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The Art of Literature and Commonsense

The Art of Literature and Commonsense

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Nabokov's Essay
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Published by: bphkr on Dec 12, 2009
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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 torrent and history floods our cellars, earnest people are apt to examine the interrelation between a writer and the national or universal community; and writers themselves begin to worry about their obligations. I am speaking of an abstract type of writer. Those whom we can imagine concretely, especially those on elderly side, are too vain of their gifts or too reconciled with mediocrity to bother about obligations. They see very clearly, in the middle distance, what fate promises them—the marble nook or the plaster niche. But let us take a writer who does wonder and worry. Will he come out of his shell to inspect the sky? What about 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 are morbid themes, to charm themselves back into the sweet normality of their little hometowns 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 fixed address, 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 up for a game of chess, the latter being somehow suggested by the form and texture of one’s carved 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 take the unavoidable trouble of killing quite a few elephants. The fine specimen I intend to bag for 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, defined commonsense as “good sound ordinary sense… free from emotional bias or intellectual subtlety… 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 gentle genius 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 tree seemed madness to its well-meaning hoof; commonsense has prompted ugly but strong nations to crush their fair but frail neighbors the moment a gap in history offered a chance that 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 since the immemorial dimness of time. Commonsense at its worst is sense made common, and so everything is comfortably cheapened by its touch. Commonsense is square whereas all the most 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 that matter in any room in the world, who, at some nicely chosen point in historical space-time would not be put to death there and then, here and now, by a commonsensical majority in

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righteous rage. The color of one’s creed, neckties, eyes, thoughts, manners, speech, is sure to 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 the stake. 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 sacred danger. And this being so, let us bless them, let us bless the freak; for in the natural evolution 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, secretly carries a bomb at the back of his brain; and so I suggest, just for the fun of the thing, taking that 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 senses will supplant for a brief spell the dominant vulgarian that squeezes Sindbad’s neck in the catch-as-catch-can match between the adopted self and the inner one. I am triumphantly mixing metaphors because that is exactly what they are intended for when they follow the course of their secret connections—which from a writer’s point of view is the first positive result of the defeat of commonsense. The second result is that the irrational belief in the goodness of man (to which those farcical and fraudulent characters called Facts are so solemnly opposed) becomes something much more than the wobbly basis of idealistic philosophies. It becomes a solid and iridescent truth. This means that goodness becomes a central and tangible part of one’s world, 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 to applaud 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 in the snuggest nook of an unshelled and well-fed country and quite another to try and keep sane among crashing buildings in the roaring and whining night. But within the emphatically and unshakably illogical world which I am advertising as a home for the spirit, war gods are unreal not because they are conveniently remote in physical space from the reality of a reading lamp and the solidity of a fountain pen, but because I cannot imagine (and that is saying a good deal) such circumstances as might impinge upon the lovely and lovable world which quietly persists, whereas I can very well imagine that my fellow dreamers, thousands of whom roam the earth, keep to these same irrational and divine 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 the detail over the general, of the part that is more alive than the whole, of the little thing which a 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 hero who dashes into a burning house and saves his neighbor’s child; but I shake his hand if he has risked squandering a precious five seconds to find and save, together with the child, its favorite 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, and wondering in his headlong flight why nobody had thought of correcting it. In a sense, we

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all are crashing to our death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard 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—these asides 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 from commonsense 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 the convolutions of our dreams and the quantums of our mental associations, can never really express what is utterly foreign to their nature, considering that the main delight of the creative mind is the sway accorded to a seemingly incongruous detail over a seemingly dominant generalization. When commonsense is ejected together with its calculating machine, numbers cease to trouble the mind. Statistics pluck up their skirts and sweep out in a huff. Two and two no longer make four, because it is no longer necessary for them to make four. If they had done so in the artificial logical world which we have left, it had been merely a matter of habit: two and two used to make four in the same way as guests invited to dinner expect to make an even number. But I invite my numbers to a giddy picnic and then 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 by gods whom he could not prevent from playing havoc with his sums whenever they felt so inclined. 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 bars on the wall of his cave. The gods might intrude, but he at least was resolved to follow a system 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, mathematics transcended their initial condition and became as it were a natural part of the world to which 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 pattern we apprehended, the whole world gradually turned out to be based on numbers, and nobody seems to have been surprised at the queer fact of the outer network becoming an inner skeleton. Indeed, by digging a little deeper somewhere near the waistline of South America 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 large eyespot imitates a drop of liquid with such uncanny perfection that a line which crosses the wing 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 light of 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 ago when an enterprising and ingenious astronomer thought of attracting the attention of the

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inhabitants of Mars, if any, by having huge lines of light several miles long form some simple geometrical demonstration, the idea being that if they could perceive that we knew when our triangles behaved, and when they did not, the Martians would jump to the conclusion that it might be possible to establish contact with those oh so intelligent Tellurians. At this point commonsense sneaks back and says in a hoarse whisper that whether I like it or not, one planet plus another does form two planets, and a hundred dollars is more that fifty. If I retort that the other planet may just as well turn out to be a double one for all we know, or that a thing called inflation has been known to make a hundred less than ten in the course of one night, commonsense will accuse me of subsisting the concrete for the abstract. But this again is one of the essential phenomena in the kind of world I am inviting you to inspect. This world I said was good—and “goodness” is something that is irrationally concrete. From the commonsensical point of view the “goodness”, say, of some food is just as abstract as its “badness,” both being qualities that cannot be perceived by the sane judgment as tangible and complete objects. But when we perform that necessary mental twist which is like learning to swim or to make a ball break, we realize that “goodness” is something round and creamy, and beautifully flushed, something in a clean apron with warm bare arms that have nursed and comforted us, something in a word just as real as the bread or the fruit to which the advertisement alludes; and the best advertisements are composed by sly people who know ho to touch off the rockets of individual imaginations, which knowledge is the commonsense of trade using the instruments of irrational perception for its own perfectly rational ends. Now “badness” is a stranger to our inner world; it eludes our grasp; “badness” is in fact the lack of something rather than a noxious presence; and thus being abstract and bodiless it occupies no real space in our inner world. Criminals are usually people lacking imagination, for its development even on the poor lines of commonsense would have prevented them from doing evil by disclosing to their mental eye a woodcut depicting handcuffs; and creative imagination in its turn would have led them to seek an outlet in fiction and make the characters in their books do more thoroughly what they might themselves have bungled in real life. Lacking real imagination, they content themselves with such half-witted banalities as seeing themselves gloriously driving into Los Angeles in that swell stolen car with that swell golden girl who had helped to butcher its owner. True, this may become art when the writer’s pen connects the necessary currents, but, in itself, crime is the very triumph of triteness, and the more successful it is, the more idiotic it looks. I never could admit that a writer’s job was to improve the morals of his country, and point out lofty ideals from the tremendous height of a soapbox, and administer first aid by dashing off second-rate books. The writer’s pulpit is dangerously close to the pulp romance, and what reviewers call a strong novel is generally a precarious heap of platitudes or a sand castle on a populated beach, and there are few things sadder than to see its muddy moat dissolve when the holiday makers are gone and the cold mousy waves are nibbling at the solitary sands.

