The Lost Art of the Rant

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Oct. 30 2007 4:25 PM

The Lost Art of the Rant

How the Web revived a storied tradition of expletive-laced tirades.

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

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.

Such powerlessness can explode into violent language, but the rant also tends to possess a playful element as well. Take another craigslist posting set on the subway, "to the girl on the metro with the cleavage." In this case, the author is trying to explain to a woman why he was looking at her cleavage. He points out that she shouldn't have worn that revealing top if she didn't want him staring at her chest. It eventually concludes: "So anyway, I just thought you should know my point of view on what happened. I am not a pervert. I was just a man on a metro, a man who saw something that pulled his mind out of the daily routine, and I held onto it dearly."

This protest of innocence—"I am not a pervert"—challenges one of the stereotypes of the cyber-addict whose perversions have finally found free rein on the anarchic Web. Indeed, it's not so much specialized perversions but rather quirky and unlikely subjects that people tend to rant about online. At rant.com, you can search the archives of Rant magazine and read some high-octane thoughts on dental hygienists and skunks. In a slightly more rarefied and ironic vein, the McSweeney's Web site publishes "Open Letters" to, among other things: "American Express"; "the intestinal parasites I managed to pick up in West Africa this summer"; "my sister's psychotic dogs"; "my lost bikini bra"; "the Amazon parrot I have been supporting for over 15 years who still tries to bite me for no apparent reason"; and "the birds nesting in my air conditioner."

Despite their evident passion, most of these letters have not simply been dashed off in the heat of the moment but have been crafted to harmonize outrage with decorum, anger with artfulness: "I think you may have noticed my affection for other animals—including my own dog—and wrongly assumed that it extended to your snarling demented selves." Or: "While I am pleased that you have decided the air conditioner in my bedroom is the perfect place for you to reside, I feel obligated to voice a few concerns on behalf of the other inhabitants of our apartment. Please do not take this letter as a sign of ill will." These softer-edged letters may not seem to be rants at all, but they are merely embracing a frequently overlooked sense of the word—"a boisterous, riotous frolic or merry-making."

But wherever a rant may fall on this wide spectrum, there is neither the expectation of nor the desire for a response. The rant is an end in itself, an adrenaline-fueled literary catharsis. That's the paradox at the heart of ranting—its theatricality usually overwhelms all else, including the desire to change whatever outrage has elicited the rant in the first place.

It would be simplistic to think of blogging as a kind of sublimated ranting, since many blogs are earnestly committed to their subjects, and still more could not be accused of sublimating anything. But blogs do form a part of our cacophonous culture, one in which high-flown and bombastic speech flourishes. Far from deploring these noisy tirades indiscriminately, we should embrace their more skillful and playful practitioners, who are developing an entertaining variation on an old form and helping to put dental hygienists, skunks, and American Express in their places.

Daniel Seidel is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.