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The Art of Literature and Commonsense

The Art of Literature and Commonsense

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Published by bphkr
Nabokov's Essay
Nabokov's Essay

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Published by: bphkr on Dec 12, 2009
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06/01/2013

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The Art of Literature and Commonsense
 Now and then, in the course of events, when the flow of time turns into a muddy torrentand history floods our cellars, earnest people are apt to examine the interrelation between awriter and the national or universal community; and writers themselves begin to worryabout their obligations. I am speaking of an abstract type of writer. Those whom we canimagine concretely, especially those on elderly side, are too vain of their gifts or tooreconciled with mediocrity to bother about obligations. They see very clearly, in the middledistance, what fate promises them—the marble nook or the plaster niche. But let us take awriter who does wonder and worry. Will he come out of his shell to inspect the sky? Whatabout leadership? Will he, should he, be a good mixer?There is a lot to be said for mingling now and then with the crowd, and he must be a pretty foolish and shortsighted author who renounces the treasures of observation, humor,and pity which may be professionally obtained through closer contact with his fellow men.Likewise it may be a good cure for certain puzzled authors, groping for what they hope aremorbid themes, to charm themselves back into the sweet normality of their littlehometowns or to converse in apostrophic dialect with husky men of the soil, if such exist.But taken all in all, I should still recommend, not as a writer’s prison but merely as a fixedaddress, the much abused ivory tower, provided of course it has a telephone and an elevator  just in case one might like to dash down to buy the evening paper or have a friend come upfor a game of chess, the latter being somehow suggested by the form and texture of one’scarved abode. It is thus a pleasant and cool place with a grand circular view and plenty of  books and lots of useful gadgets. But before building oneself an ivory tower one must takethe unavoidable trouble of killing quite a few elephants. The fine specimen I intend to bagfor the benefit of those who might like to see how it is done happens to be a rather incredible cross between an elephant and a horse. His name is—commonsense.In the fall of 1811 Noah Webster, working steadily through the C’s, definedcommonsense as “good sound ordinary sense… free from emotional bias or intellectualsubtlety… horse sense.” This is rather a flattering view of the creature, for the biography of commonsense makes nasty reading. Commonsense has trampled down many a gentlegenius whose eyes had delighted in a too early moonbeam of some too early truth;commonsense has back-kicked dirt at the loveliest of queer paintings because a blue treeseemed madness to its well-meaning hoof; commonsense has prompted ugly but strongnations to crush their fair but frail neighbors the moment a gap in history offered a chancethat it would have been ridiculous not to exploit. Commonsense is fundamentally immoral,for the natural morals of mankind are as irrational as the magic rites that they evolved sincethe immemorial dimness of time. Commonsense at its worst is sense made common, and soeverything is comfortably cheapened by its touch. Commonsense is square whereas all themost essential visions and values of life are beautifully round, as round as the universe or the eyes of a child at its first circus show.It is instructive to think that there is not a single person in this room, or for thatmatter in any room in the world, who, at some nicely chosen point in historical space-timewould not be put to death there and then, here and now, by a commonsensical majority in1
 
