Saturday, January 08, 2005

The Rain-sparkling Crystogram

On par with Wittgenstein's "perspicuous presentations" and Ezra Pound's "luminous ideograms", we have Nabokov's "rain-sparkling crystograms". It is the task of the artist to produce them and the task to the critic to bring them to the attention of the public (often the student). I want here to deal with Nabokov's variant of what I believe is essentially one and the same idea. In a 1969 vogue interview, he recalls the following procedure.

In my academic days I endeavored to provide students of literature with exact information about details, about such combinations of details as yield the sensual spark without which a book is dead. In that respect, general ideas are of no importance. Any ass can assimilate the main points of Tolstoy's attitude toward adultery. . .

He proposed to "fondle" these details in his lectures at Cornell, and undertook to create them in his literary works. The relevant sense of "detail" (Pound also talked about the presentation of "luminous details") is a correct description of "transparent things".

A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film. (Transparent Things, Ch. 1)

That is, we are looking for a "phenomenologically correct" description of experience. Pound tells us that luminous details, presented without comment, are "the permanent basis of all metaphysics and psychology", and Nabokov, interestingly, offers his "rain-sparkling crystograms", in his foreword to The Eye, to "a serious psychologist" (that is, not a Freudian). I think there is a good sense in which phenomenology, when it is itself taken seriously, is serious psychology: precisely because it endeavours not to break the tension film. Here is my favourite example:

Only rarely did he notice his own existence, when for example lack of breath -- the revenge of a heavy body -- forced him to halt with open mouth on a staircase, or when he had a toothache, or when at a late hour during his chess cogitations an outstretched hand shaking a matchbox failed to evoke in it the rattle of matches, and the cigarette that seemed to have been thrust unnoticed into his mouth by someone else suddenly grew and asserted itself, solid, soulless, and static, and his whole life became concentrated in the single desire to smoke, although goodness knows how many cigarettes had already been unconciously consumed. (The Defence, Ch. 6)

In my next post, I want to look at this crystogram as a combination of details that yield a sensual spark, indeed, a combination that precisely presents the phenomenology of ordinary existence. Next to this, any ass can assimilate the main points of Heidegger's attitude toward tarrying.

No comments: