‘On Generalities’ Vladimir Nabokov

Was it insouciance or insight that led the young Vladimir Nabokov, already pathologically contrarian, to predict in 1926 that “the exceedingly dull Mr. Ulyanov” would by 2016 require glossing as Lenin? Father of the newborn Soviet Union, Vladimir Ilyich “Lenin”, though embalmed and on display on Red Square since 1924, still exerted an unrivalled influence from “the beyond” (as much a geographical as a spiritual category) on the close to one million Russian exiles sent into diaspora by the October Revolution and subsequent civil war. In “On Generalities”1, a talk delivered in 1926 at an evening gathering of the Tatarinov-Aykhenvald Circle (and now appearing for the first time in English), Nabokov addressed fellow émigrés on the subject of one of their deepest concerns: what did it mean that their Russia was irretrievable, and how could they make sense of their exile?
Nabokov resists the idea of absolute breaks in history – and this at a time when, following the First World War, entire empires such as Russia had changed hands, or name, or shape. In contrast to the Iron Laws of the Soviets and Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, the lesson of European history for Nabokov is the cyclical nature of time and trends, and above all the fundamental inability of the present to comprehend itself historically.
Nabokov implies that behind historicist pessimism, with its complaints about a new barbarism, lies simple curmudgeonliness – perhaps even of an ugly, reactionary kind, wilfully misreading the latest fashions (in sport, dance, or dress) as harbingers of decadence, rather than simple surface signs, capricious and ephemeral. Nabokov resented the past’s imposition on the present: his perspective is if anything future-oriented, looking to the future reader, future historian, and even future biographer.
This condition – what we might call a ­poetics of the future perfect – treats the present as it will have been remembered or memorialized. In the story “A Guide to Berlin” (1925), Nabokov’s narrator imagines “some eccentric Berlin writer in the twenties of the twenty-first century, wishing to portray our time”, for whom “everything, every trifle, will be valuable and meaningful”. For Russian émigrés of the 1920s, tipped by ­Trotsky into the dustbin of history, the notion of an eventual vindication was comforting. After all, a posthumous critical redemption had long been the imagined asylum of ­under-appreciated artists, gifted and talentless alike.
Yet the goal of “On Generalities” was less a self-help guide for exiles than a manifesto for Nabokov’s poetics. Nabokov’s apology for the 1920s – and we should remember that, as he was born in 1899, these were in both senses his twenties – avoids the commonplace myths of the Roaring Twenties and Weimar Berlin. Instead, Nabokov makes chance and the coincidental combination the defining characteristic of his early fiction.
Although a stateless aristocrat may be expected to make a virtue of independence, Nabokov’s stance of apparently boundless optimism was a conscious choice to combat the paralysing despair of grief and loss – of his abandoned inheritance, his aborted future, and his murdered father. A Nabokov character of those years writes to a former lover in Russia that he is “ideally happy” in exile: “The centuries will roll by, and schoolboys will yawn over the history of our upheavals; everything will pass, but . . . my happiness will remain, in the moist reflection of a streetlamp . . . in the smiles of a dancing couple, in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness”.
For all his anti-Soviet scorn and counter-philistinism, one should not imagine Nabokov holding his nose alongside the hermit of Croisset, holed up in their ivory tower, surrounded by Flaubert’s famous swelling tide of shit. Instead, shovel in hand (is that the tide or the tower he is removing?), Nabokov everywhere challenged the exile’s distemper. In “A Guide to Berlin”, one émigré tells another: “I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant ­tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant ­masquerade”.
Luke Parker
There is a very seductive and very dangerous demon: the demon of generalities. He captivates man’s thought by marking every phenomenon with a little label, and punctiliously placing it together with another, similarly carefully wrapped and numbered phenomenon. Through him a field of human knowledge as changeable as history is turned into a neat little office, where this many wars and that many revolutions sleep in folders – and where we can pore over bygone ages in complete comfort. This demon is fond of words such as “idea”, “tendency”, “influence”, “period”, and “era”. In the historian’s study this demon reductively combines in hindsight the phenomena, influences and tendencies of past ages. With this demon comes appalling tedium – the knowledge (utterly mistaken, by the way) that, however humanity plays its hand or fights back, it follows an implacable course. This demon should be feared. He is a fraud. He is a salesman of centuries, pushing his historical price list.
And the most awful thing, perhaps, happens when the temptation of completely comfortable generalities seizes us in contemplation not of past, well-worn times, but of that time in which we live. No matter that the spirit of generality in its striving for ease of thought has christened a long series of perfectly blameless years the “Middle Ages”. That is still pardonable; it has perhaps saved modern schoolboys from worse disasters. No matter that in 500 or so years the twentieth century, plus several other centuries, will in turn also fall into a folder with some imaginative little label or other – for example, the “Second Middle Ages”[2]. This does not concern us, although it is amusing to consider the twentieth century that will present itself to the imagination of a history professor in 500 or so years – and the Homeric laughter that would seize us were we to glance through textbooks of the future. But one wonders, are we really obliged to name our century in some way – and will these attempts of ours not play a nasty joke on us, when in thick little books they go arousing the fantasy of future wise men?
