Nabakov and Modernism
Back at the turn into the Twentieth Century, Modernism was a movement to liberate myth and abstraction from the encrustations of history. Freud's Viennese living room, filled as it was with draperies, overstuffed furniture, pictures, knick knacks and anthropological icons, would become in twenty years, all across the "modern" or economically developed world, a set of austere white walls surrounding single and dramatically placed objects (a family portrait, a piece of distinctively wrought furniture, Prometheus in Rockefeller Plaza) that would attest to the essentially primitive and primal themes that prevailed, just as was the case in art which, for the next fifty years, would allow shapes and materials to prevail over content, swatches of color and form to be seen for the first time as representations of the real structures that informed appearances.
Myths would also be rescued from history, no longer mere remnants of irrational thinking, but seen instead as eternal verities demonstrated time and time again, regardless of the currents of political and historical and even cultural life. And so the invisible world underneath the apparent world would be made visible for the first time, and so more real than history, the clash of nations replaced by the psychological and metaphysical shapes of the universe which include the prevarications of lust and the nakedness of existence.
Post-Modernism is a name for the literature and philosophy produced in the last twenty years or so. The term was coined to deal with the architecture and fine arts that developed after Abstract Expressionism came to an end. The term can be extended to include the philosophy and social theory that developed after the end of Existentialism on the Continent and Analytic Philosophy in the English speaking world. It can also include the literature that came after the realistic and comic novelists, such as Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, the younger John Updike, John Cheever and Norman Mailer in the United States, and Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble and Iris Murdoch in England. These writers dominated the immediate post-war scene with portraits of strong characters full of talk, sometimes of weighty matters, as they are caught up within very refined senses of their times and their places within it. As others have noted, these authors were realists about character and setting, rather than Modernists, and so were like Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. They were not Post-Modernists.
Post-Modernism replaces the anti-historic themes of Modernism as well as that generation long turn back to realism with a regard for the everyday and the commonsensical as the wellsprings of human existence. Advocates of Post-Modernism often also claim that they are no longer concerned with questions of quality, having dispensed with the need to find works of art good or bad so long as these are objects to which their audiences respond, when what they have dispensed with is only with the modernist concern with profundity, since all objects, however poorly fashioned, can take on meaning and emotional resonance, and profundity lies not in the art but in those who apprise it. Or at least so it seemed to the early Post-Moderns, who were fighting the battle for the authenticity of ethnic and movement art.
Post-Modernism, in general, insists on turning the strange into the ordinary, using the same formulas to encompass, on the one hand, ancient rituals and myths and, on the other hand, contemporary culinary tastes and folkloric stories constructed from gossip recorded in newspapers. So Levi-Straus insists on showing that totems are no more than a way for primitive people to give names to clans and so show a correspondence between social life and natural life, and so is no different than modern people assigning nicknames, like the Rainbow Division, to military units, to demonstrate their particularity.
Deep structures in myth or linguistics similarly rob language of its poetry by making it into scheduled variations on the same theme, the paradoxes built into the way the formulas are written rather than into what they describe. Cognition is reduced to grammar. While Modernism turned the ordinary into the strange, Freud discovering his mythic formulas, Post-Modernism turns folklore, politics, media, social customs and social history into grist for the single mill that manufactures all of human life as it is experienced.
Everything from pop culture to high culture is caught in the same irony of having been turned to art by the contemplation of it as such, while Modernism was all about quality because of its sense of finding some universal substrate that all art attested to, even though Modern art was less about skill than the meaning and relation of the artwork to the subterranean underpinnings and forms of human existence. Art was of high quality, for a Modernist, because it was full of insight, even if not full of skill. Picasso knew how to draw; many of those who followed him did not. For Post-Modernism, on the other hand, art is good because it is a play on turning the world into art, without that increasing or enhancing its meaning except by its being noticed as art. An artist makes his statement; the statement, whether a political slogan or the assertion that the lives of people should be noticed, is the message, not the medium that conveys it.
The replacement of the real by the apparent, of the world as it is "inside" or "underneath" by the world as it appears to be experienced, which is neither a phenomenon nor a thing-in-itself but the fullness of an object's familiarity, whether that is a set of words scratched onto a painting (as in Cy Twombly) or a stylized map of a Los Angeles neighborhood (as in David Hockney), leads to art and literature becoming conventional in both senses of the word: they are deliberately formulaic and banal. The meaning of language is reduced to the parsing of sentences, and the originality of the AT&T building lies in the fact that it borrows its design from its own advertisements. Architecture accepts Disneyland and Las Vegas and art tries to become comic book drawings that have gone beyond the comic book's sometime attempt at verisimilitude, replacing it with the melodramatic feeling that was originally taken as the limitation of the comic book as literature (were that to have even been something people considered) and transvaluating the sense of impending doom into the experience which is itself worth contemplating because it is the unenlightened sense of things we all bring to life. People sense the world as a comic book, filled with dread and sorrow and heroic solutions, before they come to appreciate literature, with its impulse to go beyond dread and sorrow.
