Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0004776, Thu, 17 Feb 2000 19:28:42 -0800

Re: Boyd's Pale Fire, otherworlds, and Vedantic tradition

I've been following this whole discussion with interest (and, there is a
similar one going on at NYTimes.com Forum, by the way). I was taken by the
following statement by Michael Suh

Insofar as metaphor necessary implies likeness, and
the beyond is absolutely unimaginable, what on earth can be _like_ the

and only want to add a tangent from my years in monasticism [which was a
mainline Christian monastery, by the way]. When I was in an enclosed
monastery for five years, most of the monks there, pursuing the
"contemplative life", were reading a vast literature ranging from various of
the eastern religions to the occult. Particularly rich was the literature
from what is, at least in their common parlance, called "Vedanta" (various
religious traditions out of India) which then mix into various more
modernized experiences in that tradition well into the 19th and 20th
Centuries (the various books by "Swami this or Swami that" in English)
[below I will generically call this "Vedantic literature"]. What I found
extremely interesting was the overwhelmingly high percentage of these monks
whose own mystical experiences, at least those recounted by them in imagery,
found a parallel in that Vedantic literature. Experiences the monks at my
monastery attributed to the "beyond", recountable in images (descriptions or
even narratives of "experiences"), were very similar to those which in
Vedantic literature are described as the various levels of the so-called
"Spirit World" [examples of these levels-- (1) duller colors, slower action,
"noetic" (see William James, Varieties of Religious Experience ["something
you know by "a feeling" in a mystical experience"]) feelings of "lower
spirit" or "evil", then moving in stages to higher levels where for instance
there would be (2) bright colors, quick, dazzling action, fantasmagoric
landscapes, and noetic feelings of "holiness" or "purity". Most of those
monks who recounted upward travel through the Spirit World (there is a
wonderful description of this as "spiritual work" is in the writings of
Swami Rudrinanda) said they were amazed at the parallels of their own
personal experiences and the writings already existing in the Vedantic
literature which were discovered by them AFTER their own experiences.
There are, by the way, numerous other instances of their experiences
paralleling things they later also found in Vedantic literature.

Thus, it may be not entirely exact to say that the beyond is
"unimaginable"....considering those rich traditions. Just an aside....

Kurt Johnson

----- Original Message -----
From: Donald Barton Johnson <chtodel@humanitas.ucsb.edu>
To: <NABOKV-L@UCSBVM.ucsb.edu>
Sent: Thursday, February 17, 2000 1:03 PM
Subject: Re: Boyd's Pale Fire (fwd)

