Nikolai Gogol (1961) by Vladimir Nabokov
From Chapter 3: “Our Mr. Chichikov”; part two
The Russian language is able to express by means of one pitiless word the idea of a certain widespread defect for which the other three European languages I happen to know possess no special term. The absence of a particular expression in the vocabulary of a nation does not necessarily coincide with the absence of the corresponding notion but it certainly impairs the fullness and readiness of the latter's perception. Various aspects of the idea which Russians concisely express by the term poshlost (the stress-accent is on the puff-ball of the first syllable, and the final "t" has a moist softness that is hardly equaled by the French "t" in such words as ‘restiez’ or ‘emoustillant’) are split among several English words and thus do not form a definite whole. On second thought, I find it preferable to transcribe that fat brute of a word thus: poshlust- whlch renders in a somewhat more adequate manner the dull sound of the second, neutral "o." Inversely the first "o" is as big as the plop of an elephant falling into a muddy pond and as round as the bosom of a bathing beauty on a German picture postcard.
English words expressing several, although by no means all aspects of poshlust are for instance: “cheap, sham, common, smutty, pink-and-blue, high falutin’, in bad taste. My little assistant, Roget’s Thesaurus, (which incidentally lists “rats, mice" under "Insects” ---see page 21 of Revised Edition) supplies me moreover with “inferior sorry, trashy, scurvy, tawdry, gimcrack- and others under “cheapness.” All these however suggest merely certain false values for the detection of which no particular shrewdness is required. In fact they tend, these words, to supply an obvious classi6cation of values at a given period of human history, but what Russians call poshlust is beautifully timeless and so cleverly painted all over with protective tints that its presence (in a book, in a soul, in an institution, in a thousand other places) often escapes detection.
Ever since Russia began to think, and up to the time that her mind went blank under the influence of the extraordinary regime she has been enduring for these last twenty-five years, educated, sensitive and free-minded Russians were acutely aware of the furtive and clammy touch of poshlust. Among the nations with which we came into contact, Germany had always seemed to us a country where poshlust. instead of being mocked, was one of the essential parts of the national spirit, habits, traditions and general atmosphere, although at the same time well-meaning Russian intellectuals of a more romantic type readily, too readily, adopted the legend of the greatness of German philosophy and literature; for it takes a super-Russian to admit that there is a dreadful poshlust running through Goethe’s Faust.
To exaggerate the worthlessness of a country at the awkward moment when one is at war with it- and would like to see it destroyed to the last beer-mug and last forget-me-not,-means walking dangerously close to that abyss of poshlust which yawns so universally at times of revolution or war. But if what one demurely murmurs is but a mild pre-war truth, even with something old-fashioned about it, the abyss is perhaps avoidable. Thus, a hundred years ago, while civic-minded publicists in St. Petersburg were mixing heady cocktails of Hegel and Schlegel (with a dash of Feuerbach), Gogol in a chance story he told, expressed the immortal spirit of poshlust pervading the German nation and expressed it with all the vigor of his genius.
The conversation around him had turned upon the subject of Germany, and after listening awhile, Gogol said: "'Yes, generally speaking the average German is not too pleasant a creature, but it is impossible to imagine anything more unpleasant than a German Lothario, a German who tries to be winsome…. One day in Germany I happened to run across such a gallant. The dwelling place of the maiden whom he had long been courting without success stood on the bank of some lake or other, and there she would be every evening sitting on her balcony and doing two things at once: knitting a stocking and enjoying the view. My German gallant being sick of the futility of his pursuit finally devised an unfailing means whereby to conquer the heart of his cruel Gretchen. Every evening he would take off his clothes, plunge into the lake and, as he swam there, right under the eyes of his
beloved, he would keep embracing a couple of swans which had been specially prepared by him for that purpose. I do not quite know what those swans were supposed to symbolize, but I do know that for several evenings on end he did nothing but float about and assume pretty postures with his birds under that precious balcony. Perhaps he fancied there was something poetically antique and mythological in such frolics, but whatever notion he had, the result proved favorable to his intentions: the lady's heart was conquered just as he thought it would be, and soon they were happily married."
