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23 March 2012

Osip Mandelshtam and Barry McKenzie

The point of this blog is to facilitate communication between Russians and English-speaking people by explaining some of the peculiarities of the way in which the English language is actually used in real life. This is an issue which was addressed in a serious way nearly a century ago by the great Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam.
Osip Mandelshtam
     Language, according to Mandelshtam, is not just a set of abstract symbols which act as a code, in the way mathematical symbols do, but a living embodiment of cultural identity. Reading Border Crossings: The West and Russian Identity in Soviet Literature 1917-1934, by Carol Avins, this morning as my metro car hammered through the tunnel towards Barrikadnaya, it occurred to me that old Osip would, had he not died in the Gulag, have had something to say in this regard about Barry McKenzie, the 1960s Australian cultural explorer whose creator, as I mentioned in the piece on 21 March about Lady Bakewell, has just announced that, at the age of 78, he is giving up touring as a comedian.
     That creator is Barry Humphries who is best known for his female impersonations of the Melbourne housewife and superstar, Dame Edna Everage. One of her more recent exploits was to cover the Royal wedding last April between Prince William and Kate Middleton for Australian television. But Dame Edna is—sadly we must now say, was—in many ways a visual act, though with brilliant pastiche and repartee, while Barry McKenzie was more verbal. He was a creature of the Swinging Sixties when Australian slang was young, vital and in the final stage of its evolution before the internet and global communications started to cripple all human interaction.
     Most languages have been impoverished; many minor ones have died out. Perhaps the mountain gorillas of Rwanda still retain their traditional means of communication untainted, but the rest of us are being forced by the conveniences of modern life to communicate so easily with each other that some people think there is no longer any point in talking since we are all becoming the same. That, however, could never have been said of Barry McKenzie, a man who was, in the full Mandelshtamian sense, “linguistic”. He had something to say about cultural difference, and it is something which I think become more rather than less relevant as time goes by.
     Comrade Mandelshtam had, as was fashionable in his day, a theory about this. It was not enough at the time when communism was being constructed and a new world born simply to think something. You had to have a theory about it, preferably one with proto-cosmic implications and obscure terminology. Incidentally, this tendency still survives in some of the remoter parts of Russia, like the Philology Department of Moscow State University, where I used to teach Upper-Intermediate Chatting to students of English. On my way to class, I had to walk past a grim-looking door, which was always shut, on which was engraved the words: Кафедра теории литературы (Chair of the Theory of Literature). For the life of me, I could never work out how the word theory” could possibly be applied to literature. But it was.
     Comrade Mandelshtam’s theory, according to Dr Avins, was that Russian culture represented the Hellenic strand of European history, and stood over against the West, which represented the Latin one. The West was more disciplined and rational, like Rome, and Russia was more intuitive, artistic and generally cooler, like Athens. Russian culture was linked to Hellenic culture “through a principle of inner freedom which was inherent in them both.”
     I am not an expert on Mandelshtam’s poetry (which foreigner can be?), but I can appreciate his suffering at the hands of Stalin and his henchthugs. I made a radio programme about this, which was based around a wonderful book (sadly available only in Russian) which detailed his persecution at the hands of the “organs”: Слово и «Дело» Осипа Мандельштама by Pavel Nerler (2010). Despite this, and with all due respect, I think it legitimate to question the idea of inner freedom as being something inherent in Russian-Hellenic culture and therefore by implication less common elsewhere.
     So far as I am aware, Mandelshtam does not mention Australia anywhere in his considerable body of work. Perhaps he thought it provincial—or perhaps he was a tiny bit provincial himself, being unaware of the “hands across the sea”. It would surely have worried him to know that experimental refutation of his theory was being generated in a culture which was so far from Moscow that it makes Vladivostok seem almost рядом. And they spoke/speak English there—after a fashion. That fashion has been significantly influenced by Mr McKenzie and the inner freedom which allowed him to use the language of his culture in any way that he saw fit, both before he poured a dozen Fosters down his throat and after, when he would habitually sit on the shores of the “old Pacific Sea” with a bucket full of prawns which he would munch and then return to their natural habitat in half-digested form.
     Indeed, he once wrote a poem about the circumstances in which he did this, and the methods he employed. He set it to music and performed it in a film called The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972). The song contains some very inventive language that simultaneously affirms and refutes Mandelshtam. It supports his idea that language is an expression of culture, but refutes the point that inner freedom is something to be found only on the Athens-Moscow axis. Australian culture allowed McKenzie the inner freedom to describe the “re-wilding” of pre-owned prawns in a variety of descriptive ways appropriate to different situations: to chunder, have technicolour yawn, park a tiger, play the whale, laugh at the ground, throw the voice, park the pea soup, go for the big spit, have a liquid laugh, make love to the lav, or get on the big white telephone to Hughie (or Ruth).
     Likewise if prawns are not involved and it is only Fosters lager that has to be dealt with, then the process of expelling the fluid is described thus: to drain the dragon, strain the potatoes, wring the rattlesnake, splash the boots, shake hands with the wife’s best friend (or the unemployed), siphon the python or train Terence at the terracotta.
Man in hat
     Osip Mandelshtam is not to be criticised for his more limited use of language, or at least would not be had he not claimed to have more inner freedom than the likes of Barry McKenzie. The result of the poet-philologist’s lack of linguistic range eventually had tragic results. Mandelshtam was sent to the Gulag, where he died in 1938, essentially because of a poem he wrote about Stalin in which he compared the Great Leader and Teacher’s fingers to “thick worms” and described the signature moustache by saying the Vozhd had “huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip.”
Thirsty man in cooler hat
     That was not very imaginative. Far better to have avoided standard terms of abuse and written, as Barry McKenzie would undoubtedly have done (see post 21 March), that the Great Dictator was “as ugly as a hatful of arseholes”, or that he “looked like a pox-doctor’s clerk” and “stank like a dingo’s dunny”, an “Abbo’s armpit”, or a “Japanese wrestler’s jock-strap.” He might have added that he was probably a vegemite driller, who dines at the YMCA and crunches the Kapok, because the front-botties of all his Sheilas have piss-flaps on them like Gene Autrey’s saddle-bags, and they probably had skid-marks on their thunder bags too.
     Doubtless he would still have ended up in the Gulag, but he would at least have had a laugh on the way telling that short-arse in the shit brick-house to “stick his head up a dead bear’s bum.”
     Sod the Greeks, mate, that is what inner freedom is really about.


