ESSAY: Swearing as a Weapon of Cultural Defense
- By Anatoly Korolyov
- Jul. 19 2000 00:00
To swear, or not to swear? The use of foul language has always presented a problem for writers. After all, if you write the truth, your hero must express himself by using mat f obscene language.
Judge for yourself. In the life of an average Russian, expletives are second nature. Just listen f on the streets, in the metro, among young people f and you can become sick of hearing it f mat f the strong words falling from people's lips more frequently than raindrops.
Perhaps nowhere else in Europe is swearing as passionately, lovingly pursued as in Russia. And if you are a realist (and I am such a person), then your prose about life also must be full of abuse. Yet in my novels, even a huge one like"Eron," the reader will not find one strong word.
To write thus is complete torture for an author.
I found 50 words to substitute for the word phallus in that sexual epic and even won a compliment from one of my fellow writers: "You, virtuoso, did not once call a member a member! I sense the social realist school!"
My colleague had in mind the time-honored ability of Soviet writers not to call things by their names.
When censorship ended 10 years ago, matershchina f Russian profanity f poured from the pages of books like a river in springtime. Yuz Aleshkovsky, a mat virtuoso, was published; right after that, the young matershchinnik Yury Yarkevich published his scandalous text on sex; then the works of Vladimir Sorokin, in which cursing is a part of the narrative like the weather of Russian life, rose from the underground. Finally, the most forbidden fruits from the classics f the poems of Ivan Barkov and even Alexander Pushkin himself f were published without embarrassing deletions. It turns out that our great genius did not avoid strong language.
Today, mat in a text has become a prestigious sign of freedom.
But where does that sinful, infectious, massive inclination of the Russian people toward vile language come from?
Mat is the public insulting of sacred prohibitions. For example, the well-know curse chto ya imel tvoyu mat, or I had your mother, infringes on the archaic categorical prohibition, issuing from the depths of the subconscious, against everything connected with the sexual nature and life of mothers. Mat whirls around only a tiny handful of taboo words f there are hardly more than a dozen!
But Russia is not only the homeland of elephants but also the mother of paradoxes. I dare to assert that here the nature of matershchina paradoxically is turned on its head f in principle, our severely foul language is not insulting to the person to whom you are speaking.
Through cursing, conversation partners in Russia enter into a special type of confidential relationship. Uncensored swearing underscores the closeness of those speaking, it's a sign of trust between them, the slang of the initiated.
It's no secret to anyone, for example, that they swear in the Kremlin. The transcripts of bugged conversations between top state officials, which have been published in the press, bedazzle with their many scattered ellipses.
Former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov did not use profanity and thus is considered an anomaly among politicians. But former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin is unanimously considered the king of the non-normative lexicon f which is precisely why he is so tongue-tied in public. Behold the tortures of the matershchinnik, or swearing master, who must choose decent expressions in public. On the other hand, when he is among his own, his speech flows freely and rapidly because it strewn with grandiose, three-story mat.
In a country where words are more important than economics, such an energetic slang allows a commonality of interests f or its absence f to be determined instantly. What's more, mat serves as a guarantee of what is said.
The source of all this profanity was the system of prison camps of Soviet society. In the prisons and labor camps, prisoners created their special closed language f fenya f designed for use only between thieves and incomprehensible to an outsider.
Today, a huge number of prison camp words have passed into common usage. Flowing from dung-ridden watery malicious gossip, drops of argo seep into normal Russian language, where at times f unexpectedly f they take on the status of fashionable words. For example, klyovo, kaif, or cool and euphoria, taking the place of the more prosaic mne khorosho, or I feel good; or labayut instead of igrayut for "playing," as in "playing jazz."
There are already thousands of such parasitical words. They seemingly should have been worn smooth by the ocean of language and entered into the system of speech activity. If only! Alas, not even a tidal wave could clean them of the exceptional cynicism and nihilistic hedonism that such expressions were born with.
But there are other reasons for the widespread use of mat in Russia.
The inclination of Russians toward foul language is in large measure the result of Russia's historical provincialism and the result of people's long moral and physical enslavement. Just 150 years ago, you could buy a serf at a market, like a piglet.
The Soviet period became a new form of servitude f involving linguistic as well as ideological bondage.
The party spoke to the people in a special revolutionary jargon, the sense of which was not understandable to the majority. Few were capable of even pronouncing such difficult words as "Trotskyist" or "neo-colonialism" or "Comintern," and the meaning of the expression pravy uklon f rightist deviation f was understood only by a few.
Correspondingly, our elemental narod f the people f ended up in a state of mass use of foul language, a tongue almost as incomprehensible to the rulers as the rulers' language was to the masses. In this sense, mat became a form of vulgar defense against the bloodthirsty ideals of the revolution.
The second reason is the medieval arrangement of our souls.
We remain a people living in the 15th century. Here I agree with the late academician Dmitry Likhachyov (who himself was sent to a labor camp under Stalin), who wrote in his research on labor camp speech that the monstrous hypertrophy of profanity in the people is unquestionable evidence of a magic ontology.
Profanity is an incantation, with the help of which the dark subconscious tries to establish at least emotional control over the nature of things when it has no other forms of influence on life.
A paradox: in cursing, we are all trying in our barbaric way to civilize society!
Anatoly Korolyov is the author of "Hunting the Clairvoyant" and "Eron." He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.