The Silence of Madness in "Signs and Symbols" by Vladimir Nabokov

By Hamrit, Jacqueline | PSYART, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

The Silence of Madness in "Signs and Symbols" by Vladimir Nabokov


Hamrit, Jacqueline, PSYART


In this paper, I try to wonder about the way madness and literature can be linked and/or separated, through the analysis of a short story by the Russian American writer Vladimir Nabokov entitled "Signs and Symbols" as both literature and madness are linked to the issue of reference as well as meaning.. The short story narrates the case of a deranged young man for whom "everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme" and shows how madness, unlike literature, fails in the quest of meaning and is therefore associated to silence, as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida suggested, whereas literature, although sometimes verging on madness, is characterized by the desire to live and to move away from the silence of death.

keywords:Literature, madness, silence, reference, meaning

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2006_hamrit01.shtml

Madness has always fascinated writers and has a privileged relationship with literature, being sometimes more than a mere metaphor and rather corresponding to a thematic network underlying a text. It has even been compared to the reading and/or writing activity of literature. I intend in this paper, to make a comparison between madness and literature, to wonder about the way they can be linked and/or separated, through the analysis of a short story by Vladimir Nabokov entitled "Signs and Symbols" which was written in 1948.

Being himself subjected to auditory and visual hallucinations, Nabokov staged many characters tempted by madness. Thus, the protagonist Luzhin who is a chessplayer in The Luzhin Defense is the prey of a monomaniac passion which ends in a suicide. Nabokov has also dealt with sexual deviations such as paedophilia in Lolita in which the protagonist Humbert Humbert is cured in psychiatric hospitals. And the main character, Krug, in Bend Sinister, becomes mad at the end of the book when he learns about the death of his son.

But what does it mean to be mad? For Maurice Blanchot, madness should only exist in the interrogative form. For him, saying Holderlin is mad, corresponds to saying: is he mad?1 Jacques Derrida devoted two texts to madness, "Cogito and the history of madness" written in 1963 and published in Writing and Difference, and "Being just with Freud. The History of Madness in the Age of Psychoanalysis" published in Resistances in 1996. Derrida alludes to Foucault when he declares: "To make a history of madness is therefore to make the archaeology of a silence."2 Derrida adds, "And if madness in general, beyond any fictitious and determined historical structure, is the absence of work, then madness is indeed, essentially and generally, silence, stifled speech."3 I shall test this hypothesis, which associates madness with silence, through the analysis of Nabokov's short story "Signs and Symbols."

The short story narrates a day-a Friday-in the life of an old couple of Russian Jewish immigrants who, being themselves deprived of any name, live in a nameless city in the United States. Their twenty-year-old son had been treated in a psychiatric hospital for four years because, the narrator tells us,"he was incurably deranged in his mind." Confronted with the problem of the choice of a birthday present for their son who was frightened by objects perceived by him as being "vibrant with a malignant activity," the parents decided upon a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars. They were, however, not allowed to visit their son when they arrived at the hospital because he had tried to commit suicide. When back home, the husband retired to his bedroom after the evening meal while the mother examined an album of photographs. After midnight, the husband came back to the living-room and announced that he wished to bring their son back home in order to keep and nurse him. In the middle of the conversation, the telephone rang. It was a wrong number. Some girl had asked to speak to some Charlie. Then, their conversation is once more interrupted by a telephone call which happened to come from the same girl. …

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