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cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

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Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Uncruel Beauty?

Posted by Sean McCann on 06/07/05 at 11:08 AM

John’s recent essay on chess and poetry, with its holbonic foray through Nabokovian territory, reminded me of a curious post I encountered over at Long Sunday --a zizekian rival to the Valve and a home of frequent commenter cult rev. The subject of the post is the classic association between cruelty and aestheticism, and its gist is to disavow a “naïve” critique of either.  Cruelty, John Pistelli claims, is at least sometimes an expression of curiosity.  Like scientists and political renegades, aesthetes and torturers view their worlds from a position of moral estrangement, and they want to find things out.  “I vividly remember,” Pistelli says, “when I was about four, stepping on another child’s hand simply to see what the result would be.” The implication follows: if we value curiosity (or presumably beauty), we can’t easily shield ourselves from a susceptibility to being cruel. 

The reasons this is all appropriate fodder for the Valve is that Pistelli’s prime exhibit is, of course, Nabokov.  Pistelli is particularly concerned to challenge the view famously advanced by Rorty and more recently developed by Michael Wood that the carefully burnished image of Nabokov as a literary equivalent to the Bond villain is wrong—that really the center of Nabokov’s imagination was not a chilly fascination with beautiful puzzles but a horror at brutality.  Nabokov himself predicted the reading in Strong Opinions: “one day a reappraiser will come and declare that, far from having been a frivolous firebird, I was a rigid moralist kicking sin, cuffing stupidity, ridiculing the vulgar and cruel—and assigning sovereign power to tenderness, talent, and pride.” Neither Rorty nor Wood, brilliant critics both, are clumsy enough to fall for this overexaggerated portrait, but both suggest there’s more than a grain of salt to the hint of a hidden moralist.  Through all Nabokov’s major American novels, they suggest, but particularly in Lolita, a subtle conflict seethes between the writer’s own most cherished values (as they are listed in L’s afterward): “curiosity, tenderness, [and] kindness,” on the one hand; “ecstasy,” on the other. 

Pistelli is drawn to this view himself, and to the investment in empathy it reflects, but he also believes that it’s “naïve” and shares too much with a “neoliberal strain in literary criticism” he wishes to repudiate.  (Naivete and neoliberalism appear to be closely linked vices in the view of Long Sundayans, and equally reprehensible.)

My inclinations run in the opposite direction.  As a craven liberal, I find Judith Shklar’s suggestion that we put cruelty first in the list of vices we wish to avoid naturally appealing.  So I’m gratified to find that there are a number of details where Pistelli’s account seems not exactly right.  In fact, in some ways the post just seems perverse (a description that perhaps will not offend Pistelli.) The notion that torture is “precisely an experiment with . . . [the] subjectivity [of the victim], . . . a curiosity about how other people feel,” rather than, say, an assertion of power and a means to humiliate and dehumanize, seems quite wrong.  (Isn’t it necessarily the case that knowledge of a person’s subjectivity or consciousness can only be communicated by the person who experiences it?  Even if you want to know how pain feels, you have to ask the sufferer.  Whatever else you might learn from torture, it wouldn’t be knowledge of subjectivity.) Likewise, the suggestion that “torture is science and it is art, whether perverted or true I can’t say now.” That sends chills up the spine. 

More specifically, I think Pistelli miscasts Wood’s argument and to a lesser degree Rorty’s.  Pistelli sees a revealing contradiction in the way each is both attracted to and repelled by the Nabokovian fascination with inhuman beauty.  And he thinks that they want it to be both the problem with Nabokov’s work and the solution to the problem.  Dividing Nabokov’s curiosity from his ecstasy, they make “aestheticism” look bad insofar as it encourages monstrous incuriosity and good insofar as it encourages attention to other people. 

