The Lost Art of the Rant
How the Web revived a storied tradition of expletive-laced tirades.
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When Joe Torre recently decided not to accept the New York Yankees' offer of a one-year contract, Buster Olney, a baseball writer for ESPN, argued that only one person—Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera—had been more valuable than the former manager during the team's string of World Series wins. The next day, a response to Olney's piece appeared on firejoemorgan.com, a site "where bad sports journalism comes to die." It read:
Seriously, when Derek Jeter retires, are you really going to write that, hey, Jetes was a pretty sweet shortstop, but he was no Joe Torre when it comes to winning baseball games? If you had a crazy combo draft of players and managers in 2001, are you really taking Torre over Derek F___ing Fitzgerald Jeter, God of Baseball and Winner of Life?
It went on from there. Throughout, the response was humorous, knowledgeable, a little angry, a little tongue-in-cheek, and sprinkled with expletives. It was, in short, a rant.
It was a particular kind of rant, however; a relatively new breed of an old beast. While there are many examples of literary rants—think of Dostoyesvky's Notes From the Underground, Beckett's crazed, starkly beautiful monologues, or Roth's eloquent diatribes—ranting used to be primarily an oral tradition, perfected in taverns and street corners and smoke-filled comedy clubs. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a rant as a "high-flown, extravagant, or bombastic speech or utterance; a piece of turgid declamation; a tirade." Merriam-Webster offers a drier and tamer definition—"to talk in a noisy, excited, or declamatory manner"—but also emphasizes the medium of speech.
Some of the first rants of the modern era—at least some of the first to be referred to as such—were associated with a short-lived, 17th-century English sect known (to their enemies) as the "Ranters." Its members' penchant for tobacco, alcohol, women, and swearing sprung from a belief in the divinity of all things and a rejection of the idea of sin altogether. They were frequently accused of blasphemy and of profaning religious rituals. A Ranter preacher, Abiezer Coppe, recounted for an entire hour while standing at the pulpit. Richard Baxter, a Puritan divine, recounted with horror the power that such "hideous words of Blasphemy" could have: "[A] Matron of great Note for Godliness and Sobriety, being perverted by them, turned so shameless a Whore, that she was Carted in the streets of London."
Oral tirades are still with us, of course, even if they're no longer as likely to turn our matrons into whores. Yet the last decade or so has also seen more and more written rants, a form that has blossomed on the Web. The Web is often rightly criticized by the guardians of high culture for encouraging bilious discourse and sloppy writing, with cruel message-board postings and bloggers attacking one another at the slightest provocation. But in this new golden age of the rant, when the Web allows anyone to lash out about anything at all, it would be foolish to dismiss the more artful and entertaining instances of the genre with the artless ones.
Consider the following example from the "best-of-craigslist," which gathers some of the more outrageous postings from the site (not all of which advertise used furniture or extra concert tickets). In "NYC Subway Rant: Jesus Christ!," an anonymous author lists the "mental rolodex of the people I share the subway with on a daily basis … the monsters I can't get used to and won't accept." The list includes guys who wear sunglasses, the jerk who leans into you to look at the subway map, the "ghostfarter," and the lady that hugs the pole on a crowded train. All of these monsters have committed various sins against the cardinal law of riding the subway: Don't make it any more miserable than it already is.
A good rant, like this one, expresses a real passion, and it is often a passion that has been enflamed by a feeling of powerlessness. If the subway ranter had been able to "take a free shot [at the] gut" of the nail-clipping businessman (whose "nail shrapnel is flying every which way"), there would have been no need for the rant in the first place.
Daniel Seidel is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.