Nabokov and Critical Haziness About Morality
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.