Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Lives of the Poet

Attention conservation notice: Pale Fire again. Hey, it's my favorite book.

Once in a while you can get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right.
This past weekend, I came to realize just how intrinsic Samuel Johnson is to Pale Fire. Not just by virtue of the Hodge epigraph, or of Kinbote striving to be Shade's Boswell. Johnson presumably would have wanted to be remembered primarily for his dictionary and for Rasselas, but being taken as a founder of modern literary criticism (via The Lives of the Poets as well as essaying Shakespeare) probably didn't even enter into his consideration, and his popular image was set for all time by Boswell as a witty conversationalist above all. All these aspects blinded me to the fact that Johnson was also a poet, translating Pope into Latin and producing his own Juvenalia (imitating the third and tenth satires), and should by all rights have been included in my consideration of poet-critics in Pale Fire.

Jeffrey Meyers (biographer of Conrad and others) compiled a NewCrit inventory of Johnson connections, concluding that "Pale Fire reveals how profoundly Nabokov identified with the character of Samuel Johnson." I got there by a different route: Thomas Karshan's TLS article on Naiman's perversion and Maar's marred cryptallization sparked discussion on the Nabokov listserv about VN's hostility to Freud. I agree with Jansy Mello that it's largely symbolic, and related to the literary criticism it spawned; in the realm of artistic production and assessment the differences are deep-rooted (and VN's best 'frenemy' Edmund Wilson is implicated by The Wound and the Bow). Thus primed, Colin Burrow's 17Feb LRB coverage of a new edition of The Lives of the Poets, "Sudden Elevations of Mind", felled the scales from my eyes:
Johnson’s very robust form of humanity goes along with a distinctive view of moral psychology, which is a vital element in the Lives. [...] That moral psychology (itself not entirely unpriggish, since it goes along with a deep hostility to aristocratic leisure and to self-indulgences of all sorts) underpins many of the ethical judgments in the Lives, and indeed runs through the detail of its phrasing. Pope was ‘fretful, and easily displeased, and allowed himself to be capriciously resentful’. That phrase ‘allowed himself’ is absolute Johnson: Pope’s failure to correct his own inclination to be fretful turns his natural disposition into a moral failing. In a similar way Swift, towards whom Johnson is generally hostile, condemned himself to eventual madness by his refusal to participate in society: ‘His asperity continually increasing, condemned him to solitude; and his resentment of solitude sharpened his asperity.’ The sentence is so damning because it makes no reference to Swift’s own agency. He failed to prevent himself from becoming an isolated curmudgeon because he allowed his passions to drive his behaviour into a loop of decline, and that way madness lay: ‘His ideas, therefore, being neither renovated by discourse, nor increased by reading, wore gradually away, and left his mind vacant to the vexations of the hour, till at last his anger was heightened into madness.’ Even this judgment, severe though it may be, is not simply cruel or inhumane: Johnson saw in Swift’s mental decline a parallel to his own battles with ‘vile melancholy’, which he sought to alleviate by the therapy of activity. Swift’s final illness was a mortal and moral hell which has its roots in voluntary weakness, and was a fate which Johnson could imagine as his own.
Aside from the relevance of Pope and Swift to Pale Fire, what struck me was the depth of Nabokov's involvement with Johnson, and how morality and psychology were intertwined (or non-disassociated) in their aesthetic viewpoints, and how that was both a weakness and a strength. And how all this assists in interpretation.

Brian Boyd in Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years contends:
In their literary principles, they could not be further apart. Johnson opts for common sense, for reason, for the amplest generalizations he can make about "general"—that is, human—"nature." Nabokov extols the surprise of personal perception, the play of individual fancy, the irreducible detail that the general view can overlook but never explain. But both have a proud independence of mind and an unquenchable vigor of expression. Both refuse to be daunted by the genius of their subjects, and demand the best of them, according to their own high standards: Johnson chastises Shakespeare for a Nabokovian pun, Nabokov reproves Pushkin for a Johnsonian dictum.
But these are matters of technique, not of underlying principle. Criticism, and what motivates it, matters, a lot. So, too, literature: perhaps this is the basis (or lack of it) for VN's aversion to Dostoevsky. Which is not to say that technique doesn't count. Nor that Nabokov didn't have his blind spots.

So with this in mind, I began to consider how Kinbote's relation to Shade in Pale Fire might mirror that of Rasselas to the poet Imlac. (I know a fair bit of the lit-crit on Nabokov, but little of the extended academic scholarship.) Little did I imagine that Thomas Karshan, the TLS-SAist, would be the one who'd gotten there ahead of me, in the just-published (in the UK) Vladimir Nabokov and the Art of Play (coming in April to the US). Courtesy of googlebooks:
Nabokov had thought of calling Pale Fire 'The Happy Atheist' (SL 212*). He may have derived the idea of examining the response of an Optimist to his daughter's death from Johnson's Rasselas (1759), in which a stoic philosopher's much-vaunted 'rational fortitude' collapses when this very tragedy befalls him. In Pale Fire, Nabokov, like Erasmus in Praise of Folly, More in Utopia, and Johnson in Rasselas, is testing stoicism, and Shade's secret alcoholism suggests that his victory over unhappiness may be confined to art. If Shade has invented Kinbote it might be as a repository for the unhappiness which he cannot admit into the felicity of his poem.
* Selected Letters: to Jason Epstein, 24 Mar 57, opens: Dear Jason, My main creature, an ex-king, is engaged throughout PALE FIRE in a certain quest. This quest, or research (which at one point, alas, involves some very sophisticated spiritualism), is completely divorced from any so-called faith or religion, gods, God, Heaven, Folklore, etc. At first I thought of entitling my novel THE HAPPY ATHEIST, but the book is much too poetical and romantic for that (its thrill and poetry I cannot reveal to you in a short and matter-of-fact summary). My creature's quest is centered in the problem of heretofore and hereafter, and it is I may say beautifully solved.
(Yo, OUP! I'd gladly accept a review copy!)

But another relevant bit, perhaps one of the better known from Rasselas, takes on new significance in light of Brian Boyd's examination of Pale Fire as a story involving some very sophisticated spiritualism; as Imlac puts it:
"That the dead are seen no more ... I will not undertake to maintain, against the concurrent and unvaried testimony of all ages and all nations. There is no people, rude or learned, among whom apparitions of the dead are not related and believed. This opinion, which perhaps prevails as far as human nature is diffused, could become universal only by its truth; those that never heard of one another would not have agreed in a tale which nothing but experience can make credible. That it is doubted by single cavillers can very little weaken the general evidence; and some who deny it with their tongues confess it by their fears."
This in no way shifts the balance between Boyd's and Kunin's alternate interpretations of who tells the tale, as the Swift decline, and Imlac's signature observation that "[h]uman life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed", could be cited in support of the latter. (And Imlac's caution, "Be not too hasty to trust or admire the teachers of morality. They discourse like angels, but they live like men", tempers reception of Johnson's and Nabokov's critical judgments.)

Ah, had I only paid heed to Jansy (much of this post being drawn from my correspondence with her over the weekend) when I last ventured into questions of psychoanalytic lit-crit, I might well have arrived here sooner. But, as Nabokov put it in Speak, Memory: "The pleasant experience of the roundabout route (strange landscapes, gongs, tigers, exotic customs, the thrice-repeated circuit of a newly married couple around the sacred fire of an earthern brazier) would amply reward him for the misery of the deceit, and after that, his arrival at the simple key would provide him with a synthesis of poignant artistic delight." The funny thing is, that roundabout route sounds a lot like Rasselas' plot-line. And now The Lives of the Poets is on the list of works to be acquired for my bookshelf of good intentions, now of more than historical interest.

PS: Back for a moment to Meyers' inventory: one trick he missed was Goldsmith (nominally entwined with Wordsworth in Pale Fire), whose epitaph Johnson penned: from the Latin: "Oliver Goldsmith: A Poet, Naturalist, and Historian, who left scarcely any style of writing untouched, and touched nothing that he did not adorn. Of all the passions, whether smiles were to move or tears, a powerful yet gentle master. In genius, vivid, versatile, sublime. In style, clear, elevated, elegant." Largely apt for Nabokov too, I think. But seek out Samuel Johnson's epitaph on-line, and you arrive at a very different sylvan shade, alias "Lord Flame"; nowadays, comments are moderated.