In a 1967 interview with Paris Review, Vladimir Nabokov was asked to elaborate on the Russian concept of “Poshlost”—a kind of smug philistinism that he had first discussed in his collected Lectures In Russian Literature. “Now if we want to pin down poshlost in contemporary writing,” Nabokov observed, “we must look for it in Freudian symbolism, moth-eaten mythologies, social comment, humanistic messages, political allegories, over concern with class or race, all 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.’” Nabokov offers many other examples, noting, “the list is long and of course everybody has his bête noire, his black pet in the series.”
Poshlost suffuses our culture in every conceivable area, but as we say hello to 2017, my black pet has got to be the tendency to place blame on “2016” for a series of awful events and the deaths of several prominent artists and celebrities—making it, many proclaim, an exceptionally horrible year, maybe one of the worst ever.
Consider the New York Times’ overwrought editorial of December 30: “The mind balks. Fingers tighten around the Kleenex as a cascade of horribles wells up in memory. You were a terrible year. We hate you. We’ll be glad never to see you again.” In the same paper, a few days earlier, Charles Nevin’s opinion piece, “2016: Worst. Year. Ever?” provides a list of the horrors: “Randomly, incompletely: Syria, Zika, Orlando, Nice, Charlotte, Brussels, Bowie, Ali, Prince, Cohen.” And, adds Nevin, “Not everyone was delighted by the results of important votes in the US and Britain either.” And Boston Herald sports writer Steve Bulpett said: “Pretty sure 2016 knows where it can kiss me on it’s way out the door.” One could add a host of other examples.
These hyperventilating responses exhibit some serious confusion. Is it really right to put on the same level the slaughter of innocents at Aleppo with the death of songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, who died in his sleep at eighty-two, after finishing a successful tour and releasing a much-lauded final album? And was the year really to blame for Prince’s premature demise at fifty-seven (which had me weeping, for what it’s worth)? After all, the Purple One spent much of his last years in an opioid fog, reportedly spending $40,000 a month on dilaudid and fentanyl. How about David Bowie, gone at sixty-nine after years of poor health? It’s worth recalling that some called him “old vacuum-cleaner nose” back in the 1970s for his mind-boggling levels of cocaine consumption. However incandescent an artist David Bowie could be, there’s invariably a physical price to pay for such excesses, and it’s likely the bill came due in his relatively early death.
And was 2016 really such an awful year? Compared with what? Worse than 2001 and its terrorist trauma? Worse than 2008, when global markets collapsed, plunging the world into an economic crisis as bad as anything seen since the 1930s? And if you take a longer view, as contributors to this symposium at Slate did, the notion that 2016 was one of history’s worst gets outright hallucinatory: 1814, 1861, 1918, 1929, 1941, 1968—there have been many truly bad years, making the response to 2016 unseemly, to put it mildly.
What’s behind these grim assessments of 2016, one suspects, is what Nevin alludes to: the election. The real catastrophe for the New York Times, the broader media, and the universities was the surprise victory of Donald Trump as president. That a candidate they viewed as beyond the pale was democratically elected by people they widely deem “deplorable” was the hard-to-accept brute fact of 2016, coloring their impression of the year as a whole. Had Hillary Clinton won, we’d probably be hearing about “historic” 2016, the election of the first woman president, and the presumptively wonderful legacy of the Obama years.
Nabokov concludes his thoughts on philistinism and poshlost with the observation that “poshlits are found everywhere, in every country.” They were much in evidence in the waning days of 2016. Perhaps we should resolve in 2017 to resist “smug philistinism,” face our real political and cultural challenges head on, and refuse to join the herd of independent minds.