God Is a Dandy Roll

April 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Speak, Memory, by Vladimir Nabokov.

In honor of Nabokov’s birthday — or I guess I should say “Nabokov’s birthday (observed),” since, as he explains in his foreword, he was born on April 10 according to the Russian Old Style calendar, which translated to the 22nd in the 19th century, the 23rd in the 20th, and he was born in 1899, but his birthdays were observed beginning in 1900, so it’s a complicated mess — I’ll stick to a fairly simple unpacking of one of Vladimir’s more complicated metaphors in the first chapter.  It’s closer to what he would’ve wanted than an exegesis on any “such dull literary lore as autoplagiarism,” I suppose. Mostly I want the excuse to look at it a little more closely, to understand exactly what’s going on in it.

These extended metaphors are a kind of trademark with Nabokov; coming as they often do at the ends of chapters or their sections, they take on the status of bravura arias or crescendoes of thought and image.  (Ironic, those musical metaphors of my own, since Nabokov acknowledges that music doesn’t do a thing for him.)  There’s a real doozy at the end of chapter one, involving a memory of his father being tossed in the air, the angels painted on a grand church ceiling, and a Greek Catholic funeral service; I can’t even delve into this one yet.  At any rate, I think that these metaphors also function as a message to the reader that here lies the author’s real “message,” more than in any mere plot or character.  The play of word-images across memory, character, plot, meaning is what he’s after, the delight of taking a particular comparison as far as it will go to reveal (or conceal?) as much as it can.

So here, at the end of the second section of chapter one, is the metaphor under examination:

Neither in environment nor in heredity can I find the exact instrument that fashioned me, the anonymous roller that pressed upon my life a certain intricate watermark whose unique design becomes visible when the lamp of art is made to shine through life’s foolscap.

The paragraph, a very long one, which this sentence closes began with an exclamation over the dwarfing of the “cosmos” by “a single individual recollection, and its expression in words!” Exceedingly well crafted, this, as you’d expect from VN.  There’s an argument made here, an argument about the primacy of the importance of the human mind and imagination.  But the paragraph also introduces questions which will be taken up soon in the book, about the possibility or probability of God, or some creator at any rate.

Nabokov rejects “environment” and “heredity,” the 20th centuries’ prime adversaries or ingredients in the scientific argument over human behavior, as the “exact instrument” that made him himself.   Instead he shifts to metaphor to explain his thought, the kind of thing only a unique human being can do.  The “exact instrument” is an “anonymous roller” which presses an identifying watermark into a piece of “foolscap” paper — Nabokov’s life.  And this identifying mark can only be seen by holding it up to a lamp, art.

So the metaphor here is, obviously, of creating and exposing a watermark.  The “roller” in this metaphor could refer either to the  person, as “anonymous” would lead you to believe, or the machine which imparts the watermark, the dandy roll.

As the video makes obvious, this happens when paper is still not what we think of as paper, but a slurry of ingredients.

The other half of the metaphor is the exposure of this “unique” mark to light.  Art is the lamp that exposes the unique qualities of any individual, not only to the world, but to the individual him- or herself.  (I think of Bulgakov, and wonder if this is an oil lamp, or an electric bulb, and if electric, if the lamp is properly shaded.)  “Foolscap” is a nice Nabokovian touch, the most provocative and allusive word possible.  It refers to a large, distinctly European paper size, and this is significant considering Nabokov’s migration from Europe to America and back to Europe.  But of course it also refers to the jester’s cap and bells — and the name for the paper refers to the watermark with this design.  And Nabokov thereby ends the section on a resounding note of ambiguity and ambivalence, for if life is a sheet of foolscap, perhaps looking for our individual significance will lead us only to see that there’s no significance but the laughter (in the light, this time) of that anonymous roller, what- or whoever it might be.

Points of Light

April 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The White Guard, by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Half an hour later everything in the room with the falcon had been turned upside down.  A trunk stood on the floor, its padded inner lid wide open.  Elena, looking drawn and serious, wrinkles at the corners of her mouth, was silently packing the trunk with shirts, underclothes and towels.  Kneeling down, Talberg was fumbling with his keys at the bottom drawer of the chest-of-drawers.  Soon the room had the desolate look that comes from the chaos of packing up to go away and, worse, from removing the shade from the lamp.  Never, never take the shade off a lamp.  A lampshade is something sacred.  Scuttle away like a rat from danger and into the unknown.  Read or doze beside your lampshade; let the storm howl outside and wait until they come for you.

That’s early on in The White Guard, before things get really bad, but it’s one of those knockout passages that Bulgakov uncorks every now and then, topping it off with one of his enigmatic, double-edged epigrams.  I was startled to realize, as I kept reading, that it was a very important passage.  Light — lamps — especially electric lights — kept popping up.  More than a motif, a kind of presence.  A metaphor, a character.  The Lights of Kiev.

Monument of St. Vladimir, Kiev, 2008. From lights2008 flickr photostream.

Light bulbs, candles, wood-burning stoves, and electric street lights fight a kind of shadow-war in the novel.  It’s a book, famously, about the irrevocable loss of a certain kind of world, a kind of system of being, to another, new system: the tsarists giving way to the socialists, the Ukrainian nationalists, inevitably the Bolsheviks, amid the swirling confusion of a World War.  And there are these lights, everywhere: these bulbs being turned on and off, and Bulgakov taking the time to mention these things, associate them with certain kinds of actions, certain ways of being.

Wires “snake” from outlets to lamps.  As our young cadet-officer, Nikolka Turbin, struggles to make his way home through the war-ravaged city, “the electric street lamp on the corner was turned on and began to burn with a very faint hiss.”  In a marvelous, grotesque chapter, the syphilitic avant-gardist Rusakov shows his compatriot how to “thrust [his] way upwards to the top” by “Clasping the lamppost” and “wind[ing] his way up it” like a “grass-snake.”

You see what I’m getting at here, though I’m really only scratching the surface (and only highlighting one aspect of the representations of light in the novel).  We’re not so far from The Master and Margarita after all.  I am astonished to find myself believing that Bulgakov’s marvelous encoding of the giant all-seeing eye of Stalin as the sun in that novel did not begin there; no, he built that image out of its beginnings in The White Guard, where light bulbs, especially the unshaded ones, are Satanic.  They change night to day.  The little light bulbs here, at the beginnings of the Soviet Union’s formation, represent the beginnings of the spy-state.  Eventually, adding all of the light bulbs together leads to a spy apparatus the size and scope of the sun: overwhelming, nearly inescapable.   A lampshade is sacred because it represents the individual’s freedom from oppression by the spy-state.  Maybe this is all common knowledge, but it was a revelation to me.

Bulgakov also uses light bulbs as part of a broader thread of images of machinery and technology: field telephones also function as a sort of character.  Things are anthropomorphized (guns, the Turbins’ tiled stove), and people become things (clocks, especially).  But the focus on electric light made me realize how Bulgakov prefigured later use of the bulb as an important symbol, motif, and character.  Two legendary American examples:

-The prologue of Invisible Man: the 1,369 lights in the invisible man’s “hole in the basement,” the electricity stolen from the grid of Monopolated Light & Power “for taking so much of my money before I learned to protect myself,” and to allow him to feel his “vital aliveness.”

Jeff Wall, <i>After Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the Preface</i>, 1999-2001

-“The Story of Byron the Bulb,” in Gravity’s Rainbow. As with everything in the book, it’s dense, clotted with meaning, both perverse and hilarious.  The story of an immortal bulb, and the “international light-bulb cartel” that monitors his activities.  Surveillance.  Power.  The individual against the oppressive state.  It’s all happening again…

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