Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000084, Wed, 18 Aug 1993 10:51:54 -0700

Mary, Nietzsche, and James (fwd)
---------- Text of forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 18 Aug 1993 12:28 EDT
From: John Lavagnino <LAV@BRANDEIS.BITNET>
Subject: Mary, Nietzsche, and James

Since I agree with a position that's been mentioned here several
times---that there are many cultural sources behind Nabokov's work, even
as early as *Mary*---let me toss in another that may modify how we look
at the Nietzschean strain in this novel. One of its most important
passages touching on the will occurs in chapter 2:

It was absurd how flabby he had become. Once (in the days when he
had walked on his hands or jumped over five chairs) he had been able
not merely to control his will but to play games with it. There had
been a time when he used to exercise it by making himself, for
instance, get out of bed in the middle of the night in order to go
down and throw a cigarette butt into a postbox. Yet now he could not
bring himself to tell a woman that he no longer loved her. [page 10]

This idea of the will as something you need to exercise so that it stays
in shape doesn't fit very well with a vulgar-Nietzschean attitude: your
run-of-the-mill Ubermensch has a perfectly undivided and constant will.
It does sound very much like William James, whom we know Nabokov had
read (*Nabokov-Wilson Letters* 311). For example, in the well-known
chapter on "Habit" in *The Principles of Psychology*, James wrote:

As a final practical maxim, relative to these habits of the will, we
may, then, offer something like this: *Keep the faculty of effort
alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day.* That is, be
systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do
every day or two something for no other reason than that you would
rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it
may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. [Harvard
University Press, 1981, 130]

Of course, this can't be the only source, either---in particular, the
strain of conventional uplift in James is not something that seems to
have affected Ganin much. But Nabokovian heroes of the will, when they
aren't outright villains, tend to be more concerned with this kind of
self-discipline than with imposing their will on the masses.

John Lavagnino
Department of English, Brandeis University