  1. It was very interesting to read right up to the point that starts with "That was not very imaginative", which discloses you fully as a latin guy. ;) Mandelshtam could never use any of your examples of what is "truly funny" because in the first place it is totally not. It's a perfect example of "сортирный юмор", which is even now (thankfully) still considered vulgar, and in the times of Mandelshtam was absolutely unthinkable for any member of интеллигенция.

    I believe, that's the core difference between Latin and Hellenic cultures. Vulgar vs. sophisticated humor. That's why I always considered Rome a barbarian empire (yet very advanced technically).

    I must say though that although being heirs of Latin culture, Brits usually sport a more intelligent (and also интеллигентный) humor than Americans or, apparently, Australians.

    As to toilet related idioms, there is a plenty of 'em in Russian as well. If Mandelshtam was a docker, he would probably consider them funny as well. But being a son of a musician, he just couldn't.

  2. Speaking of shellfish: what do you think is the provenance of the Australian expression: 'to come the raw prawn with' as in 'Don't come the raw prawn with me, mate'. Your Russian readers may also like to know that Humphries used to stage a startling performance on main streets and crowded railway carriages. Dressed as a respectable businessman, he would fill his mouth with a quantity of Heinz 'Russian Salad' (a substandard concoction of cubed vegetables in salad cream, not resembling the real thing other than in name), affect drunkenness, spew out the 'salad' onto the floor then get down on his hands and knees and eat it. Does this act strike you as Roman or Greek in inspiration?

  3. This is a common but very annoying mistake, saying that someone has died in "the Gulag". The GULAG stands for Glavnoe Upravlenie LAGerei (Central Department of camps management). Certainly no one ever died in a Central Department. The places in which people died were camps, not "gulags".