Plato, Nabokov

To be honest I had a mixed reaction to Republic. On one hand, I was quite taken aback by the strict rules of censorship, weeding out of weaklings etc. etc. On the other I found myself nodding vehemently in agreement whenever Plato or Plato in the guise of Socrates, chastised moral corruption. Which I think, is something most of us have observed at some point or the other about our world. And you read Republic and you’d think there alas, a great man who understood the depravity of human soul and then in turn you would recall all those times when someone stepped on your foot in the buzzing janpath, or forcefully inserted himself in between you and the door of the metro train, or the time someone betrayed you in love, or when your child did not follow the family path, and feel vindicated, as if Plato has given the last word on the matter, and in his towering 2300 year old voice, he has established a code of proper conduct of the soul… to speak metaphorically, he has anchored the ship of our soul.

But soon the smug satisfaction gave way to a sort of anxiety… is it true then what Plato says. And all that is to say about the soul, has he already said it?

If I was sitting there with Socrates, I would have asked him, ‘Tell me Socrates, will you allow another Socrates to come after you?’ Maybe Plato has somewhere answered that. I think Plato’s assertions were not entirely wrong, his assumptions were. If you think the mind of a child will be ‘corrupted’ by image of bloodshed, it would not be wrong to assert that these images should be censored. Plato was taking the easiest way out in arranging his state and his soul, he would not make the effort to put the image in context, no, he will wipe the slate clean and start history at the point of his ascension, Plato the philosopher king.

Now curiously, where does Nabokov stand in all this. (I take delight in asking this question every time I react positively to something I read). Nabokov, in an essay on Madame Bovary, says: “Three forces make and mold a human being: heredity, environment, and the unknown agent X. Of these the second, environment, is by far the least important, while the last agent X, is by far the most influential.” Nabokov stands for all the unknown agents (Xs) in the world. This I think would be hypothetical socratic dialogue with him on the propensity of people to classify actions as strict blacks and whites:
A: “Yes, you are right Nabokov, there are so many shades of gray.”
Nabokov:”And what about the rest of the colors in the spectrum?”
A:”What do you mean? Black is for bad, white for good and grey for all the things in between.”
Nabokov: But does that cover the entire range? When Humbert humbert desires Lolita, he is to be sure fully corrupt but there is something still more to him.”
B: “Yes, Nabokov, other colors yes.”
Nabokov: “But then why do people take good and bad actions, we should ask ourselves that?”
B: “Yes Nabokov, and that too, if I can venture a guess falls in the black-white scale?”
Nabokov: “But can’t their motives have other dimensions, apart from black and white, like their actions.”
C: “Yes, Nabokov. They surely can.”
Nabokov: ” So then the next question we ask ourselves is why do people have these motives?”
And so on. Of course, he will never tell us directly what he means. He will never have such a conversation in the first place, my guess. What he tells us is the futility of this line of enquiry (or maybe I’m telling us that). 

Which does not mean that Nabokov does not approve of morality and permits and tolerates everything in the name of modernity. He criticizes his characters for lack of imagination, lack of divine inspiration or even inability for simple thought. But while Plato will put to death a pedophile, Nabokov might scorn at him, or even get inside his head and in a way complete dissect him.. because Nabokov is all the time concerned with his own divine sense, his own search for beauty. In our flaws, as in our goodness, he finds the basic ingredients of a painter – all shades and hues. And so if you will, think of how Plato’s world will look in a painting.. a a grayscale versus a Nabokovian world of variations of shades.

And so in a strike against Plato the king, he will not fight for our freedom, he will fight for his own. And you will ask him does he not care about the rest of us. “Do you not want your people to be also free?” And he would humbly tell them that he cannot want anything on their behalf. “But then are we just fodder for your high literature?” And he would say, the purpose of art is not to capture and eat, but beautify, and if anything, they should be thankful to him for that. 

A nabokov would be as indifferent to regimes as a river is to its terrain. Which is not to say that he is not effected by it. Or to make the counterpoint, its not that he will not lash out against it, or like a river, will not suddenly change his course in a whimsical fashion. It is just to say that the nabokov within a nabokov is all those things which make a river river and even that would be an unfair analogy. It is but a correspondence. And so we may cut the the soul in three parts or four or ten, he would always look for the next one. In fact, he would talk in terms of characteristics (which are many) and not in terms of parts (which are seemingly finite and independent of each other).

And so Nabokov’s kingdom will be one of anarchy, of no code of conduct? To which I would say Nabokov’s kingdom exists parallel to all our owns, and we may breach his space and tame more and more parts of his untrammeled consciousness, but we will never fully annex his kingdom which is essentially infinite. Unless we make the impossible effort of reproducing his entire literature, like the character in a Borges story who takes up the task of spontaneously writing word to word Don Quixote like Cervantes would have (without referring to the original of course).

Finally, what would Nabokov say about society, about need for harmony. I imagine so many people asking “Why Nabokov, will you beautify our lives rather than writing about it, rather than writing about our cause?” To which he would, I guess say, “if I write about your cause it becomes my own cause, and I don’t believe the purpose of art is to advance one’s cause”. (This is a rather Socratic argument, but then what the heck). “Don’t you care about us, Nabokov, at all? Why do you take delight in standing apart from us? We brought you up in the world, you depend on us, you are not an island? Do you suppose that you are special?” To which he would say, “I don’t stand apart from you sirs, you keep running away and about, and from you madam I may take my bread and from you sir my butter and I assure you I’m thankful that, but I’m as unconcerned about these things as you are about the state of the roof above your head – you want it alright, and as long as its there you do not think a lot about it, because you have your businesses to look after and your cows to tend to”. “So you care not about our health, our peace, our harmony?” “To point a bitter truth madam, at this point you are not concerned about my peace and my harmony, hurling so many questions at once… and as for harmony sir, let me tell you what I think of it, if harmony is the forced silence of a bunch of toddlers before a teacher arrives I don’t give two hoots to it.”

(Some day I will polish this essay)
(Incidentally, I was talking about not putting your words in your characters’ mouth.) 

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