Nabokov on poshlost': "corny trash, vulgar clichés, Philistinism in all its phases, imitations of imitations..."
“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.”
It is very difficult to capture the meaning of this word accurately and fully. Russia's most popular dictionary by Ozhegov defines the derived adjective пошлый ("poshliy") as "morally base, tasteless, and crass." The classical 19th century dictionary by Vladimir Dal had two definitions of it: an old, originally neutral one ("long-standing, anachronistic, age-old; ancient, old-time, time-honored") and a new one, already with negative connotations ("trite, common, outmoded; indecent, considered rude, common, base, ignoble, coarse; vulgar, trivial").
According to Nabokov, "poshlost is not only the obviously trashy but also the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive. By describing something as 'poshlost', we pass not only an aesthetic but also a moral judgment. Everything that is true, honest, beautiful cannot be described as poshlost."