Monday, January 20, 2014

`All the Rest Depends on Personal Talent'

A story about a Slavic studies professor at the University of Chicago who teaches a class in Nabokov opens with an anecdote about a cat and rat mummified inside a Dublin pipe organ in the eighteen-fifties. It’s the species of lede I most enjoy reading and writing – learned, unexpected and, all-importantly, pertinent. It reads at first like another strained shaggy-dog story and, thanks to the writer’s disciplined economy, turns into a light bulb in a dark room. The professor, Malynne Sternstein, attributes the animal’s demise to “`a failure of that cat’s haptic sensibility’—of the whiskers that reach into space as guides, sensitive to tiny vibrations in the air.” She cites the mummified feline “to explain what Vladimir Nabokov meant when he urged budding literary critics to rely on their own whiskers, or `the sudden erection of your small dorsal hairs.’” 

The Nabokov quote is drawn from an interview the novelist gave Alfred Appel, Jr. in 1966. Appel asks, “Do you think literary criticism is at all purposeful, and if so, what kind of criticism would you point to?” and Nabokov replies: 

“My advice to a budding literary critic would be as follows. Learn to distinguish banality. Remember that mediocrity thrives on `ideas.’ Beware of the modish message. Ask yourself if the symbol you have detected is not your own footprint. Ignore allegories. By all means place the `how’ above the `what’ but do not let it be confused with the `so what.’ Rely on the sudden erection of your small dorsal hairs. Do not drag in Freud at this point. All the rest depends on personal talent.” 

The reference to “small dorsal hairs” is characteristic of Nabokov’s imagination – physical, playful, precise. It reminds me of the test for poetry Housman proposed in the Leslie Stephen Lecture at Cambridge (Nabokov’s alma mater) in 1933, published as The Name and Nature of Poetry:  Experience has taught me, when I am shaving of a morning, to keep watch over my thoughts, because, if a line of poetry strays into my memory, my skin bristles so that the razor ceases to act.” Such sensitivity, such openness to the text at hand, is part of the “personal talent” Nabokov commends. What he endorses in critics and other readers is sensitivity mingled with attention to detail and independence of thought. So much criticism is written in lockstep with prevailing fashion. Janet Lewis, in a poem from 1930, “Lines to a Kitten” (Poems Old and New 1918-1978), describes her cat as a “morsel of suavity.” It sits on her knee and intently watches a fly six feet across the room: 

“Only the great
And you, can dedicate
The attention so to one small thing.”

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