Poshlost or Poshlost' (Russian: пошлость, IPA: [ˈpoʂləsʲtʲ]) is a Russian word that carries much cultural baggage in Russia and which has been discussed at length by various writers. There is no single English translation. It has been defined as "petty evil or self-satisfied vulgarity" (Alexandrov 1991, p. 106), while Svetlana Boym (2001, p. 279) defines it briefly as "obscenity and bad taste".
Boym goes on to describe it at more length (1994, p. 41):
- 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 [poshlost' poshlogo cheloveka] in such a way that everybody's eyes would be opened wide to all the petty trivia that often escape our attention." ("The Third Letter à Propos Dead Souls", 1843, quoted and translated by Davydov, 1995. Brackets in original. See below for his transliteration "poshlust".)
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" (Lindstrom 1966, p. 149). Dostoyevsky applied the word to the Devil; Solzhenitsyn, to Western-influenced young people (Boym 1994, p. 41).
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" (Mirsky 1927, p. 158). Vladimir Nabokov made it more widely known in his book on Gogol, where he romanized it as "poshlust" (punningly: "posh" + "lust"). Poshlust, Nabokov explained, "is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive. A list of literary characters personifying poshlust will include... Polonius and the royal pair in Hamlet, Rodolphe and Homais from Madame Bovary, Laevsky in Chekhov's 'The Duel', Joyce's Marion [Molly] Bloom, young Bloch in Search of Lost Time, Maupassant's 'Bel Ami', Anna Karenina's husband, and Berg in War and Peace" (Nabokov 1944, p. 70. Brackets added.). Nabokov (1973) 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."
Nabokov often targeted poshlost in his own work; the Alexandrov definition above refers to the character of M'sieur Pierre in Invitation to a Beheading.
Another 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. James H. Billington (1966, p. 494) said of it:
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.
- Alexandrov, Vladimir (1991). Nabokov's Otherworld. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-06866-6.
- Billington, James H. (1966). The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. Alfred A. Knopf.
- Boym, Svetlana (1994). Common Places: Mythologies of Everyday Life in Russia. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-14625-5. Retrieved 2007-12-27.
- Boym, Svetlana (2001). The Future of Nostalgia. Basic Books. p. 279. ISBN 0-465-00707-4. Retrieved 2012-11-26.
- Davydov, Sergej (1995). "Poshlost'". In V. Alexandrov (ed.). The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. Routledge. pp. 628–632. ISBN 0-8153-0354-8.
- Lindstrom, Thais (1966). A Concise History of Russian Literature. Volume I: From the Beginnings to Chekhov. New York: New York University Press. LCCN 66-22218.
- Mirsky, D. S. (1927). A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900 (1999 edition ed.). Northwestern University Press. ISBN 0-8101-1679-0. Retrieved 2007-12-27.
- Nabokov, Vladimir (1944). Nikolai Gogol. New Directions. Retrieved 2012-03-29.
- Nabokov, Vladimir (1973). Strong Opinions. McGraw-Hill. p. 100. The original interview, with Herbert Gold in the October 1967 issue of the Paris Review, is available on line, and an extract is available in a Time article (Dec. 1, 1967) about the interview.