For Nabokov the senses do not quite make sense, in the tradition of the British empirical philosophers: they do not serve as the source for all we know: cognition, imagination, memory, emotion, and culturally acquired knowledge interact with and amplify the senses. Nor do the senses completely make sense: they can be erroneous and limited, and, more importantly, they allow us to see the uniqueness, particularity and value of the things of this world in a way that has a pricelessly irrational element that transcends sense. Nabokov insists on individual perception, moreover, but he also has to admit, against his own grain, the social role of science and art in extending the scope of our understanding and appreciation of what we sense. Finally, although the senses are valuable and even invaluable for Nabokov, they do not make value. They can trap us in narrow standards of conventional beauty and curiosity. They can open us up to pain, discomfort, and disgust. And pride in sensory sensitivity and sensual energy often accompanies appalling insensitivities in Nabokov’s most memorable characters.
The Senses in Nabokov’s Thought and Work
Periodical or collection
Keynote at International Vladimir Nabokov Conference, Biarritz, 2016, and at Nabokov Society of Japan Annual Conference, 2018.
Also to appear in Marie Bouchet, Julie Loison-Charles and Isabelle Poulin, eds., The Five Senses in Nabokov's Work, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.