Thursday, March 21, 2013

Nabokov's Schopenhauer - the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life

I’m still hung up on the influence of Schopenhauer.  A couple of case studies, one today, one tomorrow, cases that surprised me.

I have read biographies about Vladimir Nabokov, and criticism of his work, and his own criticism, yet I had missed his interest in Arthur Schopenhauer.  One might think that the affinity comes from the high value they both place on art, but no, only in part.  This is Schopenhauer:

To our amazement we suddenly exist, after having for countless millennia not existed; in a short while we will again not exist, also for countless millennia.  That cannot be right, says the heart: and even upon the crudest intelligence there must, when it considers such an idea, dawn a presentiment of the ideality of time.  (Essays and Aphorisms, 51)

And this is how Nabokov begins his memoir Speak, Memory (1951):

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.  Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).  (19 of the Vintage paperback)

Then the passage gets really good  (“in the reverse course of events, his very bones had disintegrated”), but I only need that first part.  Samuel Beckett has an earthier variation on the theme in Waiting for Godot.

The correspondences are between the metaphysics of Schopenhauer and Nabokov, in that both are deeply concerned with the realm beyond life.  Schopenhauer sounds a lot like Lucretius to me, arguing that our personalities dissolve back into the Will from which they came, and that if this is seen as nothingness it is only a failure of imagination.  Or so I weakly interpret him.  How about his own words:

All this means, to be sure, that life can be regarded as a dream and death as the awakening from it: but it must be remembered that the personality, the individual, belongs to the dreaming and not to the awakened consciousness, which is why death appears to the individual as annihilation.  In any event, death is not, from this point of view, to be considered a transition to a state completely new and foreign to us, but rather a return to one originally our own from which life has been only a brief absence.  (70)

Schopenhauer’s advice is to “accept the two black voids.”  That phrase is Nabokov’s.  He refuses:

I rebel against this state of affairs.  I feel the urge to take my rebellion outside and picket nature.  Over and over again, my mind has made colossal efforts to distinguish the faintest of personal glimmers in the impersonal darkness on both sides of my life.  (SM, 20)

I have come across critics who are uncomfortable with this side of Nabokov, when the elegant aesthete reveals that he believes, or would like to believe, in ghosts, when the brilliant lepidopterist turns out to accept some form of Intelligent Design.  His fiction is full of spirits like the Vane sisters and Hazel Shade, delivering messages from beyond.  Or perhaps the messages are false, the ghosts imaginary, since his characters so often misread or cannot see the elaborate patterns being constructed around them by a force mysterious to them, but not to the attentive reader.  How many of Nabokov’s novels end with a character escaping his suffering or madness by escaping into death or art or whatever that is at the end of Invitation to a Beheading, where Cincinnatus dies and awakens from his dream?  Professor Pnin survives by fleeing his own novel, which is a good trick.

Lest anyone think a) I am making this all up, or b) there is an opportunity to write a more formal study along these lines, I will direct your attention to Leona Toker’s Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures (Cornell UP, 1989) which is full of Schopenhauer.  She includes (p. 120) a quotation The World as Will and Representation that neatly summarizes much of Nabokov’s work, and for that matter a great deal of fiction: “The life of every individual, viewed as a whole and in general, and when only its most significant features are emphasized, is really a tragedy; but gone through in detail it has the character of a comedy.”


  1. That's quite some coincidence you've found there.

    I wonder if Nabokov's obsession with Schopanhauer isn't why he had such contempt for Freud. (Freud himself apparently, having the influence of Schopanhauer on his work pointed out to him, claimed he'd never read any - but now he did read it, was surprised how much of his work was already in Schopanhauer. Of course, the fact that he'd never read any Schopanhauer does not necessarily correlate with not being influenced by him).

  2. Another possibility is that Nabokov is pulling his ideas from a shared source, or an in-between source like Henri Bergson (who I don't know at all).