The problem with this characterization is that Wood in particular seeks to distinguish Nabokov’s artistry from his aestheticism.  The aestheticism is a kind of brilliant trickery, elegant and arrogant, but “the magician’s best act” is in revealing its limitations—“a scene of refusal which is also a scene of recognition.” I.e., Nabokov does a kind of wizard-of-oz maneuver and shows us both the allure of the aestheticism and why the attraction is morally perilous.  So in Wood’s account, the brilliance of Lolita lies in the way the novel makes thoroughly good on its central metaphor (the ape in the cage who can draw only bars), showing us that Humbert Humbert’s apparent flights beyond his monstrous ego are almost all extensions of his solipsistic self-regard and only in the most fugitive suggestions reminding us that there is something outside the cage.  When Humbert rhapsodizes in the famous conclusion about “the melody of children at play” and laments “the absence” of Dolores Haze’s “voice from that concord,” we should spy his “mawkish” self-castigation, “both artful and hackneyed.” When he indicts his own “putrefaction” and sees “nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art,” we should note that he remains concerned with his suffering and is “still glamorizing his misdemeanors.” When he eulogizes the “hopelessly worn” seventeen year old Dolly Schiller of Gray Star, “with her ruined looks and her adult, rope-veined narrow hands and her gooseflesh white arms,” we should catch the allusions to Carmen and Tristan and Isolde and see the way Humbert still speaks “the language of gloating.” For both Wood and Rorty, the real heart of the novel is not in these grand moments, but in details that are appropriately easy to miss.  For Rorty, the key scene is the appearance of the barber in Kasbeam who, to Humbert’s surprise, continues to mourn his dead son decades after the death.  For Wood, the triumph of the novel comes when Dolly Schiller says simply, “No, honey, no” to Humbert’s plea that she escape with him.  When Humbert but momentarily pauses to note that “she had never called me honey before,” a brief window to an ordinary, domestic world is opened.  For a moment, Humbert allows himself to be recruited into banality . . . and then takes off on his quest to murder Quilty.

In this manner, Rorty and Wood cast Lolita as a masterpiece of dramatic irony.  Nabokov can’t depict genuine curiosity or moral respect for other people, only their absence, precisely because he’s concerned to show the prisons in which his monsters are caged. “Morality,” in Nabokov’s world, Wood concludes, always remains “a subtle, almost invisible, quirky” presence. 

But I wonder whether there might not be another reason Nabokov needs to keep his moral judgments offstage—which is that they’re hopelessly sentimental.  Rorty makes much of fact that “the death of a child is Nabokov’s standard example of ultimate pain.” I don’t have any quarrel with that assumption, but it’s worth noting that the death of the child is also the centerpiece of sentimental fiction.  The only way a twentieth century writer of any seriousness could erect a moral sensibility on that foundation might well be via elaborate indirection. 

Considering that, I begin to see why, despite disliking it, I’m provoked by Pistelli’s argument.  Rather than calling the Wood/Rorty account of Nabokovian morality naïve, I wonder if we might just call it thin.  Morality as a quirky sensitivity to the pain of others is valuable, sure, but it doesn’t go very far.  We might from this perspective be hesitant about Nabokov not just because his villains are, as Rorty says, “monsters of incuriosity,” but because the implicit critique of them—that really, in the end, Humbert is an unfeeling child abuser—is, despite all the brilliant artistry, slight and melodramatic.  Wood says, quoting Pnin that the central story of Nabokov’s work is a profound objection to “the history of pain,” a yearning to give that history “a glittering rearrangement” and a simultaneous recognition that “the world and its pain persist . . . beyond all refutation if not beyond elegant or arrogant resistance.” I’m not sure that there’s more depth to that vision than there is to, say, the self-congratulatory sensitivity of something like Catch-22. It looks, in fact, profoundly midcentury-liberal: the world is cruel and brutal; we’re sensitive and pained; but we shouldn’t forget to preserve our openness to the suffering of others.

In this light, much as I want to dismiss as perverse Pistelli’s connection between cruelty and curiosity, I wonder if I can.  Wood makes much of the way the aesthete Humbert in casting Lolita as nymphet makes her the representative of an alluring “class of persons” but thereby refuses to recognizer her as “a single person.” (“Nabokov, I take it, is intimating, that love, like art, is a feat and a travail of the peculiarly concentrated imagination.”) But is that right?  Isn’t HH in this respect actually a good lover?  Isn’t he obsessively attentive to everything about Lo and her world.  And isn’t something similar true of Gilbert Osmond, another figure mentioned by Pistelli.  In Isabel’s dismissal of Osmond, Henry James pens a deliciously acid dismissal of aestheticism.  Her husband, Isabel tells the suitably lightweight bibelot maven Ned Rosier, has “a genius for upholstery.” And granted, Osmond objects most of all to the thought that Isabel has a mind of her own.  But, then, isn’t Osmond also a little like his handmaiden Madame Merle, profoundly empathetic in a perversely cruel way.  He’s not at all indifferent to Isabel’s interior life, but viciously knowledgeable about it.  The parallel between him and the insatiably curious and sympathetic Ralph Touchett is all too close for comfort.

