Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0003468, Thu, 5 Nov 1998 14:20:07 -0800

Nabokov, Kafka, and the Witch Doctor (fwd)
From: "Welch, Rodney" <RWelch@SCES.ORG>

As a garden variety non-Freudian, I've usually read Nabokov's
protestations against the "Viennese witch-doctor" with a more or less
sympathetic ear. Several recent close re-readings of Kafka's
"Metamorphosis," and Nabokov's lecture on it, however, raise questions
as to whether our professor's knee-jerk anti-Freudian prejudice always
paid off.
Nabokov dismisses biographical critics who insist on seeing the
relationship between Gregor and Samsa the elder as symbolic of his own
relationship with his father. Nabokov rejects this as "nonsense,"
offering as his sole defense only that Kafka was "extremely critical" of
Freud's ideas himself. Nabokov tells his class: "I should like to
dismiss the Freudian approach and concentrate, instead, upon the
artistic moment," which he proceeds to do -- brilliantly but not, for
me, with complete effectiveness. What struck me about the story is that
it has simply too many Freudian/Oedipal signals to ignore. I will cite
only the most obvious.

*Gregor has a certain affection for an advertisement he has framed on
his wall of a woman covered in fur: a woman who is, perhaps, becoming a
beast. When Grete and Mrs. Samsa clean Gregor's room, Gregor has crawled
onto the portrait. Note Kafka's rather erotic description -- "he...
quickly crawled up to it and pressed himself to the glass, which was a
good surface to hold on to and comforted his hot belly." Nabokov
observes this as a mere entomological detail, but I think there is
something else going on here. When Gregor's mother sees him in this
position she is, I think, witnessing a primal scene in reverse: her
son's own consummation with another.

*This leads to a real primal scene: Gregor, pelted with apples by his
Pa, watches as he reunites with the near-naked Ma: "With his last
conscious look he saw the door of his room being torn open and his
mother rushing out ahead of his screaming sister, in her underbodice,
for her daughter had loosened her clothing to let her breathe more
freely and recover from her swoon, he saw his mother rushing towards his
father, leaving one after another behind her on the floor her loosened
petticoats, stumbling over her petticoats straight to his father and
embracing him, in complete union with him -- but here Gregor's sight
began to fail -- with her hands clasped round his father's neck as she
begged for her son's life."

*And then, of course, there is Gregor's relationship with his sister, a
bond where the incestual urge is all too clear. As Gregor listens to her
play the violin, he "was determined to push forward till he reached his
sister, to pull at her skirt and so let her know that she was to come
into his room with her violin, for no one here appreciated her playing
as he would appreciate it. He would never let her out of his room, at
least, not so long as he lived; his frightful appearance would become,
for the first time, useful to him; he would watch all the doors of his
room at once and spit at intruders ... his sister would be so touched
that she would burst into tears, and Gregor would then raise himself to
her shoulder and kiss her on the neck, which, now that she went to
business, she kept free of any ribbon or collar."

That image, of Gregor the three-foot dung beetle nuzzling the ripe neck
of his sister, is unforgettable. This very passage is cited in Lectures
on Literature, but Nabokov seems almost willfully blind to its more
unsettling implications -- possibly because it would upset his exclusive
idea of Gregor as martyr and Grete as villain.
As I said, I'm rather indifferent toward Freud, and for what it's worth,
I'm not an academic. Nabokov's lectures are valuable at least in part
for their individuality, their biases, their lack of cant, their very
focus on the artistic moment. But it seems to me that by completely
ignoring any psychoanalytic level of the story, he missed some vital
part of it.

Rodney Welch
Columbia, SC