Poshlost Highway: In Praise of Dubravka Ugresic

The Russian word poshlost, according to a seminal essay by Vladimir Nabokov, has a number of possible definitions — “cheap,” “inferior, “scurvy,” “tawdry” — but is perhaps best grasped by example. He cites a character from a story told by Gogol. A German tries, unsuccessfully, to seduce a young girl who sits each evening on her balcony along a lake. At wit’s end, he decides at last to go swimming in the lake each evening with a pair of swans, prepared by him specially for that purpose. He succeeds in embracing both swans while swimming. The ritual repeats itself for a few successive evenings. The girl resists at first, but finally, in Gogol’s telling, “the lady’s heart was conquered.”

Poshlost, then, is the generation of sentiment in the hope that it will elicit someone else’s favor. Or, as Nabokov puts it, a form of sentimentalism “so cleverly painted over with protective tints that its presence often escapes attention.” It is an imitation of values that “are considered, rightly or wrongly, to belong to the highest level of art, thought or emotion.” An imitation, in other words, that is not recognized as such. Had the girl in Gogol’s story thought, This poor man who embraces his swans evening after evening beneath my balcony is in dire need of help, then we could not speak of poshlost. And had the German, in the event of a film version, been played by Buster Keaton or Jacques Tati, or Mr. Bean, then we might find ourselves in the realm of slapstick. But because the gambit is effective — because the girl surrenders to the seduction, to the machinery of sentiment, (and because, in his perseverance, the German is a bit heroic after all, isn’t he?) — this is poshlost.

Poshlost grants primacy to the sentiment, but, as Nabokov himself emphasizes, it is an imitation. Poshlost is a burlesque of tradition (the swans, the lake, the girl on the balcony) without wanting to be aware of that itself. The quintessence of door-to-door sales, that is poshlost: sentimental through and through, but also cynical through and through. Seduction being the means, sales the end. Seduction is one of the great themes of the Croation writer Dubravka Ugresic’s essays…but not – or only rarely – the seduction that takes place between two lovers. She is far more interested in the seductive tactics of generals, intellectuals, wartime profiteers, academics, and businessmen (the latter category being one in which she also places publishers). Seduction, she suggests, is not only the lead-up to the conquest of a lover, but also the lead-up to war, ethnic cleansing, and the rewriting of history. No ideology, no sales, no religion, no democracy, and no dictatorship without seduction.

The bitter truth behind all seduction does not escape Ugresic’s notice, either: the seducee is merely an obstacle. The seducer conquers like a supreme commander, without worrying too much about the collateral damage, focusing solely on efficiency, on the result. Poshlost, Ugresic observes, is an inevitable byproduct.

Indeed, poshlost is one of Ugresic’s favorite words, cropping up all over her five collections of essays. For her, it is linked inextricably to Nabokov’s earlier essay, and is often deployed alongside her own formulation: “a gingerbread heart.” But what continues to amaze and agitate her in these essays is that the imitation, the gingerbread, turns out to be so seductive. Indeed, it is the lie that seduces us, that makes our hearts skip a beat. Two swans embraced by a German in a lake at dusk — how could one ever resist that?

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