Vladimir Nabokov and the Poetics of Liberalism

Vladimir Nabokov and the Poetics of Liberalism

by Dana Dragunoiu


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ISBN-13: 9780810128545
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 01/31/2012
Series: SRLT Series
Pages: 344
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Dana Dragunoiu is associate Professor of English at Carleton University (Ottawa, Canada).

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Vladimir Nabokov and the Poetics of Liberalism

By Dana Dragunoiu


Copyright © 2011 Northwestern University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2768-5

Chapter One

Homo Ludens, Homo Faber: Nabokov's Inexhaustible Gift

I was not quite six, but that year abroad, a year of difficult decisions and liberal hopes, had exposed a small Russian boy to grown-up conversations. He could not help being affected in some way of his own by a mother's nostalgia and a father's patriotism. —Vladimir Nabokov

Logically, the investigation of Marx begins precisely where the investigation of Darwin ends.... The spirit of their research is absolutely the same in both thinkers. That is why one can say that Marxism is Darwinism in its application to social science. —George Plekhanov

THE GIFT (DAR, 1952) is Nabokov's last, longest, and most ambitious Russian novel. It is also, in a sense, inexhaustible. Nabokov returned to it again and again as to a rich storehouse of plots and preoccupations. As Boyd notes, "Nabokov's imagination did not want to leave The Gift alone"; this last of his completed Russian novels "set up powerful reverberations in his mind that lasted for decades" (VNRY 505, 520). The short story "The Circle" ("Krug," 1934) was the first of many "satellites" (as Nabokov called them) to orbit the novel. Another supplement, to which Nabokov gave only the descriptive title "Second Addendum to The Gift," was recently published in Russian under the title Nabokov had provisionally assigned it, "Vtoroe dobavlenie k Daru," and in English as "Father's Butterflies." At the Library of Congress, a folder marked "The Gift, Part II" preserves several sketched chapters for a sequel (VNRY 516–17). Though the projected sequel was abandoned, Nabokov reworked its principal themes and motifs in the unfinished Russian novel he intended to call "Solus Rex" and in the two English-language novels that make up the core of his literary reputation, Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962).

As Boyd perceptively observes, "almost all of Nabokov's major artistic projects for thirty years can trace their origins back to The Gift" (VNRY 520). Nabokov's repeated returns to The Gift are perhaps unsurprising given the novel's frankly autobiographical nature; he seems to have viewed it as no less subject to extension than his own life. According to Boyd, Nabokov put "his whole self in the book": "his love for Véra, his reverence for his father's memory, his passion for Russian literature and for lepidoptera, his blissful Russian past and his mottled émigré present" (VNRY 397). The extent to which this "whole self" was shaped by his father is revealed in Speak, Memory, the autobiography published several years after The Gift. There, he tells his readers that his passions for Russian poetry and lepidoptera were special inheritances from his father. "My father's library," he recounts, "taught me to appreciate authentic poetry," and it was his father who "passed on to me the morbus et passio aureliani" (SM 455, 508; see also SO 46). Nabokov's love for Véra was uniquely his own, and yet his unapologetic readiness to marry a Jewish woman can also be understood in the larger context of his father's fearless public denunciation of Russia's officially sanctioned anti-Semitism.

V. D. Nabokov casts a shadow across his son's work that extends far beyond the pages explicitly dedicated to him in Speak, Memory. Even so, the memoir establishes Nabokov's most startling image of his father's role as the presiding spirit over his own life. Nabokov recalls summer afternoons spent with his family at Vyra, the family's country estate, when his father would be summoned away from luncheon by local villagers. After settling a dispute or granting a request, he would be subjected to a traditional rite of gratitude which involved being tossed high into the air and caught in the arms of the men below. Nabokov weaves these moments of childhood plenitude into the grief that followed his father's murder:

From my place at table I would suddenly see through one of the west windows a marvelous case of levitation. There, for an instant, the figure of my father in his wind-rippled white summer suit would be displayed, gloriously sprawling in midair, his limbs in a curiously casual attitude, his handsome, imperturbable features turned to the sky. Thrice, to the mighty heave-ho of his invisible tossers, he would fly up in this fashion, and the second time he would go higher than the first and then there he would be, on his last and loftiest flight, reclining, as if for good, against the cobalt blue of the summer noon, like one of those paradisiac personages who comfortably soar, with such a wealth of folds in their garments, on the vaulted ceiling of a church while below, one by one, the wax tapers in mortal hands light up to make a swarm of minute flames in the mist of incense, and the priest chants of eternal repose, and funeral lilies conceal the face of whoever lies there, among the swimming lights, in the open coffin. (SM 379)

Nabokov's love and respect for his father, highlighted here by the passage's elegiac, reverential language, provide one explanation for his long-standing quarrel with Freud's narratives of filial hostility and aggression.

