Liberal Ironists and the 'Gaudily Painted Savage': On Richard Rorty's Reading of Vladimir Nabokov
by Leona Toker
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My protest is about three things: (1) Rorty's pointing to cruelty rather than callousness as the main target of Nabokov's fiction, (2) the conclusions that Rorty draws from Nabokov's remarks on aesthetic experience, and (3) his comments on Nabokov's conjoining, as it were, literary immortality with metaphysical, or "literal," immortality.

1. By way of introducing the first of these three subjects, let us note that Lolita creates conditions for quite a number of self-referential twists on the part of the audience. For instance, on the first reading of the episode in the Enchanted Hunters Hotel we tend to share Humbert's obtuseness concerning Dolly's need to talk to him about her sexual experience in camp Q. Here, however, when we come to understand the undercurrent meaning that, like Humbert, we formerly overlooked, we have to admit that the reason for this "incuriosity" may have been not the pursuit of "aesthetic bliss" but, quite possibly, a voyeuristic anticipation of a sexual scene.5 Humbert waives Dolly's inchoate confessions as irrelevant infantile nonsense, and on the first reading we tend to do the same. In Humbert's case (and this is also true of Van Veen in Ada, Kinbote in Pale Fire, and Ganin in Mary), neglect of another person's inner conflicts or suffering occurs not only when that person is "safely solipsized"6 but also, and mainly, when his or her interests or experience hinder, or are irrelevant to, one's own pursuit of ecstasy, transcendent insight, or success in practical endeavor. The vice that this neglect stands for is not cruelty but callousness. Cruelty is a deliberate rejection of pity; callousness is absence of pity owing either to plain insensitivity or to a deliberate suppression of awareness. One of Nabokov's approximate definitions of art was "beauty plus pity."7

For Rorty cruelty seems to mean not just a deliberate infliction of pain but also any sort of insensitivity to the suffering of another; it thus overlaps with callousness. But such an expansion of the term subverts the point contained in the definition of a "liberal." For Judith Shklar a liberal is a person who places cruelty first in the list of the worst vices because cruelty causes fear, and fear destroys freedom.8 Callousness does not have such a direct effect on freedom, though it often functions as a tacit accomplice of cruelty. One could argue that some kinds of callousness are actually very cruel--this would apply, first and foremost, to one's ignoring that suffering of another which one is actually causing.9 This kind of callousness is an attribute of what one calls "brutality,"10 but a "liberal" would still hesitate to put it first in the list of vices. Nabokov did speak out against cruelty (in particular, against torture), and he did present some of his protagonists as brutal, yet the vice that is most keenly targeted in his work is insensitivity to any kind of suffering, whatever its cause.11 This does not mean that callousness was the vice that he hated most: the worst crimes are sometimes regarded as philosophically uninteresting because there are no extenuating circumstances for them--as there may be for callousness, the often elaborate background of this century's mass atrocities.

2. Rorty objects to Nabokov's dismissive attitude to writers like Orwell or Zola who seek to negotiate social change by evoking moral outrage at social evils. He quotes Nabokov's statement that "the study of the sociological or political impact of literature has to be devised mainly for those who are by temperament or education immune to the aesthetic vibrancy of authentic literature, for those who do not experience the telltale tingle between the shoulder-blades."12 Here what Nabokov says is that the aesthetic enjoyment of artistic detail is not rational; it is figuratively that he therefore locates it not in the head but in the spine.13 Yet he further offends by saying that "that little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science."14 It is impossible to disagree with Rorty that this dictum "spells out the relevant sense of the term 'pure'" and is quite compatible with saying that "the ability to shudder with shame and indignation at the unnecessary death of a child . . . is the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained while evolving modern social and political institutions" (CIS 147)--though in fact one should shudder at much less than that. However, in the ensuing discussion Rorty chooses to take Nabokov's "Housmanian" metaphor literally and reduce it ad absurdum: "Orwell shares some important purposes with Dickens (produces shudders of indignation, arousing revulsion and shame), and Nabokov shares others (producing tingles, aesthetic bliss)" (CIS 148); "here we are not told merely . . . that 'pure art and pure science' culminate in such tingling trifles. We are told that these tingles are 'the highest form of consciousness'" (CIS 148); "if you want your books to be read . . . you should try to produce tingles rather than truth. . . . Truths are the skeletons which remain after the capacity to arouse the senses--to cause tingles--has been rubbed off by familiarity and long usage" (CIS 152). In the text of a philosopher who has an amazing way with words, this repetitiveness is not accidental.