So what to make of all this?  Does Pistelli have a point?  Or are Nabokov and James, as usual, three steps ahead of me.


It’s my position that the Valve should have no enemies to our Zizek.

By Jonathan on 06/07/05 at 01:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Thank you for that thoughtful reading.

Actually, I think I may be a bit more sentimental than you are.  (My favorite novelist by a mile is Dickens, about whom Nabokov said that those who criticize him for sentimentality don’t know what sentiment is.) Or, if I am perverse on the topic of fiction and cruelty, I am perverse in relation to modernism’s artful evasions: I think if you’d like to decry cruelty in fiction, then you might as well just come out and do it, either through the story you’re telling or else directly, as Dickens did in language that can still peel the paint from the walls.  Stories have morals whether you like it or not; a degree of forthrightness about morals doesn’t bother me at all.  I’m very old-fashioned about these things, and can’t help but feel that Zizek wouldn’t be willing to go along with me on this one.  (I’m not a Zizekian, incidentally, though I do take him seriously.)

Or, if we must have modernist deflections against outright sentimentality, then my model would be Joyce (the most liberal major modernist, after all).  Think of the end of “Cyclops”, after Bloom has confronted the Citizen and the other anti-semites in the pub with his morally beautiful but mawkish assertion that love is the answer to violence and the foundation of community.  The chapter ends with a mock-heroic account of Bloom’s quick exit that dissolves into the coarse perspective of the Citizen ("like a shot off a shovel").  This is deflationary, but I don’t think it’s cruel: it allows us to see both the fragility of Bloom’s empathy and capacity for love, and shows us how they look from the point of view of cruelty.  It’s mock-heroic because proclamations about universal love have to anticipate their own comedy, and because (for Joyce and probably Dickens too) they are allied to a generous laughter anyway.

But Nabokov is something other than this.  I’m talking about the overall affect of a book like Lolita: it feels like a revel.  To have all that fun with wordplay and caricature and then to be warned against the aestheticizing, cruel fun we’re having by one or two lines scattered through the book is akin to being confronted with the assertions of moral purpose one finds in some pornography or exploitation films.  I’m sure senstive and intelligent readers like Rorty and Wood indeed get inducements to empathy out of Nabokov and VN may have consciously intended an answer to those inducements as end result of reading his novels, but another victory like that and we’re through!

James, on the other hand, may very well be three or even four or five steps ahead of us.

About torture, I wrote imprecisely.  Of course the torturer has no access to the victim’s subjectivity, but what he/she can observe is the victim’s overt behavioral responses, which provide a clue as to what’s happening inside the subject, I think we can agree.  Torturers would obviously be curious about how victims react: will this or that torture evoke information, break the will to resist, make more amenable to orders, etc.?  In everyday language, we speak of all kinds of endeavors (marketing, teaching, customer service) involving curiosity about emotional causes and effects as arts or sciences, so why not torture?

The neoliberal strain that I object to is one which falls too quickly for Nabokov-as-sentimental-moralist (I wouldn’t put Wood in this category; he seems to start from my position of discomfort, to take for granted the whiff of cool delight I get from N.) To be as vulgar (perverse?) about this as possible, it might just connect up with neoliberal politics: if Nabokov feels cruel but is actually kind, then so too must these apparently destructive policies be kind.

Finally, it is because I am so sentimental that I object to neoliberalism.  I get upset about the enormous cruelty of governments and corporations which treat people as less than people and, more importantly, about the system that demands and makes inevitable this barbarity.

