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From Modernism to Postmodernism

Vladimir Nabokov

Modernism Urbanism: Nature put in doubt, from Baudelaires cit fourmillante to Prousts Paris, Joyces Dublin, Eliots London, Dos Passos New York, Dblins Berlin. Exceptions: Faulkners Yoknapatawpha or Lawrences Midlands, recognize the City as a pervasive threat.

Ihab Hassan, The Postmodern Turn, Ohio State University Press, 1987 (pp. 34-44)

Postmodernism Urbanism: The City and also the Global Village (McLuhan) and Spaceship Earth (Fuller). The City as Cosmos; therefore Science Fiction. The world breaks up into blocs, nations, clans, parties, languages, sects. Anarchy and fragmentation everywhere. A new diversity or prelude to world totalitarianism? Or to world unification? Nature recovered partly in ecological activism, the green revolution, urban renewal, health foods etc. Meanwhile, Dionysus has entered the City: prison riots, urban crime, pornography etc. Worse, the City as holocaust or death camp: Hiroshima, Dresden, Auschwitz.



Technologism: City and Machine Technologism: Runaway make and remake one another. technology, from genetic Extension, diffusion, and engineering and thought control alienation of the human will. to the conquest of space. Yet technology is also a form of Futurists and Technophiles vs. artistic struggle (Cubism, Arcadians and Luddites. All the Futurism, Dadaism). Other physical materials of the arts reactions to technology: changed. New media, art primitivism, the occult, forms. The problematics of the Bergsonian time, the book as artefact. Boundless dissociation of sensibility etc. disposal by media. The (see Willie Sypher, Literature computer as substitute and Technology). consciousness, or as an extension of consciousness?

Modernism Dehumanization: Ortega y Gasset means Elitism, Irony, and Abstraction (The Dehumanization of Art). Style takes over; let life and the masses fend for themselves. Poetry has become the higher algebra of metaphor. Instead of Vitruvian man, Leonardos famous image of the human measure, we have Picassos beings splintered on many planes. Not less human, just another idea of man.

Postmodernism Dehumanization: Antielitism, antiauthoritarianism. Diffusion of the ego. Participation. Art becomes communal, anarchic. Acceptance. At the same time, Irony becomes radical, self-consuming play, entropy of meaning. Also commedy of the absurd, black humour, insane parody and slapstick, Camp. Negation. Abstraction taken to the limit and coming back as New Concreteness: the found object, the signed Brillo box or soup can, the nonfiction novel, the novel as history. The range is from Concept Art (abstract) to Environmental Art (concrete). Warhols wanting to be a machine, Ciorans ambivalent temptation to exist. Humanism yields to infrahumanism or posthumanism. Science Fiction as in Fuller, Castaneda, N. O. Brown, Ursula LeGuin.

Modernism Primitivism: The archetypes behind abstraction, beneath ironic civilization. An African mask, a beast slouching toward Bethlehem. Structure as ritual or myth, metaphors from the collective dream of mankind. Cunning palimpsests of literary time and space. Dionysus and the violent return of the repressed. (s. Northrop Frye, The Modern Century).

Postmodernism Primitivism: Away from the mythic, toward the existential. Beat and Hip. Energy and spontaneity of the White Negro (Mailer). Post-existential ethos, psychedelics (Leary), the Dionysian ego (Brown), Pranksters (Kesey), madness (Laing), animism and magic (Castaneda). The Hippie movement. The primitive Jesus. The new Rousseauism and Deweyism: Human Potential movement, Open Classroom (Goodman, Rogers, Leonard).

Modernism Eroticism: All literature is erotic, but modernist sex scratches the skin from within. It is not merely the liberation of the libido, a new language of anger and desire; love now becomes an intimate of disease. Sadomasochism, solipsism, nihilism, anomie. Consciousness seeks desperately to discharge itself into the world. A new and darker stage in the struggle between Eros and Thanatos. (s. Lionel Trilling, The Fate of Culture).

Postmodernism Eroticism: Beyond the trial of Lady Chatterleys Lover. The repeal of censorship. Grove Press and Evergreen Review. The new sexuality, from Reichian orgasm to polymorphous perversity and Esalen body consciousness. The homosexual novel (Burroughs, Vidal, Selby, Rechy). From feminism to lesbianism. Toward a new androgyny? Camp and comic pornography. Sex as solipsism.

Modernism Antinomianism: Beyond law, dwelling in paradox. Also discontinuity, alienation, non serviam. The pride of art, of the self, defining the conditions of its own grace. Iconoclasm, schism, excess. Beyond antinomianism, toward apocalypse. => Decadence and renovation (s. Nathan A. Scott, Jr., The Broken Center).

