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Nabokov and Critical Haziness About Morality

August 4, 2011

Okay, guys, I’ve written a post. So I guess this will be our first post that isn’t some sort of preliminary thing. I wrote it on a plane after many more cups of coffee than hours of sleep, and it’s a terrible, terrible ramble. I make these academic gestures as if I’m making an “argument,” with “points” and “evidence,” but there isn’t the sort of consistent organization or sense of closure that those gestures would suggest. Also, the last paragraph is a weirdly over-dramatic non sequitur. Oh well.

The post is about Nabokov, and some of the thoughts I’ve had since reading Ada or Ardor and Brian Boyd’s Nabokov’s Ada: The Place of Consciousness earlier this summer. The only Nabokov books I’ve read are Ada, Lolita and Pale Fire, so any generalizations I draw are probably wrong in an uninteresting way. I haven’t made any attempt to make the references to those books make sense to those who haven’t read them, though I did try to avoid explicit spoilers.

(And given the subject matter, I’m quite proud that I managed to avoid making awful puns about palimpcestuous palimpdromes. Oh, wait . . . )

On a post at The Valve, “No Desert Island: Towards A Gutsy Aesthetics Via Nabokov,” Joseph Kugelmass argues in favor of morally didactic interpretations of Lolita. What’s interesting for my purposes here is not just Kugelmass’ post, but also the comment thread that follows it, in which Kugelmass has a long and heated argument with a poster named Steven Augustine, who doesn’t think Nabokov’s work is morally didactic.

This particular issue is a hard one to hash out, in part because Nabokov’s own nonfictional comments on the matter are so unhelpful. (Well, of course he’s unhelpful. He’s Vladimir Nabokov.) Nabokov’s attitude toward fiction, as expressed in his lectures, essays and interviews, is one that emphasizes the importance of specific, concrete details over themes and “general ideas.” He appears to have enjoyed being an exponent of this attitude, and missed no opportunity to express it: it’s hard to find an interview with him in which he doesn’t rant about “general ideas.” In his lectures he maintained an idiosyncratic — and kind of bizarre — emphasis on the concrete, urging his students to pay attention to the layouts of fictional buildings, expressing great excitement about the question of just what sort of bug Gregor Samsa became, and so forth. He never tired of asserting that the true anatomical target of great literature was not the heart (i.e., emotion) nor the head (i.e., the intellect) but the spine — which seems to have meant something like, “great literature is about making cool patterns.” (There’s a fun TV interview with Nabokov and Lionel Trilling, which you can watch here, in which Nabokov insists that he did not intend to inspire emotion when he wrote Lolita, just to tickle the spine — to which Trilling protests that he was moved by the book nonetheless.)

The point I’m building to here is that Nabokov’s nonfictional writing expresses a particular attitude toward fiction that is aestheticized, focused on concrete details, and indifferent towards morality and emotion. What is both delightful and frustrating about this is that many of Nabokov’s characters hold similar views — and that many of Nabokov’s characters are horrible people. We see Humbert Humbert and Van Veen obsess over pretty little details and verbal patterns, and we see these fixations serve as a distraction from the awful things that these characters do, and it’s hard not to get the sense that Nabokov was satirizing in his fiction the very attitudes he espoused with apparent sincerity in his nonfiction. Here’s Kugelmass, discussing Nabokov’s famous statement that Lolita was “the record of [his] love affair with the English language” (in response to an interviewer — it must be noted — who suggested it was a record of N’s love affair with the romantic novel):

We might all be better off if Nabokov had never made that pronouncement. I, for one, have the feeling that he is laughing at us from beyond the grave. When Nabokov described his novel in purely linguistic terms, he popularized a form of aestheticism that happens to work perfectly with modern consumer markets, and trapped us within the very patterns of behavior that the novel Lolita seeks to expose and satirize.

