Thursday, September 30, 2010

Thoughts on Poshlost and the Defining Arrogance of Genius

In Vladimir Nabokov, The Art of Fiction No. 40, interviewer Herbert Gold of the Paris Review asked Nabokov, "What is most characteristic of poshlust in contemporary writing? Are there temptations for you in the sin of poshlust? Have you ever fallen?"

Nabokov replied (emphasis added):

“Poshlust,” or in a better transliteration poshlost, has many nuances, and evidently I have not described them clearly enough in my little book on Gogol, if you think one can ask anybody if he is tempted by poshlost. 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. Poshlost speaks in such concepts as “America is no better than Russia” or “We all share in Germany's guilt.” The flowers of poshlost bloom in such phrases and terms as “the moment of truth,” “charisma,” “existential” (used seriously), “dialogue” (as applied to political talks between nations), and “vocabulary” (as applied to a dauber). Listing in one breath Auschwitz, Hiroshima, and Vietnam is seditious poshlost. Belonging to a very select club (which sports one Jewish name—that of the treasurer) is genteel poshlost. Hack reviews are frequently poshlost, but it also lurks in certain highbrow essays. Poshlost calls Mr. Blank a great poet and Mr. Bluff a great novelist. One of poshlost's favorite breeding places has always been the Art Exhibition; there it is produced by so-called sculptors working with the tools of wreckers, building crankshaft cretins of stainless steel, Zen stereos, polystyrene stinkbirds, objects trouvés in latrines, cannonballs, canned balls. There we admire the gabinetti wall patterns of so-called abstract artists, Freudian surrealism, roric smudges, and Rorschach blots—all of it as corny in its own right as the academic “September Morns” and “Florentine Flowergirls” of half a century ago. The list is long, and, of course, everybody has his bête noire, his black pet, in the series. Mine is that airline ad: the snack served by an obsequious wench to a young couple—she eyeing ecstatically the cucumber canapé, he admiring wistfully the hostess. And, of course, Death in Venice. You see the range.

Nabokov's statement foreshadowed/predicted much of what is wrong not only with contemporary journalism but also with the ideological perspectives that have become very fashionable in certain circles (i.e., equating the actions of President George Herbert Walker Bush with the crimes against humanity committed by Saddam Hussein is not merely inaccurate--it is perverse, or, as Nabokov would say, an example of "poshlost").

Here are some other Nabokov gems from that interview:

The purpose of a critique is to say something about a book the critic has or has not read. Criticism can be instructive in the sense that it gives readers, including the author of the book, some information about the critic's intelligence, or honesty, or both.


There is only one school: that of talent.

(Nabokov dismissed the idea that certain Russian poets belonged to different "schools").


Derivative writers seem versatile because they imitate many others, past and present. Artistic originality has only its own self to copy.


Nabokov clearly not only possessed talent and originality but he had a quite keen awareness of the extent of his talent and originality; this is a characteristic feature of genius: while people of lesser talent are often clueless about how their skills compare to those of other people and people of average/slightly above average talent have understandable doubts about their capacity to compete with the truly gifted, geniuses generally possess extreme self assurance--to the point of sounding megalomaniacal or even delusional if their public accomplishments do not measure up to their seemingly grossly inflated opinions about themselves. The great architect Frank Lloyd Wright once declared, "Early in life I had to choose between an honest arrogance and a hypocritical humility. I chose honest arrogance and have seen no occasion to change."

Wright's statement is similar to World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer's reply after being asked who is the greatest chess player: "It's nice to be modest, but it would be stupid if I did not tell the truth. It is Fischer."

Albert Einstein's self confidence went even further than Wright's or Fischer's. Einstein's Theory of Relativity was not confirmed until Sir Arthur Eddington made his famous eclipse observations proving that gravity bends light in the manner that Einstein predicted but Einstein never doubted that his conception of how the universe works is not only correct but also the most elegant way for nature to function. Asked what he would have thought if Eddington's experiment had not confirmed the Theory of Relativity, Einstein replied, "Then I would have felt sorry for the Dear Lord. The theory is correct." Einstein thought that he knew better than God--or at least as much as God--about how the laws of nature should work in terms of mathematical elegance, beauty and simplicity!

There can be a thin line between confidence and self-delusion. The tremendous self confidence possessed by Wright, Fischer and Einstein does not seem delusional to us now because each of those men proved himself to be arguably the greatest practitioner of his craft--but what about George Ohr? Was he a confident genius, a delusional eccentric or some combination of both? Should he be defined by his own descriptions of his abilities, by what his contemporaries thought of him or by the high esteem with which his art is now viewed? Which perspective is true, which perspective is most accurate? If Einstein had lived in an era during which it was not possible to experimentally confirm the Theory of Relativity but he insisted that despite his status as a lowly patent clerk he had glimpsed into the mind of God would it have been correct to view Einstein as a genius or a madman?

I suspect that anyone who ranks well above the 99th percentile in a given endeavor--whether that field is architecture, chess, physics, basketball, writing or anything else--truly believes that he is the best in the world, if not the greatest of all-time. Of course, there can really only be one person who is truly the greatest. Disregarding the difficulty--if not impossibility--of proving who is in fact the greatest, if only one person actually is the greatest are the other nine people who rank in the top 10 delusional for thinking that they are the greatest? Or is that kind of thinking, that perspective about oneself, an essential personality trait for anyone who is trying to scale the very highest of heights?

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