Vladimir Nabokov

NABOKV-L post 0000391, Sat, 26 Nov 1994 16:21:17 -0800

VN, The Gift, & Dostoevsky
Brian Gross, a NABOKV-L subscriber, kindly called the following
material to my attention. It is part of spirited (and at times rather
acrimonious) debate on the rec.arts.books list among several Nabokov
readers with strong opinions about Nabokov and Dostoevsky. It contains a
number of observations that may interest many NABOKV-L subscribers.
Since we are droping in on the middle of an on-goin g discussion, it is
a bit hard to tell just what is going on. As far as I can tell, the basic
text is by Philip Nikolayev with comments and responses by Michael Abelovich.
P.S. Your comments may be addressed either to NABOKV-L or to Mr. Nikolayev.

----------Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 23 Nov 1994 13:04:54 -0500 (EST)
To: NABOKV-L@UCSBVM.ucsb.edu
Subject: KNOB OVA

Here's my article as it appeared on Internet, minus a coupl of typos.
Please feel free to comment.

Philip Nikolayev

>From nikolay@scws5.harvard.edu Tue Nov 22 03:33:35 1994
From: nikolay@scws5.harvard.edu (Philip Nikolayev)
Newsgroups: rec.arts.books,soc.culture.soviet,alt.postmodern,talk.philosophy.misc
Subject: NABOKOV (long, fresh)
Date: 22 Nov 94 03:26:19
Organization: The Kremlin Wall of Harvard
NNTP-Posting-Host: scws5.harvard.edu
Status: OR

Michael Abalovich concluded his latest response to me as follows:

> Aside from your using irritatingly many imperative verbal
> constructions and tending to get unnecessarily personal, I find
> three major faults with your post: 1) the failure to answer a
> simple question; 2) a bewildering concealment of your point, if
> there be any, by bringing up 'Despair' in two mutually exclusive
> contexts, which is so obvious as to be intentional; 3) a most
> remarcable reply to my introducing the issue of anti-semitism.
> Put together, it's a little too much for me to digest. Unless you
> come up with acceptable explanations, I have no inclination to
> continue this discussion. So you'd get to drive the final nail into
> the poor comic fellow's coffin.

For better or worse, I am not in the proletarian undertaker's
business, but I let the esteemed dead bury themselves at leisure.
Sorry if you have found my postings unnecessarily personal. I shall
attempt to make a more extended argument about Nabokov, especially as
I have long wanted to say certain things about him in public. I'm
going to bring together the diverse threads of my preceding argument
into a more coherent whole. Lest you be disappointed, I confine myself
to making claims that I regard as new and significant. Since you want
me to be gentle and explicit rather than difficult or enigmatic, so be
it. I note, however, that should you choose to play by the same rule,
it still remains for you to show the validity of your own assertions.

I have deleted, hopefully without significant prejudice to our
subject-matter, certain unimportant segments of our previous
electronic bedsheet for the sake of keeping the exchange down to a
manageable size and retaining only the most relevant points.

I welcome any comments and suggestions.

>>>>> By and large, I subscribe to the point of view of Nabokov's
>>>>> protagonist in the Gift: "When reading Dostoevsky, I feel as if
>>>>> I'm in the room in broad daylight, and the light overhead is on."

> PN
>>>> This is as cheap as Nabokov's stuffy 'strong opinions' about a
>>>> lot of other writers. In fact, there is no point of view here at
>>>> all, but merely a posture.

> MA
>>> I would agree that it is rather cheap, insomuch as it judges a
>>> rather self-evident shortcoming on the part of Dostoevsky to
>>> deliver a psychologically plausible narrative.

> PN
>> Please explain what grounds you have for this interpretation of
>> Nabokov's blathering. I, by contrast, would suggest that Nabokov
>> simply tries to cast an irresponsible aspersion whose rhetorical
>> effectiveness is calculated in proportion to its deliberate
>> vagueness and the condescending irony of its tone; in other words,
>> it does not 'judge', as you are pleased to insist, but merely
>> insinuates. Something generally unfavourable about nothing in particular.

> Nabokov's hero finds Dostoevsky psychologically unconvincing, or
> that's what I interpret it to mean. I feel that way myself, too.
> Unlike you, I can't readily see how irresponsible it is. Hardly more
> so than the contrary; possibly less so than deeming it
> irresponsible. What 'grounds' for this 'interpretation' are going to
> quench your insatiable curiosity? I suggested as an example the
> murder scene and attached Joyce's view, and could also quote Yury
> Olyosha on that same scene (which I beleive to bear no less relation
> than your quoting Shahovskaya). Then I asked a Yes or No question,
> which you didn't answer, below.