One such wise man, a penetrating historian[3], was working one day on the description of some ancient war, when suddenly a noise reached his ears from the street. A crowd was separating two fighting men. And neither the very sight of the scuffle, nor the expressions of the scuffling men, nor the explanations of the onlookers could give the curious historian an accurate picture of what exactly had happened. He pondered the fact that it was impossible to get to the bottom even of a chance street scuffle, which he had personally witnessed; he reread the description of the ancient war that he was working on and understood how arbitrary and haphazard were all his profound arguments about that ancient war. Let us admit to ourselves, once and for all, that the notion of history as an exact science is just for convenience – “for simple folk”, as the museum guard used to say, showing two skulls – in youth and old age – of one and the same criminal.
If each of man’s days is a sequence of chance occurrences – and in this lies its divinity and power – then the history of mankind is even more so mere chance. You can combine those occurrences, tie them into a tidy bouquet of periods and ideas; but the fine scent of the past is lost in the process, and we are now seeing, not that which was, but that which we wish to see. By chance a commander has an acute stomach ache – and now a venerable royal dynasty is replaced by the dynasty of a neighbouring power. By chance a restless eccentric gets the impulse to sail across the ocean – and now trade is transformed and a maritime nation made rich. Why indeed should we take after those paradoxical enemies of risk, who sit for years at the green baize in Monte Carlo calculating how many spins will fall on red and how many on black, all in order to find a fail-safe system? There is no system. History’s roulette wheel knows no laws. Clio laughs at our clichés, at our speaking with daring, skill, and impunity about influences, ideas, trends, periods, and eras, and at how we deduce laws and predict the future.
That is how history is treated. But I repeat, it is a hundred times more terrifying when the demon of generalities worms his way into our judgments about our own era. And what exactly is our era? When did it begin, in which year, which month? When people use the word “Europe”, what exactly do they have in mind, which countries; only those at the “centre”, or are Portugal, Sweden, and Iceland also central? When newspapers with their particular love for shoddy metaphors head an article “Locarno”[4], I see only mountains, sun shining on the water, and an avenue of plane trees. When people pronounce the word “Europe” with the same metaphorical, generalizing intonation, I see precisely nothing, since I cannot imagine simultaneously the landscape and history of Sweden, Romania and, say, Spain. And when in connection with this non-existent Europe people talk about some era, then I am at a loss to understand when this era even began – and how exactly it could have the same bearing on me, and Ivanov, and Mr. Brown, and Monsieur Dupont. I digress. I am forced to conclude that my interlocutor is speaking about the last two or three years, that the action is taking place in the same town where he himself lives – say, Berlin – and that the barbarism under discussion dates only to the appearance of the dance halls on the Kurfürstendamm.
As soon as I understand this, suddenly everything becomes simpler. We are not talking, then, about something general, hazy, and collective. We are talking about a dance hall in the city of Berlin in the twenty-fourth, fifth, or sixth years of this century. Instead of a cosmic spirit, simply an arbitrary fashion. And this fashion will pass as it has already passed many times before. It is interesting that these faux-black dances [5] were in fashion in the days of the French Directory . . . . Now, as then, there is no more eroticism in them than there was in the waltz. It is interesting that in those days when ladies wore freakish feathers in their hats, morality shed a tear over scandalous blackness. And so, if we are to talk about fashion, the talk could be an interesting and informative one. We could talk about the arbitrary nature of fashion, about how fashion is in no way tied to other phenomena in man’s life – about the fact, for example, that in the days when Madame de Sévigné was writing her letters, so-called Bubikopf haircuts were worn[6].
“Chance, Doña Anna, chance”, as it is said in The Stone Guest[7]. Fashion is arbitrary and capricious. The fashion in Berlin does not at all resemble the fashion in Paris. An Englishman is confused seeing so many Berliners stroll about in plus fours: surely half of Berlin is not playing golf all day? And again, if our talk turns to sport, then we need to establish which people, which country, exactly which years we have in mind. And here one should call on someone well versed in the history of sport. He will explain that in Germany sport is only now coming into being, and somewhat rapidly, and for that reason is so striking. Football takes the place of the goose-step, lawn tennis replaces war-games. If we turn our attention to sport in other countries, we find, for example, that in England football has been exciting the crowd in exactly the same way for five centuries now; and that in France the huge halls are still preserved where they played tennis starting in the fourteenth century. The Greeks played hockey and hit a punching ball. Sport – whether hunting, a knightly tournament, a cockfight, or good old Russian lapta[8] – has always amused and entertained mankind. To search for signs of barbarism in it is inherently senseless, because a real barbarian is always a bad sportsman.
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