The sexual connotations of the last example are probably not accidental either, but connotations become almost lethal when Rorty refers to "people whose brains are not wired up to produce tingles, but who are, for example, good at producing shudders of moral indignation" (CIS 151). Here the vocabulary is suspiciously reminiscent of the image of the electrode operator in J. J. C. Smart's defense of utilitarianism: somewhat uneasily, J. J. C. Smart describes "the voluptuary of the future," a person with "a number of electrodes protruding from his skull, one to give the physical pleasure of sex, one for that of eating, one for that of drinking."15 Rorty's Nabokov is one of "special sorts of people" who have "specially wired brains" (CIS 153n)--Rorty needs this unfortunate metaphor to demystify such obscurantist notions as talent, inspiration, intuition. And despite the compliment that Rorty soon afterwards pays Nabokov by treating him as one of us liberal ironists, the passages just quoted gel into a caricature. If for Rorty's Nabokov the highest artistic value lies in producing pleasurable little spasms, if not by electrodes then by beautiful images, it is only his occasional criticism of individual callousness and cruelty that saves him from being relegated back to "art for art's sake."16

3. Rorty conjoins Nabokov's dream of literary immortality with his lifelong quest for the intimations of literal, that is, personal immortality: "He is sure that there is a connection between the immortality of the work and of the person who creates the work--between aesthetics and metaphysics, to put it crudely" (CIS 150). True, two pages later Rorty contradicts this: "as Nabokov ruefully admitted, nothing could lend plausibility to that claim" (CIS 152). If we wish, we can read his earlier "Nabokov is sure" as a stylistic oversight or dismissive off-handedness. Yet the contradiction is what makes Rorty's version of Nabokov consonant with his description of liberal ironists, who "combine commitment with a sense of the contingency of their own commitment" (CIS 61). The trouble is that the intuitions to which Nabokov is committed are too alien for Rorty,17 even if they are not exactly what Rorty thinks them to be. Hence the pragmatist's "amused condescension" similar to that of "later generations looking back at their ancestors."18

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5. For more detail see my discussion of this episode in Nabokov: The Mystery of Literary Structures (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 203-205.

6. Nabokov, The Annotated Lolita, p. 62.

7. Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1980), p. 251.

8. See Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1984), pp. 2, 7-15.

9. Marcel Proust, for instance, comments on "that indifference to the suffering one causes which, whatever other names one gives it, is the most terrible and lasting form of cruelty." Remembrance of Things Past. Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin (New York: Vintage Books, 1981), I: 180; my italics. For this reference I am indebted to John B. Foster

10. Cf. Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana/Collins, 1985), p. 14.

11. I discuss the motif of callousness in Nabokov's dystopian fiction in "'Who Was Becoming Seasick? Cincinnatus': Some Aspects of Nabokov's Treatment of the Communist Regime," Cycnos 10 (1993): 83-84.

12. Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, p. 64.

13. Noting that poetry (the rare indefinable genuine quality of only some verse) seems to be "more physical than intellectual," A.E. Housman enumerates several kinds of somatic responses to it, such as "a shiver down the spine," "a constriction of the throat and a precipitation of water to the eyes," and a piercing sensation in "the pit of the stomach." All of these are a matter of setting up "in the reader's sense a vibration corresponding to what was felt by the writer." The Name and Nature of Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1940), pp. 47, 12.

14. Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, p. 64. 15. Smart goes on to consider the value of "a few hours' work a week, automatic factories, comfort and security from disease, and hours spent at a switch, continually electrifying various regions of one's brain." J.J.C. Smart and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against (London: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1973), p. 19.

16. Such a view was, as is known, wide-spread in the first decades of Nabokov criticism but it has been steadily losing ground, esp. since Ellen Pifer's well arugued protest in Nabokov and the Novel (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1980).

17. The very concept of intuition is, for Rorty, defined in Wittgensteinian terms, as "never anything more or less than familiarity with a language-game," so that "to discover the source of our intuitions is to relive the history of the philosophical language-game we find ourselves playing." Richard Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1979), p. 34.

18. Richard Rorty, Consequences of Pragmatism (Essays: 1972-1980) (London: Harvester, 1982), p. xxx.

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