more stars than in the heavens

not in our stars, but in ourselves

On “universality”

A sketchy, half-formed thought I mentioned yesterday has stayed with me since, and I’m going to attempt to flesh it out a bit.

Since Boyhood came out last year, much of the ink spilled has lauded it for its “universality”: this is such a human story, this is so true, this is something that just about everyone will understand.  Words to that effect.  For crying out loud, it’s called Boyhood – a term large and vague enough to be taken as meaning everything to everybody, when perhaps it means nothing much to anybody but a select few.  During awards season, that so-called universal quality was criticized somewhat more frequently, but the film’s fans remain devoted to it.  Not that I don’t love white men, but it is a decidedly white-man thing to do: assuming that one of their stories has universal appeal (and thus assuming that anyone else’s story is for a niche market).


To all that, I say phooey.  Not only phooey to Boyhood‘s supposed universality, but to the concept of universality itself.  How limiting, how exclusive, how totalitarian to create a piece of art and to attempt to claim it speaks for all!

Bae <3 <3 <3


You all know how much I love Vladimir Nabokov.  He was an especially ardent critic of attempts to make easy “art” to speak for/to the masses.  If he had any political preferences, they were probably very much in line with his father‘s left-wing, humane, genuinely progressive principles – but personally and artistically, he was a staunch individualist.  Consider the way he shut down a facile remark in this Paris Review “interview”*:

One critic (Pryce-Jones) has said about you that “his feelings are like no one else’s.” Does this make sense to you? Or does it mean that you know your feelings better than others know theirs? Or that you have discovered yourself at other levels? Or simply that your history is unique?

I do not recall that article; but if a critic makes such a statement, it must surely mean that he has explored the feelings of literally millions of people, in at least three countries, before reaching his conclusion. If so, I am a rare fowl indeed. If, on the other hand, he has merely limited himself to quizzing members of his family or club, his statement cannot be discussed seriously.

Later in the interview, he expounds on poshlost – one of my favorite concepts, especially as he describes it, and one that I think you’ll agree is quite germane to this discussion:

“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.

The very notion of a film, novel, painting, etc., being “universal” instead of unique to a particular person, time, place, etc., is utter poshlost.  This has been my objection to Boyhood, and to a great number of other films over the years, since the beginning.  It’s as featureless as a biblical parable.  It’s about Big Ideas – which is to say it hasn’t got any ideas, and hopes no one will notice.  Imagine the difference if Linklater had made a film called Mason Jr., all about the kid as he grows up, and about his one-of-a-kind experiences and impressions and ideals.  Boyhood – like many other exemplars of poshlost – spends far more time telling than showing.  This is anathema to movies, as well as to any other art worth discussing.

I’m not against broadly drawn characters or sketchy plots.  I love a good Mel Brooks movie as much as anyone possibly can, and I’m charmed and delighted by the ludicrously nonsensical “plots” of early-’30s Warner Bros. musicals.  In order for art to be great, it doesn’t have to be Great Art.  It just has to be interesting, weird, keenly observed, stylishly choreographed, precisely described, abundantly alive.  It should be its own universe.  From that, people around the world will actually be able to enjoy it, to understand it, to understand themselves and each other through it.  Great art “shouldn’t” do anything – least of all claim to speak for the entire world – but if it’s truly great, it will do an awful lot.


*Nabokov famously loathed being recorded speaking English, as he felt his oral skills were far beneath his written skills.  As such, “interviews” consisted of journalists sending him lists of questions – which he amended as he saw fit – and him sending them back written responses.  Delightful as these correspondences are, it’s a shame he was so camera-shy: he was adorable.

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This entry was posted on February 24, 2015 by and tagged , , , .
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