22. Power of Vulgarity

The achievement of the new age is a man who has no life of mind and spirit, but only a string of incoherent impressions that accumulate as he fulfils ever new roles in life: schoolboy, student, salaried employee, ‘scientific worker’. Behind this external bustle there is no inner core, no independent personality that would judge the events of the external world. Modern man has ‘no time’ for personality, he cannot afford it: he always has to study, marry, and earn money; he has no time to think and feel. Neither can he afford an unearned worldview, nor a clear speech capable of expressing deep feelings, as well as complex thoughts. Vulgarity awaits such a person on all paths.

Our days, as far as the individual and his culture are concerned, are the days of the dominance of vulgarity. Vulgarity dances, vulgarity writes, vulgarity teaches. But what is this element, how do we define it? Defining ‘vulgarity’ is not as easy as spotting it.  It manifests itself in a multitude of seemingly unrelated areas. The popular idea of vulgarity equates it with the lowliness of thoughts, corruption of morals. The opposite of vulgarity thus understood is seen in ‘romance’. However, there is no direct connection between ‘low’ and ‘vulgar’.

Let’s talk about it in more detail. What is this ‘vulgarity’ and how does it manifest itself?

It is easier to describe vulgarity than to define its essence.

We can say of it, for example, that vulgarity always pretends but never can. It is an impostor. Its task is to convince the public of its authenticity; its soil is immature, uneducated taste. The public would like to see talent, but is unable to distinguish between talent and a charlatan, and the talent is replaced by a vulgar person.

We can also say this: vulgarity is immaturity, unnaturalness, affectation, inability to become full-grown. Vulgarity first of all wants to appear to be something that it is not, and then it is stupid or ignorant. Vulgarity is a counterfeit.

It is easy to see that vulgarity, like its cousin semi-education, is laughable. Its tendency to giggle is impossible not to notice, but hard to understand. What is it about anything authentic, wholesome, difficult-complex-beautiful that it elicits laughter? The reason is simple. The one who laughs feels superior to the one being ridiculed. The vulgar knows everything for sure — from a textbook or from people in his circle. What doesn’t fit into this ‘knowledge’ is worthy of ridicule. This is the general tendency of undeveloped people, and the dominance of ‘one truth’ in the last hundred years has strengthened it. In essence, the simple is here laughing at the complex.

Laughter is the defence device of the vulgar mind. It is not for nothing that it ridicules everything out of the plane of the ‘commonly understood’.  In all things that exceed this plane, it sees itself as a threat. To think about the ‘inappropriate’, the ‘not common’ means, at least for a moment, to rise above the plane. Such attempts are punished by ridicule, that ‘simple and healthy laughter’ which is usually associated with so-called ‘common sense’.

One can also notice that vulgarity is afraid of excitement, sincerity, humanity, naturalness, spontaneity, surprise, admiration, hope… All this is too ‘childish’ and ‘immature’ for it, all this is ridiculed. One might think that what we have before us is the fruit of excessive maturity, of extreme wisdom. But no, on the contrary: what we have before us is not excessive, but insufficient maturity of feeling. Without exercise it withers in its infancy.

Vulgarity is the child of freedom without solitude. It befalls the man who is left — not to ‘himself’, but to an environment not above his level. Vulgarity closes a man’s access to all higher experiences and confines him to the realm of the ‘ordinary’. Sometimes it is accompanied by a primitive simplification of personality, sometimes it is enough to ‘average’ to some generally accessible level. But even in this variety vulgarity is hostile to all that is superior, saying: ‘It was appropriate once upon a time, but not now, now is the time of positive values!’

The mastery of words vulgarity hates, like everything that denounces higher mental development. Vulgarity loves to ‘tear off the covers’. Clarity, complexity are ‘unnecessary’, it is ‘not real’, ‘it is not true’, ‘it is written about untruth’. However, vulgarity can be ‘romantic’. It even tends to false loftiness when it comes to feelings. Naturally, this loftiness  is clumsy, homemade, but it cannot be otherwise. The point is that vulgarity ‘doesn’t know how’ to have feelings — not in the sense that it doesn’t have them, but that it can’t express them and, consequently, interpret them. It needs borrowed words, and the ‘prettier’, the louder, the better.

It is not just words that are hostile to vulgarity: it is creativity itself. Creativity is addressed to the individual, vulgarity to the crowd. Only the first man enjoys alone; the second does not exist without the human multitude. The vulgar is opposed to the uniquely personal. The vulgar is always borrowed, worn, somewhere heard and picked up, something ‘like everyone else’s’.

Where is vulgarity born? Where there is already a desire to enjoy something other than the immediate impressions of existence, but there is no ability to distinguish the fruits of effort and labour from pretentiousness. The need for something (I won’t even say art) is already there, but the ability to judge is not.