V. D. Nabokov hovers over most of his son's fiction, but he executes his loftiest act of levitation in The Gift. The novel's protagonist, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, is consumed by the same passions as his creator. Foremost among these passions is Fyodor's desire to capture the unique essence of his father's life. Though his attempt to write his father's biography seems to end in failure, he nonetheless succeeds in painting a detailed portrait of a man who resembles in crucial ways Nabokov's own father. In the figure of Fyodor's father, Konstantin Godunov-Cherdyntsev, an aristocrat of unimpeachable integrity and a naturalist of international distinction, Nabokov translates his own father's political achievements into the language of science. This substitution enables Nabokov to work within the boundaries of a familiar discipline while simultaneously imposing some distance between his father and his father's fictional double. "Father's Butterflies" extends this aspect of Nabokov's project beyond the boundaries of The Gift. In it, Fyodor pieces together an account of a revolutionary, anti-Darwinian theory of evolution composed by Godunov on the eve of his ill-fated last expedition. Though Fyodor confesses that he might not be able to "correctly convey the author's reasoning," he undertakes this project "because of the abstruse kinship, that poetic bond that, independent of the scientific essence of the subject, connects me to the author." Like Fyodor, Nabokov considered himself ill-equipped to evaluate his father's professional achievements, but a similar sensitivity to "abstruse kinship," a similar "poetic bond," enabled him to transform his paternal legacy into a unique personal poetics. In The Gift, key aspects of V. D. Nabokov's personal and professional biography give rise to literary, scientific, and metaphysical plots that enact their author's continuous effort to think through and lay claim to the inexhaustible gift bequeathed to him by his father.


Fyodor's father shared none of V. D. Nabokov's political interests, and he did not participate in the pre-revolutionary struggles against tsarist autocracy. His scientific views and commitments, however, firmly locate him in the same Russian liberal tradition that molded his creator's worldview. His opposition to Darwin's evolutionary theory, in particular, enables readers to observe in a new light some of the anxieties that shaped Nabokov's own attitudes toward Darwin and fueled his tendency to subordinate science to philosophy.

Nabokov's own scientific achievements were more modest than those of Konstantin Godunov-Cherdyntsev. While acting as the curator of lepidoptera at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) in the 1940s, Nabokov became an expert on a group of butterflies known as the "blues" (the tribe Polyommatini). In his "Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae," published in Psyche in 1945, he laid out a radical new classificatory arrangement for most of the groups of blues in tropical America. As Kurt Johnson has observed, the substantial "blues" fauna "helps science answer some of the most perplexing biological questions about evolution in the New World tropics." Nabokov's contributions to taxonomy and systematics (the science that deals with questions of biological classification) was only fully recognized after lepidopterists Zsolt Bàlint, Dubi Benyamini, and Kurt Johnson carried out the fieldwork necessary to test the validity of Nabokov's proposed new genera.

The recognition of the significance of Nabokov's scientific work has revived debates concerning the uneasy relationship between Nabokov's science and his attraction toward what Boyd has referred to as a "top-down, mind-first explanation" of life's origins. Nabokov fully accepted evolution, considered Darwin a scientist of genius, and took great pleasure in reconstructing the phylogenetic links wrought by the evolutionary process among the blues. At the same time, however, he strenuously resisted the notion that natural selection could operate as the only explanation for evolution, and he criticized the intellectual revolution inspired by Darwin's bottom-up rather than top-down principles.

Nabokov's acceptance of the evolutionary process is incontestable. In "Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae," he writes that "while accepting evolution as a modal formula, I am not satisfied with any of the hypotheses advanced in regard to the way it works." He agreed with the guiding Darwinian premise that species evolve over time in response to environmental pressures. He objected, however, to two interrelated aspects of Darwinism: its positivism (the belief that the world can be explained by observable phenomena alone)10 and its utilitarianism (the belief that nature's extravagant beauty and variety are to be understood as by-products of wholly utilitarian processes). Nabokov encapsulates these objections in "The Art of Literature and Commonsense," where he criticizes the followers of "commonsense" for maintaining

that life on earth, from the barnacle to the goose, and from the humblest worm to the loveliest woman, arose from a colloidal carbonaceous slime activated by ferments while the earth was obligingly cooling down. Blood may well be the Silurian sea in our veins, and we are all ready to accept evolution at least as a modal formula. Professor Pavlov's bell-hopping mice and Dr. Griffith's rotating rats may please the practical minds, and Rhumbler's artificial amoeba can make a very cute pet. But again it is one thing to try and find the links and steps of life, and it is quite another to try and understand what life and the phenomenon of inspiration really are. (LL 378)

Though Nabokov agrees with the basic facts of evolutionary change, he resists the reductive positivism of the empirical narratives inspired by Darwin. He intimates that "life," like "the phenomenon of inspiration," cannot be accounted for in exclusively positivist and utilitarian terms. Although "the Silurian sea" may well fill the veins of "the loveliest woman," and although loveliness may confer significant advantages in a competitive marketplace, Nabokov implies that this woman's unparalleled charm is the function of something other than her gradual evolution from "the humblest worm."

