Poshlost  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
"As I have pointed out earlier in this chapter, poshlust as conceived by Nabokov is a nearly perfect synonym for kitsch." --Five Faces of Modernity

Poshlost is an untranslatable Russian word (пошлость) defined as a kind of "petty evil or self-satisfied vulgarity" (Alexandrov 1991, p. 106). At more length (and with a more scholarly romanization) Boym (1994, p. 41) writes,

Poshlost' is the Russian version of banality, with a characteristic national flavoring of metaphysics and high morality, and a peculiar conjunction of the sexual and the spiritual. This one word encompasses triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, and a lack of spirituality. The war against poshlost' is a cultural obsession of the Russian and Soviet intelligentsia from the 1860s to 1960s.

Early examinations of poshlost in literature are in the work of Nikolai Gogol. Gogol wrote (of Pushkin), "He used to say of me that no other writer before me possessed the gift to expose so brightly life's poshlust, to depict so powerfully the poshlust of a poshlusty man [poshlost' poshlogo cheloveka] in such a way that everybody's eyes would be opened wide to all the petty trivia that often escape our attention." ("The Third Letter à Propos Dead Souls", 1843, quoted and translated by Davydov, 1995; see below for his transliteration).

In his novels, Turgenev "tried to develop a heroic figure who could, with the verve and abandon of a Don Quixote, grapple with the problems of Russian society, who could once and for all overcome 'poshlost,' the complacent mediocrity and moral degeneration of his environment" (Lindstrom 1966, p. 149). Dostoyevsky applied the word to the Devil; Solzhenitsyn, to Western-influenced young people (Boym 1994, p. 41).

D. S. Mirsky was an early user of the word in English in writing about Gogol; he defined it as "'self-satisfied inferiority,' moral and spiritual" (Mirsky 1927, p. 158). Vladimir Nabokov made it more widely known in his book on Gogol, where he romanized it as "poshlust" (punningly: "posh + lust"). Poshlust, Nabokov explained, "is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive" (Nabokov 1944, p. 70). Azar Nafisi mentions it and quotes the above definition in Reading Lolita in Tehran. Davydov (1995) lists literary characters whom Nabokov named as exemplifying the term in Nikolai Gogol: "Polonius and the royal pair in Hamlet, Rodolphe and Homais from Madame Bovary, Laevsky in Chekhov's 'The Duel', Joyce's Marion Bloom, young Bloch in Search of Lost Time, Maupassant's 'Bel Ami', Anna Karenina's husband, and Berg in War and Peace."

Nabokov often targeted poshlost in his own work; the Alexandrov quotation above refers to the character of M'sieur Pierre in Invitation to a Beheading. Another notable literary treatment is Fyodor Sologub's novel The Petty Demon.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Poshlost" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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