“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, September 06, 2014

nabokov and a cold war trope

Sometimes, a phrase, an image, a reference, a term will catch one’s eye, revealing – not with the flag-like pomp of a theme, but like a firefly in the back yard as evening falls – some moment in history, some corner of the vast dark we call public opinion or the forces of history, which is not so much lit up as flickered up, unshadowed a bit. The master tracker of such firefly ideas is Carlos Ginsberg, who has shown how they can twist and turn – or be twisted and turned – over the longue duree, and how they can be connected, the historian’s construction being the promise that some living thing, some beat, is actually there. Parataxis promises continuity, our ellipsis waits for the pencil that draws the line between dot “a” and dot “b”, we feel the breathing of influence, but not, oh never, the palpable push of cause.   
 It is one of those ideas that I have been toying with ever since I caught it, again, in  Nabokov’s lectures on Russian history. Specifically, this is what tugged at my eye, or perhaps I should say ear – since I seemed to confront an echo here. An echo of something I had heard before.
“ In the sixties and seventies famous critics, the idols of public opinion, called Pushkin a dunce, and emphatically proclaimed that a good pair of boots was far more important for the Russian people than all the
Pushkins and Shakespeares in the world.”

Nabokov here is repeating in condensed form an argument he had put in the mouth, or rather in the book, written by his character Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev in The Gift. The book, a mock biography of Chernyshevsky, stamps its way through Chapter 4 of the book. Although mock is the tone intended, the prose often descends into mere dismissal and scurillity – it would really be worth comparing, some day, Nabokov’s pillorying of Chernyshevksy in Berlin, 1937, where much of the book was written, with the Stalinist denunciation of bourgeois writers, since the choice of insults seem to converge, and there is the same microscoping skewing and vengeful hewing of the writer’s corpus – in both senses. At one point, Nabokov makes fun of Chernyshevsky’s physical awkwardness in the Tsarist labor camp he was condemned to – which even his admirers might blanch at, this being written at a time when physically maladroit intellectuals were being processed in labor camps both in Germany and the Soviet Union. In the Lectures, he informs his poor students that Pushkin was condemned equally by Tsarist dunderheads and radical ones – which is an argument one could make, rather easily, about Nabokov’s own judgments (Thomas Mann was condemned both by the Nazis and by VN).Of course, my argument that there is something of the Stalinist purge rhetoric in Godunov-Cherdyntsev’s is also making a parallelism argument – borrowing the moral opprobrium we devote to one to the other. Hey, we are all human. However, in Pushkin’s case, try as he might, Nabokov can’t make the  parallel lines meet. But such is the wonder of art: due to a trick of the eye, they can be made to seem to.

This is a phrase from  Nabokov has his fictitious author say  about the radical’s views of Pushkin:  “When Chernyshevski or Pisarev called Pushkin’s poetry “rubbish and luxury””, thus, again, letting the quotation gently drift there, where it seems to be on the verge of emerging from the pen of Chernyshevsky or Pisarev but… ends up emerging from the hybridization of them. However, in actual fact, a quotation is like a kite – it can’t get up into the air unless there is a solid figure at one end of it. Usually this figure runs around a bit, works up a sweat, and finally – the kite, or the quote, is aloft. But not here. For all Nabokov’s love for “divine details”, this quote, in quite a philistine way, is simply daubed in, and we will decide later who was on the other end of it. But the Lectures on Russian Literature shows that the plight of our quote has worsened, and now there is a host of shadows on the other end of the diminishing of poor Pushkin, who – we are to suppose – is much better for the Russian people than boots.

This unattached quotation – how it manages to fly through the literature on Russian writers during the Cold War era! What is interesting is not only how it varies in being attributed to this or that figure, but how the quote itself can’t decide between Pushkin and Shakespeare. In Marc Slonim’s An Outline of Russian Literature (which, coming out in 1959, may have been cribbed by some of Nabokov’s students before he quit Cornell), it is Pisarev who, in a parenthesis, writes “A pair of boots is more useful than a Shakespeare play.” In Berdaiev’s The Origin of Russian communism (1937, a little before the Cold War), the boots are retained, but Pushkin is pushed aside for Shakespeare: Pisarev’s nihilism announced that ‘boots are higher than Shakespeare’ – an oddly phrased quote that attributes a phrase not to an author, but to an author’s ideas, as though the ideas were also writing articles and announcing values and appraising boots – no doubt in the same manner as the nose in Gogol’s story dons a uniform. Leszek Kolakowski takes the line that  we can attribute to Pisarev the remark that “a pair of boots is worth more than all the works of Shakespeare” –  an expansion of Berdaiev’s sentence, and making Marc Slonim’s quote look modest. Ronald Hingley, in the 1969 Nihilists: Russian radicals and revolutionaries in the reign of Alexander II, 1855-81, dispenses with the whole problem of attribution by writing that “a good pair of boots was worth more than the whole works of Pushkin” was a common saying of the 1860s period. What we have here is a phenomenon that also occurs in currency trading in a de-regulated regime: equivalents tend to disequilibrium, as one of the parts inflates in value – which of course brings up the question if the whole works of Shakespeare are worth the whole works of Pushkin. But I will be brave and not pursue every question that jumps up in my head. Instead, I will finish this woefully incomplete collage of quotations with Isaiah Berlin in Russian Thinkers (1979) who grabs the kite by the tale, or the quote by the source, correctly attributing the phrase “a pair of boots is in every sense better than Pushkin” to Dostoevsky, and speculates that Dostoevsky might have been inspired by one of Pushkin’s letters, in which he wrote that he looked at his poems “as a cobbler looks at a pair of boots that he has made.” This feat of quotation correcting occurs in the very narrow space of a footnote, but when we think  of what a lordly career the phrase has had, it seems to deserve something more.



1 comment:

Ray Davis said...

And Dostoevsky in turn put the Pushkin-and-Shakespeare lines into the mouths of (fictional) foolish nihilists... a very pretty loop of calumny; even if the basic recipe's a bit overfamiliar, it's lent some spice by Nabokov's public disdain for his unacknowledged source. ("Bedlam turned back into Bethlehem" remains a great gag, though.)