I: Maxim Gorki (1868–1936)
In My Childhood Gorki has left an account of his life in the house of his maternal grandfather, Vasili Kashirin. It is a dismal story. The grandfather was a tyrannical brute; his two sons—Gorki’s uncles—though terrified of their father, in turn terrorized and maltreated their wives and children. The atmosphere was that of never-ending abuses, senseless reproaches, brutal floggings, money-grabbing, and dreary supplications to God.
“Between the barracks and the gaol,” says Gorki’s biographer, Alexander Roskin, “amidst a sea of mud, stood rows of houses—dun-colored, green, white. And in every one of them, just as in the Kashirin household, people fought and squabbled because the pudding was burnt or the milk had curdled, in every one of them the same petty interests prevailed—about pots and pans and samovars and pancakes—and in every one of them people just as religiously celebrated birthdays and commemoration days, guzzling until they were ready to burst and swilling like hogs.”1
This was in Nizhni Novgorod, and in the social milieu of the worst description—that of the meshchane, in status just above the peasants and on the lowest step of the middle class—a social milieu which had already lost the wholesome relation to the soil but had acquired nothing to fill the vacuum thus created, and therefore one that became a prey to the worst vices of the middle classes without their redeeming qualities.
Gorki’s father had also had a dismal childhood but afterwards had grown into a fine kind man. He died when Gorki was four, and this was why his widowed mother had gone back to live with her dreadful family. The only happy memory of those days for Gorki was that of his grandmother, who in spite of her terrible surroundings carried in her a kind of happy optimism and a great kindness; only owing to her did the boy ever come to know that there could be happiness, indeed that life was happiness in spite of anything.
At the age of ten Gorki started working for a living. He was in turn an errand boy in a shoe store, a dishwasher on a steamboat, an apprentice draftsman, an icon-painter’s apprentice, a rag-and-bone man, and a birdcatcher. Then he discovered books and began to read everything he could get hold of. At first he read indiscriminately, but very early he developed a fine and sensitive feeling for real literature. He felt a passionate desire to study, but soon realized that he had no chance to be admitted to the university, for which he had gone to Kazan. In his complete destitution he was thrown upon the company of the bosyaki—Russian for bums—and made there invaluable observations which he later exploded like a bomb-shell in the face of the dumbfounded reading public of the capitals.
He had eventually to go to work again and served as assistant baker in a basement bakery, where the working day lasted fourteen hours. Soon he became associated with the revolutionary underground where he met more congenial people than the bakery workers. And he continued to read all he could—literature and science and books on social and medical subjects, anything he could get.
At the age of nineteen he attempted to kill himself. The wound was dangerous, but he recovered. The note found in his pocket began thus: “I lay the blame of my death on the German poet Heine, who invented toothache of the heart….”
He tramped on foot all over Russia, to Moscow, and once there made straight for Tolstoy’s house. Tolstoy was not at home, but the Countess invited him into the kitchen and treated him to coffee and rolls. She observed that a great number of bums kept coming to see her husband, to which Gorki politely agreed. Back in Nizhni he roomed with a couple of revolutionaries who had been exiled from Kazan because they had participated in student rioting. When the police received an order to arrest one of these and found that he had given them the slip, they arrested Gorki for questioning.
“What odd kind of a revolutionary are you?” said the gendarme-general during the interrogation. “You write poems and the like…. When I let you out, you had better show that stuff of yours to Korolenko.” After a month in prison, Gorki was released and, taking the policeman’s advice, went to see Vladimir Korolenko. Korolenko was a very popular but quite second-rate writer, loved by the intelligentsia, suspected of revolutionary sympathies by the police—and a very kind man. His criticism, however, was so severe that it frightened Gorki, who gave up writing for a long time and went to Rostov where he worked for a while as a longshoreman. And it was not Korolenko, but a revolutionary named Alexander Kaluzhny, a chance acquaintance in Tiflis in the Caucasus, who helped Gorki to find his way in literature. Charmed by Gorki’s vivid narrations of all he had witnessed on his endless tramps, Kaluzhny insisted that Gorki write it down in simple words, the same in which he used to tell it. And when a tale was written, the same man took it to the local newspaper and had it printed. The year was 1892, and Gorki was twenty-four.
