Muravnik, Constantine. Nabokov's Philosophy of Art. 2017

Bibliographic title
Nabokov's Philosophy of Art
Periodical or collection
Nabokov Studies
Periodical issue
v. 15
Publication year

This essay is an attempt to infer and systematize Nabokov's philosophy of art. Constantine Muravnik use the phrase "philosophy of art" in two senses: one refers to the philosophical study of art, that is, the relation of art to aesthetics, ethics, and metaphysics; the other to the ontological foundation of artistic production. Consequently, Nabokov's philosophy of art simultaneously stands for a study of the philosophical aspects of his oeuvre, including his own theoretical statements on art and the network of affinities with certain aesthetic theories, as well as for a transcendental deduction of the original and practical source of his artistic genius. This deduction, however, requires adequate philosophical tools, which Muravnik, in turn, borrows from Kantian and post-Kantian aesthetics.

Contrary to the two dominant trends in Nabokov studies—the metafictional, which presents Nabokov merely as an ironic manipulator of various literary devices, and the metaphysical, which associates him with no less than a transcendent realm—Muravnik puts forth a different interpretive paradigm. Following Kant, he strictly differentiates between the transcendental and the transcendent in my approach to Nabokov: he excludes the latter and investigates the former. This differentiation provides a hermeneutic guidance that allows avoiding either of the above extremes. The entire phenomenological and markedly anti-Hegelian tradition after Kant (with Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and, at times, Heidegger at center stage) associates the transcendental with aesthetic experience. Muravnik, too, connects the ontological ground of Nabokov's art with the aesthetic experience of the author and believes this experience to The phenomenological tradition claims that the artist's aesthetic experience is not conceptual and that it cannot be reduced to any number of concepts, no matter how complex; accordingly, it cannot be fully accounted for by mere analytical means. Yet, it reveals itself to the perceiver of art in one's own experience of the artwork. At the same time, non-conceptual aesthetic experience rises over aesthetics and becomes "the symbol of morality," as Kant put it, without prescribing any specific ethical rules. After his exposition of Nabokov's aesthetic metaphysics, Muravnik focuses on its ethical implications and consequences, for which the Kantian distinction between the transcendent and transcendental remains key. The ethical aspect of aesthetics comes into focus every time aesthetics shows a propensity toward purity, timelessness, and perfection and divorces itself from ontology; or, on the contrary, whenever it bounds itself to utility.

Muravnik acknowledges the triangular connection among aesthetics, metaphysics, and ethics generally accepted in Nabokov studies, albeit he treats them differently from their vernacular usage: metaphysics is not otherworldly; aesthetics is not scholarly; and ethics is not orthodox. He associates Kant, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche with the three vertices of this philosophical triangle. Kant symbolically presides over aesthetics, Schopenhauer over metaphysics, and Nietzsche over ethics (due to his—and Nabokov's—cosmodicy, i.e., vindication of the world "only as an aesthetic phenomenon"). Their philosophical interdependence is obvious: it is difficult to understand Nietzsche without Schopenhauer, and Schopenhauer without Kant; Nietzsche's ultimate and fundamental reliance on Kant completes the circle, or rather the triangle, of aesthetics, metaphysics, and ethics. Relevance of Heidegger to Nietzsche and Kant—and by extension to Nabokov—is also instructive because it provides a philosophical background contemporary to Nabokov's own art and thought.