    Schopenhauer is mentioned here and there in Nabokov's work (in The Gift, for example), but in an understated way, not at all like the frequent parody and mockery of Freud. So either Schopenhauer is really important and therefore veiled, or not important at all.

    This curious exchange, reported by Dmitri Nabokov (and also mentioned in Boyd's biography (Vol. 2), puts a little more weight on the "important" side of the scale.

    Poking around in the work of Schopenhauer scholars, it is pretty clear that they think Freud was - I need a polite word - dissimulating. I don't know what the Freud scholars think.

  3. Anxiety of Influence is a good description.

  4. Love the curious exchange from DN. It's rebuttal to a reported comment in an email on a forum about a remembered event with a third person (now deceased) has very Nabakovian feel to it.

    There is a fairly simple explanation why Nabakov would like Schopenhauer, yet hate Freud, despite their similarity. Schopenhauer had no followers and left no school. When you read Schopenhauer it is his own work.

    Freud, on the contrary, had many followers and spawned several competing schools. As often happens when a person becomes an "-ism" their ideas become watered down, bastardized and eventually popularized. Much of what parades itself as "Freud" has little or nothing to do with the man or his work. Unless one digs carefully it is hard know the difference.

    From what I have seen in interviews, Nabakov is reacting to this popularized notion of Freud. More specifically the heinous strand of Psychoanalytic literary interpretation that was popular at the time and inflicted on Nabakov in general and Lolita in particular. Schopenhauer, on the other hand, inspired no school of insipid cookie-cutter literary interpretation to shame his memory.

  5. Yes, exactly, VN's core argument was really with Freudians more than Freud.

  6. I feel like Nabakov's public persona is just another one of his carefully controlled literary characters. Commentary, interpretation and meaning are key themes in Nabakov and his "hatred" of Freud is just part of that game. Pale Fire's parapraxes "korona/vorona/korova," commenting on Freud's "Kronprinz/Kornprinz/Knorprinz" from the Introductory Lectures, is just one example that makes it is hard for me to believe Nabakov wasn't, privately at least, very much interested in Freud.

  7. I think Nabokov scholars have pretty well established that VN was well-read in Freud. He fought from a position of knowledge.

  8. Certainly. I was suggesting their might also be reason to see something like begrudging affection.

  9. Now I believe you are challenging the scholarly consensus, at least as it appears to me on the Nabokov listserv. There are clearly a number of areas where the enemies converge.

    I see that a book by Stephen Blackwell, The Quill and the Scalpel: Nabokov's Art and the Worlds of Science (Ohio State UP, 2009) has a chapter on the subject that I should inspect.

  10. I always assumed, without looking into it, that Nabokov's contempt for Freud had the same cause as his hatred of politics in novels, that it was all down to something traumatic in his childhood that got lodged in his subconscious.

  11. I always assumed his Freudbeschäden was born of frustration with lazy critics doing "readings." If critics had harped on about the Schopenhauerian themes of his novel, I could see old Vlad grousing about that willful cloudheaded clod of Danzig. That's admittedly a pretty facile way of approaching Nabokov's criticism, and perhaps just an excuse to not think about what he said.

  12. obooki, you may have made a contribution to the novel Bailey is currently writing.

    A little irony here is that everyone is doing to Nabokov exactly what everyone does to Schopenhauer. I haven't mentioned it, but on the subject of women Schopenhauer is an unpleasant crank. Supporters explain some of it away as a reaction to his mother, who he found insufferable, although her great crimes seem to have been outliving her husband and becoming a successful novelist.


  13. There's this little anecdote about the literary rivalry between Schopenhauer and his mother. He told her that his World as Will and as Idea will still be selling when her name had been completely forgotten. She replied: you're right son, the entire first edition of your book will still be up for sale.

  14. That anecdote is so good I hope it is true.

  15. I guarantee that it's true or your money back :) . I actually got it from the preface to the old Spanish translation by Ovejero and Mauri.