Later, however, Korolenko proved a great help—not only with valuable advice, but also by finding Gorki a job at the office of a newspaper with which Korolenko was connected. During this year of journalism in Samara, Gorki devoted himself to work. He studied, he tried to perfect his style, poor man, and he regularly wrote stories which appeared in the paper. By the end of this year he became a well-known writer and received many offers from Volga region newspapers. He accepted an offer from Nizhni and returned to his native town. In his writings he stressed savagely the bitter truth of contemporary Russian life. And yet every line he wrote was permeated with his unconquerable faith in man. Strange though it sounds, this painter of the darkest sides of life, of the cruelest brutalities, was also the greatest optimist Russian literature produced.
His revolutionary bias was quite clear. It added to his popularity among the radical intelligentsia but it also made the police redouble their vigilance in respect to a person who had already for a long time figured on the lists of the suspect. He was soon arrested because a photograph of his with a line of dedication had been found in the lodgings of another man arrested for revolutionary activity; however, he was shortly released in the absence of incriminating evidence. He returned to Nizhni again. The police kept an eye on him. Strange individuals were always hovering around the two-storied wooden house in which he lived. One of them would be sitting on a bench, making believe that he was idly surveying the sky. Another would be leaning against a lamppost, ostensibly engrossed in the contents of a newspaper. The coachman of the cab drawn up near the front door also behaved strangely; he would readily agree to take Gorki, or any of his visitors, wherever they pleased, free of charge if need be. But he would never take another fare. All these men were merely police observers.
Gorki became engaged in philanthropic work. He organized a Christmas party for hundreds of the poorest children; opened a comfortable daytime shelter for the unemployed and homeless, with library and piano; started a movement for sending scrap-books with pictures cut out of magazines to the village children. And also he began to take an active part in revolutionary work. Thus he smuggled a mimeograph for a secret press from St. Petersburg to the Nizhni Novgorod revolutionary group. This was a serious offense. He was arrested and put in jail. He was a very sick man at the time.
Public opinion, which was a force not to be easily discarded in pre-revolutionary Russia, came out for Gorki in full strength. Tolstoy came out to his defense, and a wave of protest swept through Russia. The government was forced to yield to public opinion: Gorki was released from prison and confined in his own home instead. “Policemen were posted in his hall and in the kitchen. One of them would constantly intrude into his study,” gushes the biographer. Yet a little further we find out that Gorki “settled down to his work, often writing until late at night” and also that he “happened to meet” a friend in the street and, undisturbed, to hold with him a talk about the imminence of revolution. Not such a terrible treatment, I would say. “The police and secret police were powerless to restrain him.” (The Soviet police would have restrained him in a twinkle.) Alarmed, the government ordered him to go and live at Arzamas, a sleepy little town in southern Russia. “The reprisals against Gorki evoked a wrathful protest from Lenin,” Mr. Roskin goes on. ” ‘One of Europe’s foremost writers,’ wrote Lenin, ‘whose only weapon is freedom of speech, is being banished by the autocratic government without trial.’ ”
His sickness—consumption, as in Chekhov’s case—had become worse during his imprisonment, and his friends, Tolstoy included, brought pressure to bear on the authorities. Gorki was allowed to go to the Crimea.
Earlier, back in Arzamas, Gorki, under the very noses of the secret police, had participated actively in revolutionary activities. He also wrote a play, The Philistines, which pictures the drab and stuffy milieu in which his own childhood had passed. It never became as famous as his next play, The Lower Depths. “While still in the Crimea, sitting one evening on the porch in the gathering dusk, Gorki had mused aloud about his new play: the hero is a former butler to a wealthy family whom the vicissitudes of life have brought to the poorhouse, from which he has never been able to extricate himself. The man’s most treasured possession is the collar of a dress shirt—the one object that links him with his former life. The poorhouse is crowded, everybody there hates everyone else. But in the last act spring comes, the stage is flooded with sunlight and the inmates of the poorhouse leave their squalid dwelling and forget the hatred they bear for each other…” (Roskin, From the Banks of the Volga).
When The Lower Depths was finished, it amounted to more than this sketch suggests. Every character depicted is alive and offers an advantageous part to a good actor. It was the Moscow Art Theater that gave it theatrical realization and, scoring with it a tremendous success, made the play familiar to everybody.
