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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Nabokov on Meaning in Literature, and Censorship

"Imitation is the sincerest form of television." - Fred Allen


"Teachers of Literature are apt to think up such problems as "What is the author's purpose?" or still worse "What is the guy trying to say?" Now, I happen to be the kind of author who in starting to work on a book has no other purpose than to get rid of that book and who, when asked to explain its origin and growth, has to rely on such ancient terms as Interreaction of Inspiration and Combination — which, I admit, sounds like a conjurer explaining one trick by performing another...

Not all the four firms read the typescript to the end. Whether they found it pornographic or not did not interest me. Their refusal to buy the book was based not on my treatment of the theme but on the theme itself, for there are at least three themes which are utterly taboo as far as most American publishers are concerned. The two others are: a Negro-White marriage which is a complete and glorious success resulting in lots of children and grandchildren; and the total atheist who lives a happy and useful life, and dies in his sleep at the age of 106...

Although everybody should know that I detest symbols and allegories (which is due partly to my old feud with Freudian voodooism and partly to my loathing of generalizations devised by literary mythists and sociologists), an otherwise intelligent reader who flipped through the first part described Lolita as “Old Europe debauching young America,” while another flipper saw in it “Young America debauching old Europe”...

No writer in a free country should be expected to bother about the exact demarcation between the sensuous and the sensual; this is preposterous; I can only admire but cannot emulate the accuracy of judgment of those who pose the fair young mammals photographed in magazines where the general neckline is just low enough to provoke a past master's chuckle and just high enough not to make a postmaster frown... There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until somebody comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at Mann...

That my novel does contain various allusions to the physiological urges of a pervert is quite true. But after all we are not children, not illiterate juvenile delinquents, not English public school boys who after a night of homosexual romps have to endure the paradox of reading the Ancients in expurgated versions.

It is childish to study a work of fiction in order to gain information about a country or about a social class or about the author. And yet one of my very few intimate friends, after reading Lolita, was sincerely worried that I (I!) should be living "among such depressing people" — when the only discomfort I really experienced was to live in my workshop among discarded limbs and unfinished torsos."

--- On a book entitled Lolita / Vladimir Nabokov

Some people contested the claim that "It is childish to study a work of fiction in order to gain information about a country or about a social class or about the author"

So here is a fuller exposition of it (by me, not Nabokov) which perhaps goes beyond the original:

Works of fiction are precisely that - fiction. They need not have any existence outside of the work itself.

In contrast, in a work of non-fiction, you are making a truth claim that is more easily evaluated with the story stripped away. You are also expected to provide evidence for us to believe your assertion, instead of just phrasing it in a catchy way and expecting people to nod along.

If you find a truth claim in a work of fiction, it need not be wrong, but its validity has to be verified outside of the work itself, i.e., outside the terms of reference that the work of fiction itself provides. In this case then, the work of fiction is superfluous.

While it is true that even truth claims made in a work of non-fiction have to be corroborated by external sources, the terms of reference that a work of fiction provide are the story itself. In works of non-fiction the connection to the real world is more evident.

For example, the claim that "the most brutalizing aspects of sex are not physical" can be made with:

Fiction: "Last Tango in Paris, which Pauline Kael described as the “most powerfully erotic movie ever made”... In one scene, Paul asks Jeanne if she would be willing to eat vomit as proof of her love for him. Adoringly, she says yes. Jeanne experiences the full brunt of Paul’s sexual aggression and violence when, while she attempts to resist, Paul pulls down her jeans, pins her to the floor, and has rough anal sex with her, using butter as a lubricant."

This tells us nothing beyond the world of the movie itself.

Whereas in non-fiction: "Interviews with 20 individuals revealed that the vast majority thought that sex was more emotionally than physically draining"
"Most of my friends tell me that they rather have one-night stands than relationships as there's less baggage"
"Whereas the wounds from rape heal within a month, post-traumatic stress disorder can linger for years"

In the non-fiction case, one might be inclined to verify that those studies and individuals actually exist, but if you take the author on good faith you will accept that they do and that they say what he says they say. Whereas even if you take the fiction author on good faith, you still have no grounds for believing his truth claim, only that he might believe it sincerely himself.

Also, consider that authors do not express their thoughts or opinions all the time - they sometimes take a contrary line for dramatic or other effect. This is leaving aside where the author makes up things for his story: woe betide he who gains information about Vulgaria from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or the British everyman from Mr Bean, when the author clearly does not mean any of them. Even where allegory is employed, additional filters must be used to discern the underlying truth that the author is getting at.

While non-fiction such as religious texts, pop psychology and pseudo-science can contain non-verifiable truth claims, this is to confuse content with form. The key question: would making religious, pop psychology or pseudo-science truth claims in fiction make them *more* verifiable, or even *less* so?

A role for fiction lies is in its ability to articulate truth claims persusively or entertainingly - but this is only inasmuch as the truth claims can be/have been independently verified. And of course, just because a truth claim is articulated persuasively or entertainingly does not mean that it is verified (or, perhaps, even verifiable). One example that comes to mind is Ayn Rand.
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