Prospero's Progress

  • (8 of 8)

    Baconian Acrostics
    Nabokov's novels, prefaces and discourses drip with scathing references to Freud. His basic objection to Freudian theories is that they slight the creative imagination by putting it in a sexual straitjacket and by insisting that dreams and images are determined mechanistically. "I reject completely the vulgar, shabby, fundamentally medieval world of Freud," he writes, "with its crankish quest for sexual symbols (something like searching for Baconian acrostics in Shakespeare's works) and its bitter little embryos spying from their natural nooks upon the love life of their parents." Nabokov may yet get his wish to see Shakespeare in heaven, laughing at Freud (in hell, naturally) for his bad interpretations of Hamlet, Lear and Macbeth. But how much comfort the scene would give him is debatable. From Nabokov's point of view, the electrical and chemical control of the brain, which seems to be rendering Freudian theory irrelevant, will hardly help the freedom of the individual imagination.

    He has, as the phrase goes, no time for religion; yet his work is infused with a poetic sense of the sanctity of all life and with the faculty of a primitive animist -- vestigial in modern man -- of investing inanimate objects with life. He is inclined to deny that any utility, morality or heavy philosophical meaning should be attributed to his art. He dismisses such suggestions with the same scorn that he once made use of when a clubwoman asked him what butterflies were for. Nevertheless, certain deductions can be drawn from Nabokov's writing. In "Bend Sinister", he composed a picture of crude, lumpish evil-in-power, and he put Yeats' much quoted "rough beast" into a Bolshevik or Nazi Bethlehem. Thus Prospero-Nabokov always knew Caliban., whether he was known as Hitler or Stalin or some other name.

    Still, the label that in one sense best suits Nabokov's practice and precept as a writer is art for art's sake. It is a school that has rarely fared well in public esteem, especially in the U.S. "Fin de siecle" examples were customarily tainted by a kind of Wildean flounce or could be made to seem so. More often the doctrine has been propounded to excuse artistic self-indulgence, sheer gush, or at best the refined outpouring of private feeling. None of these excesses apply to Nabokov. Few writers have brought to the practice of art for art's sake -- or indeed to thematic literature -- the enormous talent and discipline, the overwhelming intellectual grasp, the scrupulously objective range of eye and ear that Nabokov commands

    Distaste for the rational, plodding message-ridden, rhetorical problem novel -- which Nabokov has condemned for years -- is now widespread. But the objection to the traditional novel is essentially negative, rising as it often does from despair about the possibilities of rational, orderly, middle-class society. Black comedies, happenings, novel without plots are on the whole grim experiments, and the laughter they offer is at best a kind of comic rictus.

    Nabokov, who is essentially a prose poet, has always had something quite different in mind. "By poetry I mean the mysteries of the irrational perceived through rational words," he has explained. "True poetry of that kind provokes not laughter and not tears but radiant smile of perfect satisfaction, a purr of beatitude -- and a writer may well be proud of himself if he can make his readers, or more exactly some of his readers, smile and purr that way.' When as a young man in Berlin, Nbokov decided to translate an English masterpiece into Russian, the book he chose was "Alice in Wonderland". Perhaps he knew, even then, that the best way for an artist to triumph over time was to vanish like the Cheshire cat, leaving only a smile behind.

    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3
    4. 4
    5. 5
    6. 6
    7. 7
    8. 8
    9. Next Page