Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0025480, Wed, 25 Jun 2014 21:44:15 -0300

S.E.Sweeney's "Impossible Things" and the human mind...

It was rather fortunate for me to have met SES (and S.Blackwell) in 2007,
during a Symposium in Oxford where, for the first time, I heard S.E
Sweeney's presentation of the paper that was later published in "The
Transitional Nabokov." Her article, "Thinking about Impossible Things in
Nabokov," raises fascinating questions related to my own (still
unformulated) query. Although she opens her work with a sobering quote: "How
we learn to imagine and express things is a riddle with premises impossible
to express and a solution impossible to imagine."(Nabokov, S0 142), her next
paragraph already participates in that same spirit of paradox (which I
relate to a Nabokovian "balancing act"):

" In "Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There," the White Queen
boasts of believing in up to six impossible things before breakfast (251)
[and in Nabokov's novels]. "Readers are not only invited to believe in such
impossibilities, but must actually conceive of them in order to complete the
text's implicit patterning." Sweeney thinks that "Nabokov's fiction achieves
this uncanny effect.by acknowledging, duplicating, and dramatizing how the
human mind works."

In her earlier essays she "addressed disparate subjects, analyzed different
texts, and explored various theoretical approaches-including formalist
criticism, reception theory, reader-response criticism, genre theory,
narratology, and speech-act theory-in order to describe how Nabokov makes
impossible things seem plausible," before she arrived at the conclusion
that "cognitive literary analysis might offer a more coherent method for
explaining such phenomena in Nabokov's writing," because, as she
acknowledges, "Cognitive literary analysis is relevant to my own thinking
about Nabokov. because it implies that all the metaphorical, rhetorical,
logical, linguistic, grammatical, and narratological shape-shifting which
his fiction displays so explicitly, and so exquisitely, actually follows
from the workings of the human mind."

Sweeney elaborates over two excellently chosen instances. The first was
extracted from "Lolita" when Nabokov "duplicates the 'tip-of-the-tongue'
phenomenon.as a way of prompting readers to grasp that Clare Quilty.is the
nemesis who has haunted Humbert's entire narrative"* and the other from
"Pnin", during the explanation about the solar spectrum proffered by
Victor's art teacher: "Lake tells them that the spectrum is not a closed
circle but a spiral of tints from cadmium red and oranges through a
strontian yellow and a pale paradisal green to cobalt blues and violets, at
which point the sequence does not grade into red again but passes into
another spiral, which starts with a kind of lavender gray and goes on to
Cinderella shades transcending human perception. (96).She notes that the
art teacher "combines several conceptual structures: the ordered sequence of
colors in the visible spectrum; the various hues of paint (such as cadmium
and cobalt); the circular shapes of a rainbow, a painter's palette, and a
color wheel; the motif of magical transformation borrowed from "Cinderella";
and even, perhaps, the technological advancements that led to Walt Disney's
brilliantly colored, full-length, animated version of that make-believe

"Nabokov's emphasis on mutability is surely the most distinctive and
pervasive aspect of his prose style, thematic content, and narrative form.
It appears in his fondness for puns, portmanteau words, spoonerisms, and
other wordplay as well as in his novels' intricately plotted structures."
and "his remarkable awareness of exactly how one thought leads to another."[
] "Nabokov's "fugitive sense"-his awareness, as Stephen Blackwell defines
it in this volume, of the provisional nature of knowledge-.implies that he
conceived of thought, too, as a process leading toward the intimation of
something not yet fully known." The author invites us to recall "the last
few paragraphs of any novel by Nabokov. In each case, the text seems to
emphasize that the novel's consciousness is in the process of developing a
new, unprecedented, seemingly unlikely model for understanding the world.
And yet, at that very instant of impending revelation, the consciousness
withdraws, or dies, or disappears. The novel suddenly leaves it up to
Nabokov's readers, instead, to construct the impossibility demanded by the
text-so that, as the narrator of "Pnin" remarks on the final page of that
novel, "there [is] simply no saying what miracle might happen" (191)."

And. I'm still hoping for such a miracle (and that its discovery begins with
an absurdly funny dream since, for me, VN's "perceptual humor" is unique
and, hopefully, also catchy).


*- Sweeney notes that Humbert recognizes that "he designed his narrative so
that readers could share this cognitive experience: 'Quietly the fusion took
place, and everything fell into order, into the pattern of branches that I
have woven throughout this memoir with the express purpose of having the
ripe fruit fall at the right moment [. . . ] of rendering that golden and
monstrous peace through the satisfaction of logical recognition, which my
most inimical reader should experience now. (272)" According to her this
sentence "illustrates the same process of conceptual blending that it
describes. A carefully arranged sequence of conceptual structures conveys
the complexity of Humbert's thinking about how "fusion [takes] place":
first, the notion of "order" as something that things fall into; second,
"order" as a pattern that an artist weaves out of long, narrow strands like
branches; next, "fruit" as something that grows and ripens until it drops
from a tree; and finally, "fruit" as something that descends at the right
moment, recalling the old story of Isaac Newton suddenly conceiving of
gravity because he saw an apple fall."

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