Pasternak on Poshlost.

I’ve long been fascinated with the Russian concept of пошлость [poshlost’] — something like ‘vulgarity,’ or, according to Nabokov, “smug philistinism” — and have posted twice about it (2007, 2011). Needless to say, I was intrigued by this paragraph from the second chapter of Doctor Zhivago (my translation; Yuri Zhivago’s uncle Nikolai is thinking about the inseparable trio of adolescents Yuri, Misha Gordon, and Tonya Gromeko):

They’re horribly eccentric and childish. The sensual realm which so agitates them they for some reason call poshlost’ and use that expression whether it fits or not. A very unfortunate choice of a word! Poshlost’, for them, is the voice of instinct, and pornographic literature, and the exploitation of women, and just about the entire physical world. They blush and turn pale when they say that word!

Они страшные чудаки и дети. Область чувственного, которая их так волнует, они почему-то называют «пошлостью» и употребляют это выражение кстати и некстати. Очень неудачный выбор слова! «Пошлость» — это у них и голос инстинкта, и порнографическая литература, и эксплуатация женщины, и чуть ли не весь мир физического. Они краснеют и бледнеют, когда произносят это слово!

You can see the changing sense of the word, which is reflected in Nabokov’s “poshlust” and Svetlana Boym’s “peculiar conjunction of the sexual and the spiritual.” I’m guessing Nabokov, a decade younger than Pasternak, grew up with the newer sense of the word.

I’ve finished the first two chapters of Zhivago, and I’m here to tell you it’s not easy reading. The very first sentence contains an expression, по залаженному, that is not in any dictionary and that (I discovered, after a half hour of poring over books and googling) Pasternak seems to have created by combining the colloquial заладить ‘keep repeating the same thing’ and лад ‘harmony, concord’ (в лад ‘in tune’), so that the legs, horses, and wind keep up the mourners’ harmony after they stop singing. And he’s very stingy with details; in the first chapter he tells you the funeral is on the eve of the Feast of the Intercession (which is October 1/14, though you’re just supposed to know that), and the fourth chapter starts by saying it’s the summer of 1903, so presumably the opening is set in September 1902. I had to correct the Wikipedia article to reflect that, because whoever wrote it thought the novel opened in 1903 (and I had to find a printed source saying it was actually 1902 — no original research!).

But it’s well worth all the effort to run across passages like this:

From the garden violet shadows stretched out into the study. The trees looked into the room as if they wanted to lay on the floor their branches weighed down by hoarfrost, like lilac rivulets of congealed stearin.

Из сада в кабинет тянулись лиловые тени. Деревья с таким видом заглядывали в комнату, словно хотели положить на пол свои ветки в тяжелом инее, похожем на сиреневые струйки застывшего стеарина.

That immediately reminded me of this stanza from his 1917 poem Зеркало [The Mirror]:

The immense garden bustles around in the hall
in the pier-glass — and doesn’t break it!
It seems as if collodion had flooded everything,
from the chest of drawers to the noise in the tree trunks.

Огромный сад тормошится в зале
В трюмо – и не бьет стекла!
Казалось бы, все коллодий залил,
С комода до шума в стволах.

And this sentence from Детство Люверс [The Childhood of Luvers]:

Hoarfrost came down from the windowframes, and the garden stood right up to the windows, and, getting tangled up in the lace curtains, came right up to the table.

Иней сошел с ее рам, и сад стал вплотную к окнам, и, запутавшись в кружевных гардинах, подступил к самому столу.

That interpenetration of nature and habitation is very Pasternakian.

Incidentally, the Hayward and Harari translation is amazingly good, considering it must have been done in a rush (it came out in 1957); the only howler I’ve found so far is at the start of Chapter 2, section 11, where he translates Петровские линии [Petrovskie linii] as “The Petrovka,” which is an entirely different (though adjacent) street.

Comments

  1. Tonya cannot be a boy…

    Why do you think Pasternak’s and Nabokov’s use of poshlost’ is different. After all, the teenagers use this word in an uncommon way.

    Also, it is funny that лиловые is translated “violet”, but сиреневые as “lilac”. And this seems like a good call!

  2. SFReader says:

    Outside of classical Russian literature and 19th-early 20th century usage, the word now essentially means vulgarity of sexual kind.

    Illustration:

    Natasha Rostova invites hussar officers to her house. The colonel warns his officers:
    – Hussars, the mistress of the house is a sophisticated lady, so no curse words and no poshlost!
    The evening goes awkward, hussars sit at the table and remain silent utterly afraid of saying something wrong. Natasha tries to amuse guests with smalltalk:
    – Gentlemen, you know, I ordered candles for the evening, put them in the chandelier, but I still got one extra! I have no idea where to put it…
    Colonel jumps and shouts:
    – HUSSARS, BE SILENT!!!!

