NABOKV-L post 0010871, Wed, 22 Dec 2004 19:04:58 -0800

Subject
Re: Signs and Symbols: again x
Date
Body


----- Forwarded message from as-brown@comcast.net -----
Date: Wed, 22 Dec 2004 20:43:25 -0500
From: Andrew Brown <as-brown@comcast.net>


Forgive a lengthy response. I think Mr. Stadlen has found the heart of the S & S
story. Often our terminology, when we cannot speak face-to-face, obscures our
meanings, but the tenacity of discussion wins. I hope my extensive quotation
isn't too tedious, but it helps me respond without losing place.

"the narrator ... merely reporting, accurately, that the parents were
"confronted with the
problem of what birthday present to bring a young man who was incurably deranged
in his mind"."

Exactly. Sometimes this requires us to follow narratives based on premises we
would generally dislike. I've found reading Dickens today requires me to
practically throw away everything I know about life. Martin Amis has related
how his father would read the books of certain authors while continously saying
aloud, "Oh no they didn't," or, "No she did not say that," or "That certainly
was not the case," as he faced down example after example of presumption, bad
faith, or ignorance from an unskilled author. The opposite is the case with VN,
with whom, if we are not seeing eye-to-eye, we generally need to look upwards.

As a professional, Mr. Stadlen can see why parents could not or should not act
as have these parents. I empathise with them because, although I know much less
about their ethnicity and religion than many readers who have posted here, their
dignity and heroism as aging, financially-dependent people in a nation not of
their birth, speaking a language less flexible and soul-centered as that of
their culture, their persistance in a tough alien world, command my respect.

The father's -- "To the devil with doctors!" -- is defiant and courageous. This
story takes place in a time in which elderly persons were often overwhelmed and
overpowered by a vast health care machine blandly staffed by doctors whose word
was more or less law. For many poor people, not much has changed. What Mr.
Stadlen says about the father's exercise of "faith" and being "responsible" are
right on target.

so if one regards "mere possibilities of improvement" as trivial. They may
appear less dramatic and absolute than a hypothetical other-worldly afterlife
love-in of father, mother, and son. But is it not at least arguable that it is
precisely such a happy-ever-after afterlife solution that trivialises the
tragedy?

Absolutely. VN would never posit a view of greeting card sentimentality.
Consider his own share of history: blood-in-the-streets revolution witnessed as
a child, exile, world war, holocaust, exile ... One undoubted victim of the 20th
century who cannot be rehabilitated, resurrected, or reborn is the literary
"happy ending." This is why my childhood favorite Dickens now reads as somehow
more distant than Francois Villlon, who, in comparison, reads as familiarly as
Eminem.

"... my proposal that the boy himself may be making the third telephone call is
a kind
of deus ex machina appeal to miracles, whereas Dolinin's afterlife hypothesis
is no more than sound common sense."

I will have to look back in my undeleted mail for Dolinin's hypothesis, it
sounds intriguing. My tendency is to hew firmly to the theory that readers must
strictly confine their analysis to the material provided. In this forum, others
have uncovered enormously more "material" in Nabokov's work than I was able to
initially perceive. VN is an author of such technique and dimension of mind
that, like an immensely gifted illusionist, he can manipulate fictional reality
to produce more active stimula, more adeptly, than many excellent minds can
process. Hence his teasing: "Oh, careless reader!"

My guess regarding the caller is one of the possibilities Stadlen mentions, that
of the girl who called twice before. It would be in keeping with the banal evils
this family has faced: faltering memory (the wife's mistakenly leaving the man
without the house key) the unpredictability of public transportation, a
dependency on assistance from another family member -- a situation that,
regardless of how generous, uncritical, or unquestioning the "prince" may or
may not be, is not as desirable as being in control of finances sufficient to
provide some buffer against the demands of life.

So, I see a stranger, not too bright or attentive but not malicious, simply
making the same annoying mistake time after time. Prosaic and inconsequential,
but I don't think VN needs us to believe that the forces arrayed against our
protagonists are larger than life. Simple dimwittedness, as relentless as a
buzzing fly, can sap our energy and deflate our hope. The last straw can be
merely the incensing sounds of someone nearby in a restaurant clearing their
sinuses or endlessly recapitulating their golf game.

"And even if the doctors were right ... why would that preclude "possibilities
of improvement", such as
... deciding he would like to come home again and his parents'deciding they
would like him home, even if advised against this by the doctors?"

True, and part of the uncaring professional ignorance that enchains the family.
I must apologize for discussing my unfortunate friend in an earlier post. The
personal anecdote gambit in literary discussion may be considered trivializing,
and certainly is a way of swinging the discussion onto tricky ground. In
addition, I wouldn't want that anecdote to be taken as my "last word" on the
resources of medicine. I inadvertantly stacked the deck when I neglected to
mention that my friend, several weeks earlier, had argued his primary physician
into letting him stop the lithium treatment that had stabilized him for at least
eight or nine months. Valium, too, is I think contraindicated for
schizophrenics, and may have helped triggered the disaster. In any event, an
unusual case with little to offer this context. Today, I would not deem any
psychiatric condition "incurable." And living with one's family whenever
possible is a better alternative.

