Wednesday, November 17, 2010


A key concept

INTERVIEWER - What is most characteristic of poshlust in contemporary writing? Are there temptations for you in the sin of poshlust? Have you ever fallen?

NABOKOV - “Poshlust,” or in a better transliteration poshlost, has many nuances, and evidently I have not described them clearly enough in my little book on Gogol, if you think one can ask anybody if he is tempted by poshlost. Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic, and dishonest pseudo-literature—these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing, we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know. Poshlost speaks in such concepts as “America is no better than Russia” or “We all share in Germany's guilt.”

The flowers of poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as "the moment of truth," "charisma," "existential" (used seriously), "dialogue" (as applied to political talks between nations), and “vocabulary” (as applied to a dauber). Listing in one breath Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam is seditious poshlost. Belonging to a very select club (which sports one Jewish name—that of the treasurer) is genteel poshlost. Hack reviews are frequently poshlost, but it also lurks in certain highbrow essays. Poshlost calls Mr. Blank a great poet and Mr. Bluff a great novelist. One of poshlost's favorite breeding places has always been the Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins of stainless steel, Zen stereos, polystyrene stinkbirds, objects trouvés in latrines, cannonballs, canned balls. There we admire the gabinetti wall patterns of so-called abstract artists, Freudian surrealism, roric smudges, and Rorschach blots—all of it as corny in its own right as the academic “September Morns” and “Florentine Flowergirls” of half a century ago. The list is long, and, of course, everybody has his bête noire, his black pet, in the series. Mine is that airline ad: the snack served by an obsequious wench to a young couple—she eyeing ecstatically the cucumber canapé, he admiring wistfully the hostess. And, of course, "Death in Venice." You see the range.
"And of course..."

More here


Tulkinghorn said...

I have spent my entire life trying to earn the right to say "and of course" like that.

Just in case someone gets the wrong idea about V.N.'s verbal facility, it helps to know that he always required that the questions be submitted in advance. He would then write out the answers and either read them on file cards in the presence of the interviewer or just send them in.....

David Chute said...

I've spent a good portion of my life trying to find value in things that get dismissed that way.

Tulkinghorn said...

Ah, but you are missing the essential aspect of 'poshlost" -- it must be vulgar AND pretentious.

That places you two on the same side, seems to me.

Termite art doesn't make it, but "Death In Venice" definitely does

David Chute said...

I like "Death in Venice." Or used to.

But actually you're right. I thought better of this later on. I always require some sort of authenticity -- more than you do, I think.

So Chairman Vlad was broad-minded enough to have appreciated Boetticher? You really think so?

Tulkinghorn said...

Google to the rescue:

The names of Sternberg and Lang never meant anything to me. In Europe I went to the corner cinema about once a fortnight and the only picture I liked, and still like, was and is comedy of the Laurel and Hardy type. I enjoyed tremendously American comedy—Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin. My favorites by Chaplin are The Gold Rush, The Circus, and The Great Dictator—especially the parachute inventor who jumps out of the window and ends in a messy fall which we only see in the expression on the dictator’s face. However today’s Little Man appeal has somewhat spoiled Chaplin’s attraction for me. The Marx Brothers were wonderful. The opera, the crowded cabin [A Night at the Opera], which is pure genius…[Nabokov then lovingly rehearsed the scene in detail, delighting particularly in the arrival of the manicurist.] I must have seen that film three times! Laurel and Hardy are always funny; there are subtle, artistic touches in even their most mediocre films. Laurel is so wonderfully inept, yet so very kind.

David Chute said...

That's pretty good. Laurel & Hardy do belong on the sane shelf as Chaplin and Keaton and don't get placed there often enough. Vlad gets major points for that.

Still, no Randolph Scott?