The question, that is, whether or not I find the murder scene in
'Crime and Punishment' psychologically convincing. I could just as
well ask you if you'd stopped discussing theology with spectral
spruces on every decadent morning of your life. Not every yes-or-no
question is simple; I suspect that yours is phrased incorrectly.
Exactly what notion of psychological verisimilitude do you (and,
presumably, Nabokov) have in mind? To put this in your favourite po-mo
parlance, do you hold on to the allegedly antiquated representational
function of literary discourse, or embrace the arbitrarily stretchable,
poignantly Protean, reflexively disposed, eternally semiotic,
radiantly writerly _joi de texte_? Are you suggesting that in Godunov,
Nabokov entertains some sort of old-fashioned mimetic theory of art?
These clarifications have to be made, lest your 'psychological
plausibility' should remain the trite and artistically indifferent
subjectivist pseudo-concept that it is generally known to be in my

More radically put, I hardly find your question relevant to anything
outside your own mind (and perhaps Nabokov's, if the two of you indeed
are so genuinely in sync). Truth to tell, I don't care a whole lot
whether you, Nabokov or Nabokov's hero recognise the murder scene in
'Crime and Punishment', or Einstein's theory of relativity, or Frege's
theory of number, as 'psychologically convincing'. My own interest
lies in intellectual history, that is, in the history of communicable
abstractions, not amid emanations of anyone's private reverie.

I have commented earlier about Nabokov's inability to understand
certain cardinal abstractions. For example, he never had any adequate
understanding of politics, of ethics, of tragedy. At least the latter
two categories are essential to any meaningful reading of Dostoevsky;
it is therefore small wonder that Nabokov ultimately despaired of
coming to terms with him. Tragedy is a difficult aesthetic concept;
even Tolstoy had trouble with it and as a result somewhat comically
knocked Shakespeare as a mediocre playwright.

I believe that the theoretical underpinning of Nabokov's obscurantism
is largely derived from the British empiricists, though his scepticism
is hardly philosophically sophisticated. Evidence to this effect is
available. Take his diatribe against 'generalisations' in Godunov's
rather trashy treatise on Chernyshevsky: 'Only myopia condones the
blurry generalisations of ignorance. In high art and pure science,
detail is everything.' He dismisses Chernyshevsky as a 'myopic
materialist' for whom details were 'merely the aristocratic element in
the nation of general ideas'. I submit that this passage is almost
certainly a vulgarisation of the critique of general ideas found in
Berkeley and Hume. So far as I know, this has never been pointed out;
please correct me whoever knows better. Curiously, Nabokov's cruel
generalising leap from Chernyshevsky's actual near-sightedness to his
'myopic materialism' betrays Nabokov's own lapse into vulgar
materialism along the rusty 'being determines consciousness' lines.
But hey, 'general ideas' are tough stuff to deal with. Especially
preposterous is Nabokov's invocation, in the best empiricist
tradition, of 'pure science' - a domain of which he had no knowledge
whatsoever - as incompatible with abstractions! Generally speaking,
the empiricist influence on Nabokov is not hard to demonstrate. For
example, the passage in 'Pale Fire' that mocks Shade's 'reasonable
certainty' about an afterlife, unmistakably recapitulates Hume's
famous critique of induction: Shade is 'reasonably sure that we
survive', just as he is sure that he will 'wake at six tomorrow, on
July / The twenty-second, nineteen fifty-nine'. Nabokov, of course,
kills him off in good time, thus falsifying the prediction. Compare
Shade to the Russellian chicken, whose philosophic head makes an
inductive generalisation about the benevolent intentions of his
nourishing master at the very moment that the master's caring hand
twists if free of the body.

> Speaking of deliberate
> vagueness. Now, if I find it transparent rather than vague, and its
> 'rhetorical effectivness is proportional to its vagueness', from
> this it would follow that it's rhetorically ineffective, would it
> not? As regards 'insinuations': if it were below zero outside I'd
> say it's cold and think it a commonsense judgement; if someone born
> and bred beyond 70 North called it insinuation, it'd be OK with me.

Sorry, but I find it hard to accept your self-proclaimed mysterious
privileged access to Nabokov's intended meanings, especially since you
are quite different from him in many obvious respects. You weren't
'born and bred' where he was; and your homeboy reading of the
lightbulb image as a metaphor of the psychological phoneyness is
hardly self-evident. To put it in po-mo parlance, by denying the
vagueness of Nabokov's innuendo and by asserting its common-sense
nature, you necessarily invest it with a retrograde symbolic function.
How about beginning with the old-fashioned basics, then: the lightbulb
is to broad daylight....as what is to what?