By John on 06/07/05 at 04:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nabokov imparts aesthetic sense to his monstrous characters as a means for their self-justifications, but his artistry always incorporates flaws in the design that reveal its self-serving essense on close inspection. This may constitute morality, but not of the sentimental variety (which, being unthinking, is not far removed from poshlust, a Nabokov pet peeve). Such arcane structure (and diversionary maneuver) is necessary to prove morality via the exceptional. Determining whether Humbert’s redemption is ‘real’ (if misguided) or yet another ‘aesthetic device’ is complicated further by a chronological defect at the end of the novel, a discrepancy of a three day span (including hunting down Q), which has been approached as delusional on Humbert’s part, as imprecision[!] on Nabokov’s part (Brian Boyd, “Even Homais Nods"), and as a remisappropriation of the narrative by the prefactory John Ray, Jr. (George Ferger, “Who’s Who in the Sublimelight" [over the top on the steganography]), who qualifies as neoliberal in some sense or sentiment, putting the real hidden moralist at a further remove with an additional layer of aesthetic sentimentality.

By on 06/07/05 at 07:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I was going to comment on your post. But then I never got around to it. Well, while Sean has got you on the line, can you - just for starters - explain what the following bit of your post says?

So far, Jodi has described cruelty as a displacement onto others of the vulnerability one feels in oneself; i.e., I am strong, I am pure; but the [blacks-Jews-terrorists-Arabs-poor-ad infinitum] are weak and dirty and deserve to be scourged. I agree with this definition, and wonder how it accommodates the oft-noted connection between aestheticism and cruelty, a frequent subject both of literature and of literary criticism that purports to be moral (and that generally, with varying degrees of subtlety, occupies a political space at the convergence of traditional liberal ethics and neoliberal or neoconservative ideology).

You hint at a presumptive ‘accommodation’ problem but I’m not taking the hint. I think I understand what the rest of the post says, but this opening loses me. In general, your shin-kicks against liberalism as naive seem tangential to your thesis about how curiosity can kill the cat (if it leads you to be cruel to it, in an experimental way.) Is it just that some liberal critics have said things about the dynamics of cruelty that you find naive or wrong or incomplete? But what does that have to do with liberalism, per se? One’s views of the psychic dynamics of cruelty seem neither here nor there with respect to whether one accepts some form of liberalism.

By John Holbo on 06/08/05 at 02:59 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I was hoping you’d have something to say about this nnyhav.  I realize, of course, that it’s absurdly counterintuitive to charge Nabokov with being a sentimentalist—and that to charge him confidently with anything but being a genius is liable to leave one looking like a fool.  Oh well.

Your phrase “morality via the exceptional” captures nicely what provokes me—and, in a different way, I think John Pistelli.  You may not have meant the phrase the way I’m reading it, but I think it is consistent with the Rorty/Wood view.  They make N something like a moral intuitionist, no?  the good is undefinable, unrepresentable, supremely rare, and based on intense personal feeling?  If that comes at all close to catching N’s morality, it’s consistent with sentimentalism (or “solidarity"), no?  Or, to put it differently, if Rorty has a point at all, and curiosity, tenderness, and kindness are the almost absent moral heart of N’s fiction, isn’t that in fact very near to sentimentalism (tenderness, kindness) indeed?  Would the fact that sentimentalism is unthinking really count against it from this perspective?  If morality is exceptional and dependent on sensibility it would have to be unthinking, no?  (btw, wouldn’t John Ray be a paleoliberal?)

John P, I see your point about the perverse curiosity of torturers and meant to acknowledge it.  I assume that Osmond is an example of such for James.  He wants to humiliate and subjugate Isabel, but that means he has to be interested in her.  It’s intriguing too to consider that torturers may actively confuse behavior with subjectivity, or ultimately want there to be no difference. 

Someone around these parts has made the point that I would about your use of neoliberalism: it means too many things.  It doesn’t make sense to lump Rorty in with the enormous cruelty of governments and corporations, or as John H. says to assume that liberals must be naive about torture, any more than it would, say, to assume (as lord knows too many wingnuts do) that socialists inevitably support tyranny. 

But in my very hazy thoughts about Nabokov, I do think there’s a way that (in one characterization of him, anyway) his fiction can seem consistent with a kind of hyperliberalism.  If he really did think the only sovereign power should be tenderness, talent, and pride, in his ideal world there would be presumably no equality and no means for enforcing obligations.  I share the sense that this is enticing (I think a lot of N’s pomo followers fell for it) but far from ideal.

By on 06/08/05 at 07:24 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My phrase “prove morality via the exceptional” was also meant to suggest the exception proving the rule, and the necessity of testing (not rationalizing) a priori morality with attention to detail, whether God or the devil resides there. Nabokov does not propose a foundation for morality so much as demonstrate the falsification of morality put to venal use (Boyd makes much of Popper in this regard; I think it aligns curiousity with aesthetics). There’s a teleological aspect, though; as authors stand in relation to characters (to whom[?] Nabokov was cruel [to be kind?]), transcendental values are not directly accessible via analytic language: Much of the project may be seen as refining the approximation. All of which may be put into the context of persistent themes of usurpation, expropriation, and exile.

(and yes, JR Jr doesn’t fit neatly into neoliberalism except insofar as he relies on a pseudoscientific [as opposed to pseudomoral, perhaps distinction without difference] rationale for interpretation ...)

By on 06/08/05 at 09:28 AM | Permanent link to this comment

That is fascinating, nnyhav, and very helpful.  I obviously need to do more mulling, not to mention reading of Boyd, which I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t done.  Does he point to the teleological aspect you mention, or is that your line?

By on 06/08/05 at 10:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Boyd slants toward teleology, yes; I’m somewhere in between him and Victoria Alexander on where Nabokov stood.

(but by chance the word-image required to submit this comment was “designed” ...)

By on 06/08/05 at 10:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

But why should it be the case that the good is inexpressible while the bad is only too easy to express?  Why do expressions of goodness so often belong to the realm of cliche and poshlust while expressions of evil belong to the realm of thrilling entertainment?  Why, for instance, is it regarded as a sign of maturity or adulthood to not expect very much in the way of morality from people or institutions (“Well, of course they’re going to wage war for influence, shoot people against a wall, disappear people into prisons and torture them there.  Do grow up!”—And one hears this kind of thing across the political spectrum, whether from Hitchens or Zizek).  Instead of repeating these ideas, I’d like to see them brought into their worldly context by critics and challenged in practice by writers.  (Hence my admiration for Ulysses, which is, among other things, an exhaustive description of a good person.)

To say that the good is inexpressible, unimaginable, not really part of the social and not capable of being represented aesthetically seems to cede far too much ground to the not-good.  This is one problem I have with Zizek, similar to John Holbo’s quarrel but from what we might call Zizek’s left rather than his right: I don’t really find a world without capitalism (or at least global capitalism) all that umimaginable; it’s not something that belongs to an invisible realm that I have to just put faith in.  I see the good expressed around me everywhere.  I find it available for literary representation and I can imagine various ways we could rearrange our political and economic systems to better express it.  Moreover, I don’t think it’s very immature to say that doing this doesn’t have to involve torture and gulags.  But then, the task of defending torture chambers and gulags now falls to the apologists for actually existing global capitalism.

Which brings me to my final point: Sean, you’re right that there’s something wrong with my use of neoliberalism.  It’s becoming clearer to me now.  What I mean to say is this: neoliberalism is an economic policy for the privatization and deregulation of vast tracts of the public space by small groups of capital holders.  Its public promise is that it will increase productivity, create jobs and generate wealth for all of society.  Its actual result now seems to be heading in much the same direction as the direct state seizure of the public space in Communist countries: tyranny and poverty for all but the clique at the top.  Time will prove me right or wrong, but in the meanwhile, what is the relation of this economic agenda to culture?  I had wanted to say that the neoliberal strain in criticism is one in which critics (and I should say that I had in mind popular magazine/newspaper critics, Amis and Hitchens and J. Wood, not academics) continue to assume that, as you say for Nabokov, “the good is undefinable, unrepresentable and supremely rare.” Again, let me risk vulgarity: morality itself has been privatized and is now the property of an aesthete of rare sensibility.  In the case of VN, this aesthete seems to have a salient penchant for imagining cruelty.  Much as in neoliberal economics, the good is publicly promised for all (when the critics assure us that Nabokov really is so nice), but really belongs only to the domain ruled over by the narrating aesthete; everyone else is off to be tickle-tortured with wordplay.  Here is an instance of the worldly context of that old line with which I began: good is not nearly so interesting to represent aesthetically as evil is.  Well, that’s a convenient line to take if you insist that you’re the only one fine enough to deserve goodness anyway.

I lack the wherewithal to properly historicize this phenomenon and I see now that it is older than neoliberalism.  Indeed, the privatisation of the moral is as old as liberalism and it does the cultural work, the worldly work of preparing the ground for neoliberalism—which manifests itself in ways contradictory to the moral purport of traditional liberalism (much of which I’d like to keep, by the way, though with some strong correctives thrown in).  This requires a lot of further thought obviously.

All right, I’ve gone on long enough.  I’m sorry if I didn’t answer everyone’s points or if I wasn’t clear enough, but if nothing else I hope I have demonstrated that I am a socialist who does not support tyranny!

By John on 06/08/05 at 04:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps it’s better to rephrase Nabokov’s conception of the good as essential, irreducible, and unalloyed (thus rare). His starting point in moral philosophy seems to be Augustine (Nabokov makes many allusions thereto—isn’t the parallel aesthetic beauty as absence of defect? and, isn’t Pnin essentially good?). I’m out of my depth here, but cruelty seems more than an elaborate curiousity unchecked by empathy, though that’s sufficient in Ada.

By on 06/08/05 at 10:01 PM | Permanent link to this comment

No argument from me about that characterization of neoliberalism, John P.--though I’m not sure either Nabokov or the privatization of morality can be so directly recruited to it, or why Amis, Hitchens, and Wood belong so directly to the phenomenon.  I share the universal distaste for the current Hitchens, but the big issue isn’t really enthusiasm for privatization, is it, but the bullying, self-righteous imperial commitment to crush “islamofascism.” (He seems like the kind of figure Nabokov might have filleted.) And Wood?  He writes long and nasty reviews and is full of self-importance, but why does that make him a privatizer, moral or economic?  I’m genuinely curious to know. Have I missed something important about him?

But why should it be the case that the good is inexpressible while the bad is only too easy to express?  Why do expressions of goodness so often belong to the realm of cliche and poshlust while expressions of evil belong to the realm of thrilling entertainment? That’s a genuine problem, isn’t it?  It’s not that N was the one who turned this into an issue, after all.  He just does it more brilliantly than anyone else.  Pnin is, btw, in my memory almost completely loveable.  He has, I think, quite a bit in common with the Bloom you admire, John.

By on 06/08/05 at 11:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

About Pnin—and here I should say I haven’t picked that book up for years and am fuzzy on specifics—it seems to be the most egregious example of what I’m talking about, moving as it truly is.  (This is important too: I’m not dismissing VN or saying he’s no good; if he were no good, I wouldn’t bother.) Why does Pnin’s goodness have to find its expression through or between the lines of a hostile, aesthetically refined observer?  Maybe Nabokov secretly believed that there was something inimical to kindness in beauty—other people have certainly pursued that question in some form or another.  (A book similar to and probably influenced by Pnin but one that didn’t make me uneasy—you know, maybe it should have!—is Aleksandar Hemon’s Nowhere Man.)

About recruiting Nabokov to neoliberalism, well, we might just disagree about what are legitimate critical moves to make and what aren’t.  I think it can be a provocative form of criticism that seeks isomorphisms between formal literary structures and the political/economic structures in which they’re embedded.  I believe that culture can do the work of naturalizing certain factors of political/economic life that are not necessarily essential, and also that political/economic life creates conditions that give rise to new artistic modes to represent them or their effects on individuals and socieities.  I’m aware of the objections to this kind of criticism, and it must be done delicately (if you’re dealing with a rich text—probably not so delicately if it’s just some trashy TV show or something), but I think it’s worth doing, and worth thinking about the relationships between the art we produce and consume and the world in which that production and consumption takes place.

