Cursing, in Russia and Elsewhere
My seminar with the local English teachers today was centered around the theme of love, and we ended with several love songs of the more literary type. One of them, Ani DiFranco’s song Untouchable Face, has the great chorus “fuck you / and your untouchable face / fuck you / for existing in the first place”. A teacher objected: “isn’t this baaad English?!” It’s an interesting question of culture; on the one hand, yes, we generally think of fuck as a bad word. It made it on to Carlin’s list of 7 dirty words. Our society’s attitudes towards cursing have certainly changed in the last 50 years, but fuck is still a dirty word. On the other hand, we say it and hear it regularly in songs; sure, the radio censors it, but singers sing it. Films and books are another question though: would you have Scarface stop swearing, or would you call it an essential part of his character? Would you say that the verse below is ruined by the presence of an obscene word? Or is it an accurate expression of a particular feeling, a case of “using the right word and not its second cousin”, as Mark Twain said?
This Be the Verse, by Philip Larkin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
So what makes a word bad? The Russian language is a textbook example. Russian obscenity, russkiy mat, I’ve been told, holds a special place in their language, unlike cursing in English. “It simply has different connotations” is what I’ve been told; it is a language all its own, the language of thieves-in-law (a type of mafia), thugs, murderers and lowlifes. Although I’ve done no textual analysis, on the basis of 3 years in Russia I beg to differ. I hear it on the streets, in the gym, in schools, among children, and in films, and in the first three, to a far greater degree than I could ever imagine in English. It is scarcely possible to imagine how often Russians curse – the word “blya” (whore/shit) can appear almost every third word, simply walking down the street. What’s different is not Russian society’s use of obscenity, but their attitude towards it. The educated class in Russia, although they curse as regularly as they do in any other country, is simply more fastidious about it. When I first arrived, I was telling a Russian friend about a song I was learning in Russian, in which the chorus is “to hell with war”, and was surprised to see her grimace and respond “I really can’t stand swearing”; since then, I’ve heard her say “Fuck!” as many times as I would expect from any normal person.
However, there’s something to the characterization of obscenity as a mark of the lower class: in essence, vulgarity is defined by its use in the vulgar classes. We associate obscenity with the uneducated (and therefore, poor, bad, dangerous, immoral, and so on – not one step removed from the Greeks, but with a sanctimonious veneer of pluralism), and despise it because we despise those classes; however, it is also despicable because it represents an inarticulate expression of the speaker’s thoughts or feelings. When the expression qualifies as art, however (which is something that, in this sense, is almost exclusively a product of the upper classes), we excuse it: it adds authenticity. Whereas Ani DiFranco’s chorus of “fuck you”, in juxtaposition with an elegant metaphor “the neon sign on the horizon, rubbing elbows with the moon” is a artistic device that gives “rawness” and “authenticity of emotion”, “Fuck the police” is just an obscenity, even in a song that has achieved cultural landmark status and raises legitimate complaints against American policing. The difference is in the connotations implied by each case; is it authentic, or is it vulgar? Artistic or vulgar? Aristocratic or vulgar?
Russian cultural attitudes towards cursing exemplify the problem: cursing does denote vulgarity in many situations, but we ignore it in many others. In doing so, however, we haven’t quite confronted the fact that our condemnation or exoneration is a class act, denoting our upbringing and education. The Russian attempt to ban obscenity in art was met with scorn in the West and resentment among artists, but one must admit that it does represent a legitimate response to the dichotomy, even if it is ham-fisted and sanctimonious. Russians are still arguing, in a sense more openly (if that’s not too ironic), about whether or not it’s appropriate to admit that vulgarity is a fact of life. Is the lack of education denoted by the common usage of obscenities something to be scorned, or is it a legitimate expression of emotion correspondent to an equally legitimate socialization?
Are obscenities something to be avoided in art? When does swearing really feel uncultured for you? Are your attitudes the same as your parents or friends? Do you have any friends whose attitudes differ?