NABOKV-L post 0010842, Sun, 19 Dec 2004 18:50:43 -0800

Fwd: Signs and Symbols: the reliability of the narrator again

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Date: Sun, 19 Dec 2004 21:11:40 EST

Further to my earlier note deploring the general acceptance of the narrator's
and the parents' acceptance of the medical view of the son, and suggesting
that VN himself should be distinguished from the narrator, I should like to add
a few remarks.

It's true that VN does write to his publisher ("The New Yorker") at one point
about their having published some years earlier his story about "the Jewish
couple and their sick boy". And, as I mentioned, he says in his critique of
"Crime and Punishment" that Raskolnikov should first of all be "medically
examined". But that is in the context of his dislike and distrust of Dostoevski:
whole point is that Raskolnikov is a "filthy murderer", morally responsible,
and that Dostoevski's implicit equation of his evil crime with the relatively
minor "impairment to human dignity" of the prostitute Sonia's profession is
contemptible, making the book absurd. VN is disgusted that D is making R's
"filthy" crime almost "normal": hence his saying he should be "medically
just to emphasize how crazy and despicable R's rationalisations of his crime
are. I suspect that, if pushed, VN would agree that this is not a medical
matter at all.

After all, VN is renowned for his magnificent opposition to psychoanalysis.

It seems to me that he would hate the reader of "Signs and Symbols" to settle

<< the doctor's words...  What he really wanted to do was to tear a hole in
his world and escape >>

or for

<< The system of his delusions had been the subject of an elaborate paper in
a scientific monthly, but long before that she and her husband had puzzled it
out for themselves. "Referential mania," Herman Brink had called it. In these
very rare cases the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a
veiled reference to his personality and existence. He excludes real people
from the conspiracy-because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent
than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the
staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly
detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at
in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun
flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must
intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme. Some of the
spies are detached observers, such are glass surfaces and still pools; others,
such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart;
others again (running water, storms) are hysterical to the point of insanity,
have a distorted opinion of him and grotesquely misinterpret his actions. He
must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the
decoding of the undulation of things. The very air he exhales is indexed and
filed away. If only the interest he provokes were limited to his immediate
surroundings-but alas it is not! With distance the torrents of wild scandal
in volume and volubility. The silhouettes of his blood corpuscles, magnified a
million times, flit over vast plains; and still farther, great mountains of
unbearable solidity and height sum up in terms of granite and groaning firs the
ultimate truth of his being. >>

The particular young man now becomes merely one of "these very rare cases",
where "the patient" imagines etc. etc. The mother and the narrator, bewitched
by the doctor's account, or even by what the mother and father have "puzzled
out" for themselves, have replaced the actual, individual son by these
generalisations. It is they who now purport to "sum up" the "ultimate truth of
being", so that he is predictably, totally, a hopeless "case".

But VN is all for the particular, unique individual; he hates generalisation.

The parents in the story at first "stubbornly regarded" "those little phobias
of his" "as the eccentricities of a prodigiously gifted child". But then they
seem to have succumbed, as parents tend despairingly to do, to the
totalising, closed, dehumanising language of the doctors.

VN's challenge to us, as readers, is to be "good readers" and "re-readers".
That means, surely, not to fall, ourselves, for this dehumanising language,
this closed, pseudo-scientific psychiatric system.

If we are able to resist this, then we can see that it is only from such a
dehumanised, despairing position that it does not occur to us that the third
telephone call may be from the boy himself. How ridiculous that the only way
an intelligent reader as Alexander Dolinin can envisage a happy end, a way
out, is by having the son kill himself and then effect a posthumous
reconciliation with his parents!

But if the (living) father can decide "To the devil with doctors!", why not
the (living) son?

Obviously, there is no such thing as "what really happened" in the story. I'm
just talking about the range of possibilities that people appear open (and
closed) to.

Anthony Stadlen

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