Arguing against Lit for Lit’s Sake

Vladimir Nabokov

Yesterday I mentioned the extreme aestheticism of Vladimir Nabokov as described in Gene H. Bell-Villada’s excellent book On Nabokov, Ayn Rand and the Libertarian Mind (2013). I’ll take up in a future post Bell-Villada’s fascinating ideas on Ayn Rand and how her novels have managed to indoctrinate a critical segment of today’s GOP. Today I look at what Bell-Villada has to say about Nabokov and aestheticism.

Aestheticism is a topic I must return to regularly since it represents a vision of literature that is antithetical to my own. In fact, this very blog may have its origins in my desire to push back against the formalism that ruled over English departments when I was a high school and college student in the 1960s and 1970s. On Nabokov looks at why the interrelated movements of aestheticism, formalism, and the New Criticism were held in such high regard at that time. Nabokov was one of the high priests of art for arts sake:

Nabokov had no truck with “social” conceptions of literature of any kind. Correspondingly, he loathed all fiction that has a social focus or that looks at a society and its divisions, its sub-groups, its practices good and bad, its history. Hence in his dustbin we find such contemptible social observers as Balzac (the new French bourgeoisie), Conrad (British imperialism), Faulkner the “corncob chronicler” (the U.S. South, the Civil War, white racism), all Naturalists of any stripe (Zola, Upton Sinclair), leftists (Brecht), and any works that deal with the horrors of mechanized warfare (Remarque’s All Quite on the Western Front, Barbusse’s Le feu, even Picasso’s Guernica).

Elsewhere Bell-Villada quotes Nabokov on how he taught Dickens:

In discussing Bleak House, I completely ignored all sociological and historical implications and unraveled a number of…thematic lines and the three main props of the structure.

Bell-Villada goes on to note that Nabokov found “the sociological side” of Dickens

to be “neither interesting nor important,” and he turns a blind eye to such key Victorian aspets as the juridical machinery or the battles in defense of children’s rights—what the juridical machinery or the battles in defense of children’s rights—what the Olympian pedagogue summarily derides as “child labor and all that.” As philosopher Richard Rorty pointedly observes, “Nabokov has to pretend, implausibly, that Dickens was not or at least, should not have been, interested in the fact that his novels were a more powerful impetus to social reform than the collected works of all the British social theorists of his day.”

To which Bell-Vilada adds,

Actually Nabokov’s position was not all that unusual in academic literary studies at the time. As we have noted above, the triumph of the New Criticism on U.S. campuses during the Cold War had led to a common practice of examining works of fiction and poetry in isolation from their social and historical settings. The Russian-American high priest simply took this tendency to the utmost extreme, becoming as dogmatic and uncompromising in his views as were the Soviets with their state-imposed doctrine of Socialist Realism.

For readers interested in the rise of New Criticism, check out Bell-Villada’s useful overview, which traces it back to Fugitives and Agrarians like John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate who “profoundly disliked an industrial capitalism that they viewed as inimical to their art and values.” It also had an anti-communist slant that Nabokov shared. As Bell-Villada puts it,

where Soviet aesthetics stressed content and background at the expense of form,  American critics made form their sole criterion.

While I didn’t understand any of this in college, I instinctively knew that literature as it was taught seemed too bloodless. Raised in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and turning 18 during the Vietnam War, I needed a discipline that was more engaged with the world. I therefore majored in history, even though literature was my real love, and I only switched to English in graduate school. Thankfully, there has been a pendulum swing away from formalism, and “New Historicism” has been one of the most vital aspects of literary criticism over the past twenty years.

My blog, to be sure, is not only a counter to aestheticism. Like Bell-Villada, I think there are times literature needs to push back against people who want to make it merely functional. The tension between seeing literature as an end in and of itself and of regarding it as a force for good in the world has always existed, and if we lean too hard in one direction, there needs to be a corrective. Yesterday I wrote of George Eliot’s desire that literature improve people, and maybe Oscar Wilde’s assertion that “All art is quite useless” was a pushback against such earnestness. Readers of this blog should not hesitate to push back if you find me becoming too earnest in my own celebration of literature’s power.