And here is another definition of vulgar: easily accessible to people who are not accustomed to inner labour. The vulgarity is created by half-education, half-education — by receiving the sum of knowledge without the sum of habits to labour. What is even worse — this sum gives the recipient a false sense of omniscience… As one undeveloped young man used to say: ‘I am bored, I already know everything!’ This is the state of the man of vulgarity. He is bored, he needs to be entertained.

Vulgarity flourishes in conditions of freedom. Is freedom itself to blame for this, or is it the destruction of the cultural and everyday foundations that existed before it? Moreover, vulgarity is not identical with ignorance and ‘simplicity’. Quite the contrary. There is vulgarity that is pushy, and there is vulgarity that is semi-educated. They have the same soil: laziness of mind, and behind it — adherence to ‘schema’, the simplest explanation. Vulgarity is a ‘schema’ that has not realised itself, that has gone feral and covered itself with wool.

As for ‘simplicity’… As long as there was still ‘simple people’, i. e. unaffected by urban influence, vulgarity blossomed in them only where they came into contact with urban semi-education, i. e. ceased to be ‘simple’ without becoming something else, higher. As long as these people were themselves, they had their own values, which were taken seriously, without naughtiness or buffoonery. A taste for vulgarity is a taste for the pretty, not for the beautiful. The beautiful requires labour, seriousness, in a ‘folk’ or ‘aristocratic’ or ‘intellectual’ guise. ‘Pretty’ is available to everyone.

Vulgarity is an expression of the disease of taste. Taste is given either by tradition (in which case it is impersonal, developed and preserved by generations) or by personal development. Exaggerating slightly, we can say: the area of vulgarity lies between talent (the man of inner labour) and custom. The power of custom, unfortunately, has faded (or rather, has been destroyed) without a trace. The area of inner labour is almost non-existent in the world of ‘graduated specialists’ or those who are preparing to become them. This sounds strange — how can a ‘specialist’ be without labour? But the acquisition of specialist knowledge, as we have said elsewhere, does not in itself yet teach labour.

The void between custom and the highly developed personality is filled by mediocrity, whose means of expression and tastes are dictated by the conservation of effort with limited powers of judgement, by the search for the lowest common denominator, for an explanation that is accessible to all, in general, for that which is within the reach of all.

Vulgarity is an imitative formlessness. The question of vulgarity is a question of form and its two sources: custom and personal development. There is a third, mixed and most fruitful: custom, which nourishes personal development. Thanks to this third source, the nobility was once the backbone of culture. Custom is twofold: it not only teaches us to honour ancestors and gods, it also requires us to be such that our ancestors are not ashamed and gods do not reject us. By teaching the personality to honour what is before and what is above, it encourages its development. Custom and religion create personality; or rather, it grows in their light.

Vulgarity is in direct kinship with semi-education, of which we have more than once spoken. An example of half-educated vulgarity known to every one is Khlestakov. He feels himself capable of doing everything without knowing how to do anything. And what is semi-education? Superficially developed abilities without the mind and will to direct them. We should remember, by the way, that during Socialism in Russia the mind was substituted for ‘abilities’. The latter was encouraged, the former was consciously restricted, if not directly punished. But, as Pavel Muratov says, ‘capable does not mean intelligent in the serious sense of the word’. ‘Abilities’ are only auxiliary forces to the mind and soul, something lateral to the personality. By encouraging little abilities alone, we foster mediocrity. There is, of course, an even more direct way of fostering mediocrity — through the oppression of all abilities in general, not just the higher ones; through the encouragement of the vegetable way of being — through consumption rather than the production of values. This way, too, is now familiar to us Russians…

A school that cares about the ‘abilities’ of pupils but does not develop them mentally is just as deficient as a school that is primarily concerned with ensuring that some pupils are not more capable than others. The disadvantage of ‘abilities’ (but also a convenience for state power of a certain kind) is that every ability is the ability to do something that in itself is already limited, implying incapacity for everything else. In adulthood, a man will need intelligence before any other ability — the first ability, if I may put it this way, which broadly encircles all the small abilities that the school that prepares a worker, not a man, cares about the ‘development’ of…

With all the above said — the mind is lazy. Left to itself, it chooses shortcuts. In the field of thinking it is ‘schemas’; in the field of beauty, in general external forms — it is ‘commonly accessible’; as for the language, it is struck by speechlessness — the darkness of expression with the simplicity of content. Only custom or education drives the lazy mind out of its hole — to the joy of the complex. Otherwise, mental laziness will linger under the cover of “universal enlightenment”. As long as we do not take up the task of cultivating a taste for complexity, we cannot expect any improvement. A wave of entertainment, moving games, more or less unintelligent, but entertaining books — does not cultivate a taste for complexity. Something else is needed. And it is only possible to address this ‘other’ to those who have not yet passed the school of averaging… It is useless to fight semi-education by addressing the semi-educated themselves, because they are ‘impermeable’, as Protopresbyter Schmemann said, to all arguments of reason. It is the same with vulgarity.

Timofey Sherudilo.
From the book Twilight Time.

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