Thursday, December 16, 2010

Bend it Like Nabokov, i.e. Sinisterly (Part II)

So there is more, for starters. I attached "part I" to the title of my II part Nabokov "Bend Sinister" postings for a reason: there are II parts! Also, in this post I'm operating on the assumption that you've at least some familiarity with the previous part of this II parter, ya know? So don't act like you're not following me, especially when I gave you all this good fair warning. Same as before, spoilers are basically a given. Now, less ado and more Nabokov.

Here's what I think:

Nabokov slides in these oh so interesting morsels, narrative digressions that compound his novels with amusing, shrewdly crafted ideas to marvel in wonderment at, and from which to attempt to then divine meaning. Analysis of Shakespeare's "Hamlet" by Adam Krug and his friend, fellow academic and pedant, Ember, is one such instance of this, beginning more or less on page 105 of my edition. The thrust of this narrative digression is: what value might be attributable to pursuing high-minded interests in the midst of widespread suffering? The odd nature of such an endeavor described best here:

Nature had once produced an Englishman whose domed head had been a hive of words; a man who had only to breathe on any particle of his stupendous vocabulary to have that particle live and expand and throw out tremulous tentacles until it became a complex image with a pulsing brain and correlated limbs. Three centuries later, another man, in another country was trying to render these rhythms and metaphors in a different tongue. This process entailed a prodigious amount of labour, for the necessity of which no real reason could be given. It was as if someone, having seen a certain oak tree (further called Individual T) growing in a certain land and casting its own unique shadow on the green and brown ground, had proceeded to erect in his garden a prodigiously intricate piece of machinery which in itself was as unlike that or any other tree as the translator's inspiration and language were unlike those of the original author, but which, by means of ingenious combinations of parts, light effects, breeze-engendering engines, would, when completed, cast a shadow exactly similar to that of Individual T . . .

There's more to the above quotation but I think that adequately tells its gist (gist used ironically here). The above is also a quote drawn from the exhaustive analysis of Krug, reacting to the nature of Ember's translating Shakespeare into the native. Yes, it is spectacularly well done, as Krug later remarks to Ember, but its relevance, not just in their society but in any society, is called to question. What is the point of such elaborate simulacra? What about the fact that Ember doesn't even know who's running the country, Paduk, as elucidated by the following quote, "To stress the artist's detachment from life, Ember says he does not know and does not care to know (a telltale dismissal) who this Paduk -- bref, la personne en question -- is." I mean, when does artistic, intellectual esotericism go too far? When it, however indirectly, threatens your life, I should think. Of course, like all those others who surround Krug, Ember is shortly after taken away by Hustav and the state police. Krug, for all his recondite and analytical abilities (which likewise are brought into the realm of ambiguity), does not take heed of the foreboding quality of these arrests. He still believes himself perfectly insulated by his high-standing as a figure of world renown. One suspects a man like Martin Heidegger probably saw himself in a similar sense, even though no one can be bigger than the state in a totalitarian society.

People, academic people mostly, like to imagine that if we aren't presently on such a track than perhaps some day we might transition to a world of perfect enlightenment, of free thought and exchange of ideas without the baggage of personal prejudice, yet without much difficulty, as fiction writers and philosophers have presciently demonstrated, the perpetuation of totalitarian creeds is just as likely a scenario from this vantage of human evolution. We are as susceptible as we were seventy years ago in Nazi Germany (one need only note the popularity of sloganeering in the politics, the shoddy distillation of news and the stultification of the two-party system here in the good ol' USofA to see we, i.e. human beings and specifically Americans, are quite at risk).

