Colloque International : « Vladimir Nabokov et la France »

Les Chercheurs enchantés : Société Française Vladimir Nabokov

Paris, 30 mai-1er juin 2013


GRANT, Paul Benedict – Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada
Blessing the Freak : Nabokov contra Bergson

    Nabokov’s fondness for the work of French philosopher Henri Bergson is a matter of record (Strong Opinions, 43), and critics have consequently traced correspondences between the two writers based on Bergson’s theories on time, consciousness, and evolution. A few critics have also studied Nabokov’s fiction in relation to Bergson’s essay on the comic, Le Rire (1900), and almost all find an ideological kinship with respect to their views on laughter. This paper will, by contrast, focus on the differences that exist in their approach to this subject. Bergson locates the source of laughter in ‘something mechanical encrusted on the living’ and sees it as a corrective by which errant individuals are humiliated into returning to the group: ‘it is the business of laughter to repress any separatist tendency. Its function is, to convert rigidity into plasticity, to readapt the individual to the whole’. Nabokov’s fiction contains many mechanically-minded figures who invite laughter: Franz, the molded mannequin of King, Queen, Knave; Paduk, the doll-like dictator of Bend Sinister; Gradus, the clockwork killer of Pale Fire. But laughter is not intended to bring these figures back to the fold: they are beyond redemption because they represent the herd that Nabokov despised. This points to an ideological parting of the ways. While Bergson believes that the group is flexible and innovative and the individual is rigid, Nabokov argues the opposite, and champions the lone eccentric: ‘true art deals not with the genus, and not even with the species, but with an aberrant individual of the species’ (Strong Opinions, 155); ‘let us bless the freak; for in the natural evolution of things, the ape would perhaps never have become man had not a freak appeared in the family’ (Lectures on Literature, 372). Nabokov’s fiction is full of such freaks, and although he’s not averse to laughing at their mishaps, his laughter is laced with pathos. This appeal for pity highlights another crucial difference between Nabokov and Bergson with respect to their approach to laughter, because Bergson thinks that for laughter to be possible we must cultivate an ‘anesthesia of the heart’. Nabokov may chloroform an overly emotional response, but his real concern lies with the residue of guilt and sorrow that’s left when the anesthesia wears off and his readers come round to the realization of what they’ve been laughing at.

Paul Benedict Grant is an Associate Professor of English at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He has published several essays on humor in the work of Nabokov, Raymond Carver, and Flannery O’Connor. Current projects include a monograph, Mind and Matter: The Humour of Vladimir Nabokov, and Lolita: A Biography, co-authored with Brian Boyd.

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