A letter & another text

By Emo Verkerk and myself

Hi Emo,

…so excited about your discovery of the term “poshlost”. This Russian word, which was coined by Nabokov in his famous essay on Gogol, expresses “a certain widespread defect”. “English words expressing several, although by no means all aspects of poshlost are for instance: cheap, cham, common, smutty, pink-and-blue, high falutin', in bad taste.” Further on in the essay I read that Germany in particular “always seemed to us a country where poshlust, instead of being mocked, was one of the essential parts of the national spirit, habits traditions and general atmosphere.” According to Nabokov, Gogol tells a story that provides an illustration of the term:

Yes, generally speaking the average German is not too pleasant a creature, but it is impossible to imagine anything more unpleasnt than a German Lothario, a German who tries to be whinsome… One day in Germany I happened to run across such a gallant. The dwelling place of the maiden whom he had long been courting without succes stood on the bank of some lake or the other, and there she would be every evening sitting on her balcony and doing two things at once: knitting a stocking and enjoying the view. My German gallant being sick of the futility of his pursuit finally devised an unfailing means whereby to conquer the heart of his cruel Gretchen. Every evening he would take off his clothes, plunge into the lake and, as he swam there, right under the eyes of his beloved, he would keep embracing a couple of swans which had been specially prepared by him for that purpose. I do not quite know what those swans were supposed to symobilze, but I do know that for several evenings on end he did nothing but float about and assume pretty postures with his birds under that precious balcony. Perhaps he fancied there was something poetically antique and mythological in such frolics, but whatever notion he had, the result proved favorable to his intentions: the lady's heart was conquered just as he thought it would be, and soon they were happily married.

This now is poshlost in its ideal form. Words like cheap and smug just don't describe it. There is also a connection between poshlost and forgotten traditions. “Poshlost is not only the obviously trashy but also the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive.”

The term poshost applies to so many things in my work, and now I look at it this way, it actually makes me laugh, because it even applies to my handwriting. Especially this definition: “A shadow world in the actual existence of which neither sellers nor buyers really believe in their heart of hearts.” As it happens, the term collusion has recently been on my mind. (Meaning a relation that is maintained through a mutual acknowledgement of each others fictional identity). This was not so much with regards to my work, it also bacame clear to me from my daily contact with people that this type of communication was expected of me. In my mind, both terms somehow are related.

Nono Pessoa.

Because I had lived in Den Helder for such a long time, I got wrapped up in blues music and considered the E4 chord to be the clearest answer to “poshlost”. This word is a real teacher's word, the term encompasses everything that is frowned upon nowadays – or let us say since the 1970s. As a bad teacher, but a good colleague, I pointed that finger at Nono in order to understand why she worked on a painting so long and so passioantely and with so much dogged self-criticism. And I asked her to read the passage from Nabokov to assess if it could be used in his text.

Because of my long experience as a teacher, I had become one of those Sartrians who analyse every action and every motive to the bone and no longer believe in fairy tales. I was the frustrated artist I always feared I would become when I was young (but who now has my compassion, because I know this job is too tough for sensitive souls). It isn't easy to halt the process of disenchantment. But my stay in Hungary had given me some breathing space. And there, poshlost hit me like a boomerang.

Due to Nono's reaction something started simmering in me. I started remembering all sorts of images and ideas from my youth, which I spent in the poshlost-like artists' town of Bergen, where the flaunting of the wealthy competed with quality for first place. The Eeuwigelaan, with its villas, represented wealth, while quality could be found in the K(unstenaars) C(entrum) B(ergen). (Someone there very appropiately translated “poshlost” as pochlust – the desire to brag). But the whole structure had a flexible base, because there was a large cellar under the KCB. In it was a disco, the Coco Club, where we dated the girls from the Eeuwigelaan.

(I could now end in a Dutch way, and make this into an innocuous piece by ending with a good-natured message, the usual disguise for a dull comprompise. And just like the kids of today, who find everything “awesome”, I find Nono's paintings “really awesome”, and now regard poshlost as an honorary title). But what really happened is that the boomerang changed into an arrow that pierced my heart. And we lived happily ever after.

Emo Verkerk.


noorderloos at gmail dot com