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 tale.”**
“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.”