Thursday, April 28, 2011

On My Grudging Disrespect for Nabokov and His Cheval Mirror

Pale FirePale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

I recently returned to Pale Fire after leaving it unfinished over ten years ago.  I returned not least because the sage Robert Alter commended it and quoted from it this brilliant passage on mirrors:

He awoke to find her standing with a comb in her hand before his--or rather, his grandfather's--cheval glass, a triptych of bottomless light, a really fantastic mirror, signed with a diamond by its maker, Sudarg of Bokay.  She turned about before it: a secret device of reflection fathered an infinite number of nudes in its depths, garlands of girls in graceful and sorrowful groups, diminishing in the limpid distance, or breaking into individual nymphs, some of whom, she murmured, must resemble her ancestors when they were young--little peasant garlien combing their hair in shallow water as far as the eye could reach, and then the wistful mermaid from an old tale, and then nothing.  pp. 111-112.

The 999-line poem in heroic couplets that begins Pale Fire is a technical achievement with many stirring images (like the first one, which has long been stuck in my head: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure in the windowpane”).  But I had not understood the conceit that makes up the rest of the book: the fictional academic Charles Kinbote annotates the poem, which is by his neighbor John Shade, and Kinbote’s endnotes have little to do with the poem and more to do with Kinbote’s bizarre remembrances of his homeland, a Baltic kingdom called Zembla.  But according to Alter, the two parts of the book are in fact connected.  Alter suggests that the commentaries should be read as a distorted reflection of the poem, Kinbote as a distorted reflection of Shade, both figures as distorted reflections of their creator, Nabokov.  Alter points out that while Nabokov has drawn Kinbote as a farcical figure, he’s also just like Nabokov in an important way: he’s a fugitive from his homeland, living out his post-exilic life in the United States, haunted by nostalgia for his home.  (Nabokov’s family fled Russia in 1919, when he was 20, in order to escape the Bolshevik Revolution.)  On pp. 191-192 of Partial Magic, Alter’s study of the self-conscious novel, he comments on Nabokov’s passage on the cheval mirror (which is a full-length tilting mirror on a stand, or 'horse,' thus 'cheval'):

[C]onsciousness, as the example of Joyce’s technique must remind us, is essentially built up out of the infinite laminations of what the individual has seen, felt, read, fantasized in the past, however attuned he may be to the present moment.  The mirror itself here is a legacy of the past, not properly King Charles’s but his grandfather’s….  [A]s she [Fleur] observes herself transfigured in multiple reflection, we are moved further back in time into a legendary past where pastoral ancestors preen themselves by still waters.

It began to seem to me that Pale Fire was an examination of the structure of consciousness as a sort of cheval mirror: consciousness reflects reality but also tips it in its own direction, according to its own machinery.  If the commentaries were meant to mirror the poem and Kinbote to mirror Shade, I thought, then perhaps Pale Fire was really as brilliant as its adherents said.  Maybe the poem part of the book was meant to be the naturalistic and conscious way of seeing and reflecting reality, while Kinbote’s farcical commentaries were meant to be an expressionistic way of seeing and reflecting the same thing.  And in that case, maybe all that crazy rambling in the commentaries had a real meaning.  Maybe all the mirrors everywhere in the book were not postmodern symbols of infinite regression to nothing, but rather modernist symbols of the multiplicative meaning-making powers of the mind and of art.  (I alliterate in mirroring deference to Nabokov's style--and because it just came out that way.)  So, armed with 40 pages of Alter’s interpretations, I went back to Pale Fire with renewed enthusiasm and note-taking pen in hand.

Mirrors were in fact everywhere, starting with the title, Pale Fire.  Alter points out that Nabokov borrowed the phrase from a passage in Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, Act IV sc iii, ll. 440-441: “…the moon’s an arrant thief, / And her pale fire she snatches from the sun….”  He points out that the name of the glassmaker referred to in the passage above, Sudarg of Bokay, is a near mirror image of the name of the assassin who pursues Kinbote throughout his semi-fantastical memories: Jakob Gradus.  It occurred to me, furthermore, that the name of Kinbote’s fantastical kingdom, Zembla, must be derived from the word ‘resemble.’

