Nabokov (i.e. talented snob) wrote about ‘Poshlust’ in the biography of Nicolai Gogol 1961.
The Russian language is able to express by means of one pitiless word the idea of a certain widespread defect for which the other three European languages I happen to know possess no special term. The absence of a particular expression in the vocabulary of a nation does not necessarily coincide with the absence of corresponding notion but it certainly impairs the fullness and readiness of the latter’s perception. Various aspects of the idea which Russians concisely express by the term poshlost (the stress-accent is on the puff-ball of the first syllable, and the final ‘t’ has a moist softness that is hardly equalled by the French ‘t’ in such words as ‘restiez’ or ‘emoustillant’) are spilt among several English words and thus do not form a definite whole. On second thought, I find it preferable to transcribe that fat brute: poshlust – which renders in somewhat more adequate manner the dull sound of the second, neutral ‘o’. Inversely the first ‘o’ is as big as the plop of an elephant falling into a muddy pond and as round as the bosom of a bathing beauty on a German postcard.
English words expressing several, although by no means all aspects of poshlust are for instance: ‘cheap, sham, common, smutty, pink-and-bubble, high falutin’, in bad taste’. My little assistant, Roget’s Thesaurus, (which incidentally lists ‘rats, mice’ under ‘Insects’ – see page 21 of Revised Edition) supplies me moreover with ‘inferior, sorry, trashy, scurvy, tawdry, gimcrack’ and others under ‘cheapness.’ All this however suggest merely certain false values at a given period of human history; but what Russians call poshlust is beautifully timeless and so cleverly painted all over with protective tints that its presence (in a book, in a soul, in an institution, in a thousand other places) often escapes detection.
Ever since Russia began to think, and up to the time that her mind went blank under the influence of the extraordinary regime she has been enduring for these last twenty-five years, educated, sensitive and free-minded Russians were acutely aware of the furtive and clammy touch of poshlust. Among the nations with which we came into contact, Germany had always seemed to us a country where poshlust, instead of being mocked, was one of the essential parts of the national spirit, habits, traditions and general atmosphere, although at the same time well-meaning Russian intellectuals of a more romantic type readily, too readily, adopted the legend of the greatness of German philosophy and literature; for it takes a super-Russian to admit that there is a dreadful streak of poshlust running through Goethe’s Faust.
Felix Vallotton (1892) woodcut print
To exaggerate the worthlessness of a country at the awkward moment when one is at war with it – and would like to see it destroyed to the last beer-mug and last forget-me-not, – means walking dangerously close to the abyss of poshlust which yawns so universally at times of revolution or war. But if what one demurely murmurs is but a mild pre-war truth, even with something old fashioned about it, the abyss is perhaps avoidable. Thus, a hundred years ago, while civic-minded publicists in St Petersburg were mixing heady cocktails of Hegel and Schlegel (with a dash of Feuerbach), Gogol, in a chance story he told, expressed the immortal spirit of poshlust pervading the German nation and expressed it with all the vigor of his genius.
The conversation around him had turned upon the subject of Germany, and after listening awhile, Gogol said: ‘Yes, generally speaking the average German is not too pleasant a creature, but it is impossible to imagine anything more unpleasant that a German Lothario, a German who tries to be winsome… One day in Germany I happened to run across such a gallant. The dwelling place of the maiden whom he had long been courting without success stood on the bank of some lake or other, and there she would be every evening sitting on her balcony and doing two things at once: knitting a stocking and enjoying the view. My German gallant being sick of the futility of his pursuit finally devised an unfailing means whereby to conquer the heart of his cruel Gretchen. Every evening he would take of his clothes, plunge into the lake and, as he swam there, right under the eyes of his beloved, he would keep embracing a couple of swans which had been specially prepared by him for that purpose. I do not quite know what those swans were supposed to symbolise, but I do know that for several evenings on end he did nothing but float about and assume pretty postures with his birds under that precious balcony. Perhaps he fancied there was something poetically antique and mythological in such frolics, but whatever notion he had, the result proved favourable to his intentions: the lady’s heart was conquered just as he thought it would be, and soon they were happily married.’
Here you have poshlust int its ideal form. And it is clear that the terms trivial, trashy, smug, and so on do not cover the aspect it takes in this epic of the blond swimmer and the two swans he fondled. Neither is it necessary to travel so far both in space and time to obtain good examples. Open the first magazine at hand and you are sure to find something of the following kind: a radio set (or a car, or a refrigerator, or a table silver – anything will do) has just come to the family: mother clasps her hands in dazed delight, the children crowd around, all agog, Junior and the dog strain up to the edge of the table where the Idol is enthroned; even Grandma of the beaming wrinkles peeps out somewhere in the background (forgetful, we presume, of the terrific row she had that very morning with her daughter-in-law); and somewhat apart, his thumbs gleefully inserted in the armpits of his waistcoat, legs a-straddle and eyes a-twinkle, stands the triumphant Pop, the Proud Donor.