Anyway, I will suspend further comments until a later time when I’ve read more of VN’s books (I’ve read three of the novels, a few stories, the lectures books and a handful of secondary sources including Brian Boyd’s rather bizarre book about Pale Fire) and, hell, more literary theory, criticism and philosophy too.

By John on 06/09/05 at 03:51 PM | Permanent link to this comment

What’s bizarre about Boyd?

By Jonathan on 06/09/05 at 03:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe he’s not bizarre and it’s just me!  Well, his thesis is that there are clues throughout Kinbote’s section of the novel that the spirits of Hazel and John Shade are appearing to him and inspiring the artistry of the notes, which eases his agonized mind and delays his suicide.  (That’s the idea, right?  Perhaps I’m oversimplifying; it’s been a while.) This is an interesting interpretation and maybe even the correct one, but, if true, the novel is a rather-too-comforting and New Agey tale in which death is just “a station on a larger journey” and the dead become butterflies to assuage the afflicted with beauty.  Even I’m not that sentimental.

By John on 06/10/05 at 07:50 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I remember thinking that Boyd’s ideas were intuitively plausible to me, but I see the interpretation more ominously than you.

By Jonathan on 06/10/05 at 12:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(Cue up “Life After Death”, Ian Hunter, You’re Never Alone with a Schizophrenic)

Ah, Pale Fire, my favorite book (though not even VVN’s best), my Lit. 202, honeypot for those <a href="http://www.centerforbookculture.org/context/no6/gessen.html">Keith Gessen calls “the aesthetes, the punsters, the turtlenecked acolytes of reading-as-wanking and literature as play”, de rigeur for anyone who’s serious about parody. While Boyd’s 2V[!] biography is of a quality seldom matched, in Nabokov’s Pale Fire Boyd’s thesis may be overdone in subordinating everything to it (as he admits, there’s Kinbotean danger in any such attempt), but it’s hard to deny the centrality when Canto III is heavily disposed towards newage (motivated, of course, by the death of a child, Canto II); he nonetheless usefully ravels many other threads running through the book (e.g., the throwaway line “Here Poppa pisses” pointing to Browning; Four Quartets, though Boyd doesn’t touch Nabokov’s appropriation [correction?] of Eliot’s paradiorthosis). But to make the jump into sentimentality (a false trail, intentionally marked, in Lolita and Pnin as well) is unwarranted, as VVN skewers it along with other errors (cf. Maud Bodkin, not in Boyd’s text). Cruel world.

By on 06/10/05 at 02:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry ‘bout badlinking Gessen.

By on 06/10/05 at 02:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Cruelty and curiosity exist, often (as with Leopold Bloom) inseparably with kindness and affection. I fail to see how art is made better by refusing to engage with such important aspects of existence. Is there any evidence at all that the (theorized) waspish snippers or pedophiles who take comfort in their (probable) misreadings of Nabokov would’ve become tolerant, affable, and trustworthy guardians of the young without his influence? I despise the viciousness of Neil LaBute and Lars von Trier and Bret Easton Ellis, but that’s because their cruelty is stupid, smug, and badly observed. They propagandize emotional ignorance. Insofar as Nabokov propagandizes anything, it would be, what? Detachment? That seems a sensible enough lesson.

I do sometimes find Nabokov’s “playful” range painfully shrill in what seems an unintended way, but I may be misreading his work as other readers have misread work I admire.

And I do think there’s an ongoing tendency among certain critics and many trust fund brats to assume that explicit expressions of selfishness and cruelty are somehow in themselves more transgressive than expressions of more complex social realities, despite their obvious alignment with the status quo of TV, movies, video games, music, sports, and politics.

John, I don’t know where your home is, but in the United States I’ve known for four decades, the big battle for control of all our lives hasn’t been between neoliberalism and socialism, but between an alliance of the extremely wealthy and the extremely intolerant, neither of whom deign to recognize themselves in any application of the L-word, and the now-fragmented-to-powder coalition which sought to limit the power of (without necessarily slaughtering) those very energetic parties. For that (admittedly provincial) reason, I do often wish we could find a less misleading word for corporation-friendly “free"-market policies than “neoliberal”, justified as it may be in academic economic history and in the less polarized wealthy democracies.

By Ray Davis on 06/11/05 at 06:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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