Meanwhile, I offer my own reading of the insinuation that Dostoevsky
burns his lightbulbs amid daylight. The lightbulb is to daylight as
general ideas are to the true reality of infinite detail. True vision
is all-encompassing; artificial light picks out incomplete pieces of
that reality. Compare this to the Kirghiz tale that Nabokov cites (or
invents) in 'The Gift': the human eye 'wants to encompass everything
in the world'. This may be an overinterpretation, but one, I daresay,
that would have appealed to Nabokov, the moral being that Dostoevsky
belabours the self-evident, and in a distorted sort of way at that.
But let us not ignore the physical aspect of the metaphor, which
reflects Nabokov's gentlemanly concern with propriety and normalcy (he
would have appreciated that latter word). It is, no doubt, improper
for one to burn an ascribed lightbulb in daylight (even if one has
never seen a real one, like poor Dostoevsky). Alas, propriety is a
'general idea'; but God forbid we should construct some abominable
*theory* of propriety. Is not propriety birthright of our very class?
Not as the gentry, but only as some of the gentry, whom we shall call,
unpretentiously, 'educated, sensitive and free-minded Russians'.
Nabokov's lovingly cultivated posture as a highly 'normal' gentleman
of superior common sense, native refinement and coloured hearing, by
whose virtue the correct answers to any significant questions
concerning art or behaviour are self-evident (perhaps self-audient) to
him _a priori_ of any thinking, is incompatible with a tragic vision.
Dostoevsky is quite mad, you see, while it is improper for a
sensitive, free-thinking Russian to be mad.

>> Or compare 'Crime and Punishment' to Nabokov's 'Despair', and pray
>> let me know which you find more 'psychologically convincing'.

> I don't see how it would shed any light on the murder scene. See
> below on your clinging to 'Despair'.

How pettily pedantic of you to honour only your own ill-defined and
rather uninspiring concerns.

> MA
>>> I would further agree that it doesn't represent a 'point of view'
>>> of Nabokov's hero (let alone Nabokov himself), but rather a
>>> flickering yet precise observation. Right there in the Gift you'll
>>> find another 'point of view' uttered by the same fellow, to the
>>> effect that "Dostoevsky converts the Bedlam back into Bethleem",
>>> which I find almost as valid. Besides, I delight in how Godunov's
>>> observations are phrased.

> PN
>> You may delight in the phrasing all you like, but do you understand
>> the meaning? Feel free to supply an exegesis of the latter
>> blathering, complete with the medical credentials of Dr. Battie.
>> Then we'll decide if it's 'almost as valid'. At any rate, try to
>> move beyond sloganeering towards making an argument.

> I believe I do understand the meaning. To supply an exegesis could
> make a fair paper -- which, in fact, might take shorter than wait
> for you to decide on its validity, seeing as how you regarded the
> more artless observation. As to the slogans, I gave a couple of
> relevant quotations. In my judgement, you are the one with slogans
> rather than reasons.

Sorry, I am not impressed with the paper that you refuse to write. I
doubt that the 'Bedlam into Bethlehem' innuendo means anything
complicated. 'Bedlam' is the lower-class corruption of the name of
London's old mental asylum - the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem.
The implication is that Dostoevsky creates sainthood out of madness.
[By symmetrical contrast with Kit Smart, who ended up at Bedlam
because of excessive piety.] Perhaps the best illustration of this
point is that interview where Nabokov chastises Dostoevsky for making
a *mere whore*, Sonia Marmeladov, the bearer of eternal truths and the
source of Raskolnikov's spiritual enlightenment. Paradoxically, Nabokov
never, so far as I know, made similar criticisms of the New Testament

> MA
>>> I'd like to know in what exactly you see that indebtedness (i.e.
>>> Nabokov's to Dostoevsky - MA) manifested.

> PN
>> 'Despair'. For other acknowledgements, see Nabokov's early admiring
>> poem addressed to Dostoevsky.

> It must be out of despair that you keep bringing up arguably the
> worst Russian-language novel of Nabokov. A couple of screenfuls up
> you suggested that I compare 'Despair' to C&P, implying the former
> still worse psychology-wise. Now you're saying 'Despair' was
> modelled after Dostoevsky. Do I detect a somewhat fuzzy logic here,
> or are you finally endorsing my point?

Far from it. I claim both that 'Despair' derives from Dostoevsky, and
that it is indeed far worse, psychologically and otherwise. No
contradiction, merely two fully compatible commonplaces. I 'keep
bringing it up' because it highlights the limited nature of Nabokov's
abilities: there were techniques and ideas of which he had no grasp.
Perhaps 'Despair''s relationship to Dostoevsky is not terribly unlike
that of another, (somewhat less) mediocre Nabokovian novel,
'Invitation to a Beheading', to Kafka.

> As a young poet, Nabokov wrote no small amount of nondescript verse.
> His attitude toward Dostoevsky must have changed over the years. Why
> should I prefer his early poem over his mature work?

