Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0017068, Thu, 18 Sep 2008 09:22:35 -0400

VNBIB: Ecclesiastes Through a Nabokovian Lens
Carasik, Michael. "Transcending the Boundary of Death: Ecclesiastes Through a Nabokovian Lens." Biblical Interpretation 14.5 (15 Oct. 2006): 425-443.

Ch. 12 of Ecclesiastes depicts a scene that combines elements of the death of a
person with others that describe the death of an entire world. Vladimir Nabokov’s
novel Invitation to a Beheading ends with a similar scene. Both Nabokov’s writings
and his biography suggest that he shared Qohelet’s view of life “under the sun”
as hevel, but his own experience as a creator led him to believe that there is a
higher-order reality than our own. The literary technique described here was
Nabokov’s attempt to show how one might cross the boundary into that higher
reality. With a particular focus on Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire, I will argue that the
parallel to Ecclesiastes suggests that the writer of Eccl. 12:9-14 was also the writer
of that entire book, who chose to drop the persona of Qohelet at the end of his
book and speak as himself, to burst through the boundaries of death (in 12:7)
and offer a view of the world that the Qohelet persona could not perceive.

MR's comments:
Carasik does a fine job exploring his thesis, though I'm not sure he will persuade skeptics. His reading of Pale Fire mostly follows Boyd's first Shadean theory. He does not argue that Nabokov was influenced by Ecclesiastes; rather he concludes that the writer of Ecclesiastes and Nabokov are both dealing with similar problems and have found similar solutions. He writes,

What I am suggesting is akin to, but slightly removed from, Jeffrey
Tigay’s “empirical model,” where “we are dealing not…with
techniques borrowed by one culture from another, but with common-
sense techniques which developed independently among the
transmitters of literary traditions when they faced similar tasks.” I
could hardly claim that what I am describing is a “common-sense
technique”; in the present case we are dealing rather with writers
who solved similar metaphysical problems with comparable creative

There are a couple of nice insights that I hadn't seen before. One is that Franklin Lane's "crooked made straight" line is itself a play on Ecclesiastes 1:15 (What is crooked cannot be made straight). Also, he notes that Bend Sinster's "glory of God is to hide a thing, and the glory of man is to find it" may have come to VN via Bacon, but it came to Bacon via Proverbs 25:2 (It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out).

I'll close with bit more from the essay:

I am not, then, suggesting any direct connection between the two authors, but a literary technique
developed independently by each of two thoughtful and creative
minds. Michael Fox writes, “I consider parallels of this sort not
just curios, but serious functional analogies, such as evolutionary
biologists use.”
To continue Fox’s analogy, my claim here is that Ecclesiastes
and Pale Fire are as alike—and as different—as a human’s thumb
and a panda’s. The panda’s “thumb” bears no genetic relationship
to the human thumb but evolved from the radial sesamoid bone,
which is part of the wrist in humans.48 The implication of such
a “functional analogy,” in literature as in biology, is that similar
problems call for similar solutions, and that these solutions develop
from whatever materials are at hand. Nabokov, like the author of
Ecclesiastes, found death an existential absurdity. To avoid this
conclusion, I believe, both writers reached an understanding of
our world—what the medieval philosophers would have called “the
sub-lunar world,” the equivalent of Qohelet’s “under the sun”—as
the imaginative creation of a being from a higher-order reality.
Moreover, both writers expressed this idea artistically by allowing
a higher-order reality to appear in their own works as the result
of an apparent death in the lower-order reality of the world they
had created with words.

Matt Roth

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