Glynn, Michael. 'The word is not a shadow. The word is a thing' - Nabokov as anti-Symbolist. 2006

Bibliographic title

'The word is not a shadow. The word is a thing' - Nabokov as anti-Symbolist

Publisher, city
Periodical or collection
European Journal of American Culture
Periodical issue
v. 25, no. 1
Publication year

Abstract available online.

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This article seeks to counter a contemporary critical orthodoxy that presents Nabokov as a transcendental or Symbolist writer. This Symbolist version of Nabokov has been promoted by such eminent Nabokovians as Brian Boyd and D. Barton Johnson but is a reading that perhaps misrepresents the man and his work. I suggest that Nabokov's early poetic output manifests an anti-Symbolist impulse and proceed to argue that his fundamental epistemology was anti-Symbolist. This antipathy is starkly revealed when we consider Nabokov's attitude to language: for the Symbolist, the word was a barrier that interposed itself between man and ultimate reality. The Symbolist imagination was therefore intent upon finessing a limited and limiting language so that it became capable of adumbrating the ineffable. To this end, the Symbolists seized upon the verbal symbol which was prized for its obliquity and its transcendent potential. To value the word as symbol, however, was in Nabokov's view to detract from the intrinsic value of both word and world and I suggest instead that Nabokov enjoyed an epistemological affinity with Russian Formalism. I conclude the article by arguing that in his Lolita, Nabokov seeks to explore the pernicious effects of symbolatry.