Ooh la la, Vladimir!

Ooh la la, Vladimir!

Looking over my copy of Lectures on Literature, particularly the chapter on Madame Bovary, I see an image of a page from one of his copies of Flaubert’s book and am struck by the chaos of his “glosses.” When he does not agree, for example, with the way a certain word has been translated (and he was fluent in French), he simply blots it out and corrects it.

His relationship with the text was an active one; he was what to many post-structuralists would have been the perfect reader, a Barthesian reader-writer whose text in front of him is rewritten as he reads. He was, in a sense, much like the Medieval commentators who scrutinized and speculated, sometimes mystically, over a simple letter, a tense, the prosody of a line, an allusion, a number, over any and all detail in a church father’s or pagan philosopher’s text. Entire volumes like Boethius’s commentaries or Duns Scotus’s were disentangled out of only syllables in Porphyry and Peter the Lombard, respectively.

Nabokov labors with similar compulsion. Nevertheless, his texts are fantasies, mockeries and facades of history, of poetry, all of which, as I mentioned in my previous post, contain elements of humanity, but which corrode in a dangerous ecology where incest, pedophilia, disjointed urbanity, and a little ego-centric weirdness seem to thrive. His words and worlds entrance with their puzzles, their butterflies, their dancing, their hedonism; but leave us naked when we, while in search for that cavernous warmth found only in literature, realize that Nabokov’s pink wallpapers do not protect against the cold. And all of this is heartbreaking, for his capacity to capture the manifestations of loss, be they of country or lover, is second to none. I defer to the following quote from Pnin:

“In order to exist rationally, Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to remember Mira Belochkin—not because, in itself, the evocation of a youthful love affair, banal and brief, threatened his peace of mind. . .but because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.”  (134-5, Vintage)         

Mira Belochkin was captured and killed by the Nazis. Her image, through a squirrel, haunts this novel as it haunts the mind of the protagonist like an irreconcilable and old, lived-with heartache. It almost has no place in the academic world of funny, hapless Pnin, his emigré magazines, Russian valises, listless students, and bureaucratic professors, and yet, such is life.

All in all, however, I admire the technicality of his work, and I would have let the opinion of an author be as yet another route in the seas of creative expression. In fact, far be it from me to prescribe what good art is (personal experience has shown that at best, when challenged, people will not listen and at worst, you will lose friends—so to each their own!), but I will criticize what I consider potentially stultifying and dangerous perspectives.

Returning to his Lectures, I give here his passage on Madame Bovary:

“But do not ask whether a poem or a novel is true. Let us not kid ourselves; let us remember that literature is of no practical value whatsoever, except in the very special case of somebody’s wishing to become, of all things, a professor of literature. The girl Emma Bovary never existed: the book Madame Bovary shall exist forever and ever. A book lives longer than a girl.” (125, Harcourt)   

What to make of this? Is a book truly impractical?

Below are more fragments:

“A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me.” (Strong Opinions, 33, Vintage)

“To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature.” (Lectures, 5)

“Style and structure are the essence of a book, great ideas are hogwash.” (Strong Opinions, xiii, quoted by John Updike’s wife)

“Great novels are great fairy tales.” (Lectures, 2)

“Literature was born on the day when a boy came crying wolf, wolf and there was no wolf behind him.” (Lectures, 5)

It seems to me that related to his disinclination with making novels “practical” is his distaste for Ideas. Now, one would not need to read his autobiography entirely to guess that this distaste (he despised Dostoevsky and Mann and thought nothing of his contemporary existentialists) was likely due to personal experience. He was, for all intents and purposes, a refugee having fled Russia not long after the Bolshevik Revolution, which he calls ever so giddily and, in my opinion, deliciously, “that trite deus ex machina” (Speak, Memory, 229 Vintage). And how could we blame him when the sleeping nymphs and playful, unicycling bears of his Petersburgian romances were black-bagged and show-trialled in the courts of peasants and laborers, executed and starved by socialist realism and five-year plans? I think his distaste for Ideas and by a reverse metonymy, the One Red Idea, must have translated into an aesthetic outlook that released him from thinking writing in general has no moral responsibilities to the human condition. And this shows up pervasively throughout his work: just see how he refers to other Russians his characters meet along the way, particularly those that concern themselves with the politics of their native land.

Much has already been talked about our own “postmodern condition” and about how the humanities are mired in a swamp of cynicism. Perhaps, if one were to see our modern world today, which the media is now saying is a “post-truth” society (just as some author declared post-2008 America was post-racial… What is with people calling everything post- now? Does it not sound like a profound lack of academic and cultural creativity?), there may be something to be said about a relationship between this literature of irresponsibility and the gaping skepticism in the humanities. It is a scintillating question that is far beyond our current topic, but I venture to say, and to argue, that no work of fiction is pure fantasy, that though Nabokov may be arguing from a point of view in which the “practical” is what simply deposits money into your bank account, he cannot reduce the importance of literature for the social individual to a mere educated fancy. Like religion, which does not put money into your bank account (in fact, it may take it), literature can offer a means of making the dark days ahead more bearable, it can inspire, and set an entire people in motion; it can give meaning to the practical. Yes, it is no “practical” thing—a screwdriver is a practical thing—but it, and poetry and theatre and every time a pen landed on paper, is the patrimony of civilization. And a civilization is not one person.  




