“If only (literary immortality) is at stake, then, indeed, Plato was wrong and Nabokov, Heidegger, and Derrida are right. If you want to be remembered by future generations, go in for poetry rather than mathematics. If you want your books to be read rather than respectfully shrouded in tooled leather, you should try to produce tingles rather than truth. What we call common sense–the body of widely accepted truths–is, just as Heidegger and Nabokov thought, a collection of dead metaphors. Truths are the skeletons which remain after the capacity to arouse the senses–to cause tingles–has been rubbed off by familiarity and long usage…So if, like Euclid’s or Newton’s or J. S. Mill’s, your metaphors are socially useful and become literalized, you will be honored in the abstract and forgotten in the particular. You will have become a name and ceased to be a person. But if, like Catullus, Baudelaire, Derrida, and Nabokov, your works (only, or also) produce tingles, you have a chance of surviving as more than a name. You might be, like Landor and Donne, one of the people whom some future Yeats will hope to dine with, at journey’s end.”
–Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, Chapter 7, “Nabokov on Cruelty”
The Liberal Ironist recently finished reading Despair, a gripping novel by Vladimir Nabokov. A protagonist as utterly lacking in empathy or a capacity for self-assessment as Despair‘s Hermann is instructive by his very existence. Reading a narration in Hermann’s voice, I was often reminded of the old saying “All things look yellow to a jaundiced eye.” Hermann expresses almost no emotions besides an enervated sense that his surroundings yield some purpose for him that no one else can see, and simple contempt for others; his inability to see redeeming qualities in others and his lack of capacity for self-scrutiny are disturbing.
In Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, the book in which Richard Rorty gave this blog its namesake, he writes perceptively of Vladimir Nabokov–a writer of brilliant style and justified arrogance–that his greatest fear was that his own experience of aesthetic ecstasy could deafen him to the needs of others, leaving him callous or even cruel even while he experienced childlike wonder:
“…Nabokov would desperately like artistic gifts to be sufficient for moral virtue, but he knows that there is no connection between the contingent and selective curiosity of the autonomous artist and his father’s philosophical project–the creation of a world in which tenderness and kindness are the human norm. So he creates characters who are both ecstatic and cruel, noticing and heartless, poets who are only selectively curious, obsessives who are as sensitive as they are callous. What he fears most is that one cannot have it both ways–that there is no synthesis of ecstasy and kindness.” (p-160)
Nabokov presents Despair not as a novel of his own writing but as Hermann’s memoir of the commission of a great crime. (Hermann even depreciates Nabokov’s talents as a writer and expresses a lack of trust that the latter will allow him to take credit for his work.) Either way, the book opens with the phrase “If I were not perfectly sure of my power to write and of my marvelous ability to express ideas with the utmost grace and vividness…” Nothing in the pages that follow prompts us to doubt that this is true. Nabokov (or Hermann) has a marvelous capacity to capture the incidental beauty of poetry while always writing in prose. He crafts little images, anecdotes, asides, which give us strong impressions of people, of places, of fears…most of all, of our antihero Hermann himself. The anecdotes or recollections he gives us always seem incomplete, yet somehow they convey something concrete. As he continues in this meandering yet purposive way an “intelligent reader,” as Hermann himself calls him or her, may feel he has quite a clear picture of his guide in spite of the sometimes-fragmentary quality of this prose. Poetry.
I can recall the 1st time I didn’t like something Hermann had said. It was in Chapter One, as Hermann is startled to discover a vagabond who resembles him almost precisely–lying motionless in the grass during a long walk in the woods. At first Hermann suspects the man is dead and stares at him with morbid fascination; he is then disappointed to see him quicken and inhale, for
“we had identical features, and that, in a state of perfect repose, this resemblance was strikingly evident, and what is death, if not a face at peace–its artistic perfection? Life only marred my double; thus a breeze dims the bliss of Narcissus; thus, in the painter’s absence, there comes his pupil and by the superfluous flush of unbidden tints disfigures the portrait painted by the master.”
The principal question here, I think, is Who is this blissful Narcissus? It is Hermann, who in spite of being an otherwise reflexively worldly man, is so fascinated by the idea of another man closely-resembling himself that he professes to believe (owing to some unutterable sentiment) that the vagabond must have been put into the World for a reason. Immediately after this encounter Hermann insists to us on his powers of observation.
Hermann seeks to demonstrate these powers of observation with an audible contempt for the people whom are a part of his life, or at least should be: His wife is part-stooge and part-idiot, in his words about as efficient at mailing a letter as the nearest river. While she loves and trusts him truly, he is her partner only in the crassest sense. “…But probably the truth,” he admits without shame, “was that I loved her because she loved me. To her I was the ideal man: brains, pluck. And there was none dressed better…” His wife’s beloved cousin, an unsuccessful artist, is in his book a freeloader, an alcoholic, a hypocrite and a dreadful painter–nothing more. The family friend, Dr. Orlovius, is intelligent and friendly but unimaginative and inert. The vagabond (whom Hermann almost mystically takes for his doppelgänger) is, in our narrator’s eyes, an uncomplicated bum who isn’t even alert except at the prospect of a handout.
