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

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Poshlust : The Blond and his Swans…

Here Nabokov explains intricacies of poshlust using a story.

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 that 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 than 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 off 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 symbolize, 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 favorable 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 in 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.


Literature is one of its best breeding places and by poshlust-literature I do not mean the kind of thing which is termed "pulp" or which in England used to go under the name of "penny dreadfuls" and in Russia under that of "yellow literature." Obvious trash, curiously enough, contains sometimes a wholesome ingredient, readily appreciated by children and simple souls. Superman is indubitable 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 or emotion. It is those books which are so poshlustily reviewed in the literary 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 a paper with a whole page advertising a certain novel, which novel is a 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 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 and 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 skillfully probe the very inner recesses of men's souls." This "inner" (mind you—not "outer"), and the other two or 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 of poshlust is complete—or would be complete had not words taken a subtle revenge of their own and smuggled the truth in by secretly forming most nonsensical and most damning combinations while the 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 in 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 true kindness of heart cannot prevent the demon of poshlust from 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 emotion and compassion, and can hold the reader's attention "on a theme far removed from the discordant events of the day" is far, far worse than the kind of literature which everybody admits is cheap.

Excerpt from Nikolai Gogol by Vladimir Nabokov.

And here is its companion piece.

PS : After typing this to some extent, I found the full text here.

1 comment:

Peggy said...

Do you have any idea what book he is referring to here?