I woke to a stone Irish cross each morning. It stood stark against silver skies, and because it was on the higher bank of the Lee from my perspective against the coursing clouds, it seemed to mark the passage of time like the hand of a grand Celtic clock. Over time, brief seconds of contemplation coagulated into minutes and these into hours, so that now, as I remember its silence on its high bank, I realize that its rigid, stony eternity is the impressed residue of my memory’s elisions. Like the paperweight on your desk which has lied there unused for months delicately impressing its permanence onto your mind and which thus extends its age and the age of your desk through its soft, continuous presence, in effect becoming the first item you recall when you remember you’ve forgotten your pen in a cabinet by your desk—like this paperweight, that high cross on the Lee is what I see when I think of Cork.

Corcaigh. Its beauty was in the sheer severity of its weather, not in its extremity: it was in the darkness of early winter evenings, in the sharpness of the morning sleet. I said to myself, it is worth suffering here. Suffering here is beautiful. The cold would dissipate each morning with my coffee and can of beans; I’d see my face in the mirror wear away with blemishes from lack of sunlight, all the while I wrote and rewrote nonsense with puzzles and riddles, theories and philosophies unhooked from the conveyors of the canon in an effort to lend relevance to my words, to be part of the Western legacy, to betray the inescapable reality that hues my skin: that I, like my parents and theirs, am a bastard son of the cassava root and the conquistador’s cross, that I am etched into a lineage of oppressors and oppressed. I felt past-less.

I made it, somehow, to Ireland, where I spent much of my time alone with my creative pursuits. Only the cross on the other bank seemed to prod me into duty. It was my company, my reminder that there were things that measured time in centuries instead of hours, and that these vicissitudes were nothing when the creative euphoria was itself timeless and immortal. In the midst of hunger and thinning cheeks, of pale faces and dark skies, the exigencies of my own stringent artistic standards gave way to the simple but irrepressible desire to Be, to let my whole self be taken over by expression and act. It was almost as if all I had known about art was a misty glass behind which shone the light of Ideal Beauty, and it had now been cleared by the consciousness that I was trapped in a room with nothing but hunger and paper. I began to write each sentence to appease myself alone; I let each word distract me till darkness came again and it was time to sleep.

And it was by virtue of my self-sequestration, by virtue of that gray cross, and of Ireland herself, whose emerald hills are studded with monasteries and primordial ruins, that I, like Balzac, began to see myself as a monk, to imagine myself tonsured and bent over a grand desk in a scriptorium, copying Peter the Lombard or reading Aquinas, illuminating the Gospels with fingers dipped in gold leaf and black ink, knotting the sharp ends of quills for hours and hours into galaxies inside the letters of the Bible. I read Augustine, the Pseudo-Dionysius, Boethius, John Scotus Eriugena, Bonaventure, Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Julian of Norwich, Margery Kempe, Hildegard of Bingen; and I could see them all arched in ecstasy over sheets of mystical and philosophic speculation, arguing volumes upon volumes about the intellectual nature of angels, their hierarchies, the attributes of God, the nature of divine illumination, and the characters of the active and the passive intellects: nonsense, all nonsense, now, but beautiful nonsense.

I was impressed by the aesthetic of their devotion, by that form of sensation which sprung directly from the spirit, as if the soul, like the ear or eye, had been an organ with which to perceive the world. And this aesthetic, like an obsession, manifested itself in a uniquely medieval way.  If one looks at the Cathedrals in Chartres or Salisbury, what strikes one immediately is the tyranny of detail: bodies of classical philosophers carved into archivolts, Gospels arched into the tympana, painted glasswork hoisted onto clerestories by lancet windows, tinted light piercing the dark solemnity of the nave. Similarly, the Summa Theologiae of Aquinas is a written brickwork of questions, disputations, refutations and conclusions. It is, largely, as scholars have pointed out, the “synthesis” of church doctrine with Aristotelian philosophy, the largest and most comprehensive treatment of Catholicism since Augustine. It is exhaustively dense and, like the cathedrals, whose disparate details coalesce into one static magnificence, the Summa, at its most haphazard, emerges as a grand unity, a System of thought.

What is interesting is that for all this theology and for all the religious miasma which permeates through the city and even shows up in the names of pubs in Cork (The Franciscan Well, the Friary) I never felt “closer to God.” On the contrary, the more I read these clerics’ works, the more it seemed to me that they were trying to convince themselves. Each new idea, each new disagreement, was just redefinition of God, a orbital circumnavigation of a still ill-defined identity, and I felt as if they were trying to make this “supra-Essential” entity come into some starker relief through a voluminous set of rules. I even came to the conclusion that the God I was once taught to worship had been written into being by these men, that they created Him and not vice versa; that, had they not, God would have remained the Flaming Bush, the Water Walker, a crucified man lifted into the sky ready to let fall the gavels: a myth, essentially, a moral fable. In a sense, the religious aspect of my experience with these texts felt very much like walking directly into the eye of the hurricane: the closer I got to the epicenter of the theological storm, the stronger the force of persuasion. But once inside the eye, it all became one sunny void.