  3. The transition of fear of the sexual to the draw of the femininity is the central line of the development of Tonya character, but I’m not gonna furnish more spoilers. Surely tabooizing adolescents can shift meanings…. and the grownups understandably chuckle. That’s what the cited paragraph is about.

  4. I am not so sure… a few examples form Russian national corpus show that the sense banality or common cynicism was alive through the 20th century. Of course, RNC does not reflect the speech of the street, which is full of (ahem). Hussars!

  5. Tonya cannot be a boy…

    D’oh! One of those late-night sloppy errors; fixed now. Thanks!

  6. rivulets of congealed stearin

    This brought me up short. Is the word стеарин more common in Russian than it is in English? Because in English I’d want to say “rivulets of congealed tallow.” I don’t think the word “stearin” is used outside of purely scientific contexts.

  7. According to the OED, the technical meaning is the oldest in English, having been adopted from the French, where it was used by the chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul. Personally I would not expect to see “stearin” in anything but a technical context. The OED does cite meanings that indicate solid fats more generally, but I am unsure whether they are current; the word’s OED entry has not been updated since 1916.

  8. What you call the “Hayward translation” is openly the Hayward and Harari translation. Please don’t erase the contributions of women.

  9. In Danish stearin is specifically a mixture of purified stearic and palmitic acid and is what the better class of candles were made from, so it’s a very common word. It may have been a protected designation at one point, to distinguish from tallow and other less clean burning stuff, but that was before my time. (Though now there are plant-based waxes for candles that give off less soot and are less prone to running, but they still get called stearinlys — and besides we have to watch our carbon emissions so a fake LED candle is better, innit?)

  10. Wodehouse likes the adjective stearine, to describe overwrought romantic literature.

  11. I’d say in modern speech and literature стеарин is mostly substituted with воск (wax) in this context, but having read so much from the Russian classics I understand it perfectly and maybe occasionally use it although a quick look at my chat history doesn’t show any hits.
    Google Ngram says
    https://i.imgur.com/W0S0WBE.png
    https://i.imgur.com/phYe0vK.png

    I.e. it’s used more often in Russian, but that wasn’t always the case

  12. This brought me up short. Is the word стеарин more common in Russian than it is in English? Because in English I’d want to say “rivulets of congealed tallow.” I don’t think the word “stearin” is used outside of purely scientific contexts.

    Yeah, I wavered over that, but decided if Pasternak had wanted to use a more homely word he could have done so, so I went with “stearin.” If I were translating the book for publication, I might decide differently.

    What you call the “Hayward translation” is openly the Hayward and Harari translation. Please don’t erase the contributions of women.

    Quite right, and thanks for the reminder; I’ve fixed it now.

  13. You are right, Languagehat, that Zhivago is not easy reading! I read it many times (at least seven when I was in grad school, with analysis for papers in Russian) in the Hayward/Harari translation, which I agree is very decent, but even so found it extremely slow going when I read the whole novel in Russian years later. Beautiful passages, though, made it wholly worthwhile.

    As for the question of стеарин, I think “stearin” is the best choice, the only real choice. Stearin is pure white, like snow, making the imagery perfect. That said, when I mentioned stearin to my husband, he gave me a blank look. I wonder if I’m more familiar with it because I used to buy candles.

  14. Thanks for the confirmation of the difficulty and the support for “stearin”!

  15. That said, when I mentioned stearin to my husband, he gave me a blank look.

    Well, this, to me, goes to the heart of the translation question. Was this a word widely known to well-read Russians in Pastenak’s day? Or was it a consult-a-dictionary sort of word, as I’m entirely confident “stearin” would be to most native English speakers in 2018 unless they were chemists or candle-makers (or crossword addicts, which is how the word rang a distant bell for me).

    (This is not to say deliberately employing obscure words for effect in literary fiction is out of place–Hello, Nabokov!–only that I’m not entirely convinced that that is what’s going on here.)

  16. Was this a word widely known to well-read Russians in Pastenak’s day?

    Yes. To well-read and not well-read alike. “Stearin candle” was a common expression.

  17. Trond Engen says:

    Norwegian is like Danish here. If it was common in Russian and Danish/Norwegian, we can safely attribute it to shared membership in the German logosphere.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    I don’t remember seeing the word stearin in English. In French I only know la stéarine in the context of une bougie de stéarine ‘a stearin candle’, as oppose to une bougie de cire (d’abeille) ‘a (bees)wax candle’. I know that stearin is some kind of artificial wax replacement but had no idea of its composition until now.

