Nabokov's Details: Making Sense of Irrational Standards
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CitationHorgan, Pelagia. 2012. Nabokov's Details: Making Sense of Irrational Standards. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
AbstractVladimir Nabokov's passion for detail is well-known, central to our very idea of the "Nabokovian." Yet Nabokov's most important claims for detail pose a challenge for the reader who would take them seriously. Startlingly extreme and deliberately counterintuitive -- Nabokov called them his "irrational standards" -- these claims push the very limits of reason and belief. Nabokov's critics have tended to treat his more extravagant claims for detail -- including his assertion that the "capacity to wonder at trifles" is the highest form of consciousness there is -- as just a manner of speaking, a form of italics, a bit of wishful thinking, a mandarin's glib performance, or an aesthete's flight of fancy. This dissertation, by contrast, asserts that Nabokov meant what he said, and sets out to understand what he meant. Nabokov's passion for detail, I argue, represents more than a stylistic preference or prescription for good noticing. Rather, it reflects and advocates for a special way of being in the world, of disposing or orienting oneself to things, and for this reason is best understood as part of a broad program of detailphilic habits, attitudes, practices and attunements Nabokov adhered to throughout his life. In making this argument, I draw on the work of a wide array of thinkers, including Descartes, Heidegger, Richard Rorty, Clifford Geertz, and Philip Fisher, and focus on three of Nabokov's texts in particular: Speak, Memory, Lolita, and "The Art of Literature and Commonsense." Making sense of Nabokov's irrational standards, I argue, helps us to make sense of a number of other critical puzzles as well, from what, exactly, Nabokov means by the word "reality" to what a cruel noticer like Humbert Humbert implies about the moral meaning of passionate attention.
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