The rich poshlust emanating from advertisements of this kind is due not to their exaggerating (or inventing) the glory of this or that serviceable article but to suggesting that the acme of human happiness is purchasable and that its purchase somehow ennobles the purchaser. Of course, the world they create is pretty harmless in itself because everybody knows that it is made up by the seller with the understanding that the buyer will join in the make – believe. The amusing part is not that it is a world where nothing spiritual remains except the ecstatic smiles of people serving or eating celestial cereals or a world where the game of senses is played according to to bourgeois rules (‘Bourgeois’ in the Flaubertian, not in the Marxist sense) but that it is a kind of satellite shadow world in the actual existence of which neither sellers nor buyers really believe in their heart of hearts – especially in this wise quite country.
If a commercial artist wishes to depict a nice little boy he will grace him with freckles (which incidentally assume a horrible rash-like aspect in the humbler funnies). Here poshlust is directly connected with a forgotten convention of a faintly racial type. Kind people send our lonely soldiers silk hosed dummy legs modelled on those of Hollywood lovelies and stuffed with candies and safety razor blades – at least I have seen a picture of a person preparing such a leg in a certain periodical which is a world-famous purveyor of poshlust. Propaganda (which could not exist without a generous demand and supply of poshlust) fills booklets with lovely Kolkhoz maidens – ‘Encyclopedie des Idees Recues’ which Flaubert dreamt of writing one day was a more ambitious work.
Felix Vallotton (1892) woodcut print
Literature is one of its best breeding places of poshlust – literature I do not mean the kind of things which is termed ‘pulp’ or which in England used to go under the name of ‘penny dreadfuls’ and in Russia under that ‘yellow literature’ . Obvious trash, curiously enough, contains sometimes a wholesome ingredient, readily appreciated by children and simple souls. Superman is undoubtable poshlust, but it is poshlust in such a mild, unpretentious form that it is not worth while talking about; and the fairy tales of yore contained, for that matter, as much trivial sentiment and naive vulgarity as these yarns about modern Giant Killers. Poshlust, it should be repeated, is especially vigorous and vicious when the sham is not obvious and when the values it mimics are considered, rightly or wrongly, to belong to the very highest level of art, thought and emotion. It is those books which are so poshlustly reviewed in the literally supplement of daily papers – the best sellers, the ‘stirring, profound and beautiful’ novels; it is these ‘elevated and powerful’ books that contain and distill the very essence of poshlust. I happen to have upon my desk a copy of paper with a whole page advertising a certain novel, which novel is fake from beginning to end and by its style, its ponderous gambols around elevated ideas, and absolute ignorance of what authentic literature was, is and always will be, strangely reminds one of the swan-fondling swimmer depicted by Gogol. ‘You lose yourself in it completely,’ – says one reviewer; – ‘When the last page is turned you come back to the world of everyday a little more thoughtful, as after a great experience’ (note the coy ‘a little’ and the perfectly automatic ‘as after a great’). ‘A singing book, compact of grace and light ecstasy, a book of pearly radiance,’ – whispers another (that swimmer was also ‘compact of grace,’ and the swans had a ‘pearly radiance’ too’). ‘The work of a master psychologist who can skilfully probe the very inner recesses of men’s souls.’ This ‘inner’ (mind you – not ‘outer), and the other two three delightful details already mentioned are in exact conformity to the true value of the book. In fact, this praise is perfectly adequate: the ‘beautiful’ novel is ‘beautifully’ reviewed and the circle poshlust is complete – or would be complete had not the words taken a subtle revenge of their own and smuggled the truth in by secretly forming most nonsensical and most damning combinations while reviewer and publisher are quite sure that they are praising the book, ‘ which the reading public has made a (here follows an enormous figure apparently meaning the quantity of copies sold) triumph.’ For the kingdom of poshlust it is not the book that ‘makes a triumph’ but the ‘reading public’ which laps it up, blurb and all.
The particular novel referred to here may have been a perfectly honest and sincere (as the saying goes) attempt on the author’s part to write something he felt strongly about – and very possibly no commercial aspirations assisted him in that unfortunate process. The trouble is that sincerity, honesty and even kindness of heart cannot prevent the demon of poshlust possessing himself of an author’s typewriter when the man lacks genius and when ‘the reading public’ is what publishers think it is. The dreadful thing about poshlust is that one finds it so difficult to explain to people why a particular book which seems chock-full of noble emotions and compassion, and can hold the reader’s attention ‘on a theme far removed from the discordant event of the day’, is far, far, worse that the kind of literature which everybody admits is cheap.
From the various examples collected here it will be I hope that poshlust is not only the obviously trashy but also the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive… (V.Nabokov)