Last week, The Millions ran this excellent piece by Arnon Grunberg on fellow Open Letter author 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.” [. . .]
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?
Poshlost is, of course, a subspecies of kitsch; it is kitsch that is no longer recognized as such, that is to be found everywhere, including in what we may call “great art,” and from which one can never escape. The writer himself is caught up in the thick of it. He too, after all, is a seducer, he too wishes to sell something, and to the extent that he has ever felt ashamed of that, he stopped noticing a long time ago.
Ugresic, and this speaks in her favor, does not feign coyness about this situation; coyness, after all, is one of the hallmarks of poshlost. No, she is very much aware of the fact that she herself is a part of the literary and intellectual machinery and its sales techniques. She knows that she, too, seduces in a professional capacity. (Ugresic cites approvingly another remark of Nabokov’s: “In the kingdom of poshlost, it is not the book that ‘makes a triumph’, but the reading public.”) An essay in Thank You for Not Reading discusses a prostitute in America who claims not to be a prostitute but a “pleasure activist.” Ugresic ends the piece with the statement that she too is a “pleasure activist,” and that no one may take her profession away from her.
Then again, the pleasures of Ugresic’s essays are unusual ones. Some one hundred and fifty years ago now, the Dutch writer Multatuli pointed out that the author has a great deal in common with the prostitute. Multatuli himself tried to maintain his dignity, he said, by haranguing his customers. Ugresic in turn, I believe, tries to maintain her dignity by not giving her customers what they expect from a Balkan-born writer. Gripping tales of communism and post-communism, for example, stories about standing in line for butter and about no longer having to stand in line for butter.
Instead, she asks: What are we to do if we breathe in kitsch every day, if kitsch saturates even our private lives? How can intellectuals maintain a critical stance with regard to something ubiquitous, unless they, as Isaac Babel put it, become “masters in the genre of silence?” Ugresic’s melancholy conclusion is that there remains no position possible outside the world of poshlost, not for the intellectual either. A position like that would be a pose, insincere and misleading: poshlost itself, in other words. Ugresic concedes, in short, its inescapability. She admits that it would be deceitful to pretend that poshlost has not won the final victory.
Speaking of Dubravka, her new book, Europe in Sepia, is currently being translated by David Williams and will come out from Open Letter in February 2014.
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