This aestheticism offers pleasure in its purest form, based entirely on the playfulness and elegance of language. Lolita, Nabokov reassures us, is not a girl. She is an opportunity for language. She is the occasion for his love affair with English, and our love affair with the resulting book. Naturally, whenever anyone tells you about Lolita, they hasten to relate the same old story about how it initially sickened them, until they fell in love with “the language of it.” If you are particularly unlucky, they will even tack on the quote from John Updike about Nabokov writing “ecstatically.”

I sympathize with Kugelmass’ frustration here. It just seems obvious to most readers of Lolita that the use of aestheticism and wordplay as a way to sanitize immoral acts is a major theme in the book. It is very strange to be told by Nabokov himself that that tension is not really there — because we should be indifferent to the moral aspect and simply enjoy the spine-tingling properties of Humbert’s aestheticism — and anyway that “themes” aren’t important anyway, that we should just be looking for puns and the layouts of train stations and so forth.

There are two related points I want to make here. The first is that Nabokov can’t really have believed the sort of view he said he believed, since this would lead to terrible, stunted readings of his own work. I don’t really feel able to prove this to the satisfaction of anyone who isn’t already convinced, so I’m just going to state it and tell myself I’ll treat the issue a bit more responsibly at some point in the future. The second point is that it’s easy to get confused about these issues because of a common equivocation over what it means to consider the “moral” side of fiction.

First point first. Nabokov often wrote about horrible people — e.g., cold amoralists who place their own desires before all other considerations (Humbert, Van), or self-absorbed delusionals (Kinbote). It is possible, I guess, to treat these characters and their vices as merely a necessary skeleton on which to hang all of the usual Nabokovian fun, the multilingual wordplay and the sly jokes and so forth. One could conceivably just say: well, Nabokov had to write about someone, in order to get a pretext to do all those magic tricks he loved to do, and who’s to say he can’t choose to write about monsters? But I don’t see any reason, given just the work itself and not N’s (strange, curmudgeonish) comments on it, to take this tack. When presented with two recurring tendencies in an author’s work, why elevate one (wordplay and aestheticism) to supreme importance while treating the other (characters who are deeply flawed in particular ways) as mere scaffolding? It seems more intuitive to suppose that Nabokov was interested precisely in the conjunction of these two features.

And indeed it is this conjunction that gives Nabokov’s work its power, at least to me. What I find powerful here isn’t really a moral point — say, that a person can be intellectually clever and aesthetically sensitive while still being a monster. (One could be forgiven for wondering whether that fact is really non-obvious enough to need pointing out by an eminent novelist.) Rather, there’s just something wonderfully disturbing, a particularly enjoyable mixture of delight and horror, that results from the juxtaposition of aesthetic/intellectual splendor and moral decay. Ada or Ardor, for instance, is simply a very creepy book — much creepier to me that Lolita, though the protagonist is (arguably) less monstrous — and to perceive that creepiness one must attend to the ugly things that Van’s narrative style tends to push into the background. What is creepy about Ada is Van’s staggering lack of self-consciousness, the way he attends obsessively to sensory details and linguistic patterns (“Ada, the arbors and ardors of Ardis”) while remaining almost implausibly unaware of his own extreme hypocrisy and selfishness. As a result of this asymmetry, Ada is suffused with a strange, sick atmosphere — the sense that one is being shown a version of life in which feelings, values, ideas, and most of the other trappings of conventional human life are being pushed to the sidelines to make room for certain grotesquely hypertrophied interests (patterns, wordplay, sex). On an “aesthetic” reading, all this would be business as usual, and the wonderful atmosphere of the book would vanish.

(What do I mean by an “aesthetic” reading? I am inventing a straw man here that I have not even taken the time to develop explicitly. And I’m conflating “aesthetic” readings with readings that follow Nabokov’s statements about the spine and so forth. But hopefully what I’m saying makes some amount of sense.)

(Tangential suggestion: What’s creepy about Ada is actually kind of the opposite of what’s creepy about Lolita, because Humbert’s creepiness comes from the fact that he seems surprisingly human, even endearing, given what he’s done. Humbert’s pose is sophisticated, self-aware, even self-effacing: he knows he can’t exculpate himself in your eyes, so he just tries to make himself as likable as possible. Van’s creepiness is in his complete lack of self-awareness, the inhuman blankness of his vast sprawls of thought.)