Is it not believable that Vladimir Nabokov would enjoy setting this "chess
problem" in which readers, as it were, lose their "life current" between the
"two stations"

The phrase "life current" is a brilliant example of the gifts VN lays out for
the reader -- and which I missed entirely.

"... supremely intelligent human agency of Nabokov in preparing this trap for
readers to fall into and then learn from?"

More than almost any other author, VN prepared his stories and novels with a
complete sense of what one might call the "chemical properties" of each
character. It is doubly unusual for a writer who was so alert to the
"scientific" aspect of creating a story, so skilled at using time and the
ingredients of humanity and the world, to be simultaneously so extraordinarily
poetic. His descriptions of the weather in S&S have been aptly quoted in this
forum. I was entranced by S & S from the moment the narrator described how the
wife "waited for her husband to open his umbrella and then took his arm. He
kept clearing his throat in a special resonant way he had when he was upset."
And then, at the bus shelter, "a tiny half-dead unfledged bird was helplessly
twitching in a puddle."

The patient wife, the man's resonant clearing of his throat, a man of dignity,
hurt, exerting control over his pain, and then the image that encapsulates the
story, the bird. These words, these moments convey all the strength, and all
the fragility of a world.

----- Original Message -----
From: Donald B. Johnson
To: NABOKV-L@LISTSERV.UCSB.EDU
Sent: Wednesday, December 22, 2004 1:06 PM
Subject: Fwd: Re: Signs and Symbols: again




----- Forwarded message from STADLEN@aol.com -----
Date: Tue, 21 Dec 2004 23:23:57 EST
From: STADLEN@aol.com


On reflection, I have perhaps been complicating and confusing matters by
referring to the narrator as "unreliable".

I agree with Andrew Brown that, contrary to what I said, the narrator is not
exactly contradicting him- or herself by saying, or reporting others as
saying, both that the young man has no desires (for his birthday) and that he
wants
to escape his world.

More centrally, the narrator is only reporting the views of others. He (or
she) is not asserting that the young man was "incurably deranged in his mind".
He is merely reporting, accurately, that the parents were "confronted with the
problem of what birthday present to bring a young man who was incurably
deranged in his mind". They are confronted with this problem simply because
the
doctors have told them, and they have accepted, that the young man is
"incurably
deranged in his mind". They are confronted with this problem whether what the
doctors say is right, wrong, or undecidable -- as long as they themselves
accept what the doctors say.

Thus the issue, for the parents and for us, as readers, is whether we should
accept unquestioningly what the doctors say. This is not a speculative or
obscure point to speak of as "the issue", because it is quite explicit in the
"surface" story: the parents become festive when they start thinking of a plan
that does not unquestioningly go along with the doctors. The father explicitly
says: "To the devil with doctors!"

This does not, of course, necessarily mean that he has decided his son is
"curable". But he appears to have decided at least to have faith in "mere
possibilities of improvement", to quote the story. He has decided to be
"responsible", to quote him himself, rather than just go along with what are
presumably the
doctors' recommendations.

This is all so simple and virtually undeniable as to appear, perhaps, not
very interesting: to "trivialise", as someone said, the story. But it only
does
so if one regards "mere possibilities of improvement" as trivial. They may
appear less dramatic and absolute than a hypothetical other-worldly afterlife
love-in of father, mother, and son. But is it not at least arguable that it is
precisely such a happy-ever-after afterlife solution that trivialises the
tragedy?

I get the distinct impression that participants in this discussion think my
proposal that the boy himself may be making the third telephone call is a kind
of deus ex machina appeal to miracles, whereas Dolinin's afterlife hypothesis
is no more than sound common sense.

Surely this odd state of affairs has arisen because of an unquestioning faith
in what is not even asserted by the narrator, but merely reported by the
narrator as, by implication, having been asserted by the doctors: namely, the
boy's "incurability".

And even if the doctors were right that the young man would never become free
of delusions, why would that preclude "possibilities of improvement", such as
his at least deciding he would like to come home again and his parents'
deciding they would like him home, even if advised against this by the
doctors?

Would it not be a small, ordinary but extraordinary, (from my point of view
as a psychotherapist) entirely believable and realistic, "miracle" if the
parents and their son had, more or less at the same time, come to glimpse a
"mere
possibility of improvement"? How wonderful, if the son of whom they had
despaired, should actually sense that now would be a good time to telephone
them.
Some small change in their relationship might ensue. He might even be able to
live with them again, or perhaps just enjoy without terror his birthday
present.

Is it not believable that Vladimir Nabokov would enjoy setting this "chess
problem" in which readers, as it were, lose their "life current" between the
"two stations" (of the Cross they are preparing for the young man?) of the
only
two possibilities they contemplate for the third telephone call: (1) the girl
still not having taken in what the mother explained about her misdialling, but
thereby dialling three ominous sixes which surely, to symbolically fixated
readers, tell of doom; and (2) the hospital telephoning to report doom
directly?