Postmodernism Antinomianism: The Counter Cultures, political and otherwise. Free Speech Movement, S.D.S., Weathermen, Church Militants, Womens Lib, J.D.L., Black, Red and Chicano power, etc. Rebellion and Reaction. Beyond alienation from the whole culture, acceptance of discreteness and discontinuity. Counter western ways or metaphysics, Zen, Buddhism, Hinduism. But also Western mysticism, transcendentalism, witchcraft, the occult. (see Primitivism above). The widespread cult of apocalyptism, sometimes as renovation, sometimes as annihilation often both).

Modernism Experimentalism: Innovation, dissociation, the brilliance of change in all its aesthetic shapes. New languages, new concepts of order. Also, the Word beginning to put its miracle to question in the midst of an artistic miracle. Poem, novel, or play henceforth can never really bear the same name.

Postmodernism Experimentalism: Open, discontinuous, improvisational, indeterminate or aleatory structures. End-game strategies and neosurrealist modes. Both reductive, minimalist forms and lavish extravaganzas. In general, antiformalism. (see Calvin Thomas, The Bride and the Bachelors). Simultaneism. Now. The impermanence of art (sculpture made of dry ice or a hole in Central Park filled with earth), the transcience of man. Absurd time. Fantasy, play, humour, happening, parody, dreck (Barthelme). Also, increasing self-reflexiveness. (see Irony under Dehumanization above). Intermedia, the fusion of forms, the confusion of realms. An end to traditional aesthetics focused on the beauty or uniqueness of the art work? Against interpretation (Sontag).

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977)

- Born into an upper class background in Sankt Petersburg and grew up speaking Russian, English and French (which contributed to his becoming one of the most accomplished stylists in English; compared to Joseph Conrad in that respect)

The family emigrated to Berlin (15 years where Nabokov became a recognized writer within the migr community), then Nabokov and his Jewish wife Vera moved to France in 1937 and the US in 1940

Vladimir Nabokovs work (selection)

STIKHI, 1916 ZASHCHITA LUZINA, 1930 - The Defense - Luzinin puolustus - film 2000, dir. by Marleen Gorris, starring Emily Watson, Joh Turturro, Geraldine James, screenplay by Vladimir Nabokov and Peter Berry CAMERA OBSCURA, 1933 OTCHAYANIYE, 1936 - Despair DAR, 1937-38 - The Gift PRIGLASHENIYE NA KAZN, 1938 - Invitation to a Beheading THE REAL LIFE OF SEBASTIAN KNIGHT, 1941 - Sebastian Knightin todellinen elm translation: THREE RUSSIAN POETS: SELECTION FROM PUSHKIN, LERMONTOV AND TYUTCHEV, 1944 NINE STORIES, 1947 SPEAK, MEMORY, 1952 /1967 LOLITA, 1955 PNIN, 1957 PALE FIRE, 1962 Lectures on literature, translations; THE STORIES OF VLADIMIR NABOKOV, 1995 (edited by Dmitri Nabokov) NABOKOV'S BUTTERFLIES. Unpublished and Uncollected Writings, 2000 (ed. by Brian Boyd)

LOLITA (1955)
The first version of the story, VOLSHEBNIK (The Enchanter), was written in 1939 in Paris. The Enchanter centered on a middle-aged man, who falls in love with a 12-year-old girl and marries her sick, widowed mother to satisfy his erotic desires.

The evolution from new understandings of morality as promoted by modernism and postmodernism Modernist aestheticism/ postmodern detachment from traditional morality E. A. Poe, Annabel Lee (1849) Nabokovs fascination with unreliable narration (taking modernist tenets further)

The Lolita controversy

- the a priori immoral story of a middle-aged man who falls madly in love with a twelve-year-old girl, a nymphet as he calls her, and who has sexual relations with her for two years, then murders the even more perverse man she runs away with. Lolita marries a simple man and moving to Alaska with him, dies in childbirth. - Humberts sexual perversion is described in highly poetic terms, and that the monitor of virtue is, from beginning to end, the (gifted) pervert who narrates the story. - remarkable through Nabokovs style

Poetic prose
LOLITA, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. (9)

Modernist elements in Lolita

Aestheticism Detective study of characters own mind and of the mind of his victim (Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction (1987) dominants: - epistemological (modernism) => detective fiction as mass culture double - ontological (PM) => SF as mass culture double: building alternative worlds)

Detective plot: in search of Humbert Humberts mind

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphsk, the misinformed, simple, noblewinged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns. (Lolita, London: Penguin, 1980, 9)

Postmodernist elements in Lolita

Detachment from the troubling moral issue at the center of the plot, most of the time ignored completely (s. Fredric Jamesons waning of affect in postmodernism) Brian McHales alternative worlds: the plot of the novel operates exclusively within the narrator-protagonists delusive (schizophrenic) mind

Approaches to Lolita: Theory of Mind

By making it possible to see Humberts story so much from Humberts point of view, Nabokov warns us to recognize the power of the mind to rationalize away the harm it can cause: the more powerful the mind, the stronger our guard needs to be (Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991, 232)

Distributed Mind Reading

Here is one specific strategy that Nabokov uses to turn our sourcemonitoring ability to Humberts advantage as he constructs his initial account of his and Lolitas love affair. Nabokov distributes Humberts version of events through the multiple minds within the narrative. That is, he makes other characters indirectly tell Humberts story the way he wants it to be told. The effect of this distributed representation is such that instead of dealing with just one source of information Humbert, whose credibility we could have sized up pretty quickly we are encouraged to perceive that we are dealing with multiple sources of information. Some of those sources most of them, in fact are introduced and removed so fast that we simply have no opportunity to evaluate their trustworthiness and even to realize that such an evaluation is necessary. (Lisa Zunshine , Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2006)

Humberts manipulation of the reader (=> displacement of focus from moral issue onto vulnerability andcreative/aesthetic act: mod + PM)
Please, reader: no matter your exasperation with the tenderhearted, morbidly sensitive, infinitely circumspect hero of my book, do not skip these essential pages! Imagine me; I shall not exist if you do not imagine me; try to discern the doe in me, trembling in the forest of my own iniquity; lets even smile a little. After all, there is no harm in smiling. For instance (I almost wrote frinstance), I had no place to rest my head, and a fit of heartburn was added to my discomfort. (129)

Character (true or not?): Humbert Humberts Annabel Lee

She sat a little higher than I, and whenever in her solitary ecstasy she was led to kiss me, her head would bend with a sleepy, soft, drooping movement that was almost woeful, and her bare knees caught and compressed my wrist, and slackened again; and her quivering mouth, distorted by the acridity of some mysterious potion, with a sibilant intake of breath came near to my face. She would try to relieve the pain of love by first roughly rubbing her dry lips against mine; then my darling would draw away with a nervous toss of her hair, and then again come darkly near and let me feed on her open mouth, while with a generosity that was ready to offer her everything, my heart, my throat, my entrails, I gave her to hold in her awkward fist the scepter of my passion. (The Annotated Lolita, New York: McGrawHill, 1970, 16-17)

The nymphet
She wore that day a pretty print dress that I had seen on her once before, ample in the skirt, tight in the bodice, short-sleeved, pink, checkered with darker pink, and, to complete the color scheme, she had painted her lips and was holding in her hollowed hands a beautiful, banal, Eden-red apple. (The Annotated Lolita, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1970, 59-60)

Nabokovs storytelling
Nabokovs life was good material for fiction (as shown by Brian Boyds 1400-page biography) There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: . . . as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three storyteller, teacher, enchanter (Lectures on Literature. Ed. Fredson Bowers. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich / Bruccoli Clark, 1980.)

Brian Boyd in Nabokov as Storyteller, The Cambridge Companion to Vladimir Nabokov, 2005
Like many writers from Sterne and Austen on, Nabokov drives stories by means of character rather than plot. But his stories are unique in their intense focus on one character. Nabokov respects individual experience as primary, as all that any of us can know from the inside. Each of his novels highlights the centrality and isolation of the consciousness of the hero. Usually there will be a marked disparity between the individual and his (it is almost without exception his) environment. (32)

The style of Nabokovs storytelling

Nabokov evokes scenes as few can do. His scenes are tightly consistent, exact, literal, specific, surprising, economical, evocative, quickly set up and often quickly dismissed. Nabokov uses detail with a naturalists, a photographers, a painters, and a poets eye: visual, natural, social, locomotory, and gestural particulars, seen from the outside but also felt from the inside. But despite his precision, he is sparing. He operates not by steady accumulation of detail but by swooping and swerving in ways that catch our attention, stir our imagination, and prod our memory, for the detail is highly selective, highly open-ended, highly diverse, highly correlated. And despite his focus on one central consciousness, he peoples his scenes with characters limned with the same quick exactness and surprising individuality as everything else, and evaluated for their capacity to see their world for themselves and to imagine it from the point of view of others. (Boyd 33)