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January 16, 2004



Maybe you should stop thinking of it as a long paper and start thinking of it as a short book.


Thanks, Mike, that is indeed the plan. But I am trying to get an article out first, and in fact parts II and III - although clear and readable and quite alright in their way - are too diffuse to suit my ultimate ends. Someday they will grow up to be chapters, but right now they are a bunch of stuff thrown at the wall to see what sticks. Whatever sticks best gets to be the conclusion of part I.


Seems rather a shame not to incorporate Nabokov's views on poshlust in XIX-XX's consideration of kitsch; consider the following, from "Philistines and Philistinism", Lectures on Russian Literature (substituting theory for marketing):

"The rich philistinism emanating from advertisements 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 the senses is played according to bourgeois rules, but that it is a kid 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 quiet country.

"Russians have, or had, a special name for smug philistinism -- poshlust. Poshlism is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive. To apply the deadly label of poshlism to something is not only an esthetic judgment but also a moral indictment. The genuine, the guileless, the good is never poshlust. It is possible to maintain that a simple, uncivilized man is seldom if ever a poshlust since poshlism presupposes the veneer of civilization. A peasant has to become a townsman in order to become vulgar. A painted necktie has to hide the honest Adam's apple in order to produce poshlism."

Pg 136: moonshine is nice: should be followed by "The moon's an arrant thief,/And her pale fire she snatches from the sun."

Will revisit, but currently in the midst of ADNuttall's new book (and extrapolating to Eco) ...


That's rather amusing, nnyhav. I've never read the Russian Literature lectures. (And I certainly don't know Russians.)

But, as it so happens, I have pale fire expressly tucked up my sleeve for a later chapter. Clever of you to spot it hidden there.


Unless memory fails me, there are also interesting discussions of poshlost and kitsch in Milan Kundera. (And unless Acrobat's search feature fails me you haven't mentioned Kundera in your paper -- in other words, I've only read a few pages so far.)

I've just found the discussion of kitsch - it's Part 6 ("The Grand March") of The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

I don't have a copy of this one I can check, but the discussion of poshlost should be in Kundera's book of essays The Art of the Novel. I tried to check this on Amazon but the text of Art is not in their database. The list of books that comes up for the search "poshlost" is interesting though - and includes the wonderful cultural history of Russia The Icon and the Axe by Billington.)


The Russian term пошлость is usually transliterated as poshlost (or by the persnickety: poshlost', and the Czech would be what, pošlost?). Poshlust seems to be Nabokov's spelling (indeed, search for "poshlust" on Amazon and half the results concern Nabokov), although whether it is just an older, phonetic spelling that was in use when Nabokov adopted it, or is only used by people who adopted it from him, I don't know.*

The pronunciation of o's in Russian words is not intuitive in English. (Case in point being the usual English pronunciation of Nabokov as NA-buh-kov as opposed to the Russian pronunciation na-BOH-kuv.) Poshlost is pronounced more or less as if it rhymed with "gauche pussed" with the first syllable emphasized, and the second very short.

One might speculate, however, that the spelling poshlust, and the overtones which can be derived from treating it as an English compound, might have functioned as a private joke for Nabokov, functioned, say, as a summary of American social pretensions.


Lolita, in my memory, reads a bit like the novelistic equivalent of an aristocratic naturalist's notebook, a study of an order of beings that, while interesting in their peculiarities, may be dissected at one's whim.


Would juxtaposing your Nietzsche quote from Sec. I of the essay with Nietzsche's remarks about women (the ones in The Gay Science for example) be an argument for the dialectic? Horrors...


* Even more geeky digression:
"Poshlost" is a transliteration, i.e. it's based on the way the word is written in Russian. "Poshlust", however, is an attempt at a phonetic spelling, so can it properly be called a transliteration? Is there another obvious word I'm forgetting here that I'll hit myself for missing?


Thanks again, nnyhav. That's very interesting on both counts. I honestly don't know a great deal about the man's biography - just the general outlines. And I have been meaning to read more of his poetry, which I quite like.


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