Where to look for angels with Vladimir Nabokov
Why Nabokov mentioned God only in the early verses, and how he managed to capture the world of angels.
On the 120th birthday of the writer
Talking about Vladimir Nabokov is blissful and scary. His genius is like thin glass fibers of an optical fiber that transmit light signals and have the effect of “full reflection”. These signals cannot be fully recognized at once – the bewitching, mesmerizing rhythm of the Nabokov language puts the reader in a state of numbness; a stylistic drawing in which words seem to push each other, forming long periods, seize, paralyze the reading will, completely transferring it to the power of the narrative. The figurative structure of the language, its metaphoricity is snatched from all possible lower and higher existential spheres. The multidimensional scale of his personality – phenomenal memory and well-read, passion for chess, painting (landscape painter and theater artist M. Dobuzhinsky was his teacher), wrestling, collecting – all this or that found application in literature.
Vladimir Nabokov, who published 17 novels, 2 short stories and 13 collections of short stories, entered the literature with his first youthful poems, which he published with his own money at the age of 17 and received sharp reviews for “sentimentality, sweetness, and inconsistency with the spirit of the times.”
His young poetry “speaks of an excess of heart” – it is full of religious experiences, verses are vital and enthusiastic, filled with thanksgiving, admiration and praise to God (“God! Truly your wonderful world!” Or: “How brightly the day has come! Well, is not the smile of the Lord ? "). The joy of accepting the world, expressed in direct and open statements, comes from his childhood impressions: the noble St. Petersburg upbringing, the summer in the estate, the noble environment of the family, the traditional way of life — God and parental blessing in everything: “I hear from you: God bless you!” . The gift of heightened feeling and observation, the vision of people and nature, supported by the happiness of childhood, accumulated his further poetics – that which Nabokov acquired in childhood, he distributed to his characters throughout his life.
Towards the end of the 1920s, the words of Nabokov manifesting religious consciousness disappeared from direct utterance and no longer appeared. This does not mean that a mature writer has changed his worldview or a crisis of faith has come, it indicates that the direct utterance has changed to a different format – context, metaphors, landscapes, soldered and moving myths that create a sense of otherworldly – the main property Nabokovsky letters. “Otherworldly is the main theme, it is saturated with everything that he wrote,” Vera Nabokova spoke of her husband. It is curious to note that the spirit of otherness present in the works of Nabokov is not felt by his heroes – most of them live in a “natural setting of consciousness” and are not aware of the mystical transformations taking place around them.
“And the angels I feel the breath on my raised brow”
Nabokov's originality in poetry is manifested in the absence of a gap between the visible and the invisible. It seems that for him there are no boundaries for exiting from one world and entering another, these worlds are connected, and the angels in them are the army, the "protective belt". They inhabit his world, like birds or butterflies: the entire poetic corps of his early poems is filled with angels – observers, interfering in what is happening, transforming.
His status as an entomologist, whose collection contains about five thousand copies of butterflies, may well be supplemented with the title of angelologist.
Speaking of the angels of Nabokov, it is impossible not to recall the name of the Swedish scientist, the mystic theosophist Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1779). At the age of fifty-six, Swedenborg, practicing spiritual practice, turned to the invisible world, and his descriptions of the mystical experience of communicating with angels were included in the book “On Heaven, on the Spirit World and on Hell” (De Caelo et Ejus Mirabilibus et de inferno: ex Auditis et Visis ", 1758). Like Swedenborg, Nabokov lives in a sense of angelic presence, which is manifested not only in “invisible tactility”, but also found in the entire surrounding world, where “lilac smoke roars with an angel”. Swedenborg's favorite colors in the image of angels are red and white, while Nabokov has purple and shining silver. (Incidentally, brilliant, brilliant – the epithets characteristic of Nabokov's poetry and prose, defining his style, which some critics have defined as "brilliant.")
One can argue that the description of the mystical experience of communion with God or contemplation of the forces of the incorporeal is generally characteristic of high poetry, since the thinned "nus" (Greek "νοῦς"), the poet’s spiritual mind is able to pick up the smallest movements of the disembodied world, and in this case it is not necessary to experience the influence of the Theosophical Swedenborg works. Indeed, the explicit or implicit impact of another name on Nabokov’s poetry seems more convincing. So, in the series “Angels” one can guess some influence of the famous work “On the heavenly hierarchy”, attributed to the disciple of the Apostle Paul Dionysius the Areopagite, where he identifies 9 heavenly entities.