Perhaps it is appropriate at this juncture to say a few words about this amazing theater. Before it came into existence, the best theatrical food the Russian theatergoer could obtain was largely confined to the imperial companies of Petersburg and Moscow. These had at their disposal considerable means, sufficient to engage the best available talent, but the administration of these theaters was very conservative, which, in art, may often mean very stuffy, and the productions, at best, were on extremely conventional lines. For a really talented actor, however, there was no higher achievement than to “make” the imperial scene, for the private theaters were very poor and could not compete in any way with the imperial ones.
When Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko founded their little Moscow Theatre, everything soon began to change. From the rather hackneyed affair that the theater had become, it began to pick its way again to what it should be: a temple of careful and genuine art. The Moscow Theatre was backed only by the private fortune of its founders and of a few of their friends, but it did not need elaborate funds. The basic idea that it embodied was to serve the Art, not for the purpose of gain or fame, but for the high purpose of artistic achievement. No part was considered more important than another, every detail was considered to be as worthy of attention as the very choice of the play. The best actors never declined the smallest parts which happened to be allotted them because their talents were best suited to make the greatest success of these parts. No play was performed until the stage manager was sure the very best results obtainable had been obtained in regard to artistic realization and perfection of every detail of the production—no matter how many rehearsals had taken place. Time was no object.
The enthusiastic spirit of this high service animated every single member of the troupe; and if any other consideration became to him or her of greater importance than the search for artistic perfection, then he or she had no place in this theatrical community. Carried away by the profound artistic enthusiasm of its founders, living like one big family, the actors worked away at every one of the productions as if this were to be the one and only production in their lives. There was religious awe in their approach; there was moving self-sacrifice. And there also was amazing teamwork. For no actor was supposed to care more for his personal performance or success than for the general performance of the troupe, for the general success of the performance. No one was allowed to enter after the curtain went up. No applause was tolerated between acts.
So much for the spirit of the Theatre. As for the basic ideas which revolutionized the Russian theater and transformed it from a mildly imitative sort of institution always ready to adopt foreign methods after they had been soundly established in foreign theaters, into a great artistic institution which soon became a pattern and an inspiration to foreign stage managers, the main idea was this: the actor should dread above all the rigid techniques, the accepted methods, and should instead give all his attention and effort to an attempt at penetrating the soul of the theatrical type he was going to represent. In this attempt to give a convincing picture of dramatic type, the actor entrusted with the part would try for the period of training to live an imagined life which would be likely to suit the character in question; he would develop in real life mannerisms and intonations suitable for the occasion, so that when he was called upon to speak the words on the stage, these words would come to him as naturally as if he were the man himself and was speaking for himself by an entirely natural impulse.
Whatever may be said for or against the method, one thing is essential: whenever talented people approach art with the sole idea of serving it sincerely to the utmost measure of their ability, the result is always gratifying. Such was the case of the Moscow Theatre. Its success was tremendous. Lines formed days in advance to secure admission to the little hall; the most talented young people began to seek a chance to join the “Moscovites” in preference to the imperial dramatic troupes. The Theatre soon developed several branches: the first, second, and third “workshops,” which remained tightly associated with the parent institution, although each pushed out its artistic investigations in different directions. It also developed a special workshop in Hebrew, the Habima, in which the best producer as well as several actors were non-Jews, and which achieved some amazing artistic results of its own.
One of the best actors of the Moscow Theatre was incidentally its founder and stage director, and, I would almost add, its dictatorial head, Stanislavski, while Nemirovich remained a co-dictator and alternating stage director.
The Theatre’s outstanding successes were Chekhov’s plays, Gorki’s Lower Depths, and of course many other plays. But Chekhov’s plays and Gorki’s Lower Depths have never been removed from the lists and probably will forever be mainly connected with the name of the Theatre.
In the beginning of 1905—the year of the so-called First Revolution—the government ordered soldiers to shoot at a large gathering of workmen who were marching with the peaceful object of presenting a petition to the tsar. Later, it became known that the procession had in the first place been organized by a double agent, an agent provocateur, of the government. There were a great number of people, including many children, deliberately killed in the shooting. Gorki wrote a vigorous appeal “To All Russian Citizens and to the Public Opinion of the Countries of Europe” denouncing the “deliberate murders” and implicating the tsar. Naturally—he was arrested.
This time protests against his arrest poured from all over Europe, from famous scientists, politicians, artists, and again the government yielded and released him (imagine the Soviet government yielding today), after which he went to Moscow and openly helped prepare the revolution, collecting funds for the purchase of arms and turning his apartment into an arsenal. Revolutionary students set up a rifle range in his lodgings and actively practiced shooting.
