NABOKV-L post 0015458, Tue, 4 Sep 2007 10:57:47 -0500

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TRANS-NAB: Abstracts--M.Wood
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[Here is yet another abstract from the conference in Oxford: this one is
from one of the keynote presentations, by Michael Wood--SB]

The Kindness of Cruelty
Michael Wood
Princeton University

This paper seeks to approach an understanding of the apparent conflict
between Nabokov’s claim that a certain ‘unpleasant’ quality was ‘special
trait of my work in general and his claim that a work of fiction existed
for him only when it afforded him ‘aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of
being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art
(curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm’. It is true that
art for Nabokov is not opposed to morality, it is morality, and as such
will automatically, implicitly resist the immorality of the world. But
Nabokov seems to go further. He courts immorality, actively seeks out
unpleasantness, especially of the historical sort. His art is flatly
confrontational, taking on torture, totalitarianism, the Holocaust,
child abuse, assassination and the whole ‘history of pain’ that Timofey
Pnin never managed to write, or to teach as his planned course. A very
strong argument, well articulated by Zoran Kuzmanovich in relation to
Bend Sinister, says that art can only fail in such combats, and is
supposed to fail. One of Nabokov’s great and abiding interests is the
unthinkable. His art and his morality consist in ever flinching from it
and never imagining it will go away, except in the imagination.

But where is the unpleasantness in Pnin, the immediate object of
Nabokov’s remark? In certain of the characters, of course. But also in
the haughty narrator. His task is to perform cruelty, to exclude all
kindness from his repertoire except as an act of condescension, and by
negative implication define what kindness is and how we are to find it.
When he says that harm (rather than art) is his preferred norm, we are
about as far from curiosity, tenderness, kindness and ecstasy as we
could be. Aesthetic bliss, in Pnin and in Nabokov’s other novels, takes
us beyond failing to comprehend the horrors of the historical world.
Aesthetic bliss is the glimpsed understanding that kindness has a
chance, even in a universe of cruelty.

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