The later Nabokov also wrote some very trivial verse (let alone some
of his translations of Russian poetry, e.g. the monstrous Eugene
Onegin); but I'm not talking about preference. Actually, Nabokov has
two early poems about Dostoevsky, and I dare say that one of them,
'Sa'dom shel Khristos s uchenikami' is quite striking and masterful.

I wouldn't want to spend a lot of time on this minor point, since I
hope it will be easy for you to agree that from a certain point
onwards Nabokov consistently expurgated his own biography in order to
make it seem more ideal, as if building up, without debt or
contradiction, towards his ultimate mature tremendous literary
accomplishment as very likely this century's greatest writer. Tough
luck that he wasn't, for all his teleologically biased wishful
thinking. I wouldn't give a tinker's cuss about what you have so
charitably described as his literary play, if he had not so often
conducted it at the expense of his betters - Dostoevsky, Wilde, Byron,
Orwell, Kafka, Freud, Goethe - in order to romanticise his own
protuberant creative self.

> MA
>>> Also, kindly give us the examples of his lies about it.

> PN
>> Godunov, the bearer of Nabokov's aesthetic ideals in 'The Gift',
>> says that the only thing - or one of the very few things - that he
>> would like to 'retain' from Dostoevsky is the mention of the wet
>> trace of a beer-mug on the tabletop in the arbour where Ivan
>> Karamazov speaks to Alyosha. Nabokov certainly 'retained' much more.

> Your say-so on him 'certainly retaining much more' doesn't
> constitute an example, sorry.

No, but 'Despair' does.

>>> about literary games. I don't see it to be in profound
>>> disagreement with 'aristocracy of spirit'. Rather, in ironic
>>> agreement.

> PN
>> May I humbly submit that modernism has turned irony into a
>> cheerless, incessant, profoundly autoerotic activity? Nothing
>> inherently wrong with that, but I would like Nabokov a little more
>> if he didn't indulge in it so often at the expense of his betters.

> May I humbly suggest that the XIX century realism plunged Europe
> into the First World War, which resulted in modernism?

You may, but at the risk of not being taken too seriously. I don't
mean to discourage you, but I would like to see how you will deal, for
example, with the factor of nationalism in WWI, given that nationalism
is a Romantic invention par excellence. Modernism precedes WWI,
contributes to it; it continuously grows out of the Romantic reaction
against rationalism.

Modernist irony (which continues into postmodernism) completely
supersedes the romantic emphasis on authorial sincerity: the _homo
seriosus_ devolves into a _homo ironicus_. The immoderate reliance on
irony progressively obliterates conscience from literary pursuits.
Ambiguity and irony begin to function as dubious standards of
literary quality. Anyone who has spent any time around an English
department at a US university is familiar with conversations of this
nature: 'This work is quite trashy!'--'But no, don't you see, it's all
ironic!' To paraphrase a line from 'Bugsy', these days irony is so
cheap it's wholesale. And, _pace Vlastos_, most of it seems so very,
ahem, non-Socratic.

In Nabokov, irony functions as the sublimation of an intense
Nietzschean _ressentiment_ at not being the best. One clear
illustration is Nabokov's well-known disparagement of a Soviet
chess-problem that he comes across in a magazine: he hints at some
sort of necessary connection between its Soviet provenance and its
ugly clumsiness (or whatever forgettable fault he finds with it).
Tough luck that Nabokov wasn't really as good as the best Soviet
chess-players. He also writes a curious justification of his not being
good enough, where he in fact *praises* himself for being unable to
compete with better players because of certain supposedly very
engaging features of his unusual personality.

> May I humbly inquire about the principles on which your literary
> hierarchy is based and, in particular, what makes you set Dostoevsky
> so higher than Nabokov?

Dostoevsky's lasting contribution to the discussion of what you are
pleased to call the Big Ethical Questions is one reason; another is
his more important contribution to novelistic technique than
Nabokov's. Dostoevsky is a far more original writer. I refer you to
Bakhtin for an informed and intelligent appreciation of Dostoevsky's

> PN
>>>> I suspect that the worst problem with Nabokov (a writer
>>>> much inferior to Dostoevsky, at any rate) is his somewhat
>>>> pathetic failure to live up to his so very superhuman standards
>>>> of literary taste, to avoid what he himself defined as 'poshlust'
>>>> (it ought to have occurred to him that this very coinage is an
>>>> instance of metaposhlust), and to turn off his own arrogant
>>>> little lightbulb at the appropriate times. He was a comic fellow
>>>> of self-refuting tastes.