When the revolution failed, Gorki quietly slipped over the frontier and went to Germany, then to France, and then America. In the United States he addressed meetings and continued to denounce the Russian government. He also wrote here his long novel, The Mother, a very second-rate production. From that time on, Gorki lived abroad, chiefly on Capri in Italy. He remained closely connected with the Russian revolutionary movement, attended revolutionary congresses abroad, and became a close friend of Lenin. In 1913 the government proclaimed an amnesty and Gorki not only returned to Russia but published there, during the war, a big periodical of his own, Letopis’ (The Chronicle).
After the Bolshevik revolution in the fall of 1917, Gorki enjoyed considerable esteem with Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders. He also became the chief authority in literary matters. He used this authority with modesty and moderation, realizing that in many literary matters his scanty education did not allow him to impose good judgment. He also used his connections repeatedly to intercede for people who were persecuted by the new government. From 1921 to 1928 he lived again abroad, chiefly in Sorrento—partly on account of his failing health, partly because of political differences with the Soviets. In 1928 he was more or less ordered back. From 1928 to his death in 1936 he lived in Russia, edited several magazines, wrote several plays and stories, and continued to drink heavily as he had done most of his life. In June 1936 he became very ill and died in the comfortable dacha put to his use by the Soviet government. A good deal of evidence points to the fact that he died of poison administered to him by the Cheka, the Soviet secret police.
As a creative artist, Gorki is of little importance. But as a colorful phenomenon in the social structure of Russia he is not devoid of interest.
“On the Rafts” (1895)
Let us select and examine a typical Gorki short story, for instance the one called “On the Rafts.”2 Consider the author’s method of exposition. A certain Mitya and a certain Sergey are steering the raft across the wide and misty Volga. The owner of the raft, who is somewhere on the forward part, is heard yelling angrily, and the man Sergey mutters for the reader to hear: “Shout away! Here’s your miserable devil of a son Mitya who could not break a straw across his knee and you put him to steer a raft; and then you yell so that all the river [and the reader] hears you. You were mean enough [Sergey goes on to explain in monologue] not to take a second steersman [but make your son help me instead], so now you may shout as much as you like.” These last words the author notes—and God knows how many authors have used this particular turn—these last words were growled out loud enough to be heard forward as if Sergey (the author adds) wished them to be heard (heard by the audience, we add, for this kind of exposition looks uncommonly like the opening scene of some old faded play with the valet and the maid dusting the furniture and talking about their masters).
Presently we learn from Sergey’s sustained monologue that the father had first found a pretty wife for his son Mitya and then had made his daughter-in-law his mistress. Sergey, your healthy cynic, mocks poor moping Mitya and both talk at length in the rhetorical and false style which Gorki reserved for such occasions. Mitya explains that he is going to join a certain religious sect, and the depths of the good old Russian soul are forcibly conveyed to the reader. The scene shifts to the other end of the raft, and now the father is shown with his sweetheart Maria, his son’s wife. He is the vigorous and colorful old man, a well-known figure in fiction. She, the alluring female, twists her body in the movement of that much-quoted animal, the cat (lynx is a later variation), and leans toward her lover who proceeds to deliver a speech. We not only hear again the author’s high-faluting tones, but almost see him stalking this way and that between his characters and giving them the cue. “I am a sinner, I know,” the old father says. “Mitya my son is suffering I know, but is my own position a pleasant one?”—and so on.
In both dialogues, the one between Mitya and Sergey, and the one between the father and Maria, the author is trying to make it all less improbable, is careful to make his characters say, as an old playwright would, “We have talked about it more than once already,” for otherwise the author might expect the reader to wonder why on earth it was necessary to place two couples on a raft in the middle of the Volga to make them talk of their conflicts. On the other hand, if the constant repetition of such conversation is accepted, one cannot help wondering whether the raft ever got anywhere. People do not talk very much when they steer in a fog across a wide and powerful river—but this, I suppose, is what is called stark realism.
Dawn breaks, and here is what Gorki manages to do in the way of nature description: “The emerald green fields along the Volga glittered with dew diamonds” (quite a jeweler’s display). Meanwhile, on the raft the father suggests killing Mitya and “a mysterious charming smile plays on the woman’s lips.” Curtain.