I was excited about all those mirrors as I read and hunted for meanings in their reflections.  I confess, however, that what had seemed elegant, artful, beautiful, and meaningful in Alter’s account, was upon actual reading elegant, yes, artful and beautiful, yes, but mostly not very meaningful and on top of that extremely tedious and irritating.  While both Kinbote and Shade have lost their parents prematurely, Nabokov does very little with this subject, or any other of psychological importance to his characters, and instead scatters his attention in a million different directions, introducing new characters every other page.

I wanted to like Nabokov.  He has Joyce’s gift for allusion and Woolf’s poetic sense.  But in my view—a view that could be wrong, but derives at least from serious consideration—Nabokov lacks the courage and character of both of his modernist forebears.  He can’t sustain his gaze on the complexities of reality for the duration of an entire novel, but would rather spin the mirror around and around.  I suspect that if he let it come to rest, he’d see something he didn’t want to see.

Monday, April 18, 2011

In Pursuit of Tranquillity

Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory ReadingsHellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings by Brad Inwood

A.D. Nuttall, the Oxford literature professor, has observed that ancient philosophy falls into two periods--the first being that of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the second being the generation that followed: Epicurus, Zeno (father of Stoicism), skeptics like Pyrrho, and others.  Socrates died in 399 B.C.E., but the rest lived and wrote mostly in the 4th century B.C.E. (I mean the 300s B.C.E.).  "Hellenistic Philosophy" refers to this post-Aristotelian group, whose ideas, like those of their forebears, were spread far and wide by the Romans.  Few of Epicurus's many works are extant and Pyrrho, for reasons that will become evident if you read about his philosophy, refused to write anything down--an approach that would have been preferable in the work of a great many other philosophers.  Consequently, much of what is known of the Hellenistic philosophers comes down to us through the Roman commentators like Diogenes Laertius, and it's these commentaries which make up most of the texts in Inwood and Gerson's anthology.

Nuttall writes of the Hellenistic philosophers, "In the second period a strange alteration comes over the philosophers: they now present themselves as purveyors of mental health.  It is as if some immense failure of nerve, a kind of generalized neurosis, swept through the ancient world, so that the most serious thinkers found that their most urgent task was not to inform or enlighten but to heal.  They begin to sound like psychiatrists."  They promise ataraxia, that is, tranquillity.  (It looks more promising in the original Greek characters.)

Does anybody read this stuff anymore?  They should.  The proffered path to tranquillity differs greatly between philosophers; Epicurus urges understanding through study and analysis of nature--methods that would later be called science.  He feels this is the way to dispel anxiety and fear and achieve tranquillity (there is little in the actual philosophy of Epicurus to do with hedonism per se).  Other philosophers seek relief from reality in skeptical denial of it or in a denial of one's passions (homey don't play that).

The dialectic between knowledge and denial, these differing strategies of mental pain management, is still unfolding.  As Wolverine of the X-Men says, "There's a war coming.  Are you sure you're on the right side?"

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Greatness of George Eliot

Middlemarch (Signet Classics)Middlemarch by George Eliot

"That greatness is here we can have no doubt," Virginia Woolf wrote of George Eliot in 1919, a century after Eliot was born (and christened with the name Mary Anne Evans).  "[A]s we recollect all that she dared and achieved ... we must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose."  It's a fitting eulogy for one of the greatest English novelists of the 19th century.  Though Woolf criticized Eliot as sometimes verbose and inelegant, she also rightly proclaimed Middlemarch "the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people."  Rebecca Mead, writing in The New Yorker adds that it's "also a book about how to be a grownup person--about how to bear one's share of sorrow, failure, and loss, as well as to enjoy moments of hard-won happiness."  Though Eliot was hugely famous in her lifetime, and to my mind deserved every bit of it, she wrote straight-out against fame.  She was just too wise and experienced to believe that the world justly rewards merit.  The characters of Middlemarch clearly have merit--they have moral fiber and they have genius, even--but their merit usually exceeds what they're recognized to have achieved.  Lydgate, for instance, is a young doctor whose brilliant thinking brings him close to the discovery of the cell as one of the organizing principles of life.  He doesn't discover it, but it's no fault of his.  He isn't a tragic figure ruined by his vices.  He's a hero.  He's the hero with whom history wouldn't cooperate.

