Immortality and Art in the Writings of Vladimir Nabokov ...
Thursday, December 3, 2009
Texture, Not Text: Immortality and Art in the Writings of Vladimir Nabokov
Artists and philosophers alike have strived for centuries to define in concrete terms the true nature or purpose of art as well as the role of the artist in society. Even primitive man, through cryptic cave paintings, sought to redefine his existence in terms of artistic representation. Why? Perhaps it is because any power we attain over ourselves and our world stems from an attempt to define the nature of our existence, both in this and in other planes of existence. A creator of art, by seeking this insight, gains some form of transformative power over his accepted “reality”. This power then redefines the artist as a god of sorts to the world he defines, and he becomes a great enchanter or psychopompos, working for the transition of souls between worlds. Nabokov, the creator, uses words in this manner, not as simple tools but as an artistic medium by which to guide us through an endless cycle of finite and infinite existence. Through his written works, Vladimir Nabokov illustrates the synthesis of the microcosmic and macrocosmic realms of thought on a single plane of artistic expression while simultaneously depicting the true nature of art—that is to effect immortality.
Almost in the last stanza of Canto Three of Pale Fire are the words, “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” (Pale 62-63). Here we see a vital key to the understanding of Nabokov, the artist. First one must ask, what is the difference between “text” and “texture”? By text, one can infer the strict delineation of concepts or ideas. Text is mere lines, the simple conveyance of information. Text itself is the dry, clinical means of defining intellectual fire put into words. Now, texture, on the other hand, refers to a quality, a feeling. Texture conjures tastes and emotions, beauty and malevolence. Texture refers to the rich tapestry of human existence, and in order to experience texture, we have to feel it. We read texture through the senses; therefore, if we are meant to read Nabokov’s writings as texture, and not as text, we are meant to experience them in a very moving, tactile, almost physical way. With this approach, Nabokov moves from the constraint of merely capable writing to a realm of true artistry rarely known.
An artist’s primary medium is his canvas or the physical work itself. In the case of Vladimir Nabokov, these are his novels, his characters, his settings. However, this initial work acts only as an intermediary between the creator and his ultimate medium which is the reader. The final goal of any artist is to inspire some reaction, some feeling in the viewer, that is, to move a living being in some significant way in order that he may “cope with the blessed shiver” (Speak 212). This “blessed shiver” is the tingle of texture that grips a good reader’s spine when experiencing true art. What then is the reader’s relation to this enchanter? By being irresistibly influenced by his words, readers become the true subject matter of the creator’s art. Nabokov’s power over words, his ability to manipulate them as he wishes, becomes a power over his readers. One could argue that the reader is the end product of any artistic venture, the final substance one wishes to transform or manipulate. However, the art itself, as a means to effect some reaction or tingling of the spine, for instance, transcends its own intermediary nature. It too gains vital significance.
We may ask ourselves, how are we moved? How does Nabokov influence us into empathizing with supremely unsympathetic main characters, again and again? A pedophile and self-proclaimed beast holds our rapt attention in Lolita, just as we dare not set down the mad ramblings of a deluded and pedantic commentator in Pale Fire. Unlike ordinary writers, however, who may use words to illustrate concepts in a linear fashion (from word to idea), Nabokov manipulates words in a very different way, making them come alive through their varied interactions with one another. Everything Nabokov wishes to impart is contained in single constructs that branch out like lemniscates looping back upon themselves, just as in Transparent Things the three tenses of past, present, and future interact with one another simultaneously.
Simple alliteration strikes subconscious nerves as it runs through significant paragraphs or indeed the entire work. In Pale Fire we see the repetition of the initial consonants in two-word groupings throughout the commentary. This speaks, perhaps, to the duplicity of Kinbote himself. On page 295 of Lolita, when Humbert Humbert holds Quilty in his trap, the overwhelming repetition of the letter “s” throughout a single paragraph creates a hissing of sorts. This snake-like resonance could reference the snake in the Garden of Eden, tying in the concept of forbidden fruit and paradise lost and Lolita’s loss of innocence. Or perhaps this repetitive sound could imply, in far simpler terms, a sense of malevolence or craftiness in Humbert Humbert. The alliteration moves the reader as a whisper through the subconscious. Yet not all of Nabokov’s tricks are so tame.
By using word games, palindromes, anagrams, and internal rhymes, Nabokov dream-weaves a spiraling web of illogical sense by which we are hopelessly trapped. The reader is meant to pick up on these “false scents” and “specious lines of play,” to be trapped in a continual search for hidden meaning and one unifying truth that then never reveals itself (Speak 291). In Pale Fire, we are given Gerald Emerald who without the “eralds” would simply be “gem”. In Transparent Things, we meet Hugh Person, really “You Person”. Similarly, New Wye, where Shade and Kinbote live, upon closer inspection becomes New York. Just as in Lolita Hourglass Lake becomes Our Glass Lake in Humbert’s mind. Now we see “d’Argus” becoming the infamous Gradus. The reader may be blindsided continually by anagrams such as Vivian Darkbloom in Lolita, who is really Vladimir Nabokov. This same reader is perhaps shocked and delighted to learn of all the hidden references on page 250 of Lolita in the names scribbled in numerous hotel registers. “A. Person, Porlock, England” traces back to the revered poem, Kubla Khan, by Samuel Coleridge, for instance. Also, simple license plates such as “WS 1564” refer to William Shakespeare’s birth date. With Nabokov, this is only the beginning. An entire semester of study leaves even the most astute reader begging for more time and more elusive discoveries. Any one finite reference can send us rocketing from the basis of a simple concept into realization upon realization until we find ourselves irreparably moved. This is how we transcend worlds.