Here you have poshlust in its ideal form, and it Is clear that the terms trivial, trashy, smug and so on do not cover the aspect it takes in this epic of the blond swimmer and the two swans he fondled. Neither is it necessary to travel so far both in space and time to obtain good examples. Open the first magazine at hand and you are sure to find something of the following kind: a radio set (or a car, or a refrigerator, or table silver- anything will do) has just come to the family: mother clasps her hands in dazed delight, the children crowd around, all agog, Junior and the dog strain up to the edge of the table where the Idol is enthroned; even Grandma of the beaming wrinkles peeps out somewhere in the background (forgetful, we presume, of the terrific row she has had that very morning with her daughter-in-law); and somewhat apart, his thumbs gleefully inserted in the armpits of his waistcoat, legs a-straddle and eyes a-twinkle, stands triumphant Pop, the Proud Donor.
The rich poshlust emanating from advertisements of this kind 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 ("bourgeois" in the Flaubertian, not in the Marxist sense) but that it is a kind 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.
If a commercial artist wishes to depict a nice little boy he will grace him with freckles (which incidentally assume a horrible rash- like aspect in the humbler funnies). Here poshlust is directly connected with a forgotten convention of a faintly racial type. Kind people send our lonely soldiers silk hosed dummy legs modeled on those of Hollywood lovelies and stuffed with candies and safety razor blades-at least I have seen a picture of a person preparing such a leg in a certain periodical which is a world-famous purveyor of poshlust. Propaganda (which could not exist without a generous supply of and demand for poshlust) fills booklets with lovely Kolkhos maidens and windswept clouds. I select my examples hurriedly and at random- the "Encyc1opedie des Idees Rcues” which Flaubert dreamt of writing one day was a more ambitious work.
Literature is one of its best breeding places and by poshlust -literature I do not mean the kind of thing which is termed "pulp" or which in England used to go under the name of "penny dreadfuls" and in Russia under that of "yellow literature." Obvious trash, curiously enough, contains sometimes a wholesome ingredient, readily appreciated by children and simple souls. Superman is undoubtable poshlust, but it is poshlust in such a mild, unpretentious form that it is not worth while talking about; and the fairy tales of yore contained, for that matter, as much trivial sentiment and naive vulgarity as these yarns about modern Giant Killers. Poshlust, it should be repeated, is especially vigorous and vicious when the sham is not obvious and when the values it mimics are considered, rightly or wrongly, to belong to the very highest level of art, thought or emotion. It is those books which are so poshlustily reviewed in the literary supplement of daily papers- the best sellers, the “stirring, profound and beautiful” novels; it is these “elevated and powerful” books that contain and distill the very essence of poshlust. I happen to have upon my desk a copy of a paper with a whole page advertising a certain novel, which novel is a fake from beginning to end and by its style, its ponderous gambols around elevated ideas, and absolute ignorance of what authentic literature was, is and always will be, strangely reminds one of the swan-fondling swimmer depicted by Gogol. '"You lose yourself in it completely,” -says one reviewer- “When the last page is turned you come back to the world of everyday a little thoughtful, as after a great experience" (note the coy "a little" and the perfectly
automatic "as after a great"). “A singing book, compact of grace and light and ecstasy, a book of pearly radiance,” -whispers another (that swimmer was also "'compact of grace." and the swans had a “pearly radiance, too”). “The work of a master psychologist who can skillfully probe the very inner recesses of men's souIs.” This “inner” (mind you- not "outer"), and the other two or three delightful details already mentioned are in exact conformity to the true value of the book. In fact, this praise is perfectly adequate: the “beautiful” novel is “beautifully” reviewed and the circle of poshlust is complete-or would be complete had not words taken a subtle revenge of their own and smuggled the truth in by secretly forming most nonsensical and most damning combinations while the reviewer and publisher are quite sure that they are praising the book, "which the reading public has made a (here follows an enormous figure apparently meaning the quantity of copies sold) triumph." For in the kingdom of poshlust. It is not the book that “makes a triumph” but the “reading public” which laps it up, blurb and all.
