Liberal Ironists and the 'Gaudily Painted Savage': On Richard Rorty's Reading of Vladimir Nabokov
by Leona Toker

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. That this darkness is caused merely by the walls of time separating me and my bruised fists from the free world of timelessness is a belief I gladly share with the most gaudily painted savage.1

The essay on Nabokov in Richard Rorty's Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity2 is important not only as a record of a powerful mind's journey of discovery but also as an implicit recognition that despite, or because of, Nabokov's rejection of affiliations and engagement, his works have captured some major issues on the modern cultural agenda--even if in ways not congenial to Rorty. Here, however, after discussing Rorty's valuable contribution to Nabokov's studies, I shall have to record a disagreement with some of his statements, or rather "sentences," on Nabokov.

Rorty may have expected some such protest. It is one of his central tenets that Truth does not exist "out there," beyond and apart from our constructions of it, or rather our vocabularies for redescribing reality (see esp. CIS 4-19). He regards each scientific or scholarly discipline, and each theory within that discipline, as just such a redescription, adding that "truth" is the property of sentences rather than whole vocabularies (CIS 7). Vocabularies can, however, be provisional, partial, unsatisfactory. The "liberal ironist" as conceived by Rorty (CIS xv), reads literary critics because he credits us with having "been around," with having "an exceptionally large range of acquaintance" with different vocabularies, and so with being "in a better position not to get trapped in a vocabulary of any single book" (CIS 80-81)--even, let us add for pragmatic consistency, if the book is by Rorty himself.


Following Judith Shklar's Ordinary Vices, Rorty defines a liberal as a person who believes that "cruelty is the worst thing we do" (CIS xv); Nabokov is then recognized as a liberal because he speaks out against cruelty. Rorty notes that there are two kinds of novels that do so: "Fiction like that of Dickens, Olive Schreiner, or Richard Wright gives us the details about kinds of suffering being endured by people to whom we have previously not attended. Fiction like that of Choderlos de Laclos, Henry James, or Nabokov gives us the details about what sorts of cruelty we ourselves are capable of, and thereby lets us redescribe ourselves" (CIS xvi). In other words, Nabokov's works deal less with victims than with victimizers, showing us why we can all find ourselves on the side of the hammer rather than the nail. According to Rorty, this is particularly true of Lolita and Pale Fire, the two novels which he considers Nabokov's "acme" (CIS 161n)--though, the question of artistic merit aside, the case of Van Veen of Ada would be more to the point than that of Pale Fire's Kinbote.

Rorty discusses Nabokov's thematic and rhetorical approaches to the issue of cruelty. The thematic approach consists in the portrayal of artists or quasi-artists who do not synthesize ecstasy with tenderness and, in their pursuit of ecstasy, do not care, or do not care enough, for the suffering of others. Thus, Rorty notes, Nabokov concentrates not on "the 'beastly farce' common to Lenin, Hitler, Gradus, and Paduk," but on "the special sort of cruelty of which those capable of bliss are also capable," on the possibility "that there can be sensitive killers, cruel aesthetes, pitiless poets--masters of imagery who are content to turn the lives of other human beings into images on a screen, while simply not noticing that these other people are suffering" (CIS 157). Indeed, the theme of a clash between one's aesthetic or metaphysical pursuits and one's moral commitments runs through the whole of Nabokov's oeuvre; it finds its highest expression in Humbert, the seeker of ecstasy. For Nabokov, aesthetic bliss is bound up with "curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy."3 "Notice that 'curiosity' comes first," comments Rorty (CIS 158) and goes on to discuss Humbert as a monster of incuriosity. To illustrate Humbert's "inattentiveness to anything irrelevant to his own obsessions" (CIS 163), Rorty quotes the following sentence from Lolita: "In Kasbeam a very old barber gave me a very mediocre haircut: he babbled of a baseball-playing son of his, and, at every explodent, spat into my neck, and every now and then wiped his glasses on my sheet-wrap, or interrupted his tremulous scissor work to produce new paper clippings, and so inattentive was I that it came as a shock to realize as he pointed to an easeled photograph among the ancient gray lotions, that the mustached young ball player had been dead the last thirty years."4

The rhetorical procedure (this is our jargon--Rorty does not call it names) consists in reader entrapment: Rorty puts most literary critics to shame by connecting the scattered references to Dolly's dead little brother with the reference to happy normal child Avis Bird's chubby little brother at home. He shows that the incuriosity with which Humbert treats the Kasbeam barber is also evinced by ourselves if, preoccupied with other things, we do not understand that Charlotte really mourned the loss of her younger child and that, for Dolly, the inaccessible normal family life would come to be represented not only by Avis's healthy pink dad but also by the little brother. It is not only Humbert but the reader too who is found guilty of "incuriosity," or of downright obtuseness to suffering. Rorty notes: "The reader, suddenly revealed to himself as, if not hypocritical, at least cruelly incurious, recognizes his semblable, his brother, in Humbert and Kinbote. Suddenly Lolita does have a 'moral in tow.' But the moral is not to keep one's hands off little girls but to notice what one is doing, and in particular to notice what people are saying. For it might turn out, it very often does turn out, that people are trying to tell you that they are suffering. Just insofar as one is preoccupied with building up to one's private kind of sexual bliss, like Humbert, or one's private aesthetic bliss, like the reader of Lolita who missed that sentence about the barber the first time around, people are likely to suffer still more" (CIS 163-64).

What Rorty has described here, more with the case of Dolly's brother than with that of the barber's dead son, and still more with the connection between the two, is a set of conditions that Nabokov creates for a self-referential turn in reader response--from reading the text to reading and "redescribing" oneself. Such a turn is an interpretive strategy which modern literary criticism seeks to turn into a reading convention.

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(This essay originally appeared in Nabokov Studies #1 [1994]. It is reprinted here with the permission of the editors.)

1. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (New York: Putnam, 1966), p. 14.

2. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989. The book will hereafter be referred to as CIS with page numbers given in the text. Several scholars have already used Rorty's discussion of Nabokov in their work; see John Burt Foster, Jr., "Not T. S. Eliot, but Proust: Revisionary Modernism in Nabokov's Pale Fire," Comparative Literature Studies, 28 (1991), 67 n25; Julian W. Connolly, Nabokov's Early Fiction: Patterns of Self and Other (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1992), p. 7; and David Rampton, "The Last Word in Nabokov Criticism," Cycnos 10 (1993): 159-65.

3. Vladimir Nabokov, The Annotated Lolita, ed. Alfred Appel (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970), p. 317.

4. Ibid., p. 215.

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