    ‘Tallow” is le suif, something no longer used for candles. In literature of the past centuries, cheap candles are des chandelles de suif ‘tallow candles’. La chandelle is the older word, still used in Canadian French. La bougie is a 19th (I think) century innovation, from the name of the Algerian port known in French as Bougie, which was famous for its tapered candles.

  19. They blush and turn pale when they say that word!

    Sump’n wrong there. You can blush and pee in your pants, or cry out and turn pale – but you can’t blush and turn pale at the same time.

    What is meant ? Some blush, others turn pale ? Blush and then turn pale, or the other way around ? Everyone gets hot flashes ?

  20. But nobody said they were doing it at the same time. Could be one followed by the other, could be alternatives (Yura blushes while Misha turns pale).

  21. I have seen my wife ash-pale except for highly red spots on her cheeks, but not from embarrassment.

  22. Stu Clayton says:

    It’s the “and” that jars. “Or” makes more sense. Each person does the one or the other.

    Nobody is blushed o’er with the pale cast of thought.

  23. ‘Tallow” is le suif, something no longer used for candles

    Indeed, though we are (notionally) talking about 1902-03 in terms of setting.

    When palm oil stearin might have routinely replaced animal fat stearin (“tallow”) in candles is unknown to me, but I’m guessing it’s a 20th century innovoation. Googling around, some variant of “stearin candles” pops up in many European languages, but I’m not sure the idea really exists in English except as a calque.

    What is meant ? Some blush, others turn pale ? Blush and then turn pale, or the other way around ? Everyone gets hot flashes ?

    I’d assumed blushed and turned pale in very rapid succession, a phenomenon I’ve seen often enough in real life for those in the throes of embarrassment.

  24. Paraffin-wax candles were developed in about 1850, but were too soft for regular use: adding stearic acid hardened them up. Before that, starting in about 1750, spermaceti wax and then rapeseed oil stearin wax were used, replacing the immemorially old use of tallow. Modern candles replace some of the palm-oil stearin with soya-oil stearin.

  25. I’d assumed blushed and turned pale in very rapid succession, a phenomenon I’ve seen often enough in real life for those in the throes of embarrassment.

    Yes, that makes sense.

  26. Stu Clayton says:

    I have never experienced someone “turning pale” from embarassment, not even momentarily “in rapid succession”. Pale with anger or fear, yes.

    In contrast, someone can blush with rage, but not in fear.

    If I ever saw someone “blushing and turning pale in very rapid succession”, I would interpret that as emotional turmoil, not embarassment alone.

  27. No matter what happens in real life, “to blush and to turn pale” is a semi-fixed expression in Russian for being embarrassed. And, yes, often times when one cannot express ones hearts desire in an appropriate form, like asking the object of desire on a date or something.

  28. Stu Clayton says:

    It’s a relief to have someone else say that. I had nearly remarked that “blush and turn pale” sounds like a combination of English words supposedly describing what a Dostojewski character does, a combination that makes no sense. I’m re-reading a German version of the Karamazov Brothers that manages to avoid that weirdness, for the most part.

  29. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    Following up on John Cowan’s remark, I wonder if “rivulets of congealed paraffin” would be more accessible to present-day readers. I’d suppose, quite fallibly of course, that in Pasternak’s time candles were already mostly paraffin rather than mostly stearin; and that many or most readers today will recognize “paraffin” as wax that isn’t beeswax.

    On a related note, I wonder if Pasternak’s contemporaries knew in what way, if any, stearin/paraffin looks different from bleached beeswax. I don’t know myself.

  30. “To blush and turn pale” is regular idiomatic expression in Russian. Usually in first tense.

  31. I remember finding Nabokov’s discussion of “poshlost'” enticing but elusive. It seems to me that he found the most offensive American manifestation of poshlost’ in commercial art, i.e., advertisements. Particularly in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The people in those ads were white, of North European ancestry, middle-class, and above all ostentatiously wholesome. I thought that perhaps the truly poshlost’, by being obsessed with respectability, cast doubt upon how respectable they themselves really are.

    “Middlebrow” may be a similar term. Here the contested values are intellectual, more than moral. The “middlebrow” person wishes to be respectable, and is very insecure about it. There is no complacency about the middlebrow, whereas the poshlost’ are disgustingly complacent — but are they really? Or do they “protest too much”?

  32. Related, the word “livid” in English can mean both blushing and turning pale; you can say that someone is livid meaning very angry, in the sense that they have gone purple in the face with fury; or you can describe a corpse as livid, meaning pale. Or you can talk about a corpse exhibiting lividity, which means bruising, or the bruise-like post mortem lividity beloved of detective story writers, caused by blood settling to the lower part of the body after death.

