{Of all lies, art is the least untrue - Flaubert}

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Beware of Poshlust

In these times, its very important to understand what Poshlust is and avoid it. Poshlust is everywhere, in every perceivable intelligent field; it is there disguised in the form of literature, films, art, social sciences and religion. Now, it may not come as handy and as easy to spot as self-help, but it is cloaked in most beautiful, wholesome and subtle robes. It might not always seem banal and commercial. It is packaged as carefully as radioactive waste and it is as harmful as that, if not disposed (read attacked) properly. It might be intentional but it can very well be unintentional byproduct of lack of talent, skill and, of course, laziness. We attribute our understanding of this Russian term mainly to Nikolai Gogol and Vladimir Nabokov, the former gave its vivid description in his magnificent novel Dead Souls and the later explained what it is. Here is an excerpt from Nabokov's interview where he explains the term:

"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, over concern with class and 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 moments 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 a seditious poshlust. Belonging
to a very select club (which sports one Jewish name - that's of the treasurer)
is genteel poshlust. 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 the poshlost's favorite breeding place has always been
Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors working with the
tools of the wreckers, building crankshaft cretins of stainless steel, Zen
stereos, polystyrene stinkbirds, objects trouves 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
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 bete noire, his black pet, in the series. Mine is that airline ad: the
snack served by the 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.

There are vague pointers to find out whether the given material is a poshlust or not. The problems with postulating such list are multifold. First is personal perception that cannot be generalized. Second is the inherent incompleteness of such lists, they miss a point or two and overemphasize something more than the other, when both are equally important. So these are public notes, just for me. I might be appending and updating them from time to time. They might be themselves poshlust but that should not stop you from reading them.

1) First you should ask this question. Whether it is directed towards a specific audience, a group of special people. If the answer is no, it might not be poshlust. One might rightly argue that textbooks of medicine are aimed for doctors. But everybody can read them; they are not propaganda or perceptions to please people or a knowledge show off. Also do not take this argument for generalization. In a way it is against any generalization, as it is against any toning and trimming to make it to accessible for any special world or for that ever-elusive concept 'general audience'.

2) Do not discard works because of the subjects. I am atheist so I will not read about religion is as philistine as to say, I am religious, so I will read only about religion. Subjects and topics are never poshlust. The content could be. One might prioritize based on interest in subject. The last sentence is an example of poshlust. It is generalized common sense, disguised as wisdom.

3) In films and literature, showing poshlust does not necessarily mean that they are poshlust. If they indulge in poshlust, then they are. Observational poshlust can be high art.

4) Wallowing talks about what is 'new' and 'fad' in shops and eateries is mostly poshlust. Also, it does not contradict to point 3. Talk about food and attires are not always poshlust. Poshlust always stinks of sophisticated knowledge about shopworn things and so-called exotica.

5) Generalizations masked as reductionisms, enumerating all the point of views to be politically correct, sophisticated diplomacy of language may result in high-end and impenetrable poshlust.

6) Anything that sounds of general wisdom, smugness of being at a higher plane, superficiality justified because of its commercially viability, self-righteous social commentary passing as literature, lifestyle mixed with spirituality, spirituality mixed with work ethics, anything advocating conformity, any textual or filmic pamphlet which says human happiness is anyway purchasable or human sorrow is anyway disposable, bourgeois mannerisms propagated as etiquette, forced melodrama passing as seriousness, particular experience pretending as general psychology, is invariably poshlust.

7) Vulgar imaginations, illogical rants, sexual fantasies, mundane observations, unimportant details, unrealistic plots, dour descriptions, rock and roll are not poshlust. They can be easily pushed towards poshlust by flavors of sanctimonious smugness, message, acceptable conclusion and obsession to sound deep, real and true.

As poshlust is evolving, its becoming as hazardous as and for human species. Finding the traces of poshlust is a meticulous exercise. Poshlust of higher order make people worship false gods with unshakable conviction. Like the baggage of cultural capital, it is dangerous. Our antennas should smell when we see something excessively respectful by general acceptance. We should get the hold of it, preferably by its slender, spuriously beautiful neck.


Alok said...

where did the previous comment go?

anyway, i liked the number six on your lists

"particular experience pretending as general psychology,"

and i think this is the key

one tool to avoid poshlust is irony. that way you can indulge in it and safely say that you didn't really mean it. nabokov and gogol themselves did it.

haven't been able to find nabokov's book on gogol yet. i am looking for it for some time.

Indrajith said...

Best example I can think of for this post (Poshlust), is CNN-IBN. :)

rushikesh said...

Hey anurag, I tried to understand the meaning of 'poshlust' in your post. But, would like to request you to explain it to me more elaborately. We can take this offline. I would like to know why I am not able to understand. Not able to pick up the thread.

-- rushikesh shenwai (rushikesh.shenwai@gmail.com)

anurag said...

Rushi, I have sent you a mail, hope it might not blur the picture more. Thanks for asking.

ventilatorblues said...

"We should get the hold of it, preferably by its slender, spuriously beautiful neck."



Rajeev said...

Nice post. One of your rare postings I was able to connect to ;-)

anurag said...

It took you two years to give a 'nice post' comment ;)

neways, thanks a lot, dear :)

Rajeev said...

he he

Anonymous said...

"Poshlust, Nabokov explains, is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive." (Azar Nafisi in Reading Lolita in Tehran)

When I read this, I thought, "Finally, I get it! Mick Jagger."

Anonymous said...

A good example of poshlust is this post. Like Nabokov, the poster looks down his nose at anything he deigns of inferior quality. Nabokov could pull it off because he knew he was an elite prig and could make fun of himself.
Who made you the arbiter of good taste? Your post sounds suspiciously PC, which is the epitome of poshlust.

anurag said...

You may be right, and if you felt that this post is poshlust, it is (and its good that you identified, which was sort of "aim" of the post), its all about personal taste (I, for sure, am not setting up any guidelines of good taste here. For all I know, I have mostly bad tastes). Taste (good or bad), as Susan Sontag said, has no system and no proofs. So, the point is, we can be different, can be profound or poshlush for each other, but most importantly, we are free to be so !

Thanks for the comment and please keep visiting.