> MA
>>> I happen to believe that Nabokov writes incomparably better than
>>> Dostoevsky, in any language. What you probably mean is that
>>> Dostoevsky is somehow more *important* in that he was concerned
>>> with Big Ethical Questions - the Last Questions, in his wording;
>>> while Nabokov never got to breathe the celestial air of the starry
>>> sky of Big Questions, dwelling among the inconsequential problems
>>> of pure aesthetics.

> PN
>> This is, of course, perfectly Nabokovian gibberish, cosy in its
>> self-assured superficiality.

> This is, of course, perfectly Dostoevskian ability to hit the lit-
> by-the-overhead-light-amid-broad-daylight nail right on the head.

My apologies, whatever your meaning may be. How glutinous of me to
disgruntle your rubbery majesty.

> PN
>> Quite apart from my doubts about
>> there being such a thing as 'pure aesthetics', allow me to point
>> out to you that Nabokov's doctrine of 'poshlust' ('kitsch' is a far
>> better word, but insufficiently twee by Nabokovian standards)
>> strongly suggests that Nabokov himself had no conception of ethics
>> as distinct from aesthetics, which circumstance makes your diatribe
>> against 'Big Ethical Issues' rather meaningless.

> My understanding is that, with Nabokov, aesthetics precedes ethics.
> According to Nabokov, 'poshlust' gives rise to cruelty. 'Kitsch'
> would be too feeble a word indeed.

'Kitsch' would be above all far too German a word, given the
nationalist and explicitly anti-German context in which the
pseudo-concept is introduced. Come to think of it, 'vulgarity' could
have served just as well, but Nabokov may have been chary of the class
overtones that it carries. Of course, the Russian word carries
precisely the same overtones: just as 'vulgarity' historically refers
to _vulgus_, or 'common population', so 'posholost' is connected with
'poshlye liudi', or 'common people'; but Nabokov needn't worry that
those reading him in English will be aware of such aristocratic
nuances. Nabokov's sleight-of-hand in the relevant passage of his
book on Gogol becomes perfectly obvious on a close examination:
although, in his relentless pursuit of this chimera, he considers a
number Western words as candidates for the office of 'poshlust', only
to reject them as 'suggest[ing] merely certain false values', the
terms 'vulgarity' and 'kitsch' are conspicuous by their dishonest
absence from his list. The absence is hardly surprising: Nabokov wants
to turn 'poshlust' into a mystic, indefinable category for whose
detection a 'particular shrewdness', especially characteristic of the
sensitive Russian mind, is absolutely essential. It was impossible for
him to use 'kitsch' instead, because he wished to present 'poshlust'
as being the pervasive and incorrigible defect of all aspects of
German culture at all times. His treatment of the word 'poshlust'
reminds me, therefore, of two other words that within Russian
nationalist discourse are supposed especially to characterise Russian
nationality, politics and culture, namely, 'dukhovnost' (spirituality)
and 'narodnost' (volkishness), both being recent translations of their
equivalents taken from the German Romantic philosophy that Nabokov so
despises. The availability of 'vulgarity' and 'kitsch' in English
turns his entire crusade against 'poshlust' into transparent bullshit.

(Parenthetically, I wonder if 'poshlust' indeed gives rise to cruelty,
I wonder if Nabokov's own multiple cruelties were not the result of an
indelible vulgarity, along with the documented instances of his
reliance on the contemptible realist method in his own writing.)

> MA
>>> Nabokov... was among the first to recognize the threat of the Nazis.

>> Superficially, yes.

> But turning a blind eye to them deep down. That could produce a
> decent interpretation of 'Lolita': Hum Hum flees the totalitarian
> Europe physically, that is superficially, but deep down he remains a
> fascist, in which capacity he screws the innocently democratic
> American girl.


> PN
>> But the problem is that Nabokov was for the most
>> part surprisingly incapable of understanding abstractions. He had no
>> conception of evil as distinct form his subjective doctrine of kitsch

> Yes he did. The love triangle in the Gift, the greater part of the
> Defense, - both cases involving homicide - have nothing to do with
> 'poshlust'.

Of course they do, your gainsaying notwithstanding. Hermann's very
name in 'Despair' points to Germany, that quintessential fountain of
'poshlust'. It's all quite straightforward. Hermann (who is modelled
on Pushkin's similarly vulgar Hermann in 'The Queen of Spades') is
vulgar beyond belief. Consider also the case of Gradus in _Pale Fire_.
It all boils down to the aphorism of Oscar Wilde's Lord Henry, with
whom Nabokov so often dispalys a genealogical resemblance: 'All crime
is vulgar, just as vulgarity is a crime'. Nabokovian ethics never
advance beyond this uncomplicated limit.

You might choose to comment on the fact that Nabokov includes the
royal couple in Shakespeare's 'Hamlet' in his list of rascals defined
primarily by 'poshlust'.

