Nabokov called his 1935 story of existential imprisonment, Invitation to a Beheading, his most "poetical" work of fiction. This article unpacks that statement, with its subtle conflation of the poetic and the political—two semantic registers Nabokov deemed utterly incompatible. Indeed, Invitation is about that incompatibility, this study contends. More specifically, the article locates a concrete point of conflict in the contrasting ways oral and written language operate in the novel. In doing so, it inserts Nabokov into an age-old debate, initiated by Plato, over the two communicative modes' relationships to truth and their ability to articulate the authentic self. Speech has traditionally been championed in this debate as an unmediated utterance. Invitation, however, makes a vivid and visceral claim for the expressive capacity of the written word. Conventional in form, superficial in content, and meant for swift social exchange, speech is, in Invitation's nightmare world, the medium of Cincinnatus' persecutors. Unintelligible to the homogenous crowd, Cincinnatus only finds his "voice" on the pages of the diary he drafts with pencil and paper. The language of that diary is primordial and decidedly poetic. His text also has a peculiar texture, as Cincinnatus becomes (to quote Montaigne) the very substance of his book. Evincing these lingual values, Nabokov lands in the company of later poststructruralist thinkers, whose theories likewise problematize speech to instead champion a graphocentric mode of embodied, poetic self writing as the height of individual expression. First tracing a shared theoretical genealogy in Henri Bergson's philosophy, this paper thus ultimately reads the novel as a creative anticipation of the future intertexts, especially those of Jacques Derrida. It was the deconstructionist provocateur who most explicitly upended Plato and asserted the primacy and power of the written utterance. Derrida did so, moreover, in imagery and metaphors that resonate in sometimes uncanny harmony with Invitation's visual and verbal rhetoric.
Cincinnatus' Pharmacy: Invitation to a Beheading & Poststructuralist Graphocentrism
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