righteous rage. The color of one’s creed, neckties, eyes, thoughts, manners, speech, is sureto meet somewhere in time or space with a fatal objection from a mob that hates that particular tone. And the more brilliant, the more unusual the man, the nearer he is to thestake.
Stranger 
always rhymes with
danger.
The meek prophet, the enchanter in his cave,the indignant artist, the nonconforming little schoolboy, all share in the same sacreddanger. And this being so, let us bless them, let us bless the freak; for in the naturalevolution of things, the ape would perhaps never have become man had not a freak appeared in the family. Anybody whose mind is proud enough not to breed true, secretlycarries a bomb at the back of his brain; and so I suggest, just for the fun of the thing, takingthat private bomb and carefully dropping it upon the model city of commonsense. In the brilliant light of the ensuing explosion many curious things will appear; our rarer senseswill supplant for a brief spell the dominant vulgarian that squeezes Sindbad’s neck in thecatch-as-catch-can match between the adopted self and the inner one. I am triumphantlymixing metaphors because that is exactly what they are intended for when they follow thecourse of their secret connections—which from a writer’s point of view is the first positiveresult of the defeat of commonsense.The second result is that the irrational belief in the goodness of man (to which thosefarcical and fraudulent characters called Facts are so solemnly opposed) becomessomething much more than the wobbly basis of idealistic philosophies. It becomes a solidand iridescent truth. This means that goodness becomes a central and tangible part of one’sworld, which world at first sight seems hard to identify with the modern one of newspaper editors and other bright pessimists, who will tell you that it is, mildly speaking, illogical toapplaud the supremacy of good at a time when something called the police state, or communism, is trying to turn the globe into five million square miles of terror, stupidity,and barbed wire. And they may add that it is one thing to beam at one’s private universe inthe snuggest nook of an unshelled and well-fed country and quite another to try and keepsane among crashing buildings in the roaring and whining night. But within theemphatically and unshakably illogical world which I am advertising as a home for thespirit, war gods are unreal not because they are conveniently remote in physical space fromthe reality of a reading lamp and the solidity of a fountain pen, but because I cannotimagine (and that is saying a good deal) such circumstances as might impinge upon thelovely and lovable world which quietly persists, whereas I can very well imagine that myfellow dreamers, thousands of whom roam the earth, keep to these same irrational anddivine standards during the darkest and most dazzling hours of physical danger, pain, dust,death.What exactly do these irrational standards mean? They mean the supremacy of thedetail over the general, of the part that is more alive than the whole, of the little thing whicha man observes and greets with a friendly nod of the spirit while the crowd around him is being driven by some common impulse to some common goal. I take my hat off to the herowho dashes into a burning house and saves his neighbor’s child; but I shake his hand if hehas risked squandering a precious five seconds to find and save, together with the child, itsfavorite toy. I remember a cartoon depicting a chimney sweep falling from the roof of a tall building and noticing on the way that a sign-board had one word spelled wrong, andwondering in his headlong flight why nobody had thought of correcting it. In a sense, we2
 
all are crashing to our death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of thechurchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at trifles—no matter the imminent peril—theseasides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness, and it is in this childishly speculative state of mind, so different fromcommonsense and its logic, that we know the world to be good.In this divinely absurd world of the mind, mathematical symbols do not thrive.Their interplay, no matter how smoothly it works, no matter how dutifully it mimics theconvolutions of our dreams and the quantums of our mental associations, can never reallyexpress what is utterly foreign to their nature, considering that the main delight of thecreative mind is the sway accorded to a seemingly incongruous detail over a seeminglydominant generalization. When commonsense is ejected together with its calculatingmachine, numbers cease to trouble the mind. Statistics pluck up their skirts and sweep outin a huff. Two and two no longer make four, because it is no longer necessary for them tomake four. If they had done so in the artificial logical world which we have left, it had beenmerely a matter of habit: two and two used to make four in the same way as guests invitedto dinner expect to make an even number. But I invite my numbers to a giddy picnic andthen nobody minds whether two and two make five or five minus some quaint fraction.Man at a certain stage of his development invented arithmetic for the purely practical purpose of obtaining some kind of human order in a world which he knew to be ruled bygods whom he could not prevent from playing havoc with his sums whenever they felt soinclined. He accepted that inevitable indeterminism which they now and then introduced,called it magic, and calmly proceeded to count the skins he had bartered by chalking barson the wall of his cave. The gods might intrude, but he at least was resolved to follow asystem that he had invented for the express purpose of following it.Then, as the thousands of centuries trickled by, and the gods retired on a more or less adequate pension, and human calculations grew more and more acrobatic, mathematicstranscended their initial condition and became as it were a natural part of the world towhich they had been merely applied. Instead of having numbers based on certain phenomena that they happened to fit because we ourselves happened to fit into the patternwe apprehended, the whole world gradually turned out to be based on numbers, andnobody seems to have been surprised at the queer fact of the outer network becoming aninner skeleton. Indeed, by digging a little deeper somewhere near the waistline of SouthAmerica a lucky geologist may one day discover, as his spade rings against metal, the solid barrel hoop of the equator. There is a species of butterfly on the hind wing of which a largeeyespot imitates a drop of liquid with such uncanny perfection that a line which crosses thewing is slightly displaced at the exact stretch where it passes through—or better say under  —the spot: this part of the line seems shifted by refraction, as it would if a real globular drop had been there and we were looking through it at the pattern of the wing. In the lightof the strange metamorphosis undergone by exact science from objective to subjective,what can prevent us from supposing that one day a real drop had fallen and had somehow been phylogenetically retained as a spot? But perhaps the funniest consequence of our extravagant belief in the organic being of mathematics was demonstrated some years agowhen an enterprising and ingenious astronomer thought of attracting the attention of the3

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