  33. If I ever saw someone “blushing and turning pale in very rapid succession”, I would interpret that as emotional turmoil, not embarassment alone.

    Really, what I meant to suggest by the phrase is a “fleeting blush”–coloring and then losing color quickly. This is what the Russian phrase suggests to me, rather than blushing and then becoming somehow paler than normal.

  34. “Fleeting blush”, now that takes us back to familiar territory. Here‘s a passage on blushes in Kierkegaard’s Diary of a Seducer.

    I wonder whether the phenomenon of blushing is intelligible only to pale-skinned peoples. As an aside, I’ve noticed that in Japanese animated films on tv (such as Conan the Detective, a rather silly one), blushing is indicated by a few vertical lines on the cheeks just below the eyes, which are opened wide. There is at most only a hint of color, more darkishness than color.

  35. Rodger C says:

    the bruise-like post mortem lividity beloved of detective story writers, caused by blood settling to the lower part of the body after death

    Called “livor mortis,” though nowadays even forensics people commonly turn it into “liver mortis,” presumably because of the color (I’ve just checked this assertion via Google).

  36. @laowai: Is the word стеарин more common in Russian than it is in English? Because in English I’d want to say “rivulets of congealed tallow.”

    The answer is yes – as has been pointed out above – but note that stearine is not tallow. According to Britannica, in 1825 Michel-Eugène Chevreul…

    …obtained a patent for the preparation of stearic acid candles from fat. Chevreul’s candles, unlike the widely used tallow candles, were hard, odourless, and gave a brilliant light. Commercial stearin candles appeared in Paris in the 1830s, and they quickly became the most popular candle in France.

    It also became popular in Russia, although decades later. The title of Hans Christian Andersen’s early tale, Tællelyset, gets translated as La chandelle de suif in French and Сальная свеча in Russian. Cheap, dim, smoky, generally inferor to stearine.

    Pasternak even used the word стеарин in one of my favorite poems, On a Steamboat (1916).

  37. Yes, that’s the problem: stearin is not readily comprehensible the way стеарин is, but none of the potential substitutes mean the same thing. Hayward and Harari render it “candle wax,” which is perhaps the best replacement even though it still doesn’t mean the same thing.

  38. Concerning German, what I grew up with was Stearinkerze being used for candles made of any substance that was not natural beeswax, independent of whether the substance actually was stearine or not.

  39. David Marjanović says:

    Huh. I was told the stuff was Paraffin, which later turned out to be an obsolete term for alkanes, i.e. saturated hydrocarbons that don’t react much = “have little affinity” to most of the usual reactants other than hot oxygen. Generally it’s all called “wax”. Stearin never showed up.

  40. In America, paraffin is a colorless wax made entirely from high alkanes. At a going-out-of business sale last week, I got several pounds for less than a dollar. It can be used for candles and to wax things like skis and surfboards. The stuff they sell around here is usually also food safe, so it can be used for things like sealing cans or mixing it into melted chocolate used for dipping things. (The paraffin improves the consistency and shine of the chocolate.)

    However, in British English, paraffin typically means kerosene (or a similar product like white gas). Kerosene is similar in composition, being made mostly of alkanes and cycloalkanes, although they chains are typically shorter and more branched, which is responsible for it being a liquid at room temperature. It’s higher volatility makes it somewhat poisonous, unlike heavier compounds.

    There’s also the term liquid paraffin which is sometimes used for mineral oil or petroleum jelly, which come from in between the paraffin wax and the kerosene in a distillation column.

  41. I was told the stuff was Paraffin
    For all I know, the usage of Stearin I grew up with may have been limited to my family – this is the kind of word that doesn’t come up frequently in conversations with people one doesn’t share a household with, except of course if you’re in the candle trade or a chemist or suchlike.
    I associate Paraffin predominantly with the liquid.

  42. marie-lucie says:

    I had never heard of paraffin candles before now. Is paraffin used for the tiny candles used for birthday cakes?

    In my family we kept white candles made of stéarine for emergency lighting during power failures, and my mother used paraffine for sealing jars when making homemade jam. You have to heat the paraffin in a pot to liquefy it, pour it over each jar filled with hot jam, and you just wait until the whole thing cools to put away the jars of jam. Adding a lid is optional. The paraffin does not mix with the jam, and it comes off easily when you want to eat jam, months later.

    Then you save the paraffin as well as the jars for reuse the next year.

  43. All common white candles you get these days are paraffin. The only other common variety is beeswax, which is much pricier.

  44. Well, stearin is one sort of paraffin wax, so that’s been true for almost two hundred years. As JC wrote up above.

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