> PN
>> (cf. Hanna Arendt's stuff on the 'banality of evil', Brodsky's
>> mumbling about political evil being 'always a bad stylist'). Would
>> you not agree that there is something pernicious about this mildly
>> bizarre (perhaps postmodern?) trivialisation of evil? As one result
>> of Nabokovian obscurantist subjectivism, consider his asseveration
>> in 'Speak Memory' that his only grievance against the Bolsheviks is
>> that they have 'robbed him of a childhood'. The well-born old fart
>> just doesn't get it, eh?

> Yes, it happens to be his own private grievance.

It was, emphatically, his only grievance.

> He left Russia at a
> tender age of 19, having grown up in a comfortably rich family. So
> what? If memory serves, right next to your quotation he says
> something to the effect that he had never regretted that lost
> comfortableness. He must have meant something more spiritual than
> that implied in your invective. Or maybe you'd rather have him go
> through the Stalinist hell, so that the dumb comic fellow might 'get
> it'?

That 'something' was his intensely 'spiritual' childhood, no doubt.
Does that fact make his statement any less cynical? Funny that you
should insist that Nabokov's biography impaired his rational and
empathetic abilities so hopelessly. While I would not recommend any
Stalinist therapy, who knows, perhaps for both of you a little ironic
Nicholaevan execution by a sham firing squad is just what the doctor

> Didn't he write quite a bit on 'the extermination of tyrants'?

Yes, another pathetic exercise in self-endearing bullshit, an
unfortunate fruit of his inability to work with abstractions. And
again he harps on the preposterous theory that the tyrant in question
is bad just because he is vulgar.

> And now we're on to the pearl of Mr.Nikolayev's restless search of
> profundity, as contradistiguished from my self-assured
> superficiality.

> MA
>>> Also, this 'pathetic and comic fellow' was organically intolerant
>>> of anti- semitism, as distinct from the
>>> fundamental anti-Semitism of Dostoevsky.

> PN
>> Nabokov's Germanophobia was probably more extreme than Dostoevsky's
>>'fundamental anti-Semitism'. (As an aside, Shakhovskaia may be
>>correct about the somewhat warped nature of Nabokov's
>>larger-than-life 'organic intolerance' of anti-semitism.)

> Irrelevant to the subject though this surely is, I want to confess
> that, personally, I am flabbergasted by Mr.Nikolayev reply to my
> bringing Nabokov's stance toward anti-semitism into comparison with
> that of Dostoevsky. It used to be my impression that Mr.Nikolayev
> should not have been capable of a comeback like that. Apparently my
> impression was based on his earlier poems rather than on his mature
> work.
> More to the point. You begged me not to assume; ought I not to
> assume you to have read 'The Diaries of 1877'? I believe I'd be able
> to locate a copy here in Cambridge and start quoting away. Which, in
> fact, might be edifying for those following this discussion, as some
> of them might not be acutely aware of that side of the Great
> Inquisitor of Russian Literature. Do you think you could furnish the
> Germanophobian quotations from Nabokov, so that the netters might
> decide for themselves, which is 'more extreme'? Would you welcome
> such an exchange?

Some extended quotation with running commentary is in order here.

'Ever since Russia began to think, and up to the time that her
mind went blank under the influence of the extraordinary regime she has
been enduring for these last twenty-five years, educated, sensitive
and free-minded Russians were acutely aware of the furtive and clammy
touch of _poshlust_.'

Note the characterisation of the Bolshevik regime as an emanation of
poshlust that is opposed to the true Russian spirit. Despite Nabokov's
claims to the contrary, there is no systematic preoccupation with the
problem of vulgarity in Russian writings. His observations about the
'timelessness' of 'poshlust' and 'the immortal spirit of _poshlust_'
are plagiarisms (the latter almost verbatim) from a poem by Fedor
Tiutchev - the only pre-Nabokovian literary text where the word
'poshlust' is used in a memorable and significant way.

'Among the nations with which we came into contact, Germany
has always seemed to us a country were _poshlust_, instead of being
mocked, was one of the essential parts of the national spirit, habits,
traditions and general atmosphere, although at the same time
well-meaning Russian intellectuals of a more romantic type readily,
too readily, adopted the legend of the greatness of German philosophy
and literature; for it takes a super-Russian to admit that there is a
dreadful streak of _poshlust_ running through Goethe's _Faust_.'