Second point. It might seem intuitive to say that my enjoyment of (for instance) Ada depended on my “moral response” to the book. Van is a bad person, the contrast between his ingenuity and his badness is interesting, blah blah blah. One might infer, then, that this kind of response would put me on the Kugelmass side of the Kugelmass/Augustine debate. But there’s an equivocation here that needs to be exorcized. What Kugelmass is saying is that Lolita is a book that wants to change our moral views, or at least make us reflect on them. He says this throughout the post; it’s there, for instance, when he says the book “satirizes” a certain set of views. Satire, after all, is a morally didactic genre: it is supposed to make us disapprove more of some real existing thing. But I don’t really care whether Nabokov’s fiction is trying to convince me of any moral point. Instead, I’d say it dramatizes certain moral concerns. These books present slices of experience, the same way that any fiction does. We respond to those slices of experience in a way that is at least strongly related to the way we respond to actual, real-life experiences, even if it isn’t exactly the same. When Van is a douchebag, it makes me angry. This is not some sort of contentious “moral interpretation” of anything — it’s just a result of the fact that when people (real or fictional) are douchebags, I respond with anger. When an interviewer asked Nabokov whether he was similar to Van, Nabokov exclaimed, “I loathe Van Veen.” So he hates the guy too. (Unless he’s not being serious, which I think he often isn’t, in interviews. I am just pointing out an internal inconsistency in the view that takes Nabokov’s pronouncements at face value.)

Given the fact that we readily have moral and emotional responses to Nabokov’s characters, what exactly does it add to suppose that Nabokov himself is making a moral point, on top of everything? Brian Boyd is fond of saying that Nabokov is actively criticizing his characters for their flaws. (In Boyd’s world, Nabokov’s fiction is filled with two things: moral lessons and ghosts. Perhaps surprisingly, I think the “ghosts” part is the more defensible of the two.) According to Boyd, there are hidden patterns in Ada that Van himself cannot see, patterns that are meant to remind the perceptive reader of how much Van’s selfishness hurts the people around him, even as Van tries to keep this sort of thing out of his story (if he is even aware of it at all). Maybe these patterns are there, and maybe they aren’t, but it’s not entirely clear to me what purpose they would serve if they were. Nabokov created this character, and gave him these flaws. Isn’t it a bit redundant for him to then criticize the character for having them? Boyd tells us that Nabokov is criticizing Kinbote in Pale Fire too, to which I can only say: poor guy. Does he really need any more trouble than he gets? Apparently the moral lesson is something about empiricism and how you should look at the world around you and not make assumptions and stuff. (Yes, Boyd spent years studying an esoteric modern novel — rather than, say, exploring the outside world — in order to finally uncover this banal message.) But it’s clear pretty much from the outset that Kinbote is a confused and delusional man. Do we really need to be reminded not to be like him?

I think literary critics — Boyd aside — often have an aversion to studying the moral side of literature. I think Nabokov, and people like Nabokov, are in part responsible for this. Nabokov proposed an idiosyncratic, highly questionable view of the function of fiction which has become, to a surprising extent, the status quo. (See this conversation.) Some of the problem, too, is just the sense that literature is whatever pulp isn’t — so, since there are all sorts of awful inspirational tracts out there with preachy moral messages, literature must have nothing to do with morality whatsoever. I am not even sure where I stand on “messages,” and the sorts of messages that Boyd finds irk me. But what irks me even more is the tendency for critics to disdain not just “messages” but the very prospect of engagement with ideas, values, and a variety of other fundamental aspects of human life. There is a lazy tendency to assume that an interest in “general ideas” is the same as a lack of interest in people, as if people do not spend large fractions of their lives thinking about “general ideas”! Nabokov, and the writers who followed in his footsteps (Updike, Martin Amis, et. al.), have won without even trying. And Nabokov “laughs from beyond the grave” at our uncritical acceptance of his creepy, over-literalistic advice.

It was supposed to be part of the joke, wasn’t it? “Vladimir Nabokov,” with his crankish little opinions, his bizarre distaste for relativity theory (!), his pedantry and pomposity, is just as much a Nabokov character as any of the ones lurking in the fiction aisle. He wants you to laugh with him, to laugh at the strange things he can get away with saying, to enjoy the weird dark spaces where we can’t quite tell whether we are looking at something wonderful or something terrible. But here, if nowhere else in his career, everyone took Vladimir Nabokov at face value.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2011 3:07 am

    In the interview you linked to, Nabokov says: “I don’t wish to touch hearts. I don’t even want to affect minds very much. What I really want to produce is that little sob in the spine of the artist-reader.” I’ve thought a lot about these lines in the past few years. You write: “[Nabokov] never tired of asserting that the true anatomical target of great literature was not the heart (i.e., emotion) nor the head (i.e., the intellect) but the spine — which seems to have meant something like, “great literature is about making cool patterns.” ” I take this statement far more seriously, however coy its delivery. I think Nabokov advocates a far larger role for art in human lives than either our hearts or brains can accommodate: he wants literature to course directly along the electric channels of all action & perception, voluntary & involuntary. He wants literature to braid with our motor neurons, to flicker along the pathways of consciousness itself. And for me this is other than (more than!) either a concern with heads/hearts/values or the kind of effete aestheticism he is often accused of. His work plunges me into a savage nostalgia, a ravening hunger, a giddy velocity; I feel beyond the marrow of my bones that it propels me towards something like truth.

    I agree that Nabokov is interested in the conjunction of sublimity/aestheticism with criminality/delusion/hypocrisy, but my experience of this conjunction seems to diverge sharply from yours. You describe Ada as: “suffused with a strange, sick atmosphere — the sense that one is being shown a version of life in which feelings, values, ideas, and most of the other trappings of conventional human life are being pushed to the sidelines to make room for certain grotesquely hypertrophied interests (patterns, wordplay, sex).” Somehow these “grotesquely hypertrophied interests” strike me as the key, the panacea, the hidden bliss. I’m not sure what I mean by this, but it’s something to do with the savage nostalgia. I think about Ada as a child: her exquisite watercolors from illustrations of butterflies (and the exquisite curve of her cheek as she works); her light and shade games; her strange eyes, with the pupil set higher then normal between the lids. I think about a brief, edenic, largely imaginary period of my pubescence, when I filled sketchbook after sketchbook earnestly, when I wrote down my dreams every morning, when I played violin (badly) and was more keenly attuned to the unfamiliar lengths of my neck, arms, hands, than to the sounds that I produced.

    For me Ada is not creepy so much as it is tragic– and the tragedy is hers, albeit wrapped round and hidden by Van Veen’s narrative. Something about growing older, the loss of self that happens merely through the passage of time. Something about the desire to EAT BEAUTY, and the total impossibility of consummated desire. The impossibility of possessing anything at all. (In another Nabokov novel– Mary, perhaps?– the narrator muses that his urge to possess the girl he longs for is as unrealizable as one’s urge to possess a sunset.) You say that Nabokov’s fiction “dramatizes certain moral concerns.” I like this phrase and I want to chew on it for a while. It seems to me that Nabokov’s recurrent choice of duplicitous, ugly, elegant, ravenous narrators provides him with a superb arena for this moral dramatization. There’s an interest in shoving revulsion and transcendence as close together as they can get, and then closer: searching out the point where fiction levitates on their mutual resistance. (I might contend that consciousness also levitates in this weird region.)

    I could say more (or improve on the tangle above) but I don’t want to delay these initial thoughts. Thank you for posting, Rob!

  2. Rob permalink*
    August 5, 2011 10:13 pm

    And thank you for your fascinating comment! I don’t think I can do real justice to all the points you’ve raised, but I do have some things to say re: 1) the “spine” idea and why I (unjustly?) dislike it, and 2) our differing senses of Ada.

