In Tuesday’s class, Zosha will give us a good introduction to bad taste of the specifically Russian variety known as “poshlost,” or “poshlust,” per Vladimir Nabokov’s pointed transliteration of this untranslatable term. After you’ve read the excerpt from his book on Nikolai Gogol, the essay on “Philistines and Philistinism,” and the historical survey of poshlost’ by Gennady Obatnin, please review and respond to Zosha’s post to the blog.
Here’s Zosha’s post:
A Primer in Poshlost’
Poshlost’, in the words of Svetlana Boym, is the a uniquely Russian word for bad taste. “Poshlost is described as one of those untranslatable Russian words meaning ‘cheap, sham, common, smutty, pink-and-blue.’ Poshlost is an obvious sham that deceives not only aesthetically but also morally.” (Boym p. 279).
However, Poshlost is not just the identifiable cultural trash consumed in moments of weakness, it is also people who use the word existentialist in daily conversation, name-droppers, and dinners Instagram’d out of smug self-satisfaction, and religion. Anyone who believes themself to be “advanced”, classy, or on-trend is, in reality, just the same as the people they make fun of for reading tabloids and eating Twinkies- they just exhibit a higher level of cultural abuse and are equally impressed with themselves because of it.
Seemingly, religion is the outlier in the idea of Poshlost. But religion is its own cultural authority that just comes with the added bonus of morals! Any collection of individuals that thinks that have moral rightness to judge others yet announce “Jesus loves ME” has the same self-congraulatory nature as that selfie or aforementioned Instagram’d meal. Being religious also satisfies Nabokov’s dualistic description of the nature of a Poshlost devotee (note: can never declare oneself as a devotee of Poshlost because that is inherently Poshly!):
“The philistine in his passionate urge to conform, to belong, to join, is torn between two longings: to act as everybody does, to admire, to use this or that thing because millions of people do; or else he craves to belong to an exclusive set, to an organization, to a club, to a hotel patronage or an ocean liner community (with the captain in white and wonderful food), and to delight in the knowledge that there is the head of a corporation or a European count sitting right next to him.” (Nabokov p. 311)
The Poshly person can join any religious group and know that he is conforming to something global, but also gives an exclusivity of moral value (e.g. I am a good person) and rituals, like communion, baptism, and maybe some human/animal sacrifice. And while there are 260 million Orthodox Christians in the world, that won’t matter to the Poshly person who is delighted that they are lucky enough to have the same religion as their favorite celebrity or leader.
Poshlost is also slightly cannibalistic. For example, anything of high aesthetic is considered Poshly because of how it sees itself- Obatnin gives the example of theatre. But if an amateur group was to spoof the performance, that is also Poshly, as they are considering themselves cultural critics with something to say. Those who consider themselves arbiters and critics of taste are an considered Poshlosty by Nabokov because of their sense that they are at the higher levels of culture and aesthetics. In the spirit of Poshlost, we can barely criticize and discuss it without being eaten by the same cycle. After all, what gives lowly bumbling pseudo-intellectuals the right to criticize culture? Unfortunately and delightfully, we are also experiencing Poshlost.
Kitsch, tack, camp, tawdry, cheesy, cheap, trashy, and Poshlost all belong to the same genre. Is there a single unifier, aesthetic or otherwise?