Obscenity and the Genetic Code.

I’ve been reading the introduction (freely available as a downloadable sample at the Amazon link) to Taboo Pushkin, edited by Alyssa Dinega Gillespie, which looks like an interesting book (“in our collection the heroic, mythic Pushkin is replaced by a multifaceted, ambiguous Pushkin”); it’s full of hilarious and/or depressing stories about attempts to deify Pushkin (in totally opposite ways in Soviet Russia and today’s, where he is presented as a firm upholder of autocracy and the Orthodox Church) and proscribe anything that causes problems for the deification. The most memorable of these pious interventions is by the Pushkinist Valentin Nepomnyashchii, who as a young scholar in the ’60s bravely stood up for persecuted dissidents and was expelled from the Party, but who now propagandizes for the official line. In a criticism of those who try to call attention to the great poet’s regrettable lapses into obscenity (like his youthful Тень Баркова [The Shade of Barkov], to this day not included in complete scholarly editions), he makes the following remarkable statement:

Geneticists have directly stated that a once-tabooed lexicon [when released from taboo] destroys the foundations of the human, his genetic code.

(He goes on to say that the American cartoon version of Winnie the Pooh is a cultural “catastrophe.”) The intersection of science and literature!

Addendum. This seems like an appropriate place to insert an entry I recently found in Dahl:

ПОМАТЕРНОМУ и поматерну ругаться, сквернословить, матюгать, поносить похабно. Брань эта свойственна высокому, акающему, южному и западному наречию, а в низком окающем, северном и восточном она встречается реже, а местами ее там и нет вовсе.

To swear pomáternomu and pomáternu [means] to use foul language, to curse, to revile obscenely. This type of swearing is characteristic of high [?], southern, and western dialects and those that pronounce unstressed o as /a/; in low [?], northern, eastern dialects and those that pronounce unstressed o as /o/ it is found more rarely, and in places it doesn’t exist at all.

In the first place, what is this high/low business? And in the second place, is this geographical distribution of obscenity completely loony, or might it have had a basis in fact?

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says:

    He’s right about the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh, at least. A stopped clock … though “cultural catastrophe” is maybe laying it on a bit thick. “Zombie Apocalypse”, perhaps? Well, maybe not.

    I would imagine that the regrettable Nepomnyaschchii intends “genetic code” in the pop-cultural sense of “DNA”, viz. “collection of vaguely conceptualised characteristics asserted to be typical, but not usually hereditary.” The geneticist was perhaps T D Lysenko.

    This interpretation at least makes his statement simply false, rather than false and ludicrous. One likes to be charitable.

  2. Traditional Northern Russians are fascinating people – they do a lot very, very differently from other Russians.

    I was told that in some places they don’t even drink vodka.

    Ignorance of cursing wouldn’t be that surprising for them.

  3. Interesting!

  4. Trond Engen says:

    SFReader: I was told that in some places they don’t even drink vodka.

    So much for the Finnic substrate hypothesis.

  5. David Eddyshaw says:

    Maybe they represent an ancestral teetotal Finnic moiety, who left Scandinavia en masse after some unimaginable cultural catastrophe.

  6. Sometime in 1990s (1999?) Moscow government organized Pushkin-centered celebrations. One part of it was posting various patriotic and inspirational Pushkin quotes throughout the city (“I remember a marvelous moment”, “Moscow, how much is in this sound” and some such) and I remember an urge to put up some out-of-context quotes of my own choosing: “My Fatherland I almost hated”, “devil made me to be born in Russia with soul and talent”, “who lived a thoughtful life cannot fail to despise people”.

  7. Anyone who has seen the excellent Soviet animated Winnie-the-Pooh would agree that the Disney version is certainly a travesty. On that point Nepomnyashchii is expressing a widely held opinion, at least in that generation.

  8. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Even when my daughter was little I found it almost impossible to watch the Disney Winnie-the-Pooh. In the very first episode the artists made some effort to imitate Shepard’s style, but after that they didn’t bother and it became increasingly horrible. Not just the drawing, but the story line as well: the Disney people obviously thought that Milne’s version was too English, and promoted Kanga and Tigger from being very minor characters to being the focus of the whole thing.

  9. The original Disney film, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) was actually quite good. Not coincidentally, I suspect, it was the last Disney release that Walt himself contributed to before his death. It was based on several of the original stories and has some funny metafictional aspects, actually taking place inside a book.

    Subsequent adaptations, including a live action television show with people in suits, were pretty uniformly terrible. They suffered from low budgets, lack of good plot material, and Disney’s ongoing feud with the real Christopher Robin.

  10. I watched the Soviet version of Vinnie the Pooh.

    It’s a cartoon made by adults for adults, but pretending to be kids entertainment for some obscure reason.

    Lots of Soviet culture is like that – not what it seems.

  11. But it was fun for kids too.

  12. Lots of Soviet culture is like that

    Not just Soviet. One of the first kids’ books in Russian was Catherine the Great’s 1781 “Skazka o tsareviche Khlore” [The tale of Prince Khlor], in which Khlor, son of the Prince of Kiev, is captured by the Kirghiz khan, who tells him to find “the rose without thorns that does not prick”; aided by Felitsa, the khan’s beautiful daughter, he finds the rose, which turns out to be virtue, and the khan releases him to his parents. I’m pretty sure she aimed it at adults as well.

  13. Trond Engen says:

    The best children’s books are like that. The best children’s TV too. Gags and morals that work in different ways on different levels. And I say that as someone who used to be a kid.

  14. Trond Engen says:

    “Like that” pouting to some but not all of the above. I I’m not thinking of virtuous stories for children meant to be enhancing the morals of adults as well.

  15. Like The Simpsons?

  16. Trond Engen says:

    Not quite. The Simpson’s was never meant for children in the first place, but kids got to watch it since it’s a cartoon. As a kid that’s even better.

    (A strange typo in my previous. The spellchecker on my phone has it’s own ideas.)

  17. Stu Clayton says:

    it’s own ideas

    Thats another one !

  18. rose without thorns that does not prick”; aided by Felitsa, the khan’s beautiful daughter, he finds the rose,
    OMG I thought, at this point, that he was after a vagina

  19. OMG I thought, at this point, that he was after a vagina

    Not wrong at all, but it had to be a virtuous vagina.

  20. @SFreader
    ‘I was told that in some places they don’t even drink vodka.’

    Years ago I spent a month in the Archangel, hunting, fishing and mushrooming. No, the locals didn’t drink vodka, they mixed it with tea. Roughly, one part vodka, three parts tea. Wonderful, try it!
    Incidentally, OED defines ‘Russian tea’ as
    tea laced with rum and typically served with lemon.
    hehehe

  21. The “Russian tea” I was familiar with in Virginia in the ’70s was quite different: a powdered mix of instant tea, Tang, sugar, and some spices. People sometimes made it and gave it as a Christmas gift in a decorative box.

  22. The online OED entry for Russian (updated 2011) lists three senses: “(a) an infusion of honey, pepper, and other ingredients (obsolete); (b) tea grown in the Caucasus or a drink made from this; (c) any tea laced with lemon or rum.”

  23. Years ago I spent a month in the Archangel, hunting, fishing and mushrooming.

    Особенности национальной охоты

  24. David Marjanović says:

    Incidentally, OED defines ‘Russian tea’ as
    tea laced with rum and typically served with lemon.

    Huh. Russischer Tee is tea with mere sugar and lemon.

    Особенности национальной охоты

    Everyone should watch that.

  25. Fortnum’s Russian Caravan tea is worth trying. You can see what it’s made of, here. My daughter gave it to me as a Christmas present. Some of their other teas are good too.

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