Is poshlost bad for you?

Since Pale Fire Nabokov has been on my mind, in particular some of his critical thoughts on writing, which, it must be said, are often more interesting than his novels. The Russian context – of an era – is a deep essence in Nabokov. With that background it’s possible to understand his commentaries, why, for example he was so critical of Light on August which was possibly, in his view, a cousin of Chernyshevsky’s Russian agrarian work – hymns to valiant Christ-like peasants mired in thick badly written prose but of pure heart and high purpose.

The other Russian notion that Nabokov and his generation frequently used was poshlost. It’s an idea that could be applied to many objects and had a flexible range of meaning to encompass many phenomena.

Poshlost covered the false in several ways: the important, beautiful, clever and included greeting card profundity, cliché and vulgarity as well as platitudes, belles-lettres, merchandised empathy, mechanistic interpretations of symbols, mythologies, dreams (Freud being the target) and a grab bag of other things too. It is similar to kitsch but with a moral frown.

With the idea covering so much it can be as useful as ‘common sense’, an expression that has an implied meaning but which really means whatever a speaker wants it to mean. It can also be used to criticize anything which is not identical with the speaker’s preferences. It should then be treated quite loosely and also with a hefty pinch of salt.

Even with those notes there is a large grain of truth to poshlost. Mainstream cinema depends on it as shorthand. If poshlost was applied there aren’t many books that would not be tossed into the poshlost bucket. This is because is largely because it’s so inclusive. Orlando by Virginia Woolf was not thought superb but pronounced poshlost par excellence by Nabokov. If Orlando falls into that category imagine all the rest.

That of course is the weakness with the idea; it is too inclusive, too widely applied and too subjective. It might have been better, more discrete, to segment the trashy vulgar from the pretentiously profound. A musical example might explain: Andre Riue is pretentious while Liberace is trash. They are two separate phenomena and it’s surprising that a scientist such as Nabokov did not classify his poshlost into better defined categories.

While poshlost still needs some work it’s obvious what poshlost is not. The entire works of Nabokov are not, and it’s also fair to say that none of Martin Amis’s novels are either.

With the risk of poshlost still common it’s important to recognize poshlost just as an army cadet learns to recognize the enemy. Seeing poshlost for what it is acts means we can avoid the risk of poshlost. It is not easy, we will all have to be extra vigilant against falling for poshlost because, as we have learnt so far, it is everywhere and only the unsuspecting will be entrapped.

Guy Cranswick
27th August 2013


The dyspeptic future

Future scenarios are usually unhappy ones, dystopian rather than the cause of heart-burn, because they run away with the conflict narrative where some power overwhelms normal people, viz. the reader of the future vision and in that drama tension and conflict arise. It is dusted off frequently for a new outing; as it had this week, albeit, tongue in cheek.

The first thing about the futurist scenario is that it’s almost like what we know and for some reason, it’s more progressive or, creatively destructive, to apply Schumpeter’s phrase. What does it look like?

Well, technology predominates to the degree that machines write books and the open space of the web allows multiply authors to coordinate stories. Mmm…really? This version of technological intervention has been floated for many years and looked possible in the cyberspace world in the ‘90s. While it’s true that people are screen junkies as they interact with mobile devices, the overall domination of the technology through narrative is a marginal play, not a central one.

The other thing to note as Brian Eno has opined on creativity and technology – computer games and their ilk are boring. They are rule bound, highly codified genres, suitable for children under 8. Algorithmic writing and collaborative texts would have the same mimetic and stale quality as a committee report.

The second vision of the future is that nothing is new; it’s a rehash of the past. That has a remarkable degree of truth to it. We already live in a museum culture. Once, the old danger of the Impressionists is now the most popular form of art. But is it harder to be really new? In The Burden of Knowledge and the Death of the Renaissance Man: Is Innovation Getting Harder? Benjamin Jones depicts a future with a much slower evolution of knowledge. With knowledge goes creativity.

A cultural end of days has been spoken of intermittently for about a thousand years and tends to worry commentators rather than makers of culture. The eternal spin cycle of popular culture is evident but that’s business. Creating new, really new forms is going to be hard.

And the third strand to the future is that everything will combine, collide, into a mass of inter-franchise-multimedia-cross-platform brand independent of medium, whether paper or digital. In the big media world that is already on us. It may become more rampant, or it may stumble, as it collapses under its own economic weight. The risk is still an entity even spread over many channels and platforms. The implication is that culture is homogenized with this power of mega properties. Possibly, but it was more homogenized when society all read the Bible and knew and shared in the same lessons. Fragmentation has been a major force in the last thirty years. Yes, the major blockbuster is significant but not at the exclusion of other types of work, which can be fond faster and easier than ever.

Two common problems affect forecasting – a tendency to simple factor forecasts that miss the interconnections that occur, the unexpected; and secondly, a human frailty to project the last best evidence we have. Consequently forecasts often reflect the current position.

If the future still makes you worry, take a Pepto-Bismol.

Guy Cranswick
13th August 2013