The crime of Cincinnatus

January 21, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invitation to a Beheading, by Vladimir Nabokov. Edition: Capricorn Books, 1965.

Invitation to a Beheading was originally published in its original Russian in Paris in the 1930s, under the pseudonym Sirin. It is nothing so much as a phantasmagoria; a nightmare with beautiful, dreamy interludes. It’s also a dystopia, although Nabokov would surely despise this categorization (in his 1959 Foreword to this edition, he encourages his readers to disregard the significance of the Bolshevik and Nazi revolutions to the work, and heaps scorn on the “illustrated ideas and publicistic fiction” of Orwell).

Cincinnatus has “a certain peculiarity” which, so far as I can tell, is his crime, for which he is sentenced to death and locked away in a fortress to await his beheading (the date of which his guards refuse to reveal). The peculiarity is described:

“He was impervious to the rays of others, and therefore produced when off his guard a bizarre impression, as of a lone dark obstacle in this world of souls transparent to one another… In the midst of the excitement of a game his coevals would suddenly forsake him, as if they had sensed that his lucid gaze and the azure of his temples were but a crafty deception and that actually Cincinnatus was opaque…

“In the course of time the safe places became ever fewer: the solicitous sunshine of public concern penetrated everywhere, and the peephole in the door [of C’s cell] was placed in such a way that in the whole cell there was not a single point that the observer on the other side of the door could not pierce with his gaze.”

The crime of Cincinnatus is opacity. A reluctance to be utterly “transparent,” open with fellow citizens. Reserve might be a word for it; so might individuality. We, today, in the free world, are utterly basking in “the solicitous sunshine of public concern.”

This is no brilliant analysis, I’m afraid. But the crime struck me as a remarkably contemporary concern, and documenting it occurred to me as a lovingly ironic way to open this utterly public, utterly opaque discourse.

As a footnote: Mikhail Bulgakov, in his brilliant The Master and Margarita, allegorizes Stalin as the sun. Coincidental, surely, but interesting nonetheless.

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