It was the merit of their labor that invigorated me. Imagine: for these men and women, to write about God was a privilege—a dangerous privilege due to the risk of heresy. An ambiguous or too ambitious a statement could be condemned as unorthodox and lead its utterer into ruin (poor John Scotus got the wrong end of Gregory XIII’s ferula, and Peter Abelard was hounded by St. Bernard himself). But for them, as good Christians (one would hope) it also meant an opportunity to reveal or clarify the avenues of salvation. Their duty had physical and spiritual ramifications, and it was here that I connected: before theologians, they were artists.

They were creators. Fear and love fused in their work. I was struck by its seriousness, by how intrinsically tied it was to their own lives, by how far they were willing to risk their salvation to be the first to catch yet another jealous side of God’s face. It reminded me of Joyce and the wilful poverty he paid for his novel. It reminded me of Milton and his blindness. That old romanticizing of the hungry artist came to me again…

The money I had taken to Ireland, which I had portioned out before the trip with a compulsive, miserly precision, had been stolen in such a ridiculous way that it is not worth describing here. It was my own carelessness and my own need that together made me an easy target for a scamming. The last months of the year I had to ration with what little I had left to the point that there were entire weeks where I ate nothing but baked beans, cheese, and bread (which, luckily, scientists in England had said would not allow a human to go undernourished though the same human might experience some fecal discomfort—something to which I’d testify). And this would have been unbearable had I not had the pressures of my writing to give me purpose. Thankfully I closed the year by finishing a book, though, looking back on it, I think it is a fetal, underdeveloped mass.

Five pounds of meat lighter (which for my body structure was a new experience) and after a newfound misanthropic outlook on life (most likely spawned by the doomsday political cavalcade of American election idiocy),  my work, with all poetic irony, had found its oxygen in the land where the suffering is beautiful, where the gloom of pale embers in the hearths of small stone houses becomes poetry, where the murky rivers which nourish the cities with dreams and legends flow out of boggy tears, where the sea punishes the carcasses of old giants and stone heroes with cold arctic lashes. And yes, I think I’d endure again that cold, that loneliness, that madness; I’d sink and freeze, I’d trap myself like Satan in a lake of ice to write again from the depths of such dark glory.

Now, I find myself in dangerous sunshine; I hear the belligerent courtship of mosquitoes near my ears, and the peeping of the summer’s last ducklings by the lake’s shores. This evening the clouds will be gold and red. Chicken-feet lightning at night. The lake welcomes old northern visitors. And everything feels soft and hot, white and red. No stone cross in silver. Only palms over the mirage.



October 2016



Twilit Zones

Twilit Zones

A man strapped to a chair rocks in a corner. Another dreams a man into life in a circular temple. Another loses himself in a poem’s commentary. Wonder, paradox, and aesthetic obsession.

One can almost see them writing these stories in the dark. Or better yet, under some sort of crepuscular light: Beckett in London squalor, Borges in a library on the verge of closing, and Nabokov hunched over a toilet tank before his breakfast.

Shadows and gloom don’t quite describe their work. Nor does the word “surreal.” For all the fantasy and symbolistic phantasmagoria, there is something remarkably familiar about it all, an unheimlich quality which tastes of what I would call the crepuscular states of being. The day-dream, the exhaustion, the longing. The tiresome, extended, and often victorious in-betweenness of experience.

Is it any wonder that these authors are often grouped together as either the lasts of modernism or the firsts of postmodernism? Do they hail a bright dawn or a deep night?

I don’t know. Who can know?

The only present is that of their eternal twilight. A present into which world war, social unrest, and Coca-Cola capitalism filtered insidiously, never overtly. Beckett’s Endgame smells like a nuclear blast. Nabokov’s Lolita like strawberry milk in an old American gas station. And Borges is beyond smell.

If Joyce and Woolf and Musil and Eliot and Pound and Stein were the flexing muscles of a new literary era, these three men are that lactic soreness left over when the gates of Auschwitz and Sobibor were opened to the eyes of the world. As Adorno said, “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch.

Loss. There is so much loss in a day-dream. Or is there too much gain? Is it any wonder Nabokov relinquished a moral dimension to his work? Should we believe him when his characters die of heartbreak? Beckett called himself impotent in light of Joyce’s omnipotence, and yet his plays are black waltzes of torrential meaning. And Borges speaks from the beyond, from realms distorted, stuck in the refractions and reflections of our world.

The world of ideas is wonderful, I think. It truly is. These apostates knew it. It helped their erudition. Between savage mockery (or as the learned ones will diplomatically remind us, Satire) and a eunuch’s obeisance, they teeter between love and skepticism, tickling Schopenhauer’s tender toes on one side or pinching Hume’s cheeks on the other, loving them insofar as they were stimulated by them.

And again, it’s all in-betweenness. It’s all the sunset (or sunrise, depending on your personal disposition or melancholic nature [it’s all you, after all]) colors shining on their work. Better read them fast before the light runs out.