End-of-the-block Reflection: Institutions and the Sun-Bathing Professor
Well, the course “Topics in Literature: Vladimir Nabokov” has now ended. By the numbers, we sampled a chunk of his work: 1 poem, 1 essay, 1 novel-length autobiography, 6 novels, and 15 short stories (not forgetting the Stanley Kubrick film!). As a brief closing statement for the course, I found this line quite fitting: “so fast / Did life, the wooly caterpillar run” (Pale Fire, 42). This quote seems apt to share as a final reflection for the course, and it is perhaps one of my favorite quotes from a Nabokov piece (I like caterpillars). It comes from Pale Fire, the final novel which we read this week. Pale Fire is a wacky novel in which Nabokov has created a foreword, a poem, and commentary on the poem. Yet, these components are created by a fictional poet and a fictional commentator, and the real story, rather than helpful information, is found in the rather lengthy footnotes. The fictional commentator instead describes a faraway kingdom, Zembla, and a series of fantastical stories that follow. I’m trying not to spoil some key details, but it was my favorite from the course, and I highly recommend reading it.
By telling a story through the footnotes, Nabokov cheekily comments on the nature of academia. He points out the absurdity of having an artistic piece with footnotes and forewords—often, they read too much into the author’s intentions, and it seems tedious that a piece can have commentary longer and lengthier than the piece itself. Nabokov repeatedly and pointedly shows some of the excesses of the academic world. For a final reflection on the course, this is something that I have noticed and reflected on as perhaps my favorite feature of his writings. In the final piece we read, the essay “The Art and Literature of Commonsense”, Nabokov reflects that “commonsense has back-kicked dirt at the loveliest of queer paintings because a blue tree seemed madness to its well-meaning hoof” (Lectures on Literature, 372). While not speaking directly about academia, I think that the point comes across here. Common and institutional thinking can often be dangerous to creativity and expression. The reference to the art and the sullied painting made me laugh, too.
Another instance where Nabokov tries to make the defense for art is in a short story about going to a museum, excitedly titled, “The Visit to the Museum”. On campus, I work at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, so I enjoyed reading a brief story about being in the museum. In the story, the narrator gets lost in the back corridors and finds himself lost and terrified by the arrays of displays, until finally he realizes he is back in a Russia that isn’t the one that he remembered. The narrator describes: “Now and then, on one side or the other, stone stairs, with puddles on the steps, which gave me a strange sensation of fear, would descend into misty abysses, whence issued whistles, the rattle of dishes, the clatter of typerwriters, the ring of hammers” (The Stories of VN, 283). The museum in this story is dark, labyrinth-like, full of horrifying sounds, and even a bit wet. While this does remind me of some more-or-less decent contemporary exhibits, this seems to sum up common fears about museums: that they are scary, easy to get lost in, and filled with indecipherable messages. I think here Nabokov critiques not the art, but how it is assembled in these back rooms—the art and the museum process seem confusing because of their institutional nature. My brief advertisement for the CSFAC is that I can appreciate that it is the opposite there. I will admit that the layout can be a bit wacky, but it is a museum that tries to make art easy and fun to access. And, unlike Nabokov’s description, there are no puddles in the museum.
Nabokov’s pokes at institutions and “common thinking” aren’t always so discreet. Those tired of reading and hearing about Freud, in class or in daily life, would enjoy the frequent jokes he makes at Freud’s expense (“the Viennese quack!”). He makes jokes at how quickly we jump to interpreting dreams and behaviors in a Freudian way. It’s hard not to see his point, considering the variety of disciplines (literature, psychology, social science) that employ readings of Freud in a liberal-arts setting.
The last three novels of the class, Pnin, Lolita, and Pale Fire each take place in school-related settings and feature eccentric atypical professors. Nabokov can’t help but insert snubs at how college institutions work, with their generic campuses and odd means of distributing funding. Humbert Humbert from Lolita is openly fascinated by underage children. Charles Kinbote from Pale Fire parachutes in from a fictional country to teach language at a college. Perhaps my favorite example of the against-the grain, seemingly against-the-institution professor is Pnin (from Pnin). My favorite description of him: “Desdemona…who came on Fridays and with whom at one time God had gossiped daily…happened to glimpse Pnin basking in the unearthly lilac light of his sun lamp, wearing nothing but shorts, dark glasses, and a dazzling Greek-Catholic cross on his broad chest, and insisted thereafter that he was a saint” (Pnin, 40). It’s a bit unpleasant (and probably unprofessional) to imagine any college professor like this, sun-bathing and mistaken for sainthood. Pnin frequently misunderstands situations and is the aloof and lovable professor that doesn’t quite fit into rigid academia. So here is Pnin, tanning under his sun lamp. Nabokov questions many institutions and means of common thinking—be them museums, literature footnotes, college campuses, or Freudian analyses.
By the time you have finished reading this, I should hopefully be in Orange County California, taking inspiration from Pnin with short shorts and dark sunglasses (though no Greek-catholic cross, no bald head, no sun lamp—but plenty of sunshine). I’ll be working on a last reflection that thinks about road trips and Lolita, but this is the last of my week-end (week-late) reflections for this course. What a time! I hope you enjoyed reading, and that you have a lovely spring.