The inventor of literary Post-Modernism is the Americanized Vladimir Nabakov. He turns the transatlantic voyager and hero into Pnin, who is something of a nebbish. Nabakov recognizes the vacuity of the love story by suggesting that even a man of poetic tastes could fall in love with so shallow a creature as Lolita. Only placement within Pale Fire can earn Shadd's poems any attention. The poems are not the core of a mystery but suggest a kind of life that has no mystery at its core. In general, the Post-Modernist mentality takes life as it is, which is to say, in terms of its given categories rather than without interpretation or in richer interpretation, and thinks it has been true when it renders the world of conventional consciousness undisguised. In that case, literature does not use convention. Literature is no more than its conventions, the wisdom of the world a matter of clichés.
The history of Jews from World War II on lends itself to a Post-Modernist appreciation because the Holocaust and Israel have an edge on them that calls for something more than the operatic melodrama that was associated with Nineteenth century nationalism and that was applied to the Jews even earlier on, in the Eighteenth century, by Gotthold Lessing in his sentimental tragedy Nathan the Wise. The participation of Jews in history is only partly understood through framing myths since the qualities of the Holocaust lie in the details of train schedules and deportation regulations. And the Holocaust is only partly understood though an objective institutional history of classes and the natural law of nations because an understanding of the Holocaust also concerns itself with why this particular tragedy, among so many ethnic tragedies in this century, gains a purchase on human consciousness that seems to make of it an opening to an abyss rather than a bit more of the usual.
Primo Levi is a good example of the way the Post-Modernist spirit catches hold of something new. (I could, by the way, have chosen Art Spiegelman's Mauss, a comic book whose emotions seem so well to convey the pathos and enormity of the Holocaust, to exemplify the way Post-Modernism works.) Levi uses the form of the memoir which was, at the time, a minor and unpretentious form of literature, and creates a Post-Modernist masterpiece of a minor sort, Survival in Auschwitz, by using Dante, the natural reference for any Italian, for his own purposes. (Indeed, as in the age of Pope, all masterpieces of Post-Modernism may be in a minor mode, mock epics because there is not the seriousness and certainty that generates full scale epics.)
Dante is remarkable for, among other things, as Hollander puts it, making an allegorical idea literal. The people in Hell and Purgatory each struggle every moment with their fates, twisting and turning their bodies to avoid some tiny bit of the pain they will endure over millennia, at the least. That allows the reader to sense the endless or near endless lengths of time they will suffer. Dante and Virgil struggle up very literal slopes and find themselves avoiding rocks that have been fractured during the time of the descent of Christ into Hell, so that Hell and Purgatory have their own histories and are not to be understood only under the aspect of eternity.
Levi is even more literal than Dante because what happened in the concentration camps really happened and so is not just the imagination of what is true. Moreover, unlike in Dante, suffering in the concentration camps is not arranged hierarchically so as to constitute a kind of distributive justice, and people's characters are worse off rather than better off for the experience, which is administered in concentration camps for reasons of hate and indifference rather than a practiced refusal to straight off forgive those who suffer. That last is a temptation that might grip the character Dante and he is therefore chastised by Virgil, his escort through Hell and Purgatory. Levi is offering, therefore, some comment on the Dantean Hell whose residents are also victims and yet emerge as a bit heroic because they recognize and accept their fate. A modern mind would suggest to itself that the people in Dante's Hell ought to take the easy way out and go mad or become, like Levi's "muslims", indifferent to what occurs to them.
And yet Levi returns to a Dante reference as a key to his own understanding of his experience. Like Ulysses, he has been graced to see the Underworld while yet alive, even if it is only a cruel god that would offer such a dreadful experience. Levi is post-modernist because he cannot imagine a mythic hell more real or vivid that what happens in the actual world, so that Dante is no longer literal, but a metaphor for the reality Levi has experienced. It is hard to make the mind take on this sensibility, to recognize that people do in fact find more moral and aesthetic satisfaction and release in the actuality of photographs and documents than in dramas and paintings and other forms of representation. Post-Modernism provides words that allow the awareness and validation of these Post-Modern experiences.
Levi therefore adapts the popular form of the memoir for high literary purposes. Nabakov tops Levi in this amalgamation and that is another reason he is the quintessential Post-Modernist writer. Post-Modernist texts, in general, refer back and forth between artistic and popular culture, the concerns of each constantly offsetting the concerns of one into the other. Each of Nabakov's later novels does this. Each of them comments on themselves through commenting on the complementary of the serious and the superficial. Lolita is a comic turn on both the popular and the serious love story, even if Lionel Trilling, ever serious, thinks it is only an extension of the tradition of the love story. Pale Fire is a comment on poetry and poetic creation, wrapping both up as a mystery understood as a detective story and as a myth, and raising the question of what is the difference between a good poem and a bad one. Ada is a comic turn on the novel itself, never deciding what to do with its characters because an author can always change his mind and so simply edits out possible plot and character developments so as to provide the sense that the characters have made up their own minds. It is fun, however, to think of fictional characters as being several different versions of themselves at once, and Nabakov invents ways for the novel to do that.
What Nabakov establishes is that everything can be read as contrary to itself. The point is therefore not that everything can be taken ironically, but that everything is ironic, every proposition or narrative also the opposite of itself. There is no need to establish when a text is ironic because it cannot be other than ironic, denying what it has done by the very fact that having done it one way it could have been made in such a way that it did whatever it did another way or to an opposite purpose. All assertion is a tacit admission of the opposite of what is asserted having to be pushed aside because an assertion is made visible by the assertion of its opposite. A text is un-ironic only if it is not noticed as a text.
There is a present occasion for noting the greatness of Nabakov. The recent film about Truman Capote is successful in portraying the times during which Capote made what was considered his breakthrough into the novelistic non-fiction book. The film is worth commending for its portrayal of a very complex character caught up, as we all are, in the customs of his time, and who, nevertheless, was able to preserve his own distinctive presence within it. The film was less successful, however, in conveying why In Cold Blood was a good book rather than a book thought to be good, perhaps because it wasn't that great a book to begin with. The book was never able to blend the story of those murdered and those who did the murdering. They lived in different societies and were brought together by the merest of circumstances. The book is more about the justice system than about what a murder means, for all it finds is that murder is inexplicable. That is, after all, all that most murder mystery writers are able to do, with the exception of those, like Ross MacDonald, who understand murder under the dispensation of Freudianism, or Graham Greene, who understands it under the dispensation of the Catholic Church. P. D. James has had a life long preoccupation with murder but she is not reveal much about it, however much Adam Dalgliesh goes on about it poetically, and however gruesome are the details the author provides. Once the suspects provide their characters and the setting is elaborately described, James has only to wind her story down, picking which of the suspects will prove to be the one who did it when all had motives to do it. The murder mystery, even if a well written tale of a real murder, does not plumb the depths of the society in which it takes place, even though Poe and Sayers would like it otherwise.
Nabakov chooses a transgressive act other than murder through which to explore society: what would nowadays be considered the sexual exploitation of children, though Nabakov considers it from beyond the realm of good and evil, however much it is also evil. He portrays Lolita as an icon of American culture, given to the enactment of a pre-sexual sexuality, seemingly sophisticated beyond her years. And he portrays Humbert as the displaced European who finds America vapid except for the romance he brings to it. So there is something to tie the two protagonists together. They are images of other societies caught up in a post-McCarthy America landscape filled with suspicion and a welter of motels and other barely rooted structuresCor so Humbert thinks. Nabakov plays on this, the image of America in the mind of America, and that itself becomes an object of his attention: how a book about sexual perversities is a window onto America's window on itself. Oh, the complications! That is what makes Lolita, perhaps, the original and still most important Post-Modernist masterpiece. It is inseparable from itself as a reflection on itself; it is a work about itself; its arrival is a moment in American cultural history. And yet it is sufficiently tied to the tradition of the novel as a realistic account of what happens to people - as Ada is not - that readers will be surprised and confused by its refusal to condemn, even though it is, after all, just a story, not a presentation of a real life event. Nabakov tweaks us with his forward which comically reduces his book to a case study. It takes long reflection to realize the forward was an unnecessary jest. That is because our first impulse as readers is not to let literature be. Nabakov wanted to study life as literature while Capote followed the traditional calling of making life into literature, though without providing the unities that literature can provide.
The problem with the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Truman Capote and Norman Mailer was the lack of any perspective; all they had was style, and so they lack depth. Wolfe is funny when he describes the monkeys in space capsules desperately trying to make the capsule computer do what it was programmed to do; he is less successful at explaining what he termed the "radical chic" because he makes fun of Leonard Bernstein raising money for the Black Panthers, rather than explaining why people of good will might do such a curious thing in that time and place. Joan Didion reminds anyone who has gone through a family health crisis of its unsettling emotions, though her depiction reveals no new observation or new thought. Norman Mailer, ever self-absorbed, does a riff in his report on the 1968 Democratic Convention, The Armies of the Night, on how his craziness is different from the craziness of Robert Lowell, the narrative excuse being that they met in the men's room, and his literary purpose being that this illuminates what is going on in American politics at the time, which is hardly the case, however much that political convention provided him with the occasion for the best writing he ever did. The New Journalism was important mostly because it was a much too hesitant departure along a minor side road while Nabakov went about the business of constructing literary Post-Modernism.