> EDITOR's NOTE. Michael Suh replies to Brian Boyd's posting which may be
> found following Michael Suh's posting.
> ------------------------
> From: Michael Suh <ardishall@earthlink.net>
> I should have been clearer, more thorough. Professor Boyd dislikes what
> supposes to be my dislike of _his_ otherworldliness. I didn't mean at all
> to remark upon his own sense of the beyond, but rather his emphasis on
> Nabokov's sense of it. I'm quite aware of all the compelling evidence in
> this direction. But I also think that it begs a more critical--if that is
> the right word--treatment. I don't doubt in the least his findings of
> ghostly participation (Hazel's, John's, Sybil's, the Shade parents') in
> _PF_; indeed I, like Professor Johnson, find these findings--this is royal
> fun--absolutely stunning, positively Turingian. What I wonder about is
> Professor Boyd makes of them in terms of Nabokov's view of the world. I
> don't mean, that is, to challenge the rectitude of his argument regarding
> N's sense of conscious design in the universe, but to wonder about this
> sense itself, which in turn is to question the fructiveness of approaches
> N that center upon this. Yes, Professor Boyd notes (not only in _N's PF_
> but in _N's Ada_ and his biography) the provisionality of N's views, but
> it's here precisely that one feels a sense of incompletion. In _N's PF_,
> for instance, he addresses N's insistence upon the unimaginability of the
> hereafter and thus suggests that the otherworldly participation in _PF
> best be read as "a metaphor, a possibility space, a concrete
> anthropomorphized scenario of the unimaginable." But at the same time he
> insists upon the human tenderness and kindness of this participation. Is
> this argument possible? Insofar as metaphor necessary implies likeness,
> the beyond is absolutely unimaginable, what on earth can be _like_ the
> unimaginable? N's "metaphor" makes sense only in human terms. How can
> tenor point to incomprehensibility when it signifies essential human
> concerns? Might it not be possible to reassess its trajectory?
> This note itself is irksomely incomplete; I hope the discussion continues.
> Michael Suh
> > From: Donald Barton Johnson <chtodel@humanitas.ucsb.edu>
> > Reply-To: Vladimir Nabokov Forum <NABOKV-L@UCSBVM.UCSB.EDU>
> > Date: Wed, 16 Feb 2000 13:38:38 -0800
> > Subject: Re: Boyd's Pale Fire (fwd)
> >
> > EDITOR's NOTE. BRIAN BOYD <b.boyd@auckland.ac.nz> responds to Michael
> > Suh's comments (and my afterthoughts).
> >
> > ------------------ Michael Suh dislikes what he supposes to be _my_
> > "otherwordliness." Might I point out that: -- I have been writing about
> > _Pale Fire_ for nearly thirty years, and far from trying to impose an
> > "otherwordly" reading on it, opted for most of that time for Shade as
> > author, despite elements of the novel like The Haunted Barn that were
> > calling out for an otherworldly explanation -- it was Vera Nabokov who
> > called the beyond VN's "main theme," a formulation that I thought
> > dangerously overstated the case, as I have said to her and in print -- I
> > have criticized probably more vigorously than anyone else those (Rowe;
> > Alexandrov) who, starting from Vera's formulation, resort to the
> > otherworld as a default explanation -- I have paid more attention to the
> > this-worldly in Nabokov (in his life, and in his art), over 2500 pages
> > worth, than anybody else who has written on him, including paying the
> > first serious attention (outside the ranks of lepidopterists) to his
> > scientific work -- I have never focussed on the otherwordly in any other
> > writer I have written about, from Homer to Art Spiegelman -- I am
> > several years of my life to a biography of philosopher Karl Popper, who
> > had no interest whatever in the "otherworldly" -- I am currently working
> > on an attempt to explain art in evolutionary (Darwinian) terms, which
> > allows no room for the otherworldly and which is at odds with VN's
> > anti-Darwinianism, a product of _his_ sense of conscious design in the
> > universe, not mine.
> >
> > I have written about the otherworldly in VN because the evidence
> > me to, and because he treats critically and imaginatively what in any
> > other version I know sounds simply uncritical and unimaginative. But I
> > the piece Don Johnson refers to, part of our discussion of the role of
> > place of the otherworld in Nabokov studies: "Nabokov was never reductive
> > and never uninterested in this world. May I offer some advice? Do not
> > for Nabokov's otherworld just because it is a critical fashion. . . . If
> > he could not make this world exist so well in fiction, his otherworlds
> > would matter much, much less."
> >
> >
> > Don Johnson himself, like Michael Suh, finds my "insistence" on VN's
> > generosity "irksome." Might I again point out that
> > -- I have never written of any other writer or thinker in terms of
> > "generosity." It is not a pet theme that I impose on what I write
> > -- it is Nabokov who insists on the generosity of the "waggish artist"
> > behind nature in a book aptly called The Gift, whose hero writes "And
> > wants to offer thanks but there is no one to thank. The list of
> > already made: 10,000 days -- from Person Unknown."
> > -- it is Nabokov who in his own person writes of "A thrill of gratitude
> > whom it may concern," and who ends this book with an image of himself
> > Vera as parents waiting for the thrill their child will feel at the
> > life has concealed ahead, in a clear image of the surprises that life
> > offers all of us and that he intends to offer his readers
> > -- I admit to having enjoyed some of those surprises, and felt the
> > excitement that VN meant to impart, precisely because he thought it was
> > to the excitement life itself hides for us to find, and it therefore
> > seem to me like ingratitude (something that, as the passages above and
> > very artistic strategy suggest, VN rightly thought little of) not to
> > the image of VN as someone who felt life was cruel and as someone who
> > therefore wanted to pass on his cruelty by tweaking the hapless reader.
> >
> > I am sorry that seems irksome.
> >
> > Brian Boyd
> > b.boyd@auckland.ac.nz
> >
> >
> > ______________________________________________________
> >