'Nikolay Gogol' appeared in 1944, and the above passage shows beyond
doubt that Nabokov reduces the political evil of Nazism to vulgarity.
Poshlust' is an 'essential part' of the German 'national spirit' and
of 'German philosophy'; never mind that the vulgar conception of
'national spirit', so dear to that well-meaning romantic type,
Nabokov, was itself derived from the selfsame German philosophy and
played a significant part in the rise of Nazism. As a 'super-Russian'
(presumably, an athletic blond beast with pince-nez and
butterfly-net), Nabokov no doubt embodies all that is essential to the
Russian national spirit, which in its *pure* manifestations is
transcendently incompatible with 'poshlust'. This is a most curious
case of nationalism parading as aestheticism, though not as impressive
as the alleged musical spirit of the Germans. (Let me remark
tangentially that as late as 1932 Nabokov was still fascinated with
Goethe's _Faust_ enough to undertake a loving if mediocre Russian
translation of the 'Dedication'. The translation makes suspect his
claim that he'd never learnt any German or read anything in that
language; this strongly suggests his familiarity with Kafka at the
time of writing 'The Invitation to a Beheading', which Nabokov
repeatedly denied.)

'To exaggerate the worthlessness of a country [i.e. Germany]
at the awkward moment when one is at war with it - and would like to
see it destroyed to the last beer-mug and last forget-me-not, - means
walking dangerously close to that abyss of _poshlust_ which yawns so
universally at times of revolution and war. But if what one demurely
mumbles is but a mild pre-war truth, even with something old-fashioned
about it, the abyss is perhaps avoidable'.

A curious piece of rhetoric. For Nabokov, 'to exaggerate [!] the
worthlessness' of Germany in a time of war is not vulgar in itself,
but merely imprudent, merely 'dangerously close' to a vulgarity;
whereas to assert that worthlessness as a 'pre-war truth' is safe and
unproblematic. Therefore, his hatred of Germany is not a spontaneous
response to the war, but a deep-seated prejudice. Observe his use of
the pronoun 'one' in describing the desire to see Germany 'destroyed
to the last beer-mug and last forget-me-not': it at the same time
absolves him from the personal charge of vulgarity for entertaining
such a desire, and generalises his discursive self to the entire
(Russian? American?) nation, turning the extermination of all Germans
into a welcome objective. There is no comparable expression of
Dostoevsky's hatred of the Jews in 'The Diary of a Writer' or
elsewhere in Dostoevsky. 'The Diary' in fact represents an attempt, if
clumsy and largely hypocritical and preposterous, to find a solution
to the 'Jewish question' based on some fundamental human unity.

Of course, politics is a fairly abstract realm, and therefore hardly
Nabokov's _forte_. It is mildly entertaining to observe his
inconsistencies. In _Speak Memory_, I believe, he snobbishly dismisses
the political nations of England and France during WWI as
'non-existent' figments of the vulgar imagination; but in matters
closer to home, he chooses to spin out his aesthetical justification
for patriotism and nationalism. I submit that Nabokov's
characterisation of Nazism as a function of German vulgarity is
trivialising to the point of being pernicious. For a curious sidelight
on this problem, you might wish to check out Walter Benjamin's
writings on the connection between the aestheticisation of politics
and fascism.

> As regards Nabokov being too much of an anti-anti-semite,
> considering the circumstances of life in Europe in the 30s -- I am
> at a loss for words.

I said noting about his being 'too much of an anti-anti-semite'.

> MA
>>> I observe in passing that the post to which I reply has no
>>> relation to Crime & Punishment, other than the misapplied word

> PN
>> Is this yet another 'self-evidentness'? Or may I expect you to
>> ponder the point?

> I don't get your point.

Ah well. Here, I shall summarise it for you and shall explain why I
used the term 'superhuman'. Perhaps you are insufficiently mindful of
the fact that there are striking continuities between Nabokov's
aesthetic creed and certain unsavory aspects of the po-mo
intellectual condition. Nabokov is but one of a host of glib
post-Heideggerian logophobic literati working to undermine the
'authoritarian status' of rational discourse in a frontal attack on
'representation'. His programmatic attempts to discredit 'general
ideas' and generally to banish 'ideas' from literature should be
interpreted through that prism. Instead of 'ideas' we have in Nabokov
a hypertrophy of the self-romanticising speaking subject amid a
profuse flowering of language. (Compare this to Brodsky's notion of
immortality through continual generation of metaphoric discourse).
According to Nabokov, there is nothing worthwhile in literature except
language (cf. his claim that Pushkin's _Onegin_ is purely a phenomenon
of style). On the other hand, Nabokov wants to present himself as a
man of firm and respectable, even chivalrous values, with a high
standard of decency, rather than as a scrofulous relativist. His
ethical values arise _a priori_ of any (presumably unnecessary)
demonstration, by dint of his implied transcendent perceptiveness. On
one level, you can see those values as flowing from something the
Aristotelian cardinal virtues, instilled in the well-born, well-bred
child by habituation. But that is not the full picture: what we have
here is not merely a set of supposedly correct ethical notions and
habits that Nabokov, as a self-fashioned ideal being, has inherited
>from his no less ideal father, but above all a unique beatitude - a
transcendent 'gift' of aesthetic perception, which allows him
unerringly to tell good from evil on sight. The athletic
self-aggrandisement of private perception makes Nabokov's snobbery
ultimately obscurantist. I am not sure that you realise how central
Nabokov's narcissistic concerns are to his writing - and I use the
term 'narcissism' here, not as a facile metaphor for Nabokov's
well-known arrogance, but as a precise designation for the source of
practically all of his important value-judgements. The most serious
challenge to Nabokov's moral stance as well as to his intellectual
credentials lies in the realm of 'ideas'. He can't combat 'general
ideas' by refutation without being found guilty of a
self-contradiction. Therefore, he combats them by insinuation.