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There is, however, one improvement that quite unwittingly a real writer does bring to the world around him. Things that commonsense would dismiss as pointless trifles or grotesque exaggerations in an irrelevant direction are used by the creative mind in such a fashion as to make iniquity absurd. The turning of the villain into a buffoon is not a set purpose with your authentic writer: crime is a sorry farce no matter whether the stressing of this may help the community or not; it generally does, but that is not the author’s direct purpose or duty. The twinkle in the author’s eye as he notes the imbecile drooping of a murderer’s underlip, or watches the stumpy forefinger of a professional tyrant exploring a profitable nostril in the solitude of his sumptuous bedroom, this twinkle is what punishes your man more surely than the pistol of a tiptoeing conspirator. And inversely, there is nothing dictators hate so much as that unassailable, eternally elusive, eternally provoking gleam. One of the main reasons why the very gallant Russian poet Gumilev was put to death by Lenin’s ruffians thirty odd years ago was that during the whole ordeal, in the prosecutor’s dim office, in the torture house, in the winding corridors that led to the truck, in the truck that took him to the place of execution, and at that place itself, full of shuffling feet of the clumsy and gloomy shooting squad, the poet kept smiling. That human life is but a first installment of the serial soul and that one’s individual secret is not lost in the process of earthly dissolution, becomes something more than an optimistic conjecture, and even more than a matter of religious faith, when we remember that only commonsense rules immortality out. A creative writer, creative in the particular sense I am attempting to convey, cannot help feeling that in his rejecting the world of the matter-of-fact, in his taking sides with the irrational, the illogical, the inexplicable, and the fundamentally good, he is performing something similar in a rudimentary way to what [two pages missing] under the cloudy skies of gray Venus. Commonsense will interrupt me at his point to remark that a further intensification of such fancies may lead to stark madness. But this is only true when the morbid exaggeration of such fancies is not linked up with a creative artist’s cool and deliberate work. A madman is reluctant to look at himself in a mirror because the face he sees is not his own: his personality is beheaded; that of the artist is increased. Madness is but a diseased bit of commonsense, whereas genius is the greatest sanity of the spirit—and the criminologist Lombroso when attempting to find their affinities got into a bad muddle by not realizing the anatomic differences between obsession and inspiration, between a bat and a bird, a dead twig and a twiglike insect. Lunatics are lunatics just because they have thoroughly and recklessly dismembered a familiar world but have not the power—or have lost the power—to create a new one as harmonious as the old. The artist on the other hand disconnects what he chooses and while doing so he is aware that something in him is aware of the final result. When he examines his completed masterpiece he perceives that whatever unconscious cerebration had been involved in the creative plunge, this final result is the outcome of a definite plan which had been contained in the initial shock, as the future development of a live creature is said to be contained in the genes of its germ cell. The passage from the dissociative stage to the associative one is thus marked by a kind of spiritual thrill which in English is very loosely termed inspiration. A passerby whistles a tune at the exact moment that you notice the reflection of a branch in a puddle

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which in its turn, and simultaneously, recalls a combination of damp green leaves and excited birds in some old garden, and the old friend, long dead, suddenly steps out of the past, smiling and closing his dripping umbrella. The whole thing lasts one radiant second and the motion of impressions and images is so swift that you cannot check the exact laws which attend their recognition, formation, and fusion—why this pool and not any pool, why this sound and not another—and how exactly are all those parts correlated; it is like a jigsaw puzzle that instantly comes together in our brain with the brain itself unable to observe how and why the pieces fit, and you experience a shuddering sensation of wild magic, of some inner resurrection, as if a dead man were revived by a sparkling drug which has been rapidly mixed in our presence. This feeling is at the base of what is called inspiration—a state of affairs that commonsense must condemn. For commonsense will point out that life on earth, from the barnacle to the goose, and from the humblest worm to the loveliest woman, arose from a colloidal carbonaceous slime activated by ferments while the earth was obligingly cooling down. Blood may well be the Silurian sea in our veins, and we are all ready to accept evolution at least as a modal formula. Professor Pavlov’s bell-hopping mice and Dr. Griffith’s rotating rats may please the practical minds, and Rhumbler’s artificial amoeba can make a very cute pet. But again it is one thing to try and find the links and steps of life, and it is quite another to try and understand what life and the phenomenon of inspiration really are. In the example I chose—tune, leaves, rain—a comparatively simple form of thrill is implied. Many people who are not necessarily writers are familiar with such experiences; others simply do not bother to note them. In my example memory played an essential though unconscious part and everything depended upon the perfect fusion of the past and the present. The inspiration of genius adds a third ingredient: it is the past and the present and the future (your book) that come together in a sudden flash; thus the entire circle of time is perceived, which is another way of saying that time ceases to exist. It is combined sensation of having the whole universe entering you and of yourself wholly dissolving in the universe surrounding you. It is the prison wall of the ego suddenly crumbling away with the non-ego rushing in from the outside to save the prisoner—who is already dancing in the open. The Russian language which otherwise is comparatively poor in abstract terms, supplies definitions of two types of inspiration, vostorg and vdokhnovenie, which can be paraphrased as “rapture” and “recapture.” The difference between them is mainly of a climatic kind, the first being hot and brief the second cool and sustained. The kind alluded to up to now is the pure flame of vostorg, initial rapture, which has no conscious purpose in view but which is all-important in linking the breaking up of the old world with the building up of the new one. When the time is ripe and the writer settles down to the actual composing of his book, he will rely on the second serene and steady kind of inspiration, vdokhnovenie, the trusted mate who helps to recapture and reconstruct the world. The force and originality involved in the primary spasm of inspiration is directly proportional to the worth of the book the author will write. At the bottom of the scale a very mild kind of thrill can be experienced by a minor writer noticing, say, the inner connection between a smoking factory chimney, a stunted lilac bush in the yard, and a pale-

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faced child; but the combination is so simple, the threefold symbol so obvious, the bridge between the images so well-worn by the feet of literary pilgrims and by cartloads of standard ideas, and the world deduced so very like the average one, that the work of fiction set into motion will be necessarily of modest worth. On the other hand, I would not like to suggest the initial urge with great writing is always the product of something seen or heard or smelt or tasted or touched during a long-haired art-for-artist’s aimless rambles. Although to develop in one’s self the art of forming sudden harmonious patterns out of widely separate threads is never to be despised, and although, as in Marcel Proust’s case, the actual idea of a novel may spring from such actual sensations as the melting of a biscuit on the tongue or the roughness of a pavement underfoot, it would be rash to conclude that the creation of all novels ought to be based on a kind of glorified physical experience. The initial urge may disclose as many aspects as there are temperaments and talents; it may be the accumulated series of several practically unconscious shocks or it may be an inspired combination of several abstract ideas without a definite physical background. But in one way or another process may still be reduced to the most natural form of creative thrill—a sudden live image constructed in a flash out of dissimilar units which are apprehended all at once in a stellar explosion of the mind. When the writer settles down to his reconstructive work, creative experience tells him what to avoid at certain moments of blindness which overcome now and then even the greatest, when the warty fat goblins of convention or the slick imps called “gap-fillers” attempt to crawl up the legs of his desk. Fiery vostorg has accomplished his task and cool vdokhnovenie puts on her glasses. The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words all being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible. You might if you choose develop any part of the picture, for the idea of sequence does not really exist as far as the author is concerned. Sequence arises only because words have to be written one after the other on consecutive pages, just as the reader’s mind must have time to go through the book, at least the first time he reads it. Time and sequence cannot exist in the author’s mind because no time element and no space element had ruled the initial vision. If the mind were constructed on optional lines and if a book could be read in the same way as a painting is taken in by the eye, that is without the bother of working from left to right and without the absurdity of beginnings and ends, this would be the ideal way of appreciating a novel, for thus the author saw it at the moment of its conception. So now he is ready to write it. He is fully equipped. His fountain pen is comfortably full, the house is quiet, the tobacco and the matches are together, the night is young… and we shall leave him in this pleasurable situation and gently steal out, and close the door, and firmly push out of the house, as we go, the monster of grim commonsense that is lumbering up the steps to whine that the book is not for the general public, that the book will never never——And right then, just before it blurts out the word s, e, double-l, false commonsense must be shot dead. ————————

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