Through the "shining staircase in paradise" Nabokov introduces into the hierarchy of ranks of angelic, messengers of God.
Six-winged Seraphim are closest to God. Created from a flame, some of them burn above the human world as a symbol of eternity, while others – from a height fell into this world, and there are many on earth: / living reflections of heavenly beauty, praise, foreboding of the radiant God. "
The crypto-holders of knowledge are Cherubs, all-understanding intercessors of a man whose knowledge is unlimited and extends to all that exists: "and the thought of human thoughts, / and death is a gloomy arrival – they all understand."
The "Highest and Most Predatory" Thrones, as the Areopagite writes, "are completely removed from all earthly attachment." Towering over the whole valley, they are placed before God. Nabokov portrays the angel of the Throne singing against the backdrop of the landscape, and his song, melting in the rays, fills the universe: "he glorifies the Creator's greatness and the beauty of creation in heaven."
Dominance is the middle degree in the hierarchy of heavenly minds. Preservers of God's power, they control the angels and human feelings, protecting the soul from the enslavement of passions. “When, impatiently, we surrender to disastrous passions, … / a fan of a sensitive God flies into the world, and points to heaven to us.”
Forces are capable of endowing a person with divine grace, moderate sorrows. We read at Areopagitus: “The name of forces means
powerful and undeniable courage. " Nabokov introduces the paraphrased story described by Swedenborg, who knew how to communicate with the souls of the dead. In order to test this property and to verify the authenticity of its manifestations, some people who knew Swedenborg asked him to contact their deceased relatives in order to transmit “messages” for them or even to fulfill “instructions”.
So, conducting a conversation on behalf of the angel of Strength, Nabokov tells the story of an unfaithful wife, whose deceived husband died. Experiencing his death, a repentant widow turns to God with a prayer for forgiveness. God, in turn, calls on the Force to perform a miracle – to resurrect the dead, who fulfills the request of God:
“The earth has cracked. The grave was empty.
In front of me was a recent corpse – now
Broad shouldered husband; and I, with flapping wings,
“Go!” He said, and with firm steps
He went to the house, opened the door silently,
Entered – as once – tall, quiet, slender,
Blessed her, kissed her forehead –
And again he went into darkness with a calm smile. "
Angels of Power pacify the servants of Satan, tame demons, drive away evil thoughts, wake up sleepy souls – “they fly, destroying everything sinful” …
The beginnings maintain unity between the angels, they are sent by the lower angelic ranks. They stand on four mountain peaks, and "their thousands of eyes burn on the wings of pale black." One of them raises the firmament like a cup, the second – commands the sea, the third hears the earth, the fourth dominates the fire.
The Hierarchy is Archangelish to the Principles, from the highest ranks they receive knowledge and bring them to the lower ranks and people. Archangels are the bearers of the good news, prophets. The hero of Nabokov in this piercing text, experiencing terrible minutes of nonexistence, self-doubt and anxiety of Godlessness, calls for help to the Archangel: “I believe you will come, an unearthly mentor, / for a moment, you will arise before me for a brief moment.”
The lowest order, which is closest to man in the heavenly hierarchy, is the Guardian Angel, the companion clairvoyant and “a distressed, meek friend,” who knows the abysses of “earthly, dark disbelief, and the light drops his feathers, and looks timidly at me,” in the afternoon and at night driving away "blasphemous dreams."
Thus, in the cycle on the angelic hierarchy, Nabokov reinterprets, supplements, and conjectures the angelology of Dionysius the Areopagite. It should be noted that Nabokov, as a man of noble origin who despised all "low equality", the idea of hierarchy was very close.
The poem cycle "Angels" was written by Nabokov at the age of 19, the texts are dated September 1918, a few months before the emigration, to which he leaves soon after inheriting his millionth fortune – first to England to study at Cambridge University, and then to Berlin, during France and the USA. Four years later, in 1923, the “angelic cycle” was published in the book “Mountain Way” in the Grani publishing house in Berlin under the pseudonym V. Sirin.
“We are the caterpillars of angels”
Then, in 1923, Nabokov wrote the poem "No, being is not a shaky mystery." And now we will make some hermeneutic somersault: we will take the line “we are the caterpillars of angels” from the context of this poem and consider it as a completely independent monostich.
This line alone, containing the entire path of ascent from the sensory to the intellectual, is worthy of extensive commentary and a separate theological study. The key to understanding the path of this ascent will be the concept of moral tension (as a separation) between the created and uncreated world. After the angelic world and the human world entered into a state of moral tension – and this happened after the fall – the question arose before a person: is it possible to overcome this tension in order to reach the angelic height, to become her level again?
The question of the role of angels in human life has worried Christian minds since ancient times. The help of angels after baptism consisted not only in protection from attacks of demonic forces, but primarily in the development of a person’s spiritual life. One of the first Christian theologians who spoke about the transformation of man through the transfer of divine goods through a hierarchy of angels was Clement of Alexandria. He wrote: "A reverent man is the best that is on earth, the closest to him and equally pure is an angel, a participant in eternal and blessed life." Angels participate in the management of the whole universe: “… legions of blessed angels are placed on the highest steps of the visible world, and below them are located those who are saved from the One and are saved by Him and others” (Stromats 7.2). Angels are the helpers of man in his ascent to God and the restoration of the lost likeness, but only man can take the path of deification of his own free will.
To build your life according to the angelic model does not mean to merge with the angelic world, to dissolve in it. Ontological differences in the created world, including between man and angels, cannot be overcome, since the nature of man and angels is different. Imitating the angels, a person overcomes the moral separation between his world and the Highland, approaching that which is closest to God.
What does Nabokov mean, pushing away the “unsteady puzzles of being” and comparing a person with a caterpillar containing an “angelic genome”? It is unlikely that in the statement “we are the caterpillars of angels,” it implies the acquisition by man of a certain ethereal angelic form. It looks like an oxymoron: what kind of caterpillars can angels have? Caterpillars are gluttonous, live inside the trunks and fruits, where they build cocoons and hide in them, weave a protective web – a silk thread that saves them from death and falls, molt and pupate – they lead their small biological lives.
Carnivorous and sensual comparison of a person with a caterpillar Nabokov draws up an imperative, an order and calls for "dressing in thorns, crawling, bending, getting stronger", which should be read as a call to overcome, a breakthrough to knowledge. Maybe we are talking about a certain ascetic, necessary in order to get closer to the angelic state. It is necessary to crawl and bend to see the world of mountains, closed to us, if we are in a state of caterpillars, unable to raise our heads and see the angelic light. Maybe the whole caterpillar movement with the mind pressed to the ground needs to be liberated, which involves the ascetic figuratively expressed by Nabokov. Remaining an earthly creature, we have the opportunity to gain inner wings in order to take off from this world, to look at it from the perspective of the eternal world, in the presence of light and singing of angels glorifying the Creator. This is a possible reading of one line taken out of context.
“I know more”
Of course, to give a theological commentary on the text of Nabokov, which he wrote during his apprenticeship, means taking the risk and preparedness for great objections. And if you recall "Lolita", published in a French pornographic publishing house, then righteous anger can not be avoided. “Among the early Nabokovs, there are many very fake poems on religious topics (very touching sometimes),” wrote the literary critic G. Struve, “but there was never an iota of religiosity in him.”
Indeed, talking about Nabokov’s “external” religiosity means artificially drawing him into a context unusual for him.
These value judgments can be kept in mind, but by and large they are not important – just as in this case the discoveries of borrowings in his verses are not important – intonation quotes from Fet, Bunin, Blok, Tennyson or Yates: allusions of any kind were characteristic of Nabokov's writing. What is important is that vision and that "pure" idea, which, according to Plato, is launched forever into the "that" world – the world of thin fibers with the effect of full reflection, and can exist by itself – in one line, in a word, regardless of the author.
Recall a well-known case – when Nabokov was asked in an interview in 1963 if he believes in God, he answered:
“I know more than what I can put into words. But the little that I can put into words would not be expressed if I did not know more