We must note here that Gorki’s schematic characters and the mechanical structure of the story are lined up with such dead forms as the fabliau or the moralité of medieval times. We must also note the low level of culture—what we call in Russia “semi-intelligentsia”—which is disastrous in a writer whose essential nature is not vision and imagination (which can work wonders even if an author is not educated). But logical demonstration and a passion for reasoning require, to be successful, an intellectual scope which Gorki completely lacked. Feeling that he had to find some compensation for the poverty of his art and the chaos of his ideas, he always went after the striking subject, the contrast, the conflict, the violent and the harsh—and because what reviewers call “a powerful story” distracts the gentle reader from any true appreciation, Gorki made a strong exotic impression on his readers in Russia and then on his readers abroad. I have heard intelligent people maintain that the utterly false and sentimental story “Twenty-Six Men and a Girl” is a masterpiece. These twenty-six miserable outcasts are working in an underground bakery, rough, coarse, foul-mouthed men surrounding with an almost religious adoration a young girl who comes every day for her bread—then fiercely insulting her when she is seduced by a soldier. This seemed something new, but a closer examination reveals that the story is as traditional and flat as the worst examples of the old school of sentimental and melodramatic writing. There is not a single live word in it, not a single sentence that is not ready-made; it is all pink candy with just that amount of soot clinging to it to make it attractive.
From here on there is but one step to so-called Soviet literature.
II: Philistines and Philistinism
A philistine is a full-grown person whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature, and whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideals of his or her group and time. I have said “full-grown person” because the child or the adolescent who may look like a small philistine is only a small parrot mimicking the ways of confirmed vulgarians, and it is easier to be a parrot than to be a white heron. “Vulgarian” is more or less synonymous with “philistine”: the stress in a vulgarian is not so much on the conventionalism of a philistine as on the vulgarity of some of his conventional notions. I may also use the terms genteel and bourgeois. Genteel implies the lace-curtain refined vulgarity which is worse than simple coarseness. To burp in company may be rude, but to say “excuse me” after a burp is genteel and thus worse than vulgar. The term bourgeois I use following Flaubert, not Marx. Bourgeois in Flaubert’s sense is a state of mind, not a state of pocket. A bourgeois is a smug philistine, a dignified vulgarian.
A philistine is not likely to exist in a very primitive society although no doubt rudiments of philistinism may be found even there. We may imagine, for instance, a cannibal who would prefer the human head he eats to be artistically colored, just as the American philistine prefers his oranges to be painted orange, his salmon pink, and his whiskey yellow. But generally speaking philistinism presupposes a certain advanced state of civilization where throughout the ages certain traditions have accumulated in a heap and have started to stink.
Philistinism is international. It is found in all nations and in all classes. An English duke can be as much of a philistine as an American Shriner or a French bureaucrat or a Soviet citizen. The mentality of a Lenin or a Stalin or a Hitler in regard to the arts and the sciences was utterly bourgeois. A laborer or a coal miner can be just as bourgeois as a banker or a housewife or a Hollywood star.
Philistinism implies not only a collection of stock ideas but also the use of set phrases, clichés, banalities expressed in faded words. A true philistine has nothing but these trivial ideas of which he entirely consists. But it should be admitted that all of us have our cliché side; all of us in everyday life often use words not as words but as signs, as coins, as formulas. This does not mean that we are all philistines, but it does mean that we should be careful not to indulge too much in the automatic process of exchanging platitudes. On a hot day every other person will ask you, “Is it warm enough for you?” but that does not necessarily mean that the speaker is a philistine. He may be merely a parrot or a bright foreigner. When a person asks you, “Hullo, how are you?” it is perhaps a sorry cliché to reply, “Fine”; but if you made to him a detailed report of your condition you might pass for a pedant and a bore. It also happens that platitudes are used by people as a kind of disguise or as the shortest cut for avoiding conversation with fools. I have known great scholars and poets and scientists who in the cafeteria sank to the level of the most commonplace give and take.
The character I have in view when I say “smug vulgarian” is, thus, not the part-time philistine, but the total type, the genteel bourgeois, the complete universal product of triteness and mediocrity. He is the conformist, the man who conforms to his group, and he also is typified by something else: he is a pseudo-idealist, he is pseudo-compassionate, he is pseudo-wise. The fraud is the closest ally of the true philistine. All such great words as “Beauty,” “Love,” “Nature,” “Truth,” and so on become masks and dupes when the smug vulgarian employs them. In Dead Souls you have heard Chichikov. In Bleak House you have heard Skimpole. You have heard Homais in Madame Bovary. The philistine likes to impress and he likes to be impressed, in consequence of which a world of deception, of mutual cheating, is formed by him and around him.
The philistine, in his passionate urge to conform, to belong, to join, is torn between two longings: to act as everybody does, to admire, to use this or that thing because millions of people do; or else he craves to belong to an exclusive set, to an organization, to a club, to a hotel patronage or an ocean liner community (with the captain in white and wonderful food), and to delight in the knowledge that there is the head of a corporation or a European count sitting next to him. The philistine is often a snob. He is thrilled by riches and rank—“Darling, I’ve actually talked to a duchess!”
A philistine neither knows nor cares anything about art, including literature—his essential nature is anti-artistic—but he wants information and he is trained to read magazines. He is a faithful reader of the Saturday Evening Post, and when he reads he identifies himself with the characters. If he is a male philistine he will identify himself with the fascinating executive or any other big shot—aloof, single, but a boy and a golfer at heart; or if the reader is a female philistine—a philistinette—she will identify herself with the fascinating strawberry-blonde secretary, a slip of a girl but a mother at heart, who eventually marries the boyish boss. The philistine does not distinguish one writer from another; indeed, he reads little and only what may be useful to him, but he may belong to a book club and choose beautiful, beautiful books, a jumble of Simone de Beauvoir, Dostoevski, Marquand, Somerset Maugham, Dr. Zhivago, and Masters of the Renaissance. He does not much care for pictures, but for the sake of prestige he may hang in his parlor reproductions of Van Gogh’s or Whistler’s respective mothers, although secretly preferring Norman Rockwell.
In his love for the useful, for the material goods of life, he becomes an easy victim of the advertisement business. Ads may be very good ads—some of them are very artistic—that is not the point. The point is that they tend to appeal to the philistine’s pride in possessing things whether silverware or underwear. I mean the following kind of ad: just come to the family is a radio set or a television set (or a car, or a refrigerator, or table silver—anything will do). It 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 I dol is enthroned; even Grandma of the beaming wrinkles peeps out somewhere in the background; and somewhat apart, his thumbs gleefully inserted in the armpits of his waistcoat, stands triumphant Dad or Pop, the Proud Donor.
Small boys and girls in ads are invariably freckled, and the smaller fry have front teeth missing. I have nothing against freckles (in fact I find them very becoming in live creatures) and quite possibly a special survey might reveal that the majority of small American-born Americans are freckled, or else perhaps another survey might reveal that all successful executives and handsome housewives had been freckled in their childhood. I repeat, I have really nothing against freckles as such. But I do think there is considerable philistinism involved in the use made of them by advertisers and other agencies. I am told that when an unfreckled, or only slightly freckled, little boy actor has to appear on the screen in television, an artificial set of freckles is applied to the middle of his face. Twenty-two freckles is the minimum: eight freckles over each cheekbone and six on the saddle of the pert nose. In the comics, freckles look like a case of bad rash. In one series of comics they appear as tiny circles. But although the good cute little boys of the ads are blond or redhaired, with freckles, the handsome young men of the ads are generally dark haired and always have thick dark eyebrows. The evolution is from Scotch to Celtic.
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 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.
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 aesthetic 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.
It is possible that the term itself has been so nicely devised by Russians because of the cult of simplicity and good taste in old Russia. The Russia of today, a country of moral imbeciles, of smiling slaves and poker-faced bullies, has stopped noticing poshlism because Soviet Russia is so full of its special brand, a blend of despotism and pseudo-culture; but in the old days a Gogol, a Tolstoy, a Chekhov in quest of the simplicity of truth easily distinguished the vulgar side of things as well as the trashy systems of pseudo-thought. But poshlists are found everywhere, in every country, in this country as well as in Europe—in fact poshlism is more common in Europe than here, despite our American ads.
Copyright © 1981 by the Estate of Vladimir Nabokov.
September 24, 1981
From the Banks of the Volga, translated by D.L. Fromberg (Philosophical Library, 1946), p. 11. ↩
This sentence begins handwritten text on page 5 of a manuscript, beneath a deleted incomplete passage remarking Courtenay’s description of Gorki’s “lurid cheap style.” The preceding pages are not preserved. Ed. ↩