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Nabokov On Philistinism

nabokov.siNabokov’s is the most nuanced and psychologically perceptive analysis of neurotypical communication I have ever read. This fits normal human beings to a T:

“Philistinism implies not only a collection of stock ideas but also the use of set phrases, clichés, banalities expressed in faded words. A true philistine has nothing but these trivial ideas of which he entirely consists. But it should be admitted that all of us have our cliché side; all of us in everyday life often use words not as words but as signs, as coins, as formulas. This does not mean that we are all philistines, but it does mean that we should be careful not to indulge too much in the automatic process of exchanging platitudes. On a hot day every other person will ask you, “Is it warm enough for you?” but that does not necessarily mean that the speaker is a philistine. He may be merely a parrot or a bright foreigner. When a person asks you, “Hullo, how are you?” it is perhaps a sorry cliché to reply, “Fine”; but if you made to him a detailed report of your condition you might pass for a pedant and a bore. It also happens that platitudes are used by people as a kind of disguise or as the shortest cut for avoiding conversation with fools. I have known great scholars and poets and scientists who in the cafeteria sank to the level of the most commonplace give and take.

The character I have in view when I say “smug vulgarian” is, thus, not the part-time philistine, but the total type, the genteel bourgeois, the complete universal product of triteness and mediocrity. He is the conformist, the man who conforms to his group, and he also is typified by something else: he is a pseudo-idealist, he is pseudo-compassionate, he is pseudo-wise. The fraud is the closest ally of the true philistine. All such great words as “Beauty,” “Love,” “Nature,” “Truth,” and so on become masks and dupes when the smug vulgarian employs them. In Dead Souls you have heard Chichikov. In Bleak House you have heard Skimpole. You have heard Homais in Madame Bovary. The philistine likes to impress and he likes to be impressed, in consequence of which a world of deception, of mutual cheating, is formed by him and around him.”

Read what Nabokov has to say about Philistines And Philistinism


  1. Nosheen

    Interestingly, a couple of days ago, I was contemplating on the definition of philistinism and came to conclude that it very well resonates with that of conformism like you also mentioned in your blog. However, because the etymology of the terms is rooted in Biblical allusions and its meaning (which I think came into existence because of parochial attitude and perception) being a denigration of an entire group of people; I found myself piqued by the acceptance and persistence of such derogatory interpretation of this word.

    May be it’s time to review our usage of the word with regards to something conformist or uncultured and cut out the grossly yet mistakenly judgmental undertones that the usage of this word entails. Is it time to replace Philistinism? I think so.

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