After coming across the information about Tolstoy’s influence over the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein*, I remembered a reference to Wittgenstein in “Transparent Things” [. "Raining in Wittenberg, but not in Wittgenstein." An obscure joke in Tralatitions. (91) ] and the importance of a town named Witt.  Would Nabokov have been acquainted only with the written works of Wittgenstein, or did he also know about Tolstoy’s important religious influence over Wittgenstein that affected his way of presenting ideas?

I remember, from VN’s Lecture on Tolstoy, that he considered Tolstoy’s writings, in spite of his  substitution of aesthetics by ethics, mysticism and moralistic messages, the product of his genius, with no impairment of his artistic dimension. Here are a few excerpts from his Lectures on Russian Literature:

“The ideological poisonbegan to affect the Russian novel in the middle of the last century, and has killed it by the middle of this one. It would seem at first glance that Tolstoy's fiction is heavily infected with his teachings. Actually, his ideology was so tame and so vague and so far from politics, and, on the other hand, his art was so powerful, so tiger bright, so original and universal that it easily transcends the sermon. In the long run what interested him as a thinker were Life and Death, and after all no artist can avoid treating these themes. [   ] Many people approach Tolstoy with mixed feelings. They love the artist in him and are intensely bored by the preacher [   ]Tolstoy is homogeneous, is one, and the struggle which, especially in the later years, went on between the man who gloated over the beauty of black earth, white flesh, blue snow, green fields, purple thunderclouds, and the man who maintained that fiction is sinful and art immoral — this struggle was still confined within the same man. Whether painting or preaching, Tolstoy was striving, in spite of all obstacles, to get at the truth. As the author of Anna Karenin, he used one method of discovering truth; in his sermons, he used another; but somehow, no matter how subtle his art was and no matter how dull some of his other attitudes were, truth which he was ponderously groping for or magically finding just around the corner, was always the same truth — this truth was he and this he was an art…It was not simply truth, not merely everyday pravda but immortal istina — not truth but the inner light of truth. When Tolstoy did happen to find it in himself, in the splendor of his creative imagination, then, almost unconsciously, he was on the right path. What does his tussle with the ruling Greek-Catholic Church matter, what importance do his ethical opinions have, in the light of this or that imaginative passage in any of his novels? …The intrusion of the teacher into the artist's domain is, as I have remarked already, not always clearly defined in Tolstoy's novels. The rhythm of the sermon is difficult to disentangle from the rhythm of this or that character's personal meditations. But sometimes, rather often in fact, when pages and pages follow which are definitely in the margin of the story, telling us what we ought to think, what Tolstoy thinks about war or marriage or agriculture — then the charm is broken and the delightful familiar people who had been sitting all round us, joining in our life, are now shut off from us, the door is locked not to be opened until the solemn author has quite, quite finished that ponderous period. [  ]Tolstoy advocated the loss of one's personality in this universal God-Love. He suggested, in other words, that in the personal struggle between the godless artist and the godly man the latter should better win if the synthetic man wishes to be happy. [  ] According to Tolstoy, mortal man, personal man, individual man, physical man, goes his physical way to nature's garbage can; according to Tolstoy, spiritual man returns to the cloudless region of universal God-Love, an abode of neutral bliss so dear to Oriental mystics. The Tolstoyan formula is: Ivan lived a bad life and since a bad life is nothing but the death of the soul, then Ivan lived a living death; and since beyond death is God's living light, then Ivan died into new Life — Life with a capital L [  ]  This story is Tolstoy's most artistic, most perfect, and most sophisticated achievement [   ] Egotism, falsity, hypocrisy, and above all automatism are the most important moments of life. This automatism puts people on the level of inanimate objects — and this is why inanimate objects also go into action and become characters in the story. Not symbols of this or that character, not attributes as in Gogol's work, but acting agents on a par with the human characters.

In these lectures there’s no way of assessing VN’s informed recognition of how Tolstoy’s mystic and didactic writings would be related to Wittgenstein and have become part of his philosophical explorations – and of V.Nabokov’s (albeit indirectly) as well !!!

With the always invaluable help of www search mechanisms I reached three articles relating Nabokov and Wittgenstein**. Particularly rich is Akiko Nakata’s /The Nabokovian 45 (2000): 48-53 “Wittgenstein Echoes in Transparent Things”

Excerpts: “In 1966, when he was asked by Alfred Appel, Jr. if he had been conscious of the similarities between the language of Zemblan and Wittgenstein's "private language," Nabokov declared his complete ignorance of Wittgenstein's works[   ] Nabokov must have had an opportunity to read Wittgenstein after the 1966 interview. In Transparent Things (1972, TT), we find some clues about his acquaintance with Wittgenstein's writings, especially Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus …The philosopher's name is actually referred to only once at the end of Ch. 23 of the novel, following the sentence which sounds like a parody of his propositions: “It was either raining or pretending to rain or not raining at all, yet still appearing to rain in a sense that only certain old Northern dialects can either express verbally or not express, but versionize, as it were, through the ghost of a sound produced by a drizzle in a haze of grateful rose shrubs. "Raining in Wittenberg, but not in Wittgenstein." An obscure joke in Tralatitions. (91) David Rampton explains the joke quoting "Can I say 'bububu' and mean 'if it doesn't rain I shall go for a walk'?" from Philosophical Investigations (1953; trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, 1963, 18e, PI) to treat the problem of the author whose creation depends for its meaning on how others understand it (David Rampton, A Critical Study of the Novels, 172-73). Brian Boyd makes a note to the complicated sentence concerning "raining" before the joke quoting a passage which includes "either raining or not raining" each from TLP and PI in his annotations to TT (Library of America, n. 814-15) [   ] It is stimulating that the philosopher often uses "raining" for the problem of information, especially because Hugh seems to fail to receive the message from the ghosts in the shape of rain in the same paragraph as well as in another one preceding it (W. W. Rowe, Nabokov's Spectral Dimension, 14). Besides, we can find some other references to Wittgenstein in the novel [  ] "Another thing we are not supposed to do is to explain the inexplicable" (93). It sounds as if this dictum were based on the famous conclusion of TLP: "What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence" (TLP, 7).[   ]… "It is generally assumed that if man were to establish the fact of survival after death, he would also solve, or be on the way to solving the riddle of Being. Alas, the two problems do not necessarily overlap or blend" (93). On reading this, one cannot help recalling the passage below:  “Not only is there no guarantee of the temporal immortality of the human soul, that is to say of its eternal survival after death; but, in any case, this assumption completely fails to accomplish the purpose for which it has always been intended. Or is some riddle solved by my surviving for ever? Is not this eternal life itself as much of a riddle as our present life? The solution of the riddle of life in space and time lies outside space and time. (TLP 6.4312)”The next VN sentence, extracted from Akiko Nakata’s paper, doesn’t refer to Tolstoy but it immediately brought to my mind the Russian novelist’s intention to blend the four gospels into one in “The Gospel in Brief” : “In his last letter, Mr. R. describes the condition of human soul in the face of death. Contrary to what he has believed, he does not feel the futility of what he has been particular about, but his sentiments have grown gigantic while all the universe has dwindled. He wishes to write a book, a new bible, about "the triple totality" - "total rejection of all religions ever dreamt up by man and total composure in the face of total death!" - but he cannot: "not merely because a dying man cannot write books but because that particular one would never express in one flash what can only be understood immediately" (84). We could hear again the echo from: "It is clear whatever we can say in advance about the form of all propositions, we must be able to say all at once "(TLP 5.47). 
She notes that: “ I have pointed out the rather superficial similarities between TT and TLP. I do not presume to clarify by them how Nabokov would estimate Wittgenstein's philosophy or how seriously he was influenced by it. I can only say that because TT is a novel that focuses on trespassing by words the boundaries between life and death, between spaces, times, or reality and writing, it is natural that Wittgenstein, who tried to prove the limitation of what he could explain in TLP, appears in it… We feel the strange inscrutability in Mr. R.'s last note which corresponds to the special brand of mysticism in TLP. In Tralatitions - another rare title - there may be hidden Tractatus as "a watermark" (70), although nothing is farther from Wittgenstein than Mr. R's "luxuriant and bastard" style (75).”  She concludes with: “Lastly, I would like to cite Wittgenstein's last sentences, which could suggest another example of similarity between Nabokov and Wittgenstein in treating rain in the matter of recognition. Two days before his death, Wittgenstein wrote his last note: "Someone who, dreaming, says 'I am dreaming', even if he speaks audibly in doing so, is no more right than if he said in his dream 'it is raining', while it was in fact raining. Even if his dream were actually connected with the noise of the rain" (On Certainty 1969; trans. Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe, para 676). Wittgenstein of course wrote it long after The Gift, and there is no record that he had read Nabokov at all. We know that this is nothing but a coincidence; however, it still allures us to read it as if it paraphrased the last paradoxical words by Alexander Chernyshevsky, who, on his deathbed, is deceived by the sound of dropping water from the flower pots on the upstairs balcony under the cloudless sky. "
'Of course there is nothing afterwards.' He sighed, listened to the trickling and drumming outside the window and repeated with extreme distinctness: 'There is nothing. It is as clear as the fact that it is raining'" (The Gift, 312). Akiko Nakata, Nanzan Junior College, Japan.

V.Nabokov’s emphasis on connections and links represents his particular beliefs but they are also found in Wittgenstein’s valuing “relations” over “things” opening onto a new dimension that lies out of space and time.

In VN’s commentaries to Tolstoy’s “The death of Ivan Ilych”  we may accept that there are indirect echoes of Wittgenstein and of his own novels, such as “TT”, “The Gift”, the “Vane Sisters”… 


My intention here is to bring up information that has been only superficially gleaned and placed side by side. It must be explored further by those for whom Wittgenstein and Tolstoy are more than mere appendixes to V. Nabokov’s writings ( I mean, are more than automatic, pictorial “things”) .


*From The Philosopher, Volume  LXXXIX  Wittgenstein, Tolstoy and the The Gospel in Brief, Bill Schardt and David Large: excerpts “There are some striking parallels between Wittgenstein's life and that of Tolstoy. Both were born into extremely rich families, yet both subsequently gave their property away, and tried to live simple and humble lives. Both valued manual labour as something spiritually uplifting. Both underwent some sort of religious conversion to a form of Christianity. Yet neither, despite their evident high-mindedness, seems to have treated other people particularly well! And Tolstoy's religious writings, such as the Gospel in Brief and A Confession, clearly had an enormous influence on Wittgenstein especially at the time he was writing the Tractatus. Strange then that so few commentators have even acknowledged, let alone attempted to account for, Tolstoy's influence on Wittgenstein's philosophy. view of ethics.” Wittgenstein,Tolstoy and the Folly of Logical Positivism Stuart Greenstreet explains how analytical philosophy got into a mess. (excerpts)“In September 1914, Wittgenstein, off duty, visited the town of Tarnow, then in Austrian Galicia, now in southern Poland, where he went into a small shop that seemed to sell nothing but picture postcards. However, as Bertrand Russell later wrote in a letter, Wittgenstein “found that it contained just one book: [of] Tolstoy on the Gospels. He bought it merely because there was no other. He read it and re-read it, and thenceforth had it always with him, under fire and at all times.” No wonder, then, that Wittgenstein became known to his fellow soldiers as ‘the one with the Gospels’. Tolstoy’s book, however, is a singleGospel: hence its name: The Gospel in Brief. It is, as Tolstoy himself says in his Preface, “a fusion of the four Gospels into one.” Tolstoy had distilled the four biblical accounts of Christ’s life and teaching into a compelling story. Wittgenstein was so profoundly moved by it that he doubted whether the actual Gospels could possibly be better than Tolstoy’s synthesis. “If you are not acquainted with it,” he told his friend Ludwig von Ficker, “then you cannot imagine what effect it can have on a person.” It implanted a Christian faith in Wittgenstein. Before going on night-duty at the observation post, he wrote: “Perhaps the nearness of death will bring me the light of life. May God enlighten me. Through God I will become a man. God be with me. Amen.”//Now about the Tractatus. In March 1919, when Wittgenstein was still captive in Italy, he wrote to Bertrand Russell asking him to come to see him at his prison camp, now at Cassino. He said that he had written down the results of five years work in the form of a treatise. Although it was impossible for Russell to go, Wittgenstein managed to send him the manuscript. With Russell’s help – which crucially included writing an Introduction – the Tractatus was published in England in 1922, with the German text facing an English translation.Put simply, Wittgenstein’s leading idea in the Tractatus was that propositions – that is, statements asserting facts, such as ‘it is raining’ – are a picture of what they describe. This is Wittgenstein’s ‘Picture Theory of Language’, or as he himself called it, his ‘Theory of Logical Portrayal’: “We can say straight away: Instead of: this proposition has such and such a sense: this proposition represents such and such a situation. It portrays it logically. Only in this way can the proposition be true or false: It can only agree or disagree with reality by being a picture of a situation” (Notebooks p.8).//He added later:“The great problem round which everything I write turns is: Is there an order in the world a priori, and if so what does it consist in?” (Notebooks p.53).By “an order in the world a priori,” Wittgenstein meant an order that we could know to exist in the world without reference to our experience of the world. He felt forced to conclude that there is such an order, for it is this order that is pictured or logically portrayed by the relations between the symbols of a proposition./We don’t need to pursue this mysterious idea because Wittgenstein himself later rejected the Picture Theory as a huge over-simplification of how language works. In his Preface to his Philosophical Investigations published thirty-one years later in 1953 (two years after his death), he admitted that “since beginning to occupy myself with philosophy again, sixteen years ago, I have been forced to recognize great mistakes in what I wrote in the first book” (i.e., the Tractatus). In the Philosophical Investigations he argued virtually opposite to what he had claimed in the Tractatus: he now recognised that language is a vast collection of different activities, which he called ‘language games’, each with its own logic.

**'Three Grades of Evil': Nabokov, Wittgenstein and the Perils of Treaty Interpretation “ by Alessandra Asteriti, 2014:14, Conference Paper No. 1/2014 Abstract:      

The article investigates the interpretative practice of investment tribunals in the light of Wittgenstein's theory on rule following and usage, to advance the hypothesis that arbitral tribunals run the risk to interpret the language of the treaties so as to effect a deracination of their terms. In order to do so, the article employs Vladimir Nabokov's reflections on the perils of translation, contextually arguing that the incorporation in investment treaties of language developed in specific domestic frameworks (i.e. United States' constitutional jurisprudence) is an example of semantic hegemony accompanied by hermeneutic conformity on the part of tribunals. Suggested Citation  Asteriti, Alessandra, 'Three Grades of Evil': Nabokov, Wittgenstein and the Perils of Treaty Interpretation (September 4, 2014). EUROPEAN SOCIETY OF INTERNATIONAL LAW, 10th Anniversary Conference, Vienna, 4-6 September 2014, Conference Paper No. 1/2014. Available at SRN: or



 October 2015 - Volume 90, Issue 04  “Speaking for Oneself: Wittgenstein, Nabokov and Sartre on How (Not) to Be a Philistine,” by Benjamin De Mesel. Abstract• The aim of this article is twofold. First, I want to offer an introduction of and a comparison between three accounts of philistinism. Secondly, I show how the phenomenon of philistinism, a failure to speak for oneself, helps to develop an original perspective on Wittgenstein's moral thought. It is often claimed that Wittgenstein's personal ethics were quite unorthodox because he repeatedly seems to have supported destruction, war and slavery. I argue that, in the light of my discussion of philistinism, the remarks upon which such conclusions are based should be read differently.”


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