is talking” end up in the entire volley of suppositions with which without any prior explanation, one seeks to undermine the claims of a person with whom one disagrees. They end up joining with the poor adjective that seeks to a like reaction from the other, pulling everything down into puerility, intellectual vacuity, or even the animal reaction that, if it delivers a physical victory in the dispute, gives the most basic and ample satisfaction, one which no one can really escape.

Like declarations of love, insults lose their force with repetition, the words becoming diluted among others less compromised. With a kind of democratic spirit-pointing out stupidity is something anyone can do, while on occasions a stupid person can succeed in shrinking with an insult the intellectual distance separating him from a more able opponent.

From comments written on the margins of articles to debates that bog down in mere adjectives, the paltry effort we make in the service of truly good insults is everywhere visible. Those who learn this art, who practice it, can deploy it like a rapier, immobilizing an opponent with the most powerful tool of debate: with language alone, the product of our intelligence. And thus the insult can be transformed into a gift of intelligence and aesthetics.

Maruan Soto Antaki Translated from Spanish by International Boulevard