Such insinuations sometimes seem almost like obsessive acts of
symbolic self-purification. Here is a speculative hypothesis that I
hope will illustrate what I mean. In 'The Gift', Nabokov discredits
Nikolai Chernyshevsky by constructing his image in stark opposition to
that of Godunov and Godunov's father. The two images are diametrically
opposite - to the last hygienic nuance! Why bother with Chernyshevsky,
the leader of Russia's radical left in the 1860s? Many, including
Nabokov himself, have tried to rationalise the obscure purpose of
Godunov's preposterous treatise. One character in the novel, Koncheev,
informs us that many Russian emigres in Europe clung to an idealised
image of Chernyshevsky, while Godunov simply 'took away the portrait'
by showing them Chernyshevsky's true face. That is somewhat too vague.
I think that Nabokov goes to such lengths in discrediting
Chernyshevsky because of a larger, more personal vested interest,
namely, in order to dissociate Chernyshevsky's image, lionised by the
liberal emigre intelligentsia, from the political cause of his father.
An examination of such liberal emigre periodicals as _Sovremennye
zapiski_, for example, shows that in the eyes of that section of the
intelligentsia, the short-lived triumph of the 1917 Provisional
Government appeared as the culmination of the political tradition that
had originated in Russia with the radicals of the 1860s. Therefore,
Nabokov must have found the predominance of that belief to be as a
blemish on his own aesthetic reputation (owed to his father's
immaculate taste and threatened by a remote association with the
hateful aesthetic theories of the 19th century radicals. According to
Chernyshevsky, 'The first demand of art consists in this, - to so
represent objects that the reader may conceive them as they really
are.' Instead of addressing Chernyshevsky as he 'really was', Nabokov
purifies his and his father's reputation by making Godunov perform an
aesthetic (if rather tasteless) 'character assassination' of the
unfortunate utopian. The projected ideality of Nabokov's self-image
depends on the pure Platonic form of his father. (Note that Nabokov
seldom emphasises the actual politics of his father.)

> It all started off with someone deeming the ending of C&P
> 'psychologically bogus'. Andrew Dinn's comment was that the whole of
> C&P might be regarded as such. I went along with that and said in
> addition that many had felt that way, quoting Joyce and Nabokov. It
> seemed to me a fairly innocent thing to say. Like hell it was! Next
> thing I knew, we were down to Nabokov being a comic fellow and
> myself self-assuredly superficial. You didn't pick up on Joyce; the
> fault was with Nabokov. You must have a thing about him, no? Have
> you expressed an admiration of him in an early poem and being filled
> with remorse now, or what? Why then take the hardships of your
> transition period out on me? You are not Russia, I am not the U.S.
> I don't have to deal with your fixations, espesially as I don't
> consider Nabokov to be a great writer, just good enough to have
> appreciation for psychological plausibility.

Duh. It's quite all right, I don't mean to force you into any unwanted
discussion. Please forgive my infringement upon your enlightened,
informative, consensus-building exchange with Dinn. On the other hand,
I create my own subjects and attack my own targets. I merely wanted to
point out that the statement you cited expresses a pernicious side of
the Nabokovian Weltanschauung, and deserves to be exposed as such. As
you can see, I have ended up trying to explain how some of its
elements both motivate and refute each other, yielding a particularly
ornate and curious case of the King's New Clothes. All that is not to
deny that Nabokov is in many ways an most excellent writer. Let me say
that you are perfectly welcome to infringe on my discussions whenever
you please to do so, and to excel me by far with your own witty and
insightful observations.

> Michael Abalovich

Philip Nikolayev
'A speech of Antigone, a single sentence of Socrates, a few lines that
were inscribed on an Indian rock before the Second Punic War, the
footsteps of a silent yet prophetic people who dwelt by the Dead Sea,
and perished in the fall of Jerusalem, come nearer to our lives than
the ancestral wisdom of barbarians who fed their swine on the
Hercynian acorns.'