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  • Gene H. Bell-Villada

    Very wise and perceptive comments, Robin. You deal quite lucidly and humanely with one of the issues raised in my book. Thanks! –Gene B-V.

  • Robin Bates

    Thanks so much for writing in, Gene. I love your book and look forward to talking about your insights into Ayn Rand. I’m also struck by the absolutism, and the arrogance that you describe coming up against when you tried to argue against New Critics in your grad school years. The origins of New Criticism in the post-Confederacy are particularly interesting to me since I was raised in Sewanee, Tennessee and knew Alan Tate and Andrew Lytle. That this line of thought overlaps neatly with Nabokov’s anti-Soviet aestheticism and now overlaps as well with today’s southern Ayn Randian-Rand Paulian libertarianism makes a lot of sense to me.

  • Gavin

    I think it’s a misreading of Nabokov to say that he felt that literature shouldn’t have a social/moral function; it’s pretty clear that his fiction does have a moral dimension. Rather, he’s saying that the social function shouldn’t be the only reason to validate a work of fiction.

    And I think he has a valid point wrt, say, Dickens. We still read Dickens because he’s insightful, witty, has a great turn of phrase, and so on. I don’t think anyone reads Oliver Twist these days because they want to know if orphanages in Victorian England were a good thing; they read it for the writing.

  • Robin Bates

    I’d be interested in your response to today’s post, Gavin (January 30), which gives a series of different theories about function and quotes someone making a point about Nabokov similar to yours. I’d be interested in what you’d see as the social/moral function of Lolita–and whether Nabokov would agree with you, given that he seemed to go out of his way to deny functionality. But the writer is sometimes wiser than the critic–or at least is responding to a different set of imperatives–so I myself see very useful lessons in Nabokov’s most famous (and infamous) novel. In fact, I find the Lolita we see at the end of the book more interesting than Humbert Humbert’s Lolita-by-the-sea and wonder whether the book isn’t qualifying the author’s aestheticism. But I don’t know that Nabokov the author would agree with me here. Or for that matter various pedophile fans of the book. At the very least, Nabokov gets us to question whether or not being caught up in a ceaseless quest for a transcendent vision is a sign of madness.

    I love Dickens’ wit and am dazzled by his ability to enter into the language of a wide variety of characters. But part of his attraction for me is also the way that he speaks up for the oppressed. I’ve turned to him many times in this blog to write on everything from the trapped Chilean coal miners to the new Core standards to hypocritical politicians. Then again, if Dickens were only a social propagandist, I would view him the way I view Upton Sinclair. So I both agree and disagree with you there.

  • Gavin

    I’m a fan of Boyd’s views of Nabokov, though I haven’t read that particular essay on Lolita. In the bit of Nabokov’s criticism that I’ve read, he denies a social function, in that he thinks that literature works best on individuals and about individuals. That is, literature shouldn’t set up types of people as characters, but should be about people who are individuals, not just stand-ins for an idea.

    Lolita is, I think, very much about this idea — we’ve got to be careful not to take Humbert’s view of Lolita as being the “real” Lolita; she has her own independent existence which is easy to get glossed over by Humbert’s charisma. And to me, that’s the lesson in a lot of Nabokov’s fiction; that it’s easy to get caught up in the charisma of someone and forget the real people who are trodden under by them. (I also take this message out of Ada.) I’m not so reductive that I’d claim that it’s the lesson of either book, but I think it’s a part of what makes them powerful.

    I used to be married to someone who very much measured books by the social content, and, for that matter, my mother only likes to read books from which she can learn “real” stuff, and so I’m possibly more on the aesthiticist side than I would be otherwise. To me, a work is worth reading primarily if it has the aesthetic qualities, and after that it’s worth looking at the moral dimensions.


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