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

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