Monday, 10 May 2010

Preserving Culture

Sorry, I haven't
blogged for a while. I have been too busy with other things

A recent film based on the life of the Russian poet and Nobel Prizewinner, Joseph Brodsky, [A Room and a Half (2009; directed by Andrey Khrzhanovsky)], depicts the ambivalent relationship of the artist in exile to the land which has expelled him. The matter is refracted through the lens of memory and coloured by the desire to return to Leningrad (St. Petersburg), the fabulous site of a childhood spent with devoted and indulgent parents. Less concerned with the facts of a life than the incidents and incidentals which compose memory and which produced a poetry of paradox and metaphysical speculation, the film dwells lovingly on the many rich details which constituted the artist's home amidst the austerity of a diet based on the potato and the queue for the bathroom in a shared housing project.

One of the recurring incidental details of the film is the mother's gentle insistence that the young Brodsky drink his daily dose of fungal water. I recall that she describes it in the film as all that remains of a very old and rare fungus, and we can see what appears to be the remnant of a large mushroom in the murky liquid of the jar. This may or may not be intended to be one and the same as the fungal culture based on tea, 'kombucha' (grib - гриб), which, like the still very popular 'kvass' (квас), a fizzy drink based on stale rye bread and sold everywhere alongside Coca Cola and Fanta, is an enduring feature of Russian life. This microbiological culture of uncertain and ancient origin. with its enigmatic health-giving properties, is the perfect symbol and embodiment of culture itself and corresponds to the health of the tribe as it is preserved and handed down from generation to generation.

In Russia, the kombucha culture also connects with the idea of peasant life. The ideal of peasant life, as erected by the Soviet ideological apparatus, developed the harsh and venerable life of the peasant to the heights of an agrarian utopianism which would include the life of the dacha, the necessity of the harvest, the elemental constitution of cooking with fire and shitting in a wooden shed. The sheaf-bearing women and scythe-bearing men, always of sturdy stock, a stock image indeed, within socialist reailst art, resonate with ideas of abundance, health and vigour, and mastery of the land; they also remind of the essential connectedness with the conditions of nature and the beasts of the earth. Such images were an essential and established component of a mnemonic landscape standing alongside the bare-chested blacksmith or the soldier bearing arms.

Kombucha has its place now within the global health industry. It looks like crap, a kind of distilled ectoplasm, and possibly tastes like crap, thus appealing to the myth that the most effective medicines are the worst-tasting ones. It is also exotic and of uncertain origin, though significantly and indisputably organic; it thus has the mythic provenance of a perfect original organism: a kind of food from the amniotic swamp from which life itself originated. Meanwhile the jar on the shelf in the kitchen is like a large test tube or container for a self-contained chemical experiment. Like those jars of pickled foetuses or preserved body parts, it has, by analogy, a special mythos and topos, not least as burlesque apparition. In this ambiguous form, as 'scientific' phenomenon and ghoulish spectacle, the preserve jar has been exploited by artists and film-makers, not least Jan Svankmajer, to evoke the provisionality and absurdity of a corporeal condition, the conduct of science and, further, the concept and matter of preservation itself.


  1. Wonderful post! The film made me think too about nostalgia. In fact, just after I wrote that, I looked at a book on my shelf called The Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym and noticed that Brodsky is among the people on whom she focuses. I guess nostalgia is often linked to the experience of exile. Anyway, thank you again. The multiple meanings of culture are fascinating.