My Cultural Life (well Feb anyway)…. or What is Culture ?

Culture – what’s that all about then.  This is the question that I’ve found myself asking over the last few weeks and in particular am I a cultural or even a cultured person.  In general I just bobble along through life, riding my bike, watching my football team lose, reading books, listening to music and generally trying to eek out as much enjoyment and fulfillment from this funny old life that I can – no grand plans just good values.  However since I started participating in this blog and dipping my toe in the twitter waters I’ve been thinking about what I do a little more.  The cultural question popped up in particular when in a twitter conversation with @KayLinaBrown on Russian literature recommendations for our BoysBookClub she mentioned Chekhov would be a good shout and referenced the letter below that he sent to his brother on what it means to be cultured.

MOSCOW, 1886.

… You have often complained to me that people “don’t understand you”! Goethe and Newton did not complain of that…. Only Christ complained of it, but He was speaking of His doctrine and not of Himself…. People understand you perfectly well. And if you do not understand yourself, it is not their fault.

I assure you as a brother and as a friend I understand you and feel for you with all my heart. I know your good qualities as I know my five fingers; I value and deeply respect them. If you like, to prove that I understand you, I can enumerate those qualities. I think you are kind to the point of softness, magnanimous, unselfish, ready to share your last farthing; you have no envy nor hatred; you are simple-hearted, you pity men and beasts; you are trustful, without spite or guile, and do not remember evil…. You have a gift from above such as other people have not: you have talent. This talent places you above millions of men, for on earth only one out of two millions is an artist. Your talent sets you apart: if you were a toad or a tarantula, even then, people would respect you, for to talent all things are forgiven.

You have only one failing, and the falseness of your position, and your unhappiness and your catarrh of the bowels are all due to it. That is your utter lack of culture. Forgive me, please, but veritas magis amicitiae….You see, life has its conditions. In order to feel comfortable among educated people, to be at home and happy with them, one must be cultured to a certain extent. Talent has brought you into such a circle, you belong to it, but … you are drawn away from it, and you vacillate between cultured people and the lodgers vis-a-vis.

Cultured people must, in my opinion, satisfy the following conditions:

1. They respect human personality, and therefore they are always kind, gentle, polite, and ready to give in to others. They do not make a row because of a hammer or a lost piece of india-rubber; if they live with anyone they do not regard it as a favour and, going away, they do not say “nobody can live with you.” They forgive noise and cold and dried-up meat and witticisms and the presence of strangers in their homes.

2. They have sympathy not for beggars and cats alone. Their heart aches for what the eye does not see…. They sit up at night in order to help P…., to pay for brothers at the University, and to buy clothes for their mother.

3. They respect the property of others, and therefor pay their debts.

4. They are sincere, and dread lying like fire. They don’t lie even in small things. A lie is insulting to the listener and puts him in a lower position in the eyes of the speaker. They do not pose, they behave in the street as they do at home, they do not show off before their humbler comrades. They are not given to babbling and forcing their uninvited confidences on others. Out of respect for other people’s ears they more often keep silent than talk.

5. They do not disparage themselves to rouse compassion. They do not play on the strings of other people’s hearts so that they may sigh and make much of them. They do not say “I am misunderstood,” or “I have become second-rate,” because all this is striving after cheap effect, is vulgar, stale, false….

6. They have no shallow vanity. They do not care for such false diamonds as knowing celebrities, shaking hands with the drunken P., [Translator’s Note: Probably Palmin, a minor poet.] listening to the raptures of a stray spectator in a picture show, being renowned in the taverns…. If they do a pennyworth they do not strut about as though they had done a hundred roubles’ worth, and do not brag of having the entry where others are not admitted…. The truly talented always keep in obscurity among the crowd, as far as possible from advertisement…. Even Krylov has said that an empty barrel echoes more loudly than a full one.

7. If they have a talent they respect it. They sacrifice to it rest, women, wine, vanity…. They are proud of their talent…. Besides, they are fastidious.

8. They develop the aesthetic feeling in themselves. They cannot go to sleep in their clothes, see cracks full of bugs on the walls, breathe bad air, walk on a floor that has been spat upon, cook their meals over an oil stove. They seek as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct…. What they want in a woman is not a bed-fellow … They do not ask for the cleverness which shows itself in continual lying. They want especially, if they are artists, freshness, elegance, humanity, the capacity for motherhood…. They do not swill vodka at all hours of the day and night, do not sniff at cupboards, for they are not pigs and know they are not. They drink only when they are free, on occasion…. For they wantmens sana in corpore sano.