The particular novel referred to here may have been a perfectly honest and sincere (as the saying goes) attempt on the author's part to write something he felt strongly about- and very possibly no commercial aspirations assisted him in that unfortunate process. The trouble is that sincerity, honesty and even true kindness of heart cannot prevent the demon of poshlust from possessing himself of an author's typewriter when the man lacks genius and when the “reading public” is what publishers think it is. The dreadful thing about poshlust is that one finds it so difficult to explain to people why a
particular book which seems chock-full of noble emotion and compassion, and can hold the reader's attention “on a theme far removed from the discordant events of the day” is far, far worse than the kind of literature which everybody admits is cheap.
From the various examples collected here it will be I hope clear that poshlust is not only the obviously trashy but also the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive. A list of literary characters personifying poshlust (and thus namable in Russian poshlyaki in the case of males and poshlyachki in the case of females and rhyming with “key” and “latch key” respectively) will include Polonius and the royal pair in Hamlet, Flaubert's Rodolphe and Homais, Laevsky in Chekhov's Duel, Joyce's Marion Bloom, young Bloch in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, Maupassant's Bel Ami,” Anna Karenina's husband, Berg in War and Peace and numerous other figures in universal fiction. Socially minded Russian critics saw in Dead Souls and in The Government Inspector a condemnation of the social poshlust emanating from serf-owning bureaucratic provincial Russia and thus missed the true point. Gogol's heroes merely happen to be Russian squires and officials; their imagined surroundings and social conditions are perfectly unimportant factors- just as Monsieur Homais might be a business man in Chicago or Mrs. Bloom the wife of a schoolmaster in Vyshny-Volochok. Moreover, their surroundings and conditions, whatever they might have been in “real life” underwent such a thorough permutation and reconstruction in the laboratory of Gogol’s peculiar genius that (as
has been observed already in connection with The Government Inspector) it is as useless to look in Dead Souls for an authentic Russian background as it would be to try and form a conception of Denmark on the basis of that little affair in cloudy Elsinore. And if you want “facts,” then let us inquire what experience had Gogol of provincial Russia. Eight hours in a Podolsk inn, a week in Kursk, the rest he had seen from the window of his traveling carriage, and to this he had added the memories of his essentially Ukrainian youth spent in Mirgorod, Nezhin, Poltava- all of which towns lay far outside Chichikov's itinerary. What seems true however is that Dead Souls provides an attentive reader with a collection of bloated dead souls belonging to poshlyaki and poshlyachki described with that Gogolian gusto and wealth of weird detail which lift the whole thing to the level of a tremendous epic poem; and “poem”- is in fact the subtle subtitle appended by Gogol to Dead Souls. There is something sleek and plump about poshlust, and this gloss, these smooth curves, attracted the artist in Gogol. The immense spherical poshlyak (singular of the word) Paul Chichikov eating the fig at the bottom of the milk which he drinks to mellow his throat, or dancing in his nightgown in the middle of the room while things on shelves rock in response to his Lacedaemonian jig (ending in his ecstatically hitting his chubby behind- his real face with the pink heel of his bare foot, thus propelling himself into the true paradise of dead souls) these are visions which transcend the lesser varieties of poshlust discernible in humdrum provincial surroundings or in the petty iniquities of petty officials. But a poshlyak even of
