Two Views of Understanding, from Nabokov to Salinger
August 16, 2014 § Leave a comment
Here’s Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature, describing the nature of understanding a piece of writing:
In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected.
Now here’s an excerpt from a priceless anecdote in Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters:
“That friend of yours,” he said, “whom I commissioned to look for a horse, has made a fine mess of it. Why, he cannot even distinguish a beast’s color or sex! What on earth can he know about horses?”
Po Lo heaved a sigh of satisfaction. “Has he really got as far as that?” he cried. “Ah, then he is worth ten thousand of me put together. There is no comparison between us. What Kao keeps in view is the spiritual mechanism. In making sure of the essential, he forgets the homely details; intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external. He sees what he wants to see, and not what he does not want to see. He looks at the things he ought to look at, and neglects those that need not be looked at. So clever a judge of horses is Kao, that he has it in him to judge something better than horses.”
When the horse arrived, it turned out indeed to be a superlative animal.
Are these attitudes in conflict? Probably. But they’re both useful. Both of them constitute an appraisal of real understanding of a work of art — as opposed to knowing what it’s supposed to be about, what its message or gimmick is, instead sensing what animates the organism.
I think a reconciliation of these two attitudes is in a central idea that your job as a reader is not to understand what a work intends or aspires to be, especially not what it’s regarded as, or what its place is in a canon — instead, your goal is to understand what it is. This requires the sheer sensory openness Nabokov prescribes, seeing color and gesture, and it requires the natural fascination with the whole work’s life force that we see in Salinger’s anecdote.
In other words, move past what a work is supposed to be, to what it is. A good example of this is Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, since ostensibly it’s a pure meditation on life’s futility or nobility. That’s its reputation or its apparent significance as a collection of words. But for one thing, pay attention to the details of the scene. One, Ophelia is positioned aside reading a book and trying to look serious per Polonius’s order; two, Polonius and Claudius are listening in; and three, the end of Hamlet’s soliloquy (“…And lose the name of action. Soft you now, the fair Ophelia…”) grades without apparent surprise into Ophelia’s discovery. Now for another thing, what are the motions of the whole work? As with the details, the play so far is one big jest where Hamlet leads on the entire court. And this must be a continuation of that conceit. The soliloquy isn’t a work of lyricism in itself — it has qualifiers in itself, and it’s a curious organ in a larger work.
Some combination of the sense of detail and the sense of structure or soul is necessary in a great reader. Nabokov is more strictly right than Salinger, in that an eye for detail is the foundation of all true kinds of appreciation, but Nabokov is also, tellingly, a narrower writer than some more intuitive and less rigorous types like a Tolstoy, say. But the fine sense leads to the larger sense, I think, because sensitivity is such a richly generalizable faculty.