The phenomenon that sustained Nabokov's metaphysical convictions more than any other was mimicry. He believed that mimicry could not be explained exclusively in terms of natural selection. According to Nabokov, nature's mimic forms display an artistry and sophistication that could not be accounted for by an organism's need to deceive predators:

"Natural selection," in the Darwinian sense, could not explain the miraculous coincidence of imitative aspect and imitative behavior, nor could one appeal to the theory of "the struggle for life" when a protective device was carried to a point of mimetic subtlety, exuberance, and luxury far in excess of a predator's power of appreciation. I discovered in nature the nonutilitarian delights that I sought in art. Both were a form of magic, both were a game of intricate enchantment and deception. (SM 465; see also SO 153)12

Scattered throughout Nabokov's literary oeuvre, statements of this kind point to an extremely complex relationship between his science and metaphysics. Several scholars have attempted to explain this relationship by locating Nabokov's scientific writings in the context of debates in evolutionary biology before and after his years at Harvard's MCZ.

Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates regard Nabokov's reservations about the comprehensiveness of Darwin's theory of natural selection as a matter of timing. They note that his scientific work was conducted at a time when the neo-Darwinian synthesis (which integrates Darwin's theory of natural selection with principles drawn from the field of population genetics) was still in its infancy. Had he worked later, they suggest, he would have abandoned his skeptical views about natural selection. The scientific discoveries that refute beyond any reasonable doubt the grounds upon which Nabokov resisted natural selection gained currency during and after his hectic years of research at Harvard. As Stephen Jay Gould has written, Nabokov's skepticism toward Darwin's theory was shared by many of his contemporary professional biologists. Before the advent of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, they, too, had felt that Darwinian evolutionary models lacked full explanatory power: "when Nabokov wrote his technical papers in the 1940s, the modern Darwinian orthodoxy had not yet congealed, and a Nabokovian style of doubt remained quite common among evolutionary biologists, particularly among taxonomists immersed in the study of anatomical detail and geographic variation."

In support of their argument that Nabokov's anti-Darwinism was principally an issue of timing, Johnson and Coates refer to a public dispute between Nabokov and a fellow colleague. In a 1950 letter to the Lepidopterists' News, F. Martin Brown of the American Museum of Natural History took issue with the lists and tables Nabokov published in conjunction with his 1949 paper "Nearctic Members of the Genus Lycaeides." Brown argued that these tables, which recorded taxonomic characteristics such as wingscale counts, had not been submitted to proper statistical analysis and were therefore useless. Unfamiliar with the new discipline of biological statistics, Nabokov defended the methods that had preceded its advent and concluded with a non sequitur that could never have hoped to persuade Brown: "After all, natural science is responsible to philosophy—not to statistics." As Johnson and Coates point out, the possibilities of statistical analysis for the study of biological phenomena were being recognized and realized at the very moment that Nabokov's scientific work was drawing to a close. "The basic principles of statistics are not difficult to learn," they write, "and had Nabokov continued his academic career and developed his innovative scale-counting methods, it is reasonable to suppose that he would have learned them" (NB 330).

Johnson and Coates further speculate that Nabokov would have been receptive to the "elegant explanations of biological phenomena" that recent advances in genetics have made possible (NB 328–29). Dieter E. Zimmer endorses this argument when he suggests that Nabokov would have revised his views about mimicry

if he had seen the evidence coming in after he had quit his work as a research lepidopterist. His conception of evolutionary theory was still guided by nineteenth-century slogans like "struggle for life" and "survival of the fittest" which imply a creature single-mindedly fighting and sweating and toiling for subsistence without a minute to spare for non-utilitarian delights like art. Instead, evolution, far from being a deploy of "unskilled forces," has itself turned out to be refined and subtle and staggeringly complex.


Excerpted from Vladimir Nabokov and the Poetics of Liberalism by Dana Dragunoiu Copyright © 2011 by Northwestern University Press. Excerpted by permission of NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Note on Transliteration and Translation xiii

List of Abbreviations xv

Introduction: Speak, Father 3

Chapter 1 Homo Ludens, Homo Faber: Nabokov's Inexhaustible Gift 32

Chapter 2 Lolita and the Communists 82

Chapter 3 Kant's Eye: Ada, Art, Ethics 142

Chapter 4 Nabokov's Berkeley: Fantasy, History, and "the Splendor of Lone Thought" 186

Epilogue 223

Appendix A 231

Appendix B 232

Notes 233

Bibliography 283

Index 307

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