Poshlost

petty demon

Poshlost is a Russian word that has been defined as ‘petty evil or self-satisfied vulgarity,’ however there is no single English translation.

At more length, ‘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’ was 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 in such a way that everybody’s eyes would be opened wide to all the petty trivia that often escape our attention.’ 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’ Dostoyevsky applied the word to the Devil; Solzhenitsyn, to Western-influenced young people.

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.’ Vladimir Nabokov made it more widely known in his book on Gogol, where he romanized it as ‘poshlust,’ which according to Nabokov ‘is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive.’ Nabokov also listed, ‘Corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations, bogus profundities, crude, moronic and dishonest pseudo-literature—these are obvious examples. Now, if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, overconcern with class or race, and the journalistic generalities we all know.’

A notable literary treatment is Fyodor Sologub’s novel ‘The Petty Demon.’ It tells the story of a provincial schoolteacher, Peredonov, notable for his complete lack of redeeming human qualities. ‘The book puts on display a Freudian treasure chest of perversions with subtlety and credibility. The name of the novel’s hero, Peredonov, became a symbol of calculating concupiscence for an entire generation… [Peredonov] seeks not the ideal world but the world of petty venality and sensualism, poshlost. He torments his students, derives erotic satisfaction from watching them kneel to pray, and systematically befouls his apartment before leaving it as part of his generalized spite against the universe.’

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