Chichikov's colossal dimensions inevitably has somewhere in him a hole, a chink through which you see the worm, the little shriveled fool that lies all huddled up in the depth of the poshlust-painted vacuum. There was something faintly silly from the very start about that idea of buying up dead souIs, - souls of serfs who had died since the last census and for whom their owners continued to pay the poll-tax, thus endowing them with a kind of abstract existence which however was quite concretely felt by the squire's pocket and could be just as “concretely” exploited by Chichikov, the buyer of such phantasma. This faint but rather sickening silliness was for a certain time concealed by the maze of complex machinations. Morally Chichikov was hardly guilty of any special crime in attempting to buy up dead men in a country where live men were lawfully purchased and pawned. If I paint my face with homemade Prussian Blue instead of applying the Prussian Blue which is sold by the state and cannot be manufactured by private persons, my crime will be hardly worth a passing smile and no writer will make of it a Prussian Tragedy. But if I have surrounded the whole business with a good deal of mystery and flaunted a cleverness that presupposed most intricate difficulties in perpetrating a crime of that kind, and if owing to my letting a garrulous neighbor peep at my pots of home-brewn paint I get arrested and am roughly handled by men with authentic blue faces, then the laugh for what it is worth is on me. In spite of Chichikov's fundamental irreality in a fundamentally unreal world, the fool in him is apparent because from the very start he commits blunder upon blunder. It was silly to try to buy dead
souls from an old woman who was afraid of ghosts; it was an incredible lapse of acumen to suggest such a Queer Street deal to the braggard and bully Nozdryov. I repeat however for the benefit of those who like books to provide them with “real people” and “real crime” and a “message” (that horror of horrors borrowed from the jargon of quack reformers) that Dead Souls will get them nowhere. Chichikov's guilt being a purely conventional matter, his destiny can hardly provoke any emotional reaction on our part. This is an additional reason why the view taken by Russian readers and critics, who saw in Dead Souls a matter-of-fact description of existing conditions, seems so utterly and ludicrously wrong. But when the legendary poshylak Chichikov is considered as he ought to be, i. e. as a creature of Gogol’s special brand moving in a special kind of Gogolian coil, the abstract notion of swindling in this serf-pawning business takes on strange flesh and begins to mean much more than it did when we considered it in the light of social conditions peculiar to Russia a hundred years ago. The dead souls he is buying are not merely names on a slip of paper. They are the dead souls that fill the air of Gogol’s world with their leathery flutter, the clumsy animula of Manilov or of Korobochka, of the housewives of the town of N., of countless other little people bobbing throughout the book. Chichikov himself is merely the ill-paid representative of the Devil, a traveling salesman from Hades, “our Mr. Chichikov” as the Satan & Co. firm may be imagined calling their easy-going, healthy-looking but inwardly shivering and rotting agent. The poshlust which Chichikov personifies is one of the main attributes of the Devil, in whose existence, let it be added, Gogol believed far more seriously than he
did in that of God. The chink in Chichikov's armor, that rusty chink emitting a faint but dreadful smell (a punctured can of conserved lobster tampered with and forgotten by some meddling fool in the pantry) is the organic aperture in the devil's armor. It is the essential stupidity of universal poshlust.
Chichikov is doomed from the start and he rolls to that doom with a slight wobble in his gait which only the poshlyak and poshlyachki of the town of N. are capable of finding genteel and pleasant. At important moments when he launches upon one of those sententious speeches (with a slight break in his juicy voice- the tremolo of “dear brethren"), that are meant to drown his real intentions in a treacle of pathos, he applies to himself the words “despicable worm” and, curiously enough, a real worm is gnawing at his vitals and becomes suddenly visible if we squint a little when peering at his rotundity. I am reminded of a certain poster in old Europe that advertised automobile tires and featured something like a human being entirely made of concentric rings of robber; and likewise, rotund Chichikov may be said to be formed of the tight folds of a huge flesh-colored worm. If the special gruesome character attending the main theme of the book has been conveyed and if the different aspects of poshlust which I have noted at random have become connected in such a way as to form an artistic phenomenon (its Gogolian leitmotiv being the “roundness” of poshlust), then Dead Souls will cease to mimic a humorous tale or a social indictment and henceforth may be adequately discussed. So let us look at the pattern a little more closely.