The authors of the Hebrew Bible, Homer, Tolstoy, George Eliot: these writers know well the unpredictable wooly mammoth that is history, an animal that's bigger than the human will.  The human will plays a part, yes, but time, history, physics, accident, these unfeeling inhuman forces have equal power over human destiny.  Of her character Mary Garth, Eliot writes, "having early had strong reason to believe that things were not likely to be arranged for her peculiar satisfaction, she wasted no time in astonishment and annoyance at that fact." (p. 349)   And the proximity of other human wills holds powerful sway over an individual's fortunes.  Eliot examines the institution of marriage as a case study of such influence of one person on another, an influence that can be both enlarging and delimiting.  "In half an hour he left the house an engaged man, whose soul was not his own, but the woman's to whom he had bound himself," she writes of Lydgate (p. 336).  Society, too, looms large as a potential frustration to the individual will--society, with all its lies and errors.  All these forces arrayed against the vulnerable little wishes of the human individual seem to combine in Eliot’s mind to inspire the final lines of her masterpiece, Middlemarch:

Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it. A new Theresa will hardly have the opportunity of reforming a conventual life, any more than a new Antigone will spend her heroic piety in daring all for the sake of a brother’s burial: the medium in which their ardent deeds took shape is forever gone. But we insignificant people with our daily words and acts are preparing the lives of many Dorotheas, some of which may present a far sadder sacrifice than that of the Dorothea whose story we know.

Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Cyrus broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Developmental biology seems to function as a controlling metaphor for Eliot in this account of life.  (Her ability to integrate disparate characters and storylines through sustained metaphor is one of her great attributes as a writer.)  In her prose embryonic potential everywhere meets a world that is foreign to it and that directs its growth as the soil and light direct the growth of a tree.

So we do what we can, and have George Eliot to console us about the frustration, the unfairness, the despair—and also to inspire us with the greatness that ambition and accumulated skill can truly achieve, even in a complex and unaccommodating world.  She avers the power of the human will, particularly as it manifests itself in language, by her example of course, but also more directly: “The right word is always a power, and communicates its definiteness to our action,” she writes not six lines from her somewhat pessimistic account of Lydgate’s engagement on p. 336.  It’s up to us to speak and act with definite purpose.  The world’s reaction is not our affair.

Monday, April 4, 2011

From Fish to Philosopher

From Fish to PhilosopherFrom Fish to Philosopher by Homer William Smith

"Urine is the stuff of philosophy," says Homer Smith.  And if you read him, you'll agree.  In fact, I believe every person who wants to understand fully what a living thing is, what a human being is, should read this book.

Published in the 1950s and reissued in 1961 by the American Museum of Natural History in New York--now a very rare book--this is the best treatise I know on the development of life on earth.  It's a physiologist's history of the evolution of the organs, with special attention to the kidney, and if you read it you'll understand why the kidney gets top billing.  (The kidney is the principal organ of homeostasis--look it up.)   While this is biology in the form of a thrilling odyssey through time, I'll also warn you that Smith doesn't shy away from full explanation and detail; that may make parts of it daunting or in some cases inaccessible without certain ancillary studies in physiology.  (But do those popular simplifications ever make any sense anyway?)  That said, it's nothing like those arrogant tracts in wall-to-wall math symbols I get through those Scientific American deals.  I think Smith works in an ideal middle ground, where he doesn't condescend to his readers by imagining that they can't understand what he does, and yet writes clearly and comprehensibly.  He writes well-enough not to have to pretend that the English language is insufficient to convey all he knows.  His style influenced me in the writing of my physiology text.

Called "a broad epic of life" by George Gaylord Simpson, a Harvard paleontologist who is by now likely a fossil himself, From Fish to Philosopher explains how we got the way we are, how our bodies and our minds too, derive from and record a long, long history of adaptation to the conditions of this crust of earth we call home.

You can download it for free or read it online here: