Are We Allowed to Believe in Vulgarity Anymore?

I have been thinking of Vladimir Nabokov, who makes a connection between vulgarity and morality in his essay “Philistines and Philistinism,” collected in his Lectures on Russian Literature. The essay is an indictment of consumerism and not thinking for yourself—bourgeois life in the Flaubertian sense.

“A philistine is a full-grown person whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature,” Nabokov writes, “and whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideals of his or her group and time.” The philistine cares little about what used to be called “the higher things” (“his essential nature is anti-artistic”), yet snobbism makes him an easy target of advertising and much worse.

The “American philistine prefers his oranges to be painted orange, his salmon pink, and his whiskey yellow,” Nabokov says. His essay is illustrated with a print ad that shows a woman with her hands folded as in prayer, gazing ecstatically upward at plated flatware. At the top of the ad, Nabokov has written: “Adoration of spoons.”

He writes, “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…. He is thrilled by riches and rank…. 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….”

Undergrads in my classes disliked “Philistines and Philistinism,” and grad students loathed it, though few were able to articulate the basis of their reactions, for the same reason they did not understand Gertrude Stein’s roast of Hemingway: “[A]fter all, you are 90% Rotarian.”

It was mean of Nabokov, students felt, to condemn some part of American society. Nabokov was old, white, male, kind of a foreigner, and reeked of aristocratic privilege. His style was a little effeminate and eggheadish. He was snarky. (Somehow, with everything happening in the world, this had become one of the worst insults. You were meant to be nice.) Besides, everything was relative, so how could you judge others for what they liked?

In the end I came to believe I was seeing an example of how the circle closes—a mild classroom version of how the Left’s policing of correctness kisses the fascistic condemnation of “degenerate” art.

Nabokov does not go so far as someone I have forgotten—Gass, maybe, or Primo Levi—who talks about genteel Germans listening to Wagner as the ashes from the crematoria drift down. But he does say that “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.” This heap is “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.” He implies there are connections among vapidity, bad taste, vulgarity, and something much worse.

“The character I have in view when I say ‘smug vulgarian’ is,” Nabokov says, “the complete universal product of triteness and mediocrity. He is the conformist, the man who conforms to his group, and he is also 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. […] 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 and around him.”

Nabokov says Russians have a name for it: 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 esthetic judgment but also a moral indictment. The genuine, the guileless, the good is never poshlust. 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 [the US] as well as in Europe….”

The problem now is not that we do not notice poshlism. It is that the circle has closed, so it is no longer a “deadly label.” Everything and nothing is vulgar; the only resolution what is imposed by a personality.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.