Shall we take our narrator’s word for all this? He is, after all, an unreliable narrator. I don’t say this because (being a gifted but pompous prose writer) he is sometimes ambivalent as to how to tell us his story. I don’t say it because he occasionally tells us things that aren’t true and then with a playful malevolence admits he has just fabricated something with equally-authoritative prose. I don’t even call him an unreliable narrator because, at his most-human, he frankly admits that the faculty of memory is always partial in what it remembers; he is after all doing his best because what happened is important to him.
Hermann is an unreliable narrator because other characters or authorities reject his account of events: He always remembers his own part as brilliantly-perceptive and sure-footed, while the understandings and actions of others are generally stupid or corrupt. The recollections and words of others–of which we have little the way Hermann either recalls or relates his story–are more-complicated than that.
As Rorty notes about Nabokov’s most-famous villains or antagonists, Hermann is marvelously, even beautifully observant–but only about idiosyncratic concerns or impressions. There is something tragic about a man who is both sensitive-enough to swear to an eerie sense that he recognized a sign in a stretch of woods he had ostensibly never traveled to before in his life, yet so insensitive that he is accustomed to sorting the people he knows into those aiming to take advantage of him and those too stupid ever to do so.
I have already leveled the charge of narcissism against Hermann, but on this account he is probably also a solipsist. He lets his own eerie perceptions dominate his grasp on reality. A sleeping vagabond presents to him, corpse-like, his own face; a trip to the woods with his wife and cousin leads to an encounter with mundane objects that seem transported; a meeting with his doppelgänger in a small town is interrupted by introspection as he begins to suspect that the town itself is composed of various structures he knew from his life in pre-Bolshevik St. Petersburg. And all the while Hermann remains assured of 3 talents which he seems to think make him autonomous from exigencies of circumstance and from the needs of other human beings–his powers of observation, his resources of literary expression, and his stroke of criminal genius.
In his chapter on Nabokov’s novels, Rorty concluded that “you cannot create a memorable character without thereby making a suggestion about how your reader should act.” (p-167) Nabokov insists on the amorality of his novels, arguing they should be read as ambitious works of literary expression rather than as moral fables. Rorty argues (and both on the strength of the evidence and my own inclination to this approach, I am inclined to agree) that Nabokov can’t really believe this however-consistently he protested it. Why are his most-famous narrators so often not merely despicable, but despicable in the eyes of the author? In his own foreword to the 2nd English translation, Nabokov says that “there is a green lane in Paradise where (Lolita narrator) Humbert is permitted to wander at dusk once a year; but Hell shall never parole Hermann.” In saying this Nabokov of course presents us grades of evil, which tells us a few things about his moral philosophy; he is not indifferent to how many harsh judgments in thought or cruelties in deed we recognize in Hermann or how we would wrestle with the difficulty of consenting to narration by a protagonist who was such a refined moral abomination.
Is Hermann insane? I would ask this question in earnestness to any other reader of Despair. His confidence in his own talents, his inability to see good in others, the strange familiarity of objects and settings around him, as though he were surrounded not by likenesses but transcendentals…All of this suggests (though such is merely suggested) that Hermann’s peculiar narrow-minded evil is in fact a product of delusion. Nabokov clearly feels some anxiety, as I quote Rorty observing above, that the blessings he loves the most–the power to make monumental-yet-private observations, and to express them, and to feel ecstasy when he expresses them–are available to evil people. Indeed, the way he writes his abnormal narrators suggests that he grappled with a fear that his own literary art was antisocial. But Nabokov’s angst at this recognition was a great source of creative inspiration for him; the expression of this ambivalence in granting his talents to cruel or evil characters may be both his story and his legacy. Those opportunities for kindness or teaching moments which his characters overlook, the totally selfish nature of their private goals, and the potential (as with Hermann) for their schemes to spiral out of control even when so painstakingly-laid, should give any thoughtful reader pause. I think it would be cowardly to discuss a book like Despair without addressing the existence of evil. Evil is as real as anything. You don’t have to believe in the supernatural to believe this: On my definition we are evil to the extent that we value the ideas in our head, whether philosophical or personal, more than human life. As a good ironist, I will say that moral philosophy owes a greater debt to writers like Nabokov for setting small incidents of evil alongside great ones in his narratives than it does to a political theorist like John Rawls for writing A Theory of Justice. We know that cold-blooded murder is evil, but what about seeing your unsuccessful-artist cousin as nothing more than a beggar? What about not taking your wife seriously? If the preceding poses no challenge to our values: What about never trusting anyone’s perspective other than your own? What is at stake in those times when we perceive that our friends want our confidence, and we deny them?
Evil exists. We risk it by both commission and omission–right there in the small stuff.