As Hannah Arendt notes in her opening line to part three of her seminal work, "The Origins of Totalitarianism," -- "Nothing is more characteristic of the totalitarian movement in general and of the quality of fame of their leaders in particular than the startling swiftness with which they are forgotten and the startling ease with which they can be replaced." In other words, if totalitarian heads of state won't stand the test of time in governments of their personal contrivance or, at least, reflective of their massive influence, how could anyone else hope to maintain an individual identity amid the thronging tide of The Masses, the one and only identity extant under a totalitarian regime. Food for thought, I suppose. I don't want the preceding to be viewed as alarmist or, worse, dripping with cynicism apropos of the human condition, but just simply to point out that no one should assume with the rise of so much grandiose technology and the ability to disseminate information faster and more broadly than ever before, that that necessarily means a more enlightened future for mankind. Quite the opposite is still very possible.

Anyway, to return from the preceding lengthy digression, and to return the lengthy digression into a more clearly applicable aspect of the subject matter at hand (i.e. "Bend Sinister"), Krug is operating on this rather false supposition that insists his personal importance in a totalitarian state. True but not too true, as the inchoate totalitarian state of Padukgrad will soon teach him.

Another of Nabokov's more fascinating digressions is the question of what I'll refer to as the presumed venerability of a well-regarded thinker. As it happens, I read a lot of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a thinker who has forced me to question what is valid, certainly what is certain, more times than I can now list. What's more, he begs by his own skillful linguistic philosophy to be questioned. That's not to say I consider him overrated or anything. In fact, it's for his very ability to question everything, including the correctness of his own personal certainty, and to labor over such ideas in lengthy meditations, that I find him, paradoxically perhaps, one of the most introspectively recondite thinkers of all time.

Krug, if he has any affinity at all to the features of Wittgenstein I note above, it's that he, too, sees a worthy question in his presumed validity. Most evocative of this idea, of this instability of his venerability, is found on pages 172-3, and with the following quotes, "He was constantly being called one of the most eminent philosophers of his time but he knew that nobody could really define what special features his philosophy had, or what 'eminent' meant or what 'his time' exactly was, or who were the other worthies." And then, likewise, ". . . he had begun regarding himself (robust rude Krug) as an illusion or rather as a shareholder in an illusion which was highly appreciated by a great number of cultured people (with a generous sprinkling of semi-cultured ones)." Most likely, in this one can see something relatable to Wittgenstein's reference to his own understanding in "On Certainty" -- "Is my understanding only blindness to my own lack of understanding? It often seems so to me." Is anyone's?

"Bend Sinister" ends in tragedy because it must end in tragedy. There are no two ways about it. Krug has sinned against not only and quite obviously the state but everything that rationality suggests. He is guilty of an abstruse kind of vanity that prevents him from taking the proper course to escaping the country. Yet it is not immediately he who pays for this, or rather, it is only tangentially he who pays for this first. His son, Daniel, the apple of his eye, is the one who first suffers. Daniel comes to great harm when Krug is finally apprehended by the state police. His boy is sent to a state correctional facility for the criminally insane and Krug is presumably sent to a prison for political dissidents. It's expected Krug will hold out indefinitely and refuse to sign whatever document acceding his full endorsement of Padukgrad. But, despite countless examples throughout the novel of the great and selfless lengths Krug will go to protect his child, the Ekwilists do not understand the power of this bond until it is far too late. Krug in no time at all says he will sign whatever they like with the only provision being the immediate return of his son.

As mentioned previously, however, Daniel is sent to a correctional facility for the criminally insane. Krug soon learns that Daniel was made use of in the most callous fashion imaginable, as an expendable unit intended to absorb the release of the inmates' worst desires, violent and so forth. The facility operated on the theory that if an inmate were able to indulge in his / her compulsive needs in measured doses, with the use of individuals of no particular societal importance (orphaned children mostly), then (s)he may be rendered less a threat to society at large. Thus is Daniel murdered, and thus is Krug swallowed up by grief so powerful it drives him to insanity, leading to a darkly, grimly humorous finale demonstrative of all that is best about Nabokov's fantastically unique storytelling.

Holy crap, this is a good book!


  1. Oh.. this is such a brilliant blog and I am so glad I discovered this post just hours after I finished Bend Sinister.

  2. Thank you, kindly! Always appreciate a nice word about the things I say round here.