And so on. This is what cultured people are like. In order to be cultured and not to stand below the level of your surroundings it is not enough to have read “The Pickwick Papers” and learnt a monologue from “Faust.” …

What is needed is constant work, day and night, constant reading, study, will…. Every hour is precious for it…. Come to us, smash the vodka bottle, lie down and read…. Turgenev, if you like, whom you have not read.

You must drop your vanity, you are not a child … you will soon be thirty. It is time!

I expect you…. We all expect you.

A good but tricky list to measure up to I’d say, although I don’t think that I do too badly (others are of course at liberty to disagree) but clearly those that do know me know that I have someway to go to be considered cultured if this is the measure and I am perhaps closer to Chekhov’s brother than I am to his idea of what a cultured person should be.

Of course there are many different definitions of culture and what being cultured may mean – is it simply the cultivation of ourselves; the shared  attitudes, values, goals, and practices of a group; a taste for the fine arts etc etc you pay your money you take your choice.  For me I like the idea of the cultivation of me which enables me to experience new things, put a bit of work in but not necessarily put down the vodka bottle.

In light of this I’ve looked back at the last month and it’s beautiful interweaving variety of ‘cultural’ experiences in some amazement.  Books have ticked along steadily, they are like the steady heartbeat to my existence – great ones like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest quickening the pulse; good ones like How I Won The Yellow Jumper enticing a warm happy glow from this contented reader.  Art has involved a great experience at my kids’ primary school where a gallery was set up and the artist Julia Crossland came in to view the work, interesting and accessible the complete contrast to the Northern Art Prize that I managed to catch before the exhibition ended.  I guess that this would fall into the fine arts element of what it means to be cultured and I definitely failed that test as there was nothing fine about it the most shockingly abysmal collection of pointlessness it’s possible to imagine, but hey that’s just one persons view.

The Northern Art Prize not withstanding everything else has been really interesting including a dose of Theatre (Once Upon A Time Up The Road and Thirsty) which is not my normally my bag.  In watching the two shows that I went to the thing that struck me most was the visceral nature of the actors on the stage, I found myself mesmerised by their physical presence in a way that in general I’m not when watching film even a brilliant one like The Descendants which is as good as anything I’ve seen in a long time.  The result is a definite note to self that I need to do a bit more of this theatre lark.  Linking both film and theatre together was the astonishing 5 Truths which I still haven’t got my head around and maybe never will but was a real standout highlight of the month.

Of course you need a soundtrack to all of this, no live bands unfortunately but old favourites Nick Cave, Band of Horses and British Sea Power together with new albums by Mark Lanegan and Craig Finn (from @JumboRecords) have been the February vibes.

This feels like a good soup of culture to have supped down but weaving through this has been the new medium (to me) of Twitter and I wonder how this medium is being viewed from a cultural point of view.  Certainly it is adding to my knowledge (the Chekhov letter being a great example) and awareness of stuff going on with @culturevultures (Five Truths for example) but it is the person to person interconnectivity that seems to act as a random glue sticking and stiching bits of life together that is quite fascinating.  16 months ago I went to the DO Lectures and among many interesting talks was one by Euan Semple who was the first person who made the light bulb switch on for me on the possibilities of social media (this blog and me @ianstreet67 are some of the late ripening fruit of that talk) so I simply tweet to say thanks and Euan acknowledges straight back.  I like that, barriers are broken it’s just me saying hello and thank you to someone without anything getting in the way and there is for me a clear potential cultural shift that is occurring as a result.

Finally sport, which you will not find mentioned on many cultural websites (although interesting article on CultureVulture by Anthony Clavane of Promised Land fame on Theatre and Football) despite Shankly’s ascertain that football is simply working class ballet.  Growing up in South Wales rugby played a huge part in the social and cultural fabric of the nation which I cling onto at this time of year when the 6 nations comes round.  At the same time I have become fixated with the professional bike road racing season and the photo at the top of the post from @mattrabin (chiropractor with the Garmin Barracuda team) taken at the Omloop in Belgium which demonstrates the passion and interest in cycling in the low countries that is clearly to them what rugby is to the Welsh.  The fascination with the seasons racing has kept me glued to @inrng and his tremendous blog (www.inrng.com) to such an extent that I have found myself streaming live cycling via belgium tv through the sporza channel.  So my cultural month has found me broadening out into Flemmish !

So I’m not sure how I stack up against Chekhov’s standards but it’s been an interesting month and my bumbling life seems to be expanding through the weird and wonderful world of social networking, video installations and Flemish TV. Bring it on I say ! but what does culture mean to you (does it include sport) and how do you stack up against Chekhov ?

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