Nabokov or the Cruelty of Desire: A Psychoanalytic Reading
by Maurice Couturier

Nabokov's contempt for psychoanalysis and its founder, whom he called "the Viennese witch doctor," is notorious. In many interviews and in practically all the prefaces to the English translations of his Russian novels, he admonished critics who might be tempted to read his texts with Freudian glasses. His ironical and oft-repeated expostulations have discouraged his most venturesome exegetes from using this approach. Even Geoffrey Green, who wrote a little book entitled Freud and Nabokov, refrained from submitting Nabokov's texts to a Freudian exegesis, his chief objective being to show the similarity between the two authors in their approaches to writing: "The meeting place for Freud and Nabokov is their shared enterprise of writing. In exploring two writers I hope to suggest the way in which psychoanalysis, as exemplified by Freud, has become more subjective and literary, subject to critical interpretation, while fiction, as exemplified by Nabokov, has become more theoretical."1

Nabokov's open criticism of Freud and psychoanalysis has been subtly analyzed by Jenefer Shute in her article "Nabokov and Freud."2 Nabokov bitterly despised Freud's use of symbolism and his tendency to give so much importance to sex in his theories, a point which may seem amusing considering the quasi omnipresence of sex in Nabokov's own works. He systematically battled against what he held to be pseudo-scientific hermeneutics, and insisted that the artist is a superior being, the Kantian genius, unencumbered by the laws, either scientific, ethical or otherwise, to which ordinary mortals are subjected. His anti-Freudian offensive was all the more devastating in so far as his own novels are written in a dazzling style, and contain highly sophisticated narrative devices and snowballing stories, marking him as an authentic genius in comparison with the founder of psychoanalysis. These eminent qualities have so far discouraged the specialists of Nabokov from undertaking psychoanalytical studies of his works.

For many years, starting with my dissertation on the "enunciation of Nabokov's novels," I chose to comply with Nabokov's interdict concerning psychoanalysis, but I tried to circumvent it by studying the sophisticated discourses pervading his novels, applying to them such scientific or quasi-scientific tools as the linguistics of discourse, narratology, or aesthetic philosophy. At the same time, however, I felt the urge to study the plight of novelists from the eighteenth century to the present in order to unearth the determinism under which they labored. In Textual Communication: A Print-Based Theory of the Novel, I undertook to study the process of literary communication from the author's standpoint, taking into account his economic and social status, the constraints imposed and the latitude offered by the new printing and book-selling industry, the legislation and jurisprudence concerning copyrights and censorship, and I proposed an analysis of the narrative techniques invented by novelists as a response to the communication problems with which they were confronted.

After this historical escapade, I returned to my favorite novelist and decided that I would try to write an author-free poetic analysis of his novels, though I still lacked the confidence to transgress the author's interdict. As I was writing the book, however, I gradually realized that my text-based approach could not be maintained for long with impunity. In my conclusion, I reverted to the theory of communication that I had already proposed in Textual Communication, to justify the fact that, in my analysis of Nabokov's texts, I had inadvertently encountered palpable traces of the author, more specifically of the author's tyrannical desire to manipulate his reader. This led me to abandon the title I had given to Gérard Genette (the editor of the series in which the book was to appear) when I undertook to write the book, namely "Nabokov or the Rhetoric of the Present" and to switch to Nabokov or the Author's Tyranny, a clear acknowledgment of the unrest I had felt while writing the book. As I was deconstructing Nabokov's narrative discourse, I sensed more and more that I was laboring under a tyrannical law from which none of the hermeneutic tools I was using could unshackle me.

I had inadvertently collided with the law evolved by the author in his attempt to overcome the constraints I had studied in the previous book. From my textual communication theory, I now felt that I could salvage the arrows, the ones pointing rightwards which represent the process of poetic production, and the others pointing leftwards, those of critical reading. These arrows do not so much emulate Zeno's ardis as Cupid's bolt, to be sure. They are the vectors of antipodal as well as complicit desires: the author's desire, on the one hand, and the reader's desire, on the other hand. In my next two books, La Figure de l'auteur and in Roman et censure ou la mauvaise foi d'Eros, I attempted to show how the text as interface is the locus of a creative conflict of desire between the various agents involved in its production, circulation, and consumption, yet I resorted only marginally to psychoanalysis to support my theory.

Paradoxically, it was a book of aesthetic theory, Gérard Genette's La relation esthétique, which helped me reconcile my sometimes contradictory preoccupations and induced me to bring psychoanalysis to the rescue. Genette, drifting away from his narratological stance and launching a radical reflection, partly influenced by Arthur Danto's theories, on what constitutes an aesthetic relation, opens his book with an attempt to define aesthetic attention. This kind of attention implies that the object under consideration, be it natural or artefactual, be examined not in terms of the practical or functional usage it may have in the real world but for its intrinsic beauty (a beautiful landscape, a ready-made à la Duchamp, a poem by Rimbaud). This kind of attention, which he calls "aspectual," does not require that "aesthetic assessment be subordinated to an exhaustive examination."3 Following Shaftesbury and Kant, he insists on the intensely subjective but disinterested dimension of any aesthetic assessment.

The second part of his book deals precisely with aesthetic assessment and the criteria liable to be taken into consideration in any aesthetic judgment. Here is, perhaps, the key section of this part: "For an aesthetic relation to any object to take place, it is necessary and sufficient that a certain type of (aspectual) attention to that object trigger in one or many subjects an assessment of that object from the angle defined by the said attention; the presence or absence of any objective criterion liable to justify this assessment has evidently no weight upon the validity of this definition. For there to be a work of art, it is necessary and sufficient that a given object (or, more literally, that a producer, through that object) aims, exclusively or vicariously, to produce such an aesthetic assessment, preferably favorable."4 In this passage, the main elements of the interlocking communication I proposed earlier are present: one or many subjects' ambition to pass aesthetic judgment upon the object, and the aesthetic aspiration of not so much the object itself as its producer.

Genette's reflection reaches its full scope in the third part entitled "The artistic function": here Genette attempts to define what constitutes a work of art. Starting with a critical view of Beardsley's theory of the "intentional fallacy," he shows how important it is that an aesthetic intention be presupposed for an object (a sculpture in the shape of a rock, for instance, as opposed to a rock found in nature) be recognized as an artistic object liable to be submitted to an aesthetic assessment: "the kind of specific attention which imparts to an object the status of a work of art consists precisely in the allocation of an aesthetic intention to the producer of the object: just as an object is for me an aesthetic objet when I enter upon a relation with it of an aesthetic type, it is for me a work of art when, rightly or wrongly, I refer this relation to an authorial intention...."5 In this section, Genette refuses to take into consideration only the formal elements, emphasizing the plurality of the object: "Beardsley's objectivist formalism concurs with Goodman's nominalism in their common attitude which can eventually be characterized as immanentist.... As far as I am concerned, the plurality of the object, provided it is not restricted to its immanence, goes without saying."6 Genette also acknowledges the validity of the generic criteria; with Renan, he recognizes that "true admiration is historical" and even "twice historical, as a consequence both of the receiver's situation and of the situation the said receiver attributes to the work he admires--or despises."7

Genette, who played a prominent rôle in the French structuralist movement, attempted during the earlier part of his career to develop a science of literature, following the recommendations of his mentor, Roland Barthes, who was soon to jettison this utopian project. In Figures III, Genette proposed a sophisticated grammar of narrative discourse, using as his corpus the fictional work perhaps the least suited to his stated objective, Remembrance of Things Past. In those days, he believed in the "autonomy" of narrative instances, in the possibility of considering the narrator, homo- or hetero-diegetic, as totally cut off from the prime enunciator, to wit the author, an enterprise which was doomed to fail, as I tried to demonstrate in La Figure de l'auteur. Genette was himself an immanentist, in those days. Since then, he has abandoned his scientific ambition and turned to a more philosophical attitude towards the arts in general.

The notion of "disinterestedness" as defined by Kant needs to be reexamined. The artistic function of an object is not contained in itself: it results from the aesthetic attention brought to bear on the object and from the attribution of an artistic intention in its inventor or producer. These terms, however, are relevant only in a critical and philosophical perspective which is disinterested, to borrow Kant's terminology, that is, existing in the context of an aesthetic theory rather than that of a personal experience. Genette implicitly subscribed to Kant's theory of taste: "Taste is the ability to judge and appreciate an object or a mode of representation for satisfaction or displeasure, independently of any interest. One calls beautiful the object of such satisfaction."8 In his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche inveighed against this aspect of the Kantian theory, claiming that it presents the beautiful from the point of view of a disincarnate spectator: "If only the philosophers of the beautiful had known more intimately this 'spectator'! namely as a great reality, a great personal experience, as a plenum of events, desires, surprises, rapture, at once intense and singular in the purview of the beautiful!"9 Nietzsche argues that the beautiful is not the philosophers' preserve. Implicitly, he draws a distinction between an aesthetic theory, which is to be sure their private domain, and an aesthetic experience which inheres in the desiring subject. Genette, though he tries to define what constitutes the aesthetic relation, does not properly take this dimension into consideration. Aesthetic theory seeks impersonality and the consensus, whereas a singular aesthetic experience involves something more singular and private, the individual subject's desire, not only that of the receiver-spectator, however, as Nietzsche explains, but also that of the author, as I will now argue.

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English translation and adaptation, by the author, of the Introduction to his book Nabokov ou la cruauté du désir: lecture psychanalytique (Seyssel: Champ Vallon, c2004), ISBN 2876733919.

1. Freud and Nabokov (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1988), p. 6.

2. "Nabokov and Freud," in The Garland Companion to Nabokov, ed. by Vladimir E. Alexandrov (New York: Garland Publishing Inc., 1995).

3. La relation esthétique (Paris: Ed. du Seuil, Coll. Poétique, 1997), p. 18. My translation.

4. Ibid., p. 137.

5. Ibid., p. 172.

6. Ibid., p. 188.

7. Ibid., p. 228.

8. Kant, Critique de la faculté de juger, trad. fr. dire par Ferdinand Alquié (Paris: Gallimard, coll. "Folio Essais", 1989), p. 139.

9. La Généalogie de la morale (Paris: Gallimard, Collection Folio, 1985), p. 120.

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