Saturday, November 27, 2021

'The Marvel of Consciousness'

The interviewer asks “What surprises you in life?” and his subject replies: “Its complete unreality; the marvel of consciousness—that sudden window swinging open on a sunlit landscape amidst the night of non-being; the mind's hopeless inability to cope with its own essence and sense.” 

That’s Nabokov speaking with George Feifer in an interview/profile published in the November 27, 1976, issue of The Saturday Review, seven months before the novelist’s death. Death and its opposite – “the marvel of consciousness” – remained Nabokov’s enduring themes, most memorably in Pale Fire. On Friday, waiting to have new tires put on the car, I read at random a story, “A Busy Man,” written in Russian in 1931 and translated by the author and his son for inclusion in Details of a Sunset (1976).


Grafitski is a Russian émigré living in Berlin, a writer of “topical poems.” A dream, naggingly forgotten in its details, tells him he will die at age thirty-three, and this becomes his obsession. If Grafitski is Gogolian, the theme is Jamesian, recalling “The Beast in the Jungle” – a life unlived. As usual, Nabokov’s prose is a weave of lovingly, wittily observed details: “In the twilight dimness, nouns were lost, only verbs remained—or at least the archaic forms of a few verbs. This kind of thing might mean a lot: for example, the end of the world.” Here is the passage from the story that brought to mind Nabokov’s reply to the interviewer:


“Once, in the middle of a serene February night, he kept looking too long at the firmament and suddenly felt unable to suffer the burden and pressure of human consciousness, that ominous and ludicrous luxury: a detestable spasm made him gasp for breath, and the monstrous star-stained sky swung into motion.”


The gift and curse of consciousness. A similar linkage of the mental and the cosmic is memorably phrased in Speak, Memory (1966):


“How small the cosmos (a kangaroo’s pouch would hold it), how paltry and puny in comparison to human consciousness, to a single individual recollection, and its expression in words! I may be inordinately fond of my earliest impressions, but then I have reason to be grateful to them.  They led the way to a veritable Eden of visual and tactile sensations.”

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