NABOKV-L post 0018094, Sun, 29 Mar 2009 12:20:46 -0300

Fw: [NABOKOV-L] Bobolinks and Apophenia
Dear List,

In a movie-review, in which Nicholas Cage is a teacher who decyphers a special pattern from a list of numbers, the term "apophenia" was introduced*.
Many Nabokovians are particularly sensitive to the play of coincidences, synchronicity and correlated patterns and numbers.

In Strong Opinions (p.67/8) Nabokov answers[interviewer: Some criticsmay find the use of coincidence in a novel arch or contrived...}"But in "real" life they do happen..Very often you meet with some person or some event in "real" life that would sound pat in a story. It is not the coincidence in the story that bothers us so much as the coincidence of coincidences in several stories by different writers, as, for instance, the recurrent eavesdropping device in ineteenth-century Russian fiction;" On Tolstoy's War and Peace: "I derive no pleasure from its cumbersome message...from the artificial coincidences...this or that footnote in the sources used often uncritically by the author."(p.148).
For Nabokov, "Average reality begins to rot and stink as soon as the act of individual creation ceases to animate a subjectively perceived texture"(p.118), so, as I understand, VN agrees with the phenomenologists that "perceived textures" are subjective - also because they rely on "individual creation."
He also adds, on a different key, p.84: "incidentally, the boy at St.Mark's [Victor?/St.Bart?] and `Pnin both dream of a passage from my drafts of Pale Fire, the revolution in Zembla and the escape of the king - that's telepathy for you!"

Pale Fire, now keeping "apophenia" in mind, is equally revelatory. In SO,p.119, VN states: "John Shade in Pale Fire leads an intense inner existence, far from what you call a joke". In his many-layered ironies we find the sedate John Shade engaged in a kind of "apophenic" pursuit (fountain-mountain, bobolinks...**), whereas it befalls delirious Kinbote to speak against occult messages, hidden patterns, coincidences.

Kinbote notes, in connection with Hazel & the barn ghost: "Divisions based on such variable intervals cannot be but rather arbitrary; some of the balderdash may be recombined into other lexical units making no better sense (e.g., "war," "talant," "her," "arrant," etc.)..".
At the same time, he adds:"a diabolical force urged us to seek a secret design in the abracadabra".
He states: "I abhor such games... but I have braved it ...with a commentator's infinite patience and disgust..".
He concludes that nothing, "nor her own imaginative hysteria, express anything here that might be construed, however remotely, as containing a warning..."

These exchanges suggest to me that Nabokov could distinguish quite well between "true patterns" and "false coincidences" in life. He would invent dates and recurrent numbers in his novels that, at times, served to express his beliefs about a hereafter. More often than not, such an insertion was to disguise and deny them.
Freud's deterministic view of mental life and the workings of unconscious processes to engender revelatory "coincidences" must, indeed, have profoundly annoyed Nabokov...***


* (internet) When someone sees patterns which do not really exist, this is known as apophenia. Apophenia can take a wide range of forms, from thinking that the same number turns up too often to be mere coincidence to seeing a man in the moon. In some cases, apophenia is used as a criteria for the diagnosis of mental illness, but having apophenia does not necessarily imply that someone is mentally ill; many extremely creative people, for example, have demonstrated apophenia.One of the most common forms of apophenia involves numbers. Many people are under the impression that a particular number keeps appearing in their lives; 23 is a common choice. They may start seeing that particular number everywhere, either in pure form or in the form of numbers which add up to it. This type of apophenia has often been the subject of films and books which involve cursed numbers.In another form of apophenia called pareidolia, people pull shapes or sounds out of meaningless data...Apophenia is an example of what is known in statistics as a type I error, or a false positive. Most people do not exhibit apophenia by conscious choice; they simply draw connections where there are none out of a sense of false sensitivity. The behavior of someone with severe apophenia can veer into the absurd, as someone may go to elaborate lengths to support the connections he or she makes, or to avoid particular circumstances.Learning to recognize apophenia is important, as it is a good idea to be able to distinguish between true patterns and mere coincidence. This distinction is especially crucial in the sciences, where type I errors can radically skew experiment results, especially when people make subtle adjustments to reinforce their ideas. As a general rule, if you keep noticing the same number, symbol, pattern, sound, or event in your life, it is probably a case of apophenia; you might want to seek out evidence which contradicts your impression of a pattern or connection.

**...this/ Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;/ Just this: not text, but texture; not the dream/ But topsy-turvical coincidence,/ Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense./Yes! It sufficed that I in life could find/Some kind of link-and-bobolink, some kind/ Of correlated pattern in the game,/ Plexed artistry, and something of the same/ Pleasure in it as they who played it found [...] Playing a game of worlds, promoting pawns...(810-820)

*** - The quote made above (VN,SO, p.84): "incidentally, the boy at St.Mark's [Victor?/St.Bart?] and Pnin both dream of a passage from my drafts of Pale Fire, the revolution in Zembla and the escape of the king - that's telepathy for you!" lets us witness Nabokov's intention to stimulate, in his readers, the impulse towards a literary kind of "apophenia". He deliberately plays the role of a scheming god who keeps sending out clues, emitting signs that are meaningful only in the corpus of his work, signals that sometimes travel from one novel onto another.

In "The Defence" the recurrent checkered shadows and marble floors are probably elements that only serve to emphasize Luzhin's hallucinations.
And yet, in "Pale Fire", they are presented in disconcerting ways.

Kinbote's commentary, about Hazel's ghostly registers, that nothing, "nor her own imaginative hysteria, express anything here that might be construed, however remotely, as containing a warning..." represents his common-sense denial of any hidden warning to Hazel by appoplexic Aunt Maud.
It is ironical - because Nabokov's satire demands the reader's acceptance of a fictionally "real" ghostly message. He (informed by the author, perhaps by Boyd) is justified in his disdain towards poor demented Kinbote who can find in it no warning clues and cannot accept the guidance of a well-intentioned spirit.
Freud's anedocte about the spies that meet in a train-station and inquire about each other's travel plans, may ellucidate ( or it may not) a Nabokovian tactic. Charles asks John about his travel projects. Hans answers:
"- I'm going to New Wye," while Karl reasons:
"- He said New Wye only to avoid telling me that he is going to New York. But he knows that I will deduce this shift!"
Therefore Karl knocks Hans down, in anger:
"-You, perfidious liar... You told me that you are going to New Wye because you are, in fact, really going to New Wye!"
On the other hand ( a conjurer's hand), when we examine more closely Shade's lines ( "it sufficed that in life I could find some kind of link-and-bobolink...," *) we must realize that, inspite of his fictionally-real encounter with a lady who'd seen a "mountain", he is in fact thinking not about "real life events" but of a plexed artistry! ( whose?).
He then says that he wishes to extract "the same pleasure in it as they who played it found" ( and yet, who is playing ...a game of worlds, promoting pawns?). Kinbote, like the author, promotes pawns...

Although, in the novel, Shade disregards Kinbote's Zembla and resists his influence, what is expected from the "real" reader? To discern that he, as reader, is a pawn, as are Shade and Kinbote? Must the reader accept that, for Shade, "a web of sense" is only to be found through art? That he, like Kinbote, rejects spiritual warnings - while the reader can accept them and feel superior...

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