Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Art and Ardor: The Presence of the Divine in the Poetry and Prose of Vladimir Nabokov

Academic journal article Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table

Art and Ardor: The Presence of the Divine in the Poetry and Prose of Vladimir Nabokov

Article excerpt

Art and Ardor: The Presence of the Divine in Nabokov's Poetry and Prose

While Vladimir Nabokov's poetry and criticism is largely unknown and unread, his place in the pantheon of the great English language fiction writers is secure. His masterpieces Lolita (1955) and Pale Fire (1962) have assured that position. The critics who have helped to establish Nabokov's fame have heaped praise upon these novels and others such as Ada (1969), Invitation to a Beheading (1935), and The Gift (1937). The stunning bulk of these critics' commentary on the Nabokovian canon focuses on the formal aspects of his fiction, distancing itself from personal, ideological areas of interest--bifurcating life and art. Thus the general lack of interest in his often personal, lyric poetry or his very revealing criticism.

Nabokov's novels have been judged by critics as paradigms of the self-referential, solipsistic "art" novel; as "metafiction ... which turns it attention upon the work of art itself." (1) One critic, Dwight MacDonald, called Nabokov's fiction "high class doodling" (2) and Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, in a 1972 Playboy interview, said he could "hear the clatter of surgical tools" in Nabokov's prose. (3) Nabokov has been grouped with writers in the mid to late 20th century as a post modernist or part of what theorist Roland Barthes calls the "literature of exhaustion."

As the thinking goes, Nabokov's work does not deal with questions about life, man, society and the like. As a practitioner of the metafictionist's art, Nabokov's work theoretically deals only with questions of art and style. The artist and his art present readers with "aloofness," "indifference," and "hermeticism." It is all mechanics: the perfect Swiss watch; the prototype of a post-Darwinian vision of both life and art, devoid of any spiritual dimension and denying any ordering force in the universe. However, all art is inextricably tied to life and Nabokov's art is no exception. (4) To explore his work believing it is without meaning is to examine all the parts of that Swiss watch without recognizing that it tells time. Vladimir Nabokov writes literature which deals with ideas such as compassion, pity, and love, all of which leads careful readers to an understanding of a substratum to life and art: the presence of the divine.

The deeper one looks at Nabokov's poetry and prose, the more one discovers prescriptive pronouncements and reading directions. These reading directions give us a different roadmap to the fictional productions. The purpose of this paper is to explore the presence of an important theme in Nabokov's prose and poetry: the divine. Hints of that theme were given clearly by Vera Nabokov--the person to whom Vladimir dedicated everything he wrote--as the theme of potustoronnost, which Nabokov himself translated as "the hereafter." In fact, Vera Nabokov said that this was the "main theme" in Nabokov's writing. (5) We will explore some evidence for, and the presence of, this idea in Nabokov's poetry, in his interviews and criticism, and finally in the novels: especially Lolita and Pale Fire. The paper will ultimately point to the relationship between the presence of the divine in Nabokov's work and the British Romantic vision of the creative imagination and its connection with the divine. In the process we shall see that the Nabokovian aesthetic incorporates a vision of art as both beautiful and moral.

So, how did we get to the prevalent vision of Nabokov as the ultimate art-for-art's-sake postmodernist? I would argue it is because of the persona Nabokov projects. This projection is "imperious, sardonic, dismissive, categorical, the ruler by divine right of his own private kingdom." (6) This persona is indeed formidable and is calculated to throw the hounds off the scent and to "leave nothing much else behind him than a vague sense of uneasiness." (7) This persona tells the critic not to look for "ideas" in the work and sets up the formulae by which he may examine the Nabokovian oeuvre: that what Nabokov writes is allegorique de lui meme and his artistic goal is nothing beyond "aesthetic bliss. …

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