Classical Greek dramatists believed that it was degrading to show extreme emotion on stage. Some action had to be implied off stage (ob skene) because it was unfit to display explicitly. The classical idea of obscenity included sexual conduct, but would also include expressions of anguish.

I’m more concerned about obscenity in the classical sense than the more narrow contemporary sense. I am not disturbed by salty language or innuendo as much as I am by seeing lives turned inside-out publicly. I am deeply offended, for example,  by a reporter shoving a microphone in a hysterical woman’s face and asking her how she feels now that she has lost her husband. That is obscene.

Related post: Place, privacy, and dignity

11 thoughts on “Obscenity

  1. There is some controversy over the etymology of “obscene.” The word enters English from Latin, but it’s debatable whether the Latin came from the Greek ob skene. I’ve seen at least a couple sources on both sides of the issue. In any case, I believe the description of Greek sensibility is correct, that extreme emotion should be implied off scene.

  2. I wonder what the proliferation of “reality” television and constant status updating is doing to our culture. What does it mean when there is no “off stage”?

  3. >>but it’s debatable whether the Latin came from the Greek ob skene. I’ve seen at least a couple sources on both sides of the issue.

    Could you cite these? The phrase “ob skene” seems to be an internet meme. I think it’s dubious, given that the “ob-” prefix is Latin, not Greek. Also, the OED doesn’t take the “scene” etymology very seriously:

    “Classical Latin obscēnus, obscaenus has been variously associated, by scholars ancient and modern, with scaevus left-sided, inauspicious (see scaevity n.) and with caenum mud, filth (see cœnose adj.). The derivation from scaena (scene n.), one of several suggested by the Latin grammarian Varro, probably represents a folk etymology.”

  4. The timing of this note of yours is perfect for me, as I am trying to put my finger on my feelings and worries about a specific situation, and you just helped a lot with that!
    It is about local customs related to funerals here (in Romania) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mourning, the Eastern Christianity section) and how those customs may sometimes be forcing strangers to interact with the grieving family, and I feel that causes an extremely delicate and awkward situation for the strangers.
    Sure, I understand you’re pretty much talking about opposite situations (your reporter example), but to me showing extreme emotion in front of strangers and causing them to feel like they have to react to it is pretty obscene as well.

  5. You could define obscenity as exposing in public what should be kept private. That would fit the modern and the classical senses of the term.

    Sometimes you’ll hear someone is obscenely wealthy. This doesn’t refer to the amount of money they have but how they flaunt it. They display what should be enjoyed privately.

  6. I’d interpret “off-scene” also as something that is not seen. Eg. To say that a particular interest is obscene, is to say that the object of interest is not seen by most, that which is off-scene. From this point of view, reality tv depicting the private life of young beautiful and active youth would not be obscene in today’s terms, obscene would be the slow boring life of the elder people, literally what is off-scene. What do you think of this?

  7. res ob scaenum seems the most probable etymology. Other possible word linkages seem far removed from current usage of the word. That is, a matter before (in front of) and not on a stage seems closely related to current usage. Romans adapted Greek culture in many aspects and certainly stage (skene in Greek) performances was hardly a Roman strength. Bad things in Greek plays were always “off stage” to use an English expression. The Greek plays employed Greek mythology on an omnibus basis Roman mythology was so weak that Rose in his book on Greek Mythology barely acknowledges the existence of Roman mythology. The use of French, a Latin derivative, as a guide to English etymology can lead to great distortion in etymology-much like a message passed from one to another often results in a different message. Educators like to line up students, give the first in line a quiet voice message which is then passed in similar fashion to the following student. Comparing the message received by the last student in line is never the same as the original message. Brooks Otis in his book on Virgil has noted a Roman could never really copy a Greek original and so it is with etymology. But sometimes one can come close to the original by focusing on the written word’s spelling,

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