    I first became annoyed with Nabokov’s “spine” idea when I read his lecture “Good Readers and Good Writers.” It seems to me that in this lecture Nabokov frames spinal enjoyment as a sort of enjoyment that is not purely intellectual but which can still be attained even when one adopts a scholarly aloofness that precludes emotional involvement. This seems quite different from the sort of intimate bonding between literature and consciousness that you describe; it is instead a sort of pleasure whose most salient feature is that it is compatible with a certain level of detachment from the thing that produces it. Nabokov says that “we come to the really exciting part when we try to grasp the individual magic of his genius and to study the style, the imagery, the pattern of his novels or poems” (my emphasis). “Study,” “style,” “imagery,” “pattern” — this is supposed to be a description of “enchantment,” the highest rung in Nabokov’s ladder of artistic enjoyment, but all it brings to my mind is term papers and lecture halls.

    But I may well be misreading “Good Readers and Good Writers,” and in fact it might be a mistake to take it seriously at all. It is a pedagogical lecture, and an odd and frustrating one at that; it may be that, in his struggle to get something across to his undergraduate audience, Nabokov has blended together his own ideas about enchantment and the spine with a much more trivial piece of advice about scholarly objectivity. I need to read more of Nabokov’s essays, particularly those that weren’t written as lectures for undergraduates, before I pass judgment on any of this.

    As for Ada and Ada, I confess that I haven’t thought much about Ada as a character. (Boyd mostly ignores Ada too, as he’s mostly interested in Lucette and Van’s coldness towards her.) As you say, our sense of Ada is “wrapped round and hidden by Van Veen’s narrative,” and when I realized the extent to which this was true, I simply gave up on trying to figure out Ada herself. For instance, it is not clear to me how much she shares Van’s intense nostalgia for their early days at Ardis. Certainly she does in some sense and to some extent, but the romanticized, Edenic sense of Ardis presented in the book seems so bound up in Van’s experience that I am wary of attributing it to anyone else. After all, the moment when paradise is lost (as things are framed in the book) is the moment Van discovers Ada’s infidelity. The whole book is structured around this breaking point, which is an event in Van’s consciousness, Van’s discovery of a fact that is has been true for some time and which is already known to Ada. We may indeed learn something about Ada from the fact that she allows Van to frame “their” story in this way, but I don’t think we should immediately draw the inference that Ada’s own thoughts conform to that same frame.

    Indeed, one of the things that is “creepy” to me about Ada is the blurriness of Ada’s own sense of herself and of the events of the story. The pervasive “specialness” of young Ada, her physical idiosyncrasies, her precocious and peculiar interests, her system of things and towers — this seems like an self-image an adolescent girl might have, but it also seems the way an adolescent boy might view his first crush. A sense that she is unusual, different, exotic — an image that does not help the boy get inside the girl’s head but rather romanticizes his inability to do so. It is specified at one point that young Van doesn’t actually share young Ada’s interest in biology, and perhaps his appreciation of Ada more generally is like his appreciation of her botanical and entymological diatribes: not a experience of connection but an exoticizing admiration-from-a-distance. To introduce his account of the things/towers system, Van writes that “children of her type contrive the purest philosophies.” This is cute but also eerily reminiscent of Humbert’s delineation of the nymphet as a special type of child, which of course says almost nothing about Dolores’ own self-concept. Ada is no Dolores Haze, but there’s a bit of Humbert in Van, and I have no clear sense of how to penetrate Van’s Humbertian haze and glimpse the true Ada beyond.

    But as I said, I just haven’t thought much about Ada as a character, and maybe I am just mapping my own ignorance rather than the boundaries of possible knowledge. Maybe if I reread the book with Ada in mind, things would become clearer. There may be critics who can help me here, but Boyd (who’s the only one I’ve read) isn’t one of them. For Boyd, Lucette’s tragedy is the secret center of the book. This may well be true, but it tells us little about what to make of the large swaths of the book which do not seem to involve Lucette even implicitly. (Boyd would say that everything in the book involves Lucette implicitly, but then everything in Ada is implicitly connected to just about everything else.)

