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Signs and Symbols

Those who love and appreciate art – true art, not the popularized kitsch that pollutes all too many of our modern museums – are blessed in more ways than one.  Art is the pleasure of human ingenuity, thought, feeling and remembrance, but it is also a way of life that encompasses and weds every fabric of our being.  From art  we can derive all the postulates of the Ancient Greeks, all the science of Leibniz and Da Vinci, all the politics and history of every politician and historian that has ever lived.  My hyperbolic waves might cause you to snicker, and snicker you may (I am a staunch believer in freewill).  Yet for many of us art and reality are coterminous.  My world may not be perfect, or even particularly beautiful at times, but sooner or later, out of the corner of my watering eye, I will catch a glimpse of something that will return me to the fold, to the other lambs I call human beings and their love for what is greater than they are.  Literary criticism, that unwieldy shapeshifter, has long been aware of the vicissitudes of its subject matter and has mutated appropriately.  Often it adheres to the spirit of the age or whatever else seems trendy; sometimes, however, it ventures out on a bare, untenanted limb and makes a bold declaration only then to find it in a text written two hundred years earlier.  One of literary criticism's more recent chestnuts, concocted in the mad throes of the modernist interbellum, is a holistic approach to the ineluctable modality of the visible.  Everything is reflected in everything else, a prison of a thousand mirrors with only one original – a solipsistic view as old as literature itself.  What is literature if not the mimicry of the omnipotent?  What is art if not a new universe reinvented at the whims of a minor god?  What if that same god senses that his world is rebelling against him, a conspiracy of trees and grass and air?  One answer can be found in this magical short story.

We are taken, rudely, into the life of three miserable people.  An elderly couple, Russian in culture and language but now residents of a foreign land after a great war destroyed everything they loved, is about to visit their only son.  He is twenty and not well, although his gigantic intellect has not been damaged as much as warped.  The white-garbed priests of the new religion have subjected him to countless doses of unpronounceable medications, ink blots, and other brilliantly subversive tactics with no results except a filing cabinet stuffed with lengthy reports about things that will make you and me wonder what on earth is being taught at modern universities.  Our patient remains sick, if sick is the right word:

In these very rare cases the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence.  He excludes real people from the conspiracy  because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men.  Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes.  Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredibly detailed information regarding him.  His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees.  Pebbles or stains or sun flecks from patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept.  Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.  Some of the spies are detached observers, such as glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart .... he must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of life to the decoding of the undulation of things.  The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away.

Some may consider the above description a perfect clinical analysis of one of science's great advances in human psychology; others more discerning in their perceptions, however, might see something else.  Instead of a young man with no future, we might be dealing with a young man who sees the future, past, and present simultaneously;  instead of an illness we might see an obsessive and creative part of our consciousness that devours all slaves to art from their first moments of self-awareness to their dying breath; and instead of an arrogant eccentric, we might see the outline of a great artistic soul imperiled by a tidal wave of sensation, the totality of an open mind exposed to an endless universe.  In those cases, as it were, the universe will always win.    

A lesser writer might have said much more about our patient, who is obviously talented (after all, his cousin, perhaps the paranoid protagonist of this novel, is a chess grandmaster) if unsociable.  But Nabokov lets us examine the patient from the point of view of his parents who are impoverished, unable to communicate well in English, and completely distraught over the separation from their beloved offspring.   Mothers tend to take such things a bit harder, and his proves to be no exception:

After all, living did mean accepting the loss of one joy after another, not even joys in her case mere possibilities of improvement.  She thought of the endless waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband had to endure; of the invisible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fashion; of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed, or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer and helplessly have to watch the shadow of his simian stoop leave mangled flowers in its wake, as the monstrous darkness approaches.

And the story (taken from this magnificent collection) draws to an unexpected close.  The lonesome couple is bent over a kitchen table as a phone rings again and again and a voice asks, rather insistently, a most peculiar question.  We are told little more than that "it was an unusual hour for their telephone to ring" and that "the same toneless anxious voice asked for Charlie."  What is a young girl calling an old couple in the middle of the night about a young man a symbol of?  I for one can think of a few things.  But they, like the thoughts of our clearly sick patient, do not need to be expressed.

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