NABOKV-L post 0010590, Mon, 15 Nov 2004 11:48:01 -0800

Nabokov & existentialism

EDNOTE. By chance I ran across this summary of an old article of mine. Since it provides some context for the recent discussion on VN & existentialism, I run it here. A closer look at VN & Sartre may be found in volume one of NABOKOV STUDIES.
A Small Alpine Form: Studies in Nabokov's Short Fiction. - book reviews
Studies in Short Fiction, Wntr, 1995 by Frank Day

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The editors have collected here 16 essays by Nabokov scholars from all over the world. These short studies treat themes and motifs, sources and parallels, signs and symbols, and even "Science and Gnosticism in 'Lance.'" The other stories discussed directly are "Mest," "The Fight," "Terror," "A Busy Man," "Perfection," "A Christmas Story," "Spring in Fialta," "Mademoiselle O," "The Visit to the Museum," "Time and Ebb" and "A Guide to Berlin," "Signs and Symbols," and "Scenes from the Life of a Double Monster." All of these pieces are composed in straightforward language that eschews the jargon of reigning critical fashion, and all of them offer new insights into their subjects.

The longest of these studies, at 29 pages, is D. Barton Johnson's "'Terror': Pre-texts and Post-texts." Johnson identifies "Terror" (1926) as a psychological tale of a "vastation," a massive, instantaneous estrangement in which all people and things are perceived without the habitual human associations that give them meaning; the narrator suddenly sees the world "as it actually is," a sight that no mind can long withstand.

In the first section of "Terror" the nameless narrator experiences three harrowing episodes: failing to recognize himself in the mirror, waking at night in fear of death, and suddenly becoming terrified at the presence of his mistress. In the second section the poet-narrator is strolling through the streets of a foreign city when he is overcome by the strangeness of the mundane objects around him, a state of panic from which he recovers upon receiving a telegram that his lover is dying at home. The last segment finds the narrator at the bedside of his dying mistress, but his memories of her die when she dies, and, in Johnson's words, "he knows he will again be overwhelmed by existential terror, madness, and death." Johnson's statement of the story's central idea is convincing: "the mental devastation wrought by a direct perception of reality is held at bay by the simple human emotions that join us to others."

Johnson speculates that a significant pre-text of "Terror" may have been Tolstoy's 1884 story, "The Memoirs of a Madman," although there is no proof that Nabokov ever read it. Both tales are told by nameless narrators verging on madness; both narrators experience vastations while traveling away from home; and the number three is structurally significant in each. Another very possible influence on "Terror" is William James's analysis of vastation in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), which takes Tolstoy's experience as a major example of the phenomenon. James emphasizes the effort to imagine the world "as it exists," and Nabokov's narrator uses the same phrase three times. No direct evidence proves that Nabokov read James, but during his residence in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Nabokov became friendly with James's second son, William (Billy) James (1882-1961); and Nabokov once told Edmund Wilson that his - Nabokov's - father was a great admirer of James's writings and had Nabokov read James's works when he was only 12 or 13.

Johnson suspects that "Immanuel Kant may also be lurking in the existential underbrush" surrounding "Terror"; and he suggests that to see the world "as it exists" is "perhaps a case of Kant's famous Ding an sich," or the thing in itself, stripped of its shroud of sensory properties.

As for post-texts to "Terror," one famous example springs immediately to mind: Roquentin's awful vision of the chestnut tree roots in Jean-Paul Sartre's novel Nausea. Although Nabokov reviewed Nausea contemptuously, Johnson stresses that Roquentin's other experiences "parallel in substance (if not in artistry) those of Nabokov's hero."

Johnson concludes with a summary of three themes in "Terror" that anticipate later work by Nabokov: the madness that afflicts characters like Charles Kinbote and Herman Karlovich, the psychological doublings that recur prominently in The Eye and Ultima Thule, and the impossibility of describing the world "as it is" in ordinary language.

Johnson's close scrutiny of "Terror" is characteristic of the care that has gone into these useful essays, which contain much to influence all future discussions of the stories treated. I would have appreciated brief notes on the contributors.

FRANK DAY Clemson University