Nabokov’s Secret Knowledge

Consider the following statement by Vladimir Nabokov:

“To be quite candid — and what I am going to say now is something I have never said before, and I hope that it provokes a salutary chill — I know more than I can express in words, and the little that I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more (Strong Opinions, pg. 45).”

He made this statement in the Playboy interview in response to Toffler’s asking him whether or not he believed in God.  For some time now these words have not failed to provoke their intended “chill” when I think about them.  Whether it is “salutary” or not remains debatable, since it has thrown again into confusion for me an area of inquiry I have long (and very happily) considered settled.  I mean the question of spiritual enlightenment.

People’s ideas of spiritual enlightenment can’t help but be idiosyncratic, so I might as well explain mine.  For me it must primarily be a transfiguring experience.  Anything short of transfiguration is mere dictum, and I see no way that half measures can bring honest people into the conviction of having seen the divine.  Furthermore, enlightenment is beyond morality and religion; it has to be beyond doctrine, for doctrine inevitably generates threshold anxieties, whereas divinity can have none.  You either have been transfigured, or you have not.

Putting it this way however is mendacious.  It implies some sort of overwhelming, blissful experience of truth — of no longer being Nietzsche’s das kranke Tier, “the sick animal,” always full of doubts and fears.  But I’m not even sure spiritual enlightenment would be a pleasurable or edifying experience, since I think it wouldn’t so much furnish answers as it would end the compulsion to ask questions.  The value of it I suppose would depend, like everything else in human life, on the nature of the individual.  A quick Google search on Osho (or “Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh” to the unwashed) will prove that someone can be spiritually enlightened and not be particularly happy, or even a very nice person.  And of course the Eskimo shaman Igjugarjuk is my favorite example illustrating the questionable value of enlightenment; as Joseph Campbell put it:

“. . . As a youth he had wished to take to wife a girl whose family objected, [so he] went with his brother to lie in wait not far from the entrance to the young woman’s hut and from there shot down her father, mother, brothers, and sisters — seven or eight in all — until only the girl that he wanted remained (Primitive Mythology, pg. 52).”

This gunman was the same sage that said:

“The only true wisdom lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and it can be reached only through suffering. Privation and suffering alone can open the mind of a man to all that is hidden to others (ibid, pg. 54).”

It would be easy to just dismiss the veracity of Igjugarjuk’s spiritual enlightenment; but the respected Danish scholar and explorer Knud Rasmussen gave his words great weight — and anyhow, doubting would simply preclude asking the more relevant questions.  Why do so many seek enlightenment?  Would enlightenment even be able to heal civilization’s ails?  And if not, what sort of value does it have?

Of course, I cannot claim to have any first-hand knowledge of enlightenment.  But after years of study and consideration I came to several firm conclusions in order to put the matter at rest.  First, such a mental state most likely does not exist; second, if it does exist, it is most likely not desirable; third, even if it were desirable, it would not be obtainable through intellectual effort (or any effort, for that matter), since forward progress is anathema to its pathless nature.  These three conclusions served to end enlightenment for me as an area of personal concern; and very satisfied, I shifted my attention to wondering about the nature of artistic genius — whose fruits, unlike enlightenment’s, positively radiate in this world.

This brings me back to Nabokov.  So why do those innocuous words, quoted above, bother me coming out of Nabokov’s mouth?

They bother me simply because they have opened up the question again.   I could find reasons to suspect every historical mouth-piece of enlightenment (Buddha, Jesus, Plato, the Zohar, etc.) for merely seeking to furnish authority for some agenda, whether political, moral or instinctual.  So I had reason also to doubt the reality of enlightenment.  But to me, Vladimir Nabokov is not mere dictum.  I can think of no reason to suspect what he has to say outside the scope of his novels.  His hunger for being, as he put it, “fantastically deceitful,” was satisfied with them.  So if what he is suggesting in that statement in Playboy is that he is enlightened… then I’m not sure, I sort of have to rethink the issue again.

This begs the following questions: (1) Why is Nabokov such a credible source, and (2) How can we know Nabokov is speaking about enlightenment?

Nabokov is a credible source because he is perhaps the only writer in history short of maybe Shakespeare who had no discernable agenda.  Beyond being a master of style, he is notable for being the opposite of an ideologue.  As he put the matter himself: “I don’t belong to any club or group. I don’t fish, cook, dance, endorse books, sign books, co-sign declarations, eat oysters, get drunk, go to church, go to analysts, or take part in demonstrations (Strong Opinions, pg. 18);” or, more famously, “Let the credulous and vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts (ibid, pg 66).”  His family was dispossessed and his father was murdered by ideologues: he was intimate with the consequences of hypocrisy.

Moreover his books are visionary, not idealistic.  In literary metaphor as well as lepidopteral taxonomy, his goal was precision.  The best way of triggering, as he saw it, the aesthetic experience, was to assist clarity in understanding.  Nothing primitive, obscuritanist or mystical.  For Nabokov consciousness — specifically human consciousness — was an unqualified good and warranted expansion, not through mystical mortification of the self, but through the orderly identification of reality.

How I know he is talking about enlightenment is slightly harder to prove.  I think this because, first of all, the statement’s context was on a question of God, not art or science; and secondly, because using the phrase “I mean more than I can say in words” concerning emotions and so forth is a cliché of the worst sort, and that was not Nabokov’s way.  He clearly meant to emphasize some sort of significant difference between himself and others; a possession more than just talent that made his books possible.  He says “know” — so what kind of secret knowledge does he have, and won through what kind of elusive experience?

Below is a passage from his abandoned novel Ultima Thule.  The premise is that Truth was one evening revealed to a man named Falter, and it was fatal.  He cried out all night in mortal pain — but somehow he survived the onslaught.  When his neighbors sent the doctor the next morning to check on him, Falter spoke a certain word to him and it killed him.  I can think of only two other sources with this concept of “fatal enlightenment”: UG Krishnamurti and the ancient Hebrews.  But Krishnamurti was after Nabokov’s time, and the Bible gives no glimpse into the experience.

“For the sake of somehow starting our talk, I shall temporarily accept your refusal. Let us proceed ab ovo. Now then, Falter, I understand that the essence of things has been revealed to you.”

“Yes, period,” said Falter.

“Agreed — you will not tell me about it; nevertheless, I draw two important deductions: things do have an essence, and this essence can be revealed to the mind.”

Falter smiled. “Only do not call them deductions, mister. They are but flag stops. Logical reasoning may be a most convenient means of mental communication for covering short distances, but the curvature of the earth, alas, is reflected even in logic: an ideally rational progression of thought will finally bring you back to the point of departure where you return aware of the simplicity of genius, with a delightful sensation that you have embraced the truth, while actually you have merely embraced your own self. Why set out on a journey, then? Be content with the formula: the essence of things has been revealed — wherein, incidentally, a blunder of yours is already present; I cannot explain it to you, since the least hint at an explanation would be a lethal glimpse. As long as the proposition remains static, one does not notice the blunder. But anything you might term a deduction already exposes the flaw: logical development inexorably becomes envelopment.”

“All right, for the present I shall be content with that much. Now allow me a question. When a hypothesis enters a scientist’s mind, he checks it by calculation and experiment, that is, by the mimicry and the pantomime of truth. Its plausibility infects others, and the hypothesis is accepted as the true explanation for the given phenomenon, until someone finds its faults. I believe the whole of science consists of such exiled or retired ideas: and yet at one time each of them boasted high rank; now only a name or a pension is left. But in your case, Falter, I suspect that you have found some different method of discovery and test. May I call it ‘revelation’ in the theological sense?”

“You may not,” said Falter.

“Wait a minute. Right now I am interested not so much in the method of discovery as in your conviction that the result is true. In other words, either you have a method of checking the result, or the awareness of its truth is inherent in it.”

“You see,” answered Falter, “in Indochina, at the lottery drawings, the numbers are extracted by a monkey. I happen to be that monkey. Another metaphor: in a country of honest men a yawl was moored at the shore, and it did not belong to anyone; but no one knew that it did not belong to anyone; and its assumed appurtenance to someone rendered it invisible to all. I happened to get into it. But perhaps it would be simplest of all if I said that in a moment of playfulness, not mathematical playfulness, necessarily — mathematics, I warn you, is but a perpetual game of leapfrog over its own shoulders as it keeps breeding — I kept combining various ideas, and finally found the right combination and exploded, like Berthold Schwartz. Somehow I survived; perhaps another in my place might have survived, too. However, after the incident with my charming doctor I do not have the least desire to be bothered by the police again.”

For whatever reason, this and the rest of passage makes more sense to me than any sutra or Upanishad I have had the misery to slog through.  I feel that the words could only have been written from within the thing they are speaking about.  The problem, of course, is that this passage is in a work of fiction, and therefore falls within the scope of Nabokov’s being “fantastically deceitful.”  So what then, is Nabokov’s position on fiction?

“Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colors in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.”

That’s clear enough, no?


~ by Peter on July 5, 2010.

3 Responses to “Nabokov’s Secret Knowledge”

  1. Enlightenment is possible, and the symptoms of it could be felt too. I explain how a simple person can achieve the highest state of perfection, while feeling ecstatical symptoms. And this does not take time, there are ancient scriptures, who were also read by Einstein, Gandhi, and Emerson such as Bhagavad Gita and Srimad Bhagavatam. These books tell about this sacred science, and they are about 5000 years old.

    The Enlightenment Secrets Blogger

  2. I strongly suggest you have a look at Ramana Maharshi; a good place to start would be “”mind of ramana maharshi” by arthur osborne (though it misrepresents the teachings somewhat, it gives a candid view of the man).

    After you’ve read a bit about him, and want to know more about his philosophy/teachings, read the first 4-5 chapters of “be as you are” by david godman.

    And peruse “talks with ramana” and “day by day with bhagavan”.

  3. Yes, I totally agree with your conclusion! And now, after the publication of The Original of Laura, we can even know what was the technique he used to get to enlightenment:))

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