Nabokov achieves this condensing of information and images into so small a space through a remarkable economy of words. Each seemingly insignificant phrase is chosen with immense dedication to the impact it will inflict upon the reader. Like a series of dynamite blasts, these words send tremor after tremor through the reader, making room for a far greater expanse. In line 495 of Canto Two of Pale Fire, two seemingly insignificant words at the start of the line, “Black spring/ Stood just around the corner, shivering” lend immense significance to the work as a whole. The word black conjures images of melancholy and death, and as it is situated so near to the word spring, together they can only foreshadow the death of Hazel Shade. Just as Spring itself signifies rebirth, so will Hazel be reborn when, by falling into the frozen waters before her, she springs into that black abyss between worlds. In Lolita two words “(picnic, lightning)” serve much the same purpose but to greater impact (Nabokov 10). Humbert Humbert describes his mother’s death simply, yet within these two small words lies all the description one needs to visualize that tragic end as well as the full extent of emotion that accompanies such an event (Nabokov 10). In two words we experience the innocence of a picnic and the destruction of the lightning. Nabokov’s artistry in relation to the words themselves establishes his characters within a very physical state of existence similar to our own.
Yet by reaching through the tactile physicality of this existence, we can experience another world, what some would call a more real form of existence. In Pale Fire, John Shade begins his poem with the lines, “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/ By the false azure in the windowpane; / I was the smudge of ashen fluff—and I/ Lived on, flew on, in the reflected sky” (Pale 33). Here John Shade, and Nabokov, as the artist, question the meaning of our immediate existence. The waxwing dies upon contact with that other world, yet he is reborn, obtaining a truer existence in that “reflected sky”. There seems to be this deeper reality, the stuff of dreams and fluid memories, beneath our paltry existence. This is the texture of our fullest moments, the product of love and pain and art at its greatest potential.
What form of existence should we consider more “real”? The finite physicality of our existence appears real, “For we are most artistically caged,” yet it is through dreams and emotion, in memories and in art that we seek our refuge (Pale 37). “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness” (Speak 19). These are the opening lines of Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiography. The existence of this endless spiral between the microcosm of objective reality and the macrocosmic transcendence of that reality is what Nabokov wants us to perceive. Beneath the finite levels of existence lie eternities of unknowable depth. Using words not merely as tools but as artistic means, the artist can enable his readers to sink through the finite, just as Hugh Person does with a simple pencil, into another world, into the abyss.
This then, is the true nature of art, not only to move and transform the reader, but also to achieve a true and lasting form of existence, to achieve immortality. As living beings we exist in “reality,” but eventually and inevitably we will die. Our only solace, our only form of continued existence, is through art, through the transcendence of the finite in favor of an infinite existence. However, this too is fragile. Humbert Humbert cries, “Imagine me; I shall not exist if you do not imagine me” (Nabokov 129). Even our immortality as achieved through art is finite and fragile, as it depends on the existence of readers and on their ability to uncover the texture inherent in the text.
On page 270 and 271 of Speak, Memory, Nabokov describes a single moment of revelation and bliss when he speaks of a flower petal drifting closer and closer to a still pool of water below it. He speaks of the reflected petal rising to meet its double in one symbiotic moment and the fear that “the reflection might miss and the petal float away alone, but every time the delicate union did take place, with the magic precision of a poet’s word meeting halfway his, or a reader’s, recollection.” This image depicts the knitting together of artist and reader through one artistic vision. It brings together those two worlds, identified as “reality” and “reflected sky” (Pale 33). This is the precision of art, the texture of ability, and the immortality strived for.
The difference between text and texture is the difference between a finite understanding of our world and an immortality beyond words. It is the difference between knowing and feeling. The business of art, therefore, is to redefine the world in terms of this rich texture. What we seek from art is not the safety of concrete definition but rather the transcendence of “the real” for the unending. Only then, in the “refuge of art” can we reflect ourselves perpetually into the future and live in the filaments of light bulbs (Nabokov 309).
Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita. Ed. Alfred Appel Jr. New York: Vintage, 1991.
---. Pale Fire. New York: Vintage, 1989.
---. Speak, Memory. New York: Vintage, 1989.
---. Transparent Things. New York: Literary Classics, 1996.
Posted by ReardenFlame at 4:02 AM
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