NABOKV-L post 0010843, Sun, 19 Dec 2004 18:52:36 -0800

Fwd: RE: Re: Signs and Symbols: Soloveichik

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Date: Sat, 18 Dec 2004 21:22:25 -0500
From: George Shimanovich <>

What makes readers so certain that the young man could not have been
uncertain in his "suicide attempts"?

The crab apple jar does the trick. I can't imagine that the reality of young
man's call deserves the biblical symbol of knowledge. Parents had no clue
what was happening to their son. His call from the hospital would trivialize
their misconception.

Coming back to Soloveichik from Minsk, Byelorussia. Let us pause where Dr.
Brink appears. The search of story's inanimate symbols resists passing that
Doctor because such approach excludes people perished in Holocaust. I tend
to think that 'created' signs of the story (including some of numerical
devices outlined in Mr. Dolinin paper) serve as elaborate smoke screen to
demonstrate futility of observer's efforts to decipher symbols. Same destiny
awaits any notion of modern "correctness" that we be inclined to use to
understand Yiddishkeit of the story's past. It may be impossible to go
beyond that brink without loosing balance (I love that Doctor). But we can
approach it. We cannot understand the young man's mind, nor should we. After
all, can we succeed where his parents failed? But, with a little effort we
can establish the key: Sol, Solov, Soloveichik.

Some pointed out that young man's parents did not observe Shabbat properly.
I sense that his uncle did not either. Note, however, hidden religious
dimension of the story. I don't know if that is intentional device on part
of VN. Just the fact that German and other willing executioners of Holocaust
tried to annihilate Religious Jewry. And for a religious Jew relation
between signs and symbols is direct. Here is web site appropriately namesake
of the story -

I am amateur contributor to this list and would like to read formal
criticism shedding more light on reaching that brink of 'Signs and Symbols'.


George Shimanovich

-----Original Message-----
From: Vladimir Nabokov Forum [mailto:NABOKV-L@LISTSERV.UCSB.EDU] On Behalf
Of Donald B. Johnson
Sent: Friday, December 17, 2004 10:00 PM
Subject: Fwd: Re: Signs and Symbols: Soloveichik

In a message dated 16/12/2004 16:01:55 GMT Standard Time, writes:

Returning back to Signs and Symbols, can anyone explain the pattern of
names: Mrs. Sol (the next door neighbor?) and Dr. Solov (family's doctor)
surrounding, in the story line, Soloveichik (the one whom daughter of
Rebecca Borisovna married in Minsk)? Should we believe to scientific monthly
article (authored by Dr. Brink) and to the parents that real people are
excluded from the 'referential mania' conspiracy? I could almost believe it
if not for this chain of names flagging something in the story.

Why should we believe even the first sentence of this story? What does it
mean for someone to be "incurably deranged in his mind"? I ask this in all
seriousness as a psychotherapist, so-called. Someone like Nabokov who writes
about, and even impersonates, as narrator, what we may loosely, or not so
loosely, call madmen, has to decide, or at least decide not to decide,
whether these persons are responsible agents subject to the moral law, or
some kind of subhuman whose actions are not, in a true sense, actions at
all, but merely the outcome of some process gone wrong in the human-looking
entity that still bears a human name. Nabokov meets this challenge
magnificently, by making it crystal clear, both within his fiction (for
example, in "Despair", "Lolita" and "Pale Fire") and outside it (for
example, in his preface to "Despair" and in "Strong Opinions"), that he sees
his madmen as moral agents. It is true that, at times, Nabokov seems less
certain of this position, as when he says that Raskolnikov should be
medically examined. But Hermann, Humbert and Kinbote would be of no interest
if they were mere automatons, lacking human autonomy and responsibility.

So who is this narrator who tells us at the outset that the son in "Signs
and Symbols" is "incurably deranged"? I would not believe this if told it by
a psychiatrist or psychotherapist about a real person. Why should I believe
it here?

Similarly with the young man's allegedly being "inaccessible to normal
minds". If this were true, how could the self-styled "normal minds" know,
for instance, that the "inaccessible" one has "no desires"? Indeed, how
could the learned Dr Brink write his paper about him?

All we can say from the narrator's account is that the young man has been
deposited in the "sanatorium" -- though why, if he is "incurable"?
Presumably because he is an embarrassment (evidently "the Prince" wants him
to be there and is paying). But evidently Aunt Rosa didn't worry about him
(although admittedly this "inaccessib[ility]" is a later development, in the
United States), because all those she worried about were put to death by the
Germans. She worried about real things: train accidents, bankruptcies,

The untrustworthiness of this narrator is apparent from the contradictory
sentences: "He had no desires", and "What he really wanted to do was to tear
a hole in his world and escape".

Who is making these contradictory attributions? The first appears to be the
narrator's endorsement of an attribution by both parents. The second appears
to be the narrator's endorsement of an attribution by the mother, or perhaps
the endorsement of the mother's endorsement of an attribution by the doctor.

Such is the spell of this mere unsubstantiated assertion about the young
man's inaccessibility and incurablity that, as far as I know, nobody has
suggested a simple possible explanation of the third telephone call. It
appears to be easier for people to envisage the young man's posthumously
affecting somebody else's telephone call than to think that he might simply
make one himself, while still alive.

These parents, who supposedly know that their son has no desires although he
is inaccessible to their normal minds, seem curiously uncurious about him.
They do not even ask the nurse how he had tried to kill himself. The mother
merely reflects on what the doctor had told her about the last attempt.

What makes readers so certain that the young man could not have been
uncertain in his "suicide attempts"? If he is such a genius, surely his
second attempt should have succeeded, after the bad luck of a patient
stopping his last attempt?

Why is it so clear that the young man does not want to come home? Why should
we accept the (unattributed) assertion that he wants to "escape" from the
"world" rather than from incarceration in a "sanatorium"?

Is it not at least possible that he can only get unobserved access to a
telephone after midnight, or that he has escaped from the "sanatorium", or
that he has "telepathically" or intuitively or calculatingly realised it may
have started to dawn on his parents (after four years, and after several
suicidal gestures by himself) that he might actually be better off with

I know there are other dimensions and depths to this story, but let us as a
precondition "get real" about what goes on in the families of people who are
alleged to be "inaccessible" and "incurably deranged" in their minds.

For those who would like the young man not to have killed himself, and would
prefer the third telephone call still to be from the
stead-of-symbol-dialling girl, because the only alternative they can
envisage is an official call announcing his suicide, please note that this
would entail, as Alexander Dolinin indicates but, oddly, does not mention,
the girl's dialling three uncalled-for sixes -- the ominous mark of the

Anthony Stadlen

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