Like most Russophiles who read Nabokov at an impressionable age, I was hooked by his description of пошлость (póshlost’) and have been seeking further elucidation ever since. I wrote a brief post about the concept back in 2007, and now that I’m reading Svetlana Boym’s Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia I can expand on it, because it is one of the basic elements of her “Mythologies of Everyday Life” chapter, and she goes into both its history and its cultural importance. However, since her discussion is both dense and wide-ranging (the section devoted to the word is twenty-five pages long), I’ll do the best I can to pull out some particularly interesting bits.
She begins her discussion as follows:
After making love with her new acquaintance in the resort town of Yalta, the heroine of Anton Chekhov’s short story “A Lady with a Dog” begins to cry, and then declares that she has become “a poshlaia woman.” Her lover orders a piece of melon brought to him on a porcelain saucer with a golden rim. He is embarrassed by her tears, which are not in good taste for a conventional, cool, and blase resort romance. Yet it is the shame and the lure of poshlost’ that turn this Western-style casual adultery into a typical Russian love story, complete with tears, grey dresses, autumnal landscapes, and nostalgia.
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 lack of spirituality. This one word encompasses triviality, vulgarity, sexual promiscuity, and lack of spirituality. The war against poshlost’ is a cultural obsession of the Russian and Soviet intelligentsia from the 1860s to 1960s. Perhaps nowhere else in the world has there been such a consistency in the battle against banality. In Dostoevsky, poshlyi is an attribute of the devil (or at least of his dreamline novelistic apparition), while Alexander Solzhenitsyn uses it to characterize Western-oriented youth. In everyday speech a “poshliak” (boor or slob, with a diminutive pejorative suffix) is not a servant of the devil or a “Western spy” but only a man who frequently uses obscene language or behaves like a common womanizer. Poshlost’ has also a broader meaning, close to byt [another hard-to-translate term, meaning 'daily life' but with a negative connotation], when it refers to the incommensurable everyday routine, obscene by virtue of being ordinary and evil by virtue of being banal.
I was surprised by the emphasis on sexuality in this passage—Nabokov’s only nod to that side of things is his sly rendering of the last syllable as “lust”—but she later goes on to support it with citations.
After a summary of Nabokov and a quick survey of the origin of the word (for which see my earlier post), she says, “There is an important connection between poshlost’ and the merchant class—kuptsy, at the higher level, and meshchane at the lower level of urban dwellers (the mythical Russian equivalent of the petite bourgeoisie),” adding the following footnote:
In the Russian cultural imagination, as shaped by nineteenth-century literature, the kupets is an embodiment of conservatism, “the reign of darkness”…. There is an inherent connection between poshlost’ and language: poshlost’ cannot be studied merely thematically; it has as much to do with the style, with the way things are done, as with the things themselves. The metamorphosis of the word is closely linked to the development of Russian and Soviet languages, particularly the omnipotent language of the bureaucracy. Bureaucracy operates on the notions of precedent, custom, order, and their preservation and recycling. The old procedures, rituals, and orders from above remained almost unmodified even after the Revolution.
She quotes Pushkin’s description of Lensky’s “poshlyi madrigal” in Eugene Onegin and says “Although the word is used in the old sense of ‘old and common,’ its context anticipates the modern adventures of Russian banality.” In “The Queen of Spades,” Pushkin has Lisa react to Tomsky’s verbal portrait of Hermann: “having read the newest novels, this already trivial (poshloe) face scared her and stirred her imagination.” Boym says “Yet Pushkin’s attitude toward the commonplace is quite ambiguous; there is a certain nostalgia for the common ways… He is an enemy of linguistic and cultural purity. His common ways are not the ways of national salvation; they are both Russian and European, culturally specific but not exclusionist.”
Going on to compare poshlost’ with French banality, she writes:
At first, the word had to do with the feudal communality and order. Yet the mourning for that lost communality lasted longer in Russian culture than in France, and everyday life was never conceived by the Russian intellectual as something entirely secular. The sexual, spiritual, and artistic spheres are delineated differently than they are in the West, and everyday life, casual love, and spiritual waste remain linked. Poshlost’ and its vehement critique are at the core of the definition of Russian identity, both national and cultural. The usage encompasses attitudes toward material culture and historical change, and it determines ethical values, particularly with respect to sexuality and occasionally with respect to femininity, since poshlost’ is occasionally personified as a salon madame of loose morals.
She says that (contra Nabokov) the concept is not unique to Russia, comparing it to kitsch, and says her discussion “will oscillate between the familiar notion of the banality of evil and the less familiar banality of good, and a third danger, the banality of the discourse about or against banality.” She discusses Gogol and Chekhov at some length, saying “Gogol is largely responsible for the cultural adventures of poshlost’ in Russia” and “In Chekhov, poshlost’ is beyond good and evil… [It] is part of the immutable daily grind. It is what makes life livable but not necessarily worth living.” She ends her discussion of Chekhov’s “Lady with a Dog” thus:
Poshlost’ and poetry, poshlost’ and love, are not always on opposite poles; in fact, poshlost’, like love and poetry, has to be continuously redefined and reframed; the old-fashioned frames can acquire a charming aura while the institution of “good taste” can itself turn into a worn-out cliché. What some call poshlost’ and vulgarity are part and parcel of the experience of the everyday, with its minor events and casual trifles, its little pleasures and small hurts. Poshlost’ here has its tender charms; it is described from a lover’s perspective and never reified. This charm in turn imbues poshlost’ with an aura, giving it a poetic potential. After all, it is banal to have an affair with a married woman with grey eyes at a summer resort; it is even more banal to fall in love. Yet, to stay in love, at least for the duration of the story, is beyond banality.
She goes on to discuss the rise of the intelligentsia and their “dream of spiritual superiority,” quotes Sasha Cherny’s poem “Poshlost’” (Russian text) and explicates its version of “Madame Poshlost’” at length, and describes the adventures of the concept in Soviet times (“The fundamental features of early Soviet self-fashioning are the war against banality and the everyday, and the general persistence of military rhetoric in artistic and everyday language. Poshlost’ often refers to reified domestic objects, as well as to sentimentalized human relationships”), from the satire of the ’20s through the romanticism of the ’60s to the stagnation of Brezhnev (“by then the discussion of the banality of life itself began to appear banal and outdated”), but for that you’ll have to turn to the book itself. I hope I’ve given enough material to spur your interest.