Thursday, November 15, 2018

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.”


Vladimir Nabokov proposed rendering the Russian word пошлость as it is, transliterated but untranslated: "poshlost". Fifty years on, Wikipedia did just that: it has an English article on Poshlost, which says that "poshlost" has to do with triviality, vulgarity, a lack of spirituality, and even sexual promiscuity.

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."


Monday, November 12, 2018

Arthur Koestler - Man As Mistake

Артур Кестлер (Arthur Koestler, 5 Sep 1905 - 3 Mar 1983; a Hungarian-British author and journalist. In 1976 he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and in 1979 with terminal leukaemia. In 1983 he and his wife committed suicide at their home in London.)

В нашумевшем эссе «Человек — ошибка эволюции» (1969), ссылаясь на психологические исследования доктора Мак-Лина, полагал, что «природа наделила человека тремя мозгами, которые, несмотря на полнейшее несходство, должны совместно функционировать и быть в постоянном контакте друг с другом. Древнейший из этих мозгов по сути своей — мозг пресмыкающегося. Второй достался ему от млекопитающих, а третий — достижение высших млекопитающих, именно он сделал человека человеком».

Далее Кестлер пишет: «Мозг пресмыкающегося и мозг простейшего млекопитающего образуют так называемую вегетативную нервную систему, которую мы будем называть старым мозгом, в противоположность неокортексу — чисто человеческому «мыслительному аппарату», куда входят участки, ведающие языком (речью), а также абстрактным и символическим мышлением… Неокортекс человекообразных развился в последние полмиллиона лет, начиная с середины четвертичного периода, он развился со скоростью взрыва, насколько нам известно, беспримерного в истории эволюции. Однако взрывы не ведут к гармоническим последствиям». Результатом этого явилось то, что новые участки мозга не сжились как следует с другими, более старыми, и такой эволюционный промах создал широкий простор для всевозможных конфликтов. Кестлер утверждал, что эволюция схалтурила, «недовинтив какие-то гайки между неокортексом и мозжечком».

В результате нашему биологическому виду вполне присуща своего рода шизофрения, которая и порождает в существенной степени противоречия между животным (инстинктивным) и человеческим (разумным). Этой дихотомии мы, во многом, обязаны несоответствием между нашим эмоциональным и интеллектуальным поведением.

* * *
The Ghost in the Machine is a 1967 book about philosophical psychology by Arthur Koestler. The title is a phrase (see ghost in the machine) coined by the Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle to describe the Cartesian dualist account of the mind–body relationship.
Man As Mistake - By Robert Jay Lifton (source)
April 7, 1968

It is easy these days — this century — to defend the idea that something ails man. His extraordinary impulse to make war upon his own species in the name of his sanctified idols has reached grotesque proportions. Nor does he seem to be improving.

To the contrary, consider an up-to-the-minute example of something approaching collective madness. The most powerful nation in the world intervenes in a civil war (following upon an anticolonial one) in a small, faraway country and saturates that country with its destructive firepower and indiscriminate killing; is profoundly resented by virtually all factions there as well as by the rest of the world, and finds itself stymied both politically as militarily. It stations 5,000 men at a small outpost in an exposed valley surrounded by hostile forces of many times that number and insists (against prevailing objective military judgment) that the outpost can be defended; and to buttress that assumption, considers escalating the war still further, and even the use of tactical versions of man's ultimate weapons, though such measures could well result in general holocaust in which most or all of mankind would be annihilated. Yes, something ails man, but what is it?

In search of an answer Arthur Koestler — known principally for his novels but concerned in recent years with science and psychology ("The Sleepwalkers" and "Act of Creation") — posits "some built-in error or deficiency," or, more vividly, "a screw loose in the human mind." He takes us on a long journey through psychology and evolution to conclude: man's difficulty is his proneness to delusion; he suffers from "an endemic form of paranoia" which dominates his entire history and which is "built into the wiring circuits of the human brain."

This is so, Koestler goes on to tell us, because Homo sapiens is a "biological freak, the result of some remarkable mistake in the evolutionary process." The mistake resulted from the speed with which the hominid evolved (the whole thing took only half a million years), or from what is known as "explosive evolution." Koestler follows the neurophysiologist Paul MacLean in stressing the "unseemly haste" with which the specifically human areas of the brain were superimposed upon the phylogenetically older structures, resulting in "insufficient coordination" between older (emotional) and newer (intellectual) functions.

Koestler cites MacLean's theory of the "three brains" coexisting within the human skull: the oldest being basically reptilian, the next inherited from the lower mammals, and the third peculiarly human. The difficulty according to this theory is that each functions more or less autonomously. This means that man, in effect, sees the world through two television screens: one old and wired into brain areas responsible for "animal" feelings and functions, such as sex, hunger, fear and aggression; the other new and connected with brain areas attuned to the more "human" achievement of reason. The more crude screen — "the crocodile and horse we carry in our skulls"- insists upon supplying its own picture, upon "making up its own mind," and thereby undermines the more elevated images of the other screen. The result is a form of schizophysiology," an antagonistic split in function which is "built into our species." It is always the crude (animal) screen, detached from and inadequately coordinated with the nobler (human) one, which leads man to delusion and mass murder.

The thesis has an everything-falling-into-place aura, as it accounts for things that do not fall into place; it may therefore appeal to those who still believe, or wish to believe, that all truths, scientific or otherwise, are simple ones. But as an explanation for "modern man's predicament" and his "urge to self-destruction," I find this arbitrary dichotomy of the bad old brain and the good new one a misrepresentation of the way man's brain and mind work, and a neurological retreat from his psychology and history.

The shortcomings of the theory become painfully clear when it is applied to man's most difficult dilemmas. For instance, concerning man's uniqueness in knowing that he must die, Koestler claims that "the discovery [of death] originates in the new brain, the refusal [to accept death] in the old."
This all-important refusal is responsible for the witches, ghosts, ancestral spirits and gods which inhabit the human mind, and also for "comforting promises of eternal survival." And the cause of it all, Koestler believes, is "instinct," which "takes existence implicitly for granted, and defends it against threats in anger and fear; but it cannot conceive of its change into non-existence."
Yet one could just as well argue the other way around. The human infant possesses an innate (or "instinctual") sense of connection and a tendency known as "attachment behavior" toward other human beings. This innate tendency later finds expression in various relationships of blood, sexual love and friendship, as well as in more symbolic ties to various social groups and to past and future generations.

Maintaining this "instinctual" sense of connection greatly enhances man's always limited capacity to accept his own death, because he "survives himself through his attachments." On the other hand, man's "acquired" and ostensibly higher achievement of reason can greatly contribute to his refusal to accept death. For man's increasing knowledge of natural and human phenomenon has been accompanied by a trend toward individuation, and this in turn has weakened his sense of connection and presented him with the unacceptable prospect of death as total distinction.

The point is that our present understanding of man no longer permits us to posit a simple dichotomy of "instinct" (and "faith") versus "reason"; and the error is compounded by extending the dichotomy into such discrete anatomical and physiological assumptions about the brain. The dichotomy can be transcended by the kind of unitary approach which many writers have recently emphasized (including Lancelot Law Whyte whom Koestler quotes in other contexts). One must then consider the symbols and forms man requires in order to make sense of his world and act upon it — and the way in which these combine various elements of emotion (or "faith") and "reason" (or "logic"). As Susanne Langer has emphasized, man's lifelong mental task is one of continuous "transformation" of the "data" reaching him from within and without. And this "symbol-making function is one of man's primary activities, like eating, looking, or moving about... the fundamental process of his mind."

From this standpoint man's quest for "eternal survival" can be seen as symbolically realized by artistic and other cultural "works" he transmits to future generations, as well as by his simple biological continuity in families and nations. The quest is most likely to take dangerous forms during periods of historical upheaval when this symbolic community is impaired. At such times members of one group may feel compelled to reaffirm this immortality by murdering members of another.

Indeed the example of "collective madness" I mentioned before — the American stand at Khesanh — is, among other things, a product of distorted symbolization. Adrift in a revolutionary period of rapid historical changes and threatened nuclear apocalypse, we find old symbols (of family, religion or "American individualism") increasingly irrelevant, and authentic new ones extremely difficult to find.

Terrified by an image of the "death" of our culture (of "the American way of life") we grasp at false symbols. Khesanh thus becomes "a symbol of American determination to defend democracy" against "Communist expansion," even though the militaristic regime we defend has no popular support, and our adversary fights on his own soil and, quite understandably, sees us as the outside invader. The source of such tragedy and evil is not "the crocodile and the horse we carry around in our skulls"; rather it is the way in which this kind of distorted symbolism allies itself with the psychological potential for aggression, and above all with our murderous technology.

Throughout his elaborate re-examination of psychological theory, Koestler nowhere mentions recent work most relevant to man's predicament- that dealing with his present symbolic struggles, and with the general interplay of mind and history. Nor does Koestler stop to examine the possible limitations of MacLean's "three brains" theory, at least for the purposes he assigns it; or to consider alternative neurophysiological views. Jose Delgado, for instance, holds that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the anatomy and physiology of the brain, and that our problem lies in the cultural and educational patterns to which the brain is submitted. There are flashes of brilliance in Koestler's ambitious explorations, especially in his general ordering of evolution and in his compelling description of some of the radical new features of the post-Hiroshima world. But the book's erratic combination of unfocused and over-focused argument eventually renders it tedious.

Its ending is worse than that — an anticlimactic suggestion of a biochemical cure for man's deficiencies, so cursorily and simplistically stated as to make one wonder whether the author really believes in it. The issue he raises, that of chemical interference with man's genetic processes, is one which must be seriously confronted- but not by embracing it uncritically as a medical cure for the whole of human history. Earlier in the book Koestler angrily denounces remnants of the 19th-century mechanistic fallacies for their tendency to eliminate man, only to end up with a "chemistic" fallacy of his own which is more characteristic of the 20th century. But man remains our problem, whatever we put into him, and however shaky his future as a species.

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