  3. linebrick permalink*
    August 16, 2011 7:44 pm

    Jane writes: “There’s an interest in shoving revulsion and transcendence as close together as they can get, and then closer: searching out the point where fiction levitates on their mutual resistance. (I might contend that consciousness also levitates in this weird region.)”

    Rob writes: “It seems to me that in [Good Readers and Good Writers] Nabokov frames spinal enjoyment as a sort of enjoyment that is not purely intellectual but which can still be attained even when one adopts a scholarly aloofness that precludes emotional involvement. This seems quite different from the sort of intimate bonding between literature and consciousness that you describe; it is instead a sort of pleasure whose most salient feature is that it is compatible with a certain level of detachment from the thing that produces it.”

    In his Notes on Prosody, Nabokov comments that

    “…the employment of tilt and elision can make a perfect iambic tetrameter out of a sentence that as spoken fits no meter:

    watching the approaching flickering storm
    watching th’approaching flick’ring storm.

    The beauty of the English elision lies neither in the brutal elimination of a syllable by an apostrophe nor in the recognition of an added semeion by leaving the word typographically intact, but in the delicate sensation of something being physically preserved by the voice at the very instant that it is metaphysically denied by the meter. Thus, the pleasure produced by a contraction or a liason is the simultaneous awareness of the loss of a syllable on one level and its retention on another and the state of balance achieved between meter and rhythm. It is the perfect example of eating one’s cake and having it” (pg 32 of my weird adorable edition of this brilliant and bizarre essay on Russian & English versification).

    I must say I mostly agree with everyone I have quoted above. Jane, when I read this sentence of yours I immediately thought how, in your discussion of the tense, resisting, shoved-up-between-transcendence-and-revulsion space occupied by fiction & consciousness, you have strangely, precisely, (unwittingly?) echoed Nabokov’s description of the tension between physical preservation and metaphysical denial of a metrical syllable. Rob, how could these phenomena– the enjoyment, the ethics and magic of fiction or of poetry– be purely intellectual? Or, for that matter, purely intimate? A strong dose of “detachment,” your apt word, seems a necessary force in the patterns of tension & resolution present in the communion between art, artist and viewer. I imagine that for Nabokov metaphysics is experienced in the spine.

    Forgive the very late response, all– and thank you both dearly for the insightful (and nicely written!) posts. Rob, have you read VN’s Bend Sinister? It’s short and gorgeous and feels like a punch in the gut; I’d be fascinated to know what you think of the model of “morality” offered there.

  4. December 25, 2011 11:41 am

    Hello! Interesting post (which I admit I came to via shameless self-Googling). I think the following adds something to any consideration of Lolita as Art (and Nabokov as Artist); my concern in the cited Valve debate (and everywhere else) was to push the text away from the normalizing (trivializing) readings that have become so popular again. To quote from the article I’m about to link to:

    “The question of how to read Lolita continues to provoke lively debate, the focus of which has shifted from early concerns over its erotic elements to issues of Humbert’s sincerity to speculation about how much of his story Humbert Humbert, whoever he may be, experiences, records, and imagines…”

  5. December 26, 2011 6:57 pm

    I think your post successfully works its way closer to Nabokov’s own position. From a 1945 letter: “I never meant to deny the moral impact of art which is certainly inherent in every genuine work of art. What I do deny and am prepared to fight to the last drop of my ink is the deliberate moralizing which to me kills every vestige of art in a work however skillfully written…. In my opinion, the fact that Tolstoy’s ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ and ‘The Power of Darkness’ were written with a deliberate moral purpose largely defeats their purpose, killing the inherent morality of uninhibited art.”

    To attempt a paraphrase, Nabokov obstinately objected to the extraction of formulaic messages or morals from art because he considered such behavior a betrayal of the message and morality inhering in creation itself. Evil behaviors espouse ethical generalities quite contentedly; in response, Nabokov’s favored art insists upon the irreducible preciousness (in every sense, alas) of the singular.

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