The mere fact that the narrator speaks of the train losing its life current
"between two stations" should, as I said earlier, alert us to something. Why
not just "between stations", as in Eliot's "East Coker", unless we are
supposed
to reflect on the "two"? Multiples of two preponderate in the obtrusive
arithmetic of the narrative.

There is a nice symmetry in that, while the boy allegedly attributes human
agency to inanimate nature, readers are not merely guilty of a similar
Pathetic
Fallacy, as Brian Boyd long ago suggested, but, more fundamentally, under the
spell of the hearsay "incurability" suggested by the very first sentence of
the story, are unthinkingly attributing a lack of human agency, non-agency,
non-humanity to the boy.

Is it a mere accident that readers are doing this, or is it the result of the
supremely intelligent human agency of Nabokov in preparing this trap for
readers to fall into and then learn from?

Anthony Stadlen

----- End forwarded message -----



------------------------------------------------------------------------------


On reflection, I have perhaps been complicating and confusing matters by
referring to the narrator as "unreliable".

I agree with Andrew Brown that, contrary to what I said, the narrator is not
exactly contradicting him- or herself by saying, or reporting others as saying,
both that the young man has no desires (for his birthday) and that he wants to
escape his world.

More centrally, the narrator is only reporting the views of others. He (or
she) is not asserting that the young man was "incurably deranged in his mind".
He is merely reporting, accurately, that the parents were "confronted with the
problem of what birthday present to bring a young man who was incurably
deranged in his mind". They are confronted with this problem simply because the
doctors have told them, and they have accepted, that the young man is "incurably
deranged in his mind". They are confronted with this problem whether what the
doctors say is right, wrong, or undecidable -- as long as they themselves
accept what the doctors say.

Thus the issue, for the parents and for us, as readers, is whether we should
accept unquestioningly what the doctors say. This is not a speculative or
obscure point to speak of as "the issue", because it is quite explicit in the
"surface" story: the parents become festive when they start thinking of a plan
that does not unquestioningly go along with the doctors. The father explicitly
says: "To the devil with doctors!"

This does not, of course, necessarily mean that he has decided his son is
"curable". But he appears to have decided at least to have faith in "mere
possibilities of improvement", to quote the story. He has decided to be
"responsible", to quote him himself, rather than just go along with what are
presumably the doctors' recommendations.

This is all so simple and virtually undeniable as to appear, perhaps, not very
interesting: to "trivialise", as someone said, the story. But it only does so if
one regards "mere possibilities of improvement" as trivial. They may appear less
dramatic and absolute than a hypothetical other-worldly afterlife love-in of
father, mother, and son. But is it not at least arguable that it is precisely
such a happy-ever-after afterlife solution that trivialises the tragedy?

I get the distinct impression that participants in this discussion think my
proposal that the boy himself may be making the third telephone call is a kind
of deus ex machina appeal to miracles, whereas Dolinin's afterlife hypothesis
is no more than sound common sense.

Surely this odd state of affairs has arisen because of an unquestioning faith
in what is not even asserted by the narrator, but merely reported by the
narrator as, by implication, having been asserted by the doctors: namely, the
boy's "incurability".

And even if the doctors were right that the young man would never become free
of delusions, why would that preclude "possibilities of improvement", such as
his at least deciding he would like to come home again and his parents'
deciding they would like him home, even if advised against this by the doctors?

Would it not be a small, ordinary but extraordinary, (from my point of view as
a psychotherapist) entirely believable and realistic, "miracle" if the parents
and their son had, more or less at the same time, come to glimpse a "mere
possibility of improvement"? How wonderful, if the son of whom they had
despaired, should actually sense that now would be a good time to telephone
them. Some small change in their relationship might ensue. He might even be
able to live with them again, or perhaps just enjoy without terror his birthday
present.

Is it not believable that Vladimir Nabokov would enjoy setting this "chess
problem" in which readers, as it were, lose their "life current" between the
"two stations" (of the Cross they are preparing for the young man?) of the only
two possibilities they contemplate for the third telephone call: (1) the girl
still not having taken in what the mother explained about her misdialling, but
thereby dialling three ominous sixes which surely, to symbolically fixated
readers, tell of doom; and (2) the hospital telephoning to report doom
directly?

The mere fact that the narrator speaks of the train losing its life current
"between two stations" should, as I said earlier, alert us to something. Why
not just "between stations", as in Eliot's "East Coker", unless we are supposed
to reflect on the "two"? Multiples of two preponderate in the obtrusive
arithmetic of the narrative.

There is a nice symmetry in that, while the boy allegedly attributes human
agency to inanimate nature, readers are not merely guilty of a similar Pathetic
Fallacy, as Brian Boyd long ago suggested, but, more fundamentally, under the
spell of the hearsay "incurability" suggested by the very first sentence of the
story, are unthinkingly attributing a lack of human agency, non-agency,
non-humanity to the boy.

Is it a mere accident that readers are doing this, or is it the result of the
supremely intelligent human agency of Nabokov in preparing this trap for
readers to fall into and then learn from?

Anthony Stadlen

----- End forwarded message -----