Thursday, October 08, 2009

Ramifying into life

Dan Green, his country's most durable defender of the merely literary, has some tough things to say about Ron Rosenbaum's response to Vladimir Nabokov's The Original of Laura.
It expresses more interest in the "process of creation" than the creation itself. [...]
Rosenbaum makes this more or less plain when he suggests that "Encrypted within [Nabokov's] words, encoded indecipherably, ambiguously, is the equivalent of the secret of lightning. Something akin to the secret code of higher human consciousness, the DNA, the genome of genius." I have difficulty believing Nabokov himself would have had much patience with this sort of pomposity. He made fun, in his work, of the notion of "codes" ("Signs and Symbols," Pale Fire) and he was always critical of interpretation that wandered outside the text itself, into biography or psychology or "intention." "Higher human consciousness" was not the subject of Nabokov's books, encrypted or not. The manipulation of language in aesthetically pleasing ways was his concern.
While I agree with everything Dan says, the final sentence waved a red flag at me: "The manipulation of language in aesthetically pleasing ways was his concern." Moving closer, I think it's clearer why it stands out.

If Nabokov warned against biography, psychology and intention, then his particular concern for language should be of no undue concern to his readers. Instead, we must attend to what appears before us and examine how, if at all, this concern manifests inside the text. Dan writes that Nabokov "made fun" of codes in Signs and Symbols, a story of two parents' relationship with their grown-up son. Here's the opening paragraph:
For the fourth time in as many years they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to bring a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind. He had no desires. Man-made objects were to him either hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in his abstract world. After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him or frighten him (anything in the gadget line for instance was taboo), his parents chose a dainty and innocent trifle: a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars.
There's already something comic about fruit jellies in such a scenario, and something pathetic about the son who, like a zealot obsessed with scripture, sees signs and symbols where there are none, or at least not as many as he suspects. But isn't this as horrible and disastrous as it is anything else, such as fun? Pleasure in the story comes from the tension evoked by the distance between text and reality; yes, an aesthetic pleasure. Only it's more than that. It ramifies into life. We are, like the son, condemned to interpret. After you read the final line, the next ringing phone will not be the same.

What this leads to is awareness of the ambiguity and ambivalence of reading. An awareness that enables Nabokov the writer to exceed his reputation as merely a beautiful prose stylist. The tragedy recurs when Humbert Humbert cries out in his prison cell: "Oh my Lolita, I have only words to play with". This is more than making fun of a criminal; it traces the tragic in writing – a tragedy that is tragic inasmuch as it is indistinguishable from fun. Humbert writes his memoir in such ornate language that only the most literal-minded reader (most probably the one more interested in the bedroom scenes than the story) can fail to realise that what is before him are words, and words alone.

So why is this – no pun intended – significant for reading and writing? What Dan's righteous take down of Rosenbaum emphasises for me is the absence of the disastrous in contemporary US literature, the disaster that ramifies out of fun or beauty and into life. At present US literary culture appears to be one in which gushing pieces that grab the most convenient alibi for discussing literature can guarantee themselves the front pages and the ability to set the literary agenda. (In this way it is identical to Britain). There seems to be a huge gulf between say, on the one hand, the studiously pitched levity of Steven Augustine's comment to Dan's post and, on the other, David Foster Wallace's suicide note, yet very little in-between. Tao Lin's novel Eeeee eee eeee, for example, may be an exception to the rule.


  1. Anonymous9:40 pm

    I agree. Nabokov is inspired by images and mysteries, and devises plots to express them; he is far more than a manipulator of language.

  2. Anonymous12:08 am

    "he is far more than a manipulator of language"

    The problem with comments like this--another version of "he's more than merely literary"--is that it suggests that being a "manipulator of language" is an inferior status compared to... whatever else a writer like Nabokov might be. Language is all we've got. To be called a master manipulator of language ought to be an overwhelming ambition for any writer who takes writing seriously.

  3. Again, I agree Dan that the suggestion should be countered even if it is only a suggestion. Still the issue is that having only language is never enough and *never enough* is not a comfortable position. So much more is suggested. However absurd it is to strive to go beyond language, and however much the more rational among us like to point it out, the literature that stays with us stays because it moves us beyond stoic playfulness.

  4. Anonymous5:59 pm

    Noggs (Dan Green): The trouble is you quoted only the second half of my comment: I did say what Nabokov is, beyond being a manipulator of language--which he also is. The point is that language is not his source of inspiration, no matter what formal artistry he achieves. Plus it is not his end achievement. Content of the sort Stephen is talking about, "ramifying into life" is Nabokov's source, and what he hopes to develop. His imagery, analogy making, and his narratives that make complete fictional universes, are to me more impressive, and meaningful, than his strategic word play, which from my point of view is often arch and dated.

    It is not a compliment to a writer to applaud him for only one aspect of his writing. Particularly when that is his style. How common a method is it for critics who do not understand an author--to praise their writing skills in precisely this way, as if it were the chief"ambition" of a "serious" writer.

  5. Anonymous8:55 pm


    By "language" I don't mean just "strategic word play." I also mean imagery, analogy making, and narratives that make complete fictional universes. These are all functions of language. Language has to be the writers's source of inspiration because, as I said, before, language is all we've got.

    Dan Green

  6. Anonymous11:12 pm

    "Language is all we've got"? This sounds like despair. Or the old saw of a tired critic. I don't know who this "we" is. The elements of content I list are not "functions of language", but language functions to make them real, and usually functions to only make them partially real. Do you have some quarrel with the relationship that dynamic between THOUGHT and language? Language alone is quite inert.

    Do you also believe that the chief function of writers is to "communicate"?

  7. Anonymous3:14 am

    Imagery is composed of language. Analogies are made in language. Fictional worlds are created out of language. You may be tricked by the "manipulator of language" into thinking these things are real, something you want to call "content," but they are the effects of language.

  8. Perhaps, but why bother?

  9. Anonymous2:17 am

    Spoken like a true critic, Dan Green. I will not disturb your cozy, claustrophobic view of literature any further.



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