“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, over concern 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 oneJewish 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.
Sometime in late 1960 or early 1961 Adolf Eichmann, jailed and awaiting trial in Jerusalem, was given by his guard a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s recently published Lolita, as Hannah Arendt puts it, “for relaxation.” After two days Eichmann returned it, indignant: “Quite an unwholesome book!” (Das ist aber ein sehr unerfreuliches Buch!)
Eichmann’s reaction is about what I imagined for him. But guessing the officer’s intentions is another matter. There is difficultly imagining anyone offering Lolita for “relaxation.” Eichmann was writing under observation and awaiting a trial that will consign him either to death or prolonged imprisonment—which fate spares him by felling him with a heart attack. If nothing else we can agree that Eichmann did not find many things relaxing. Regardless if he was a delusional madman or simply unthinking: few things are relaxing for someone at that moment writing his (soon to be posthumous) memoirs. Nabokov’s challenging book is not one of them. That much, dear reader, we can assume.
We might speculate other intentions on the part of Eichmann’s guard. Was it a sincere gift? Or was it something of an experiment? Nabokov has never faded from the popular consciousness, but Lolita was certainly closer national recognition in the ’60s. It is probable that the guard knew the book was for the thinking public and imagined that Eichmann constituted some distorted, cruel reimagining of that public (by National Socialism? Germany? Hitler? I leave the agent in that sentence up to you, dear reader).
I can’t help but wonder: might Eichmann’s guard have seen Lolita as a sort of litmus test for radical evil, and wanted to see whether the real-life villain reacted? Was it to see how the novel reacted to him? Imagine his devastation, or glee, if the man who organized transportation for countless innocents approved of Nabokov’s creation.
In a bit of awkward preening in Despair’s foreword, Nabokov recounts the circumstances attending to this first translation of the work. “I asked a rather grumpy Englishman,” says Nabokov, “whose services I obtained [End Page 313] through an agency in Berlin, to read the stuff; he found a few solecisms in the first chapter, but then refused to continue, saying he disapproved of the book; I suspect he wondered if it might not have been a true confession” (Despair, p. xi). Nabokov’s explanation appears to be the one which we will find in nearly all of his later works. If Eichmann approved would it be because he saw too much Nabokov in Humbert? That he disproved would it be because he saw too much Nabokov in Humbert? Too little?
It is possible to imagine that Eichmann’s reaction was intended to act as a mirror. What does the guard see when Humbert is reflected through and off the lens of evil. Did Eichmann see a fellow traveler in Humbert? An alien? What could we say if Eichmann, like so many of us, grasped the novel and refused to let go? I wonder if it would make any difference and whether it should.
This is all only speculation. In Arendt’s account, she congratulates Eichmann for his indignation and moves on to other matters. In any event, given Eichmann’s radical conventionality one could hardly imagine him liking—or even very well understanding—much of the book. As Eichmann himself avowed, during his adult life he had read only two books, one of them being Theodor Herzl’s The Jewish State. He preferred newspapers. I don’t know what that says about the New York Times.
It should be, and probably has been, told to a psychoanalyst, and it has been elaborated into a novel which contains some wonderful writing, but it is overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian. To the public, it will be revolting. It will not sell, and it will do immeasurable harm to a growing reputation … It is a totally perverse performance all around … I am most disturbed at the thought that the writer has asked that this be published. I can see no possible cause could be served by its publication now. I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.
A cute, quick and entertaining look at Nabokov’s Lolita.
Of course, no matter how keenly, how admirably, a story, a piece of music, a picture is discussed and analyzed, there will be minds that remain blank and spines that remain unkindled. “To take upon us the mystery of things”—what King Lear so wistfully says for himself and for Cordelia—this is also my suggestion for everyone who takes art seriously. A poor man is robbed of his overcoat (Gogol’s “The Greatcoat,” or more correctly “The Carrick”); another poor fellow is turned into a beetle (Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis)—so what? There is no rational answer to “so what.” We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss. Beauty plus pity—that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual. If Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” strikes anyone as something more than an entomological fantasy, then I congratulate him on having joined the ranks of good and great readers.
Vladimir Nabokov’s lecture on Kafka’s Metamorphoses. Read the full here.
He prepared a bubble bath in the sink for the crockery, glass, and silverware, and with infinite care lowered the quamarine bowl into the tepid foam. Its resonant flint glass emitted a sound full of muffled mellowness as it settled down to soak. He rinsed the amber goblets and the silerware under the tap, and submerged them in the same foam. Then he fished out the knives, forks, and spoons, rinsed them, and began to wipe them all over again. He groped under the bubbles, around the goblets and under the melodious bowl, for any piece of forgotten silver–and retrieved a nutcracker. Fastidious Pnin rinsed it, and was wuping it, when the leggy thing somehow slipped out of the towel and fell like a man from a roof. He almost caught it–his fingertips only helped to properl it into the treasure-concealing foam of the sink, where an excruciating crack of broken glass followed upon the plunge.
Pnin hurled the towel into a corner and, turning away, stood for a moment staring at the blackness beyond the threshold of the open back door. A quiet, lacy-winged little green insext circled in the glare of a strong naked lamp above Pnin’s glossy bald head. He looked very old, with his toothless mouth half open and a film of tears dimming his blank, unblinking eyes. Then, with a moan of anguished anticipation, he went back to the sink and, bracing himself, dipped his hands deep into the foam. A jagger of glass stung him. Gently he removed a broken goblet. The beautiful bowl was intact. He took a fresh dish towel and went on with his household work.
Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov; 172-173 (1993, Vintage Books Edition)