The ecstasy of sanctimony

This sounds like a good book.

The English used to be plain-speaking, boisterous eccentrics, their conversation peppered with words like “shittenly”, “turdy” and “crackfart”. But then something odd happened: a peculiar squeamishness overtook the nation (or at least Middle England), reflecting a new anxiety about sexual matters, bodily functions and nudity. Byron was reliably blunt about the changing times. “Cant,” he observed, “is so much stronger than the Cunt nowadays.” He is one of several perverters of public decency in this enjoyable book who suffer the full force of “the rage of virtue”. As Ben Wilson explains, there was also a class bias to this new-found decorum as defenders of public morals legislated out of existence all the “little pleasures of the poor” (“Give me the society where I can eat, drink, laugh, joke and smoke as I like,” insists a character in a novel of the period – an oddly modern-sounding sentiment).

Interesting – and timely, too, given that we seem to be entering a new Age of Cant: the age of the anti-smoking guru, the quack nutritionist and the rehab bore.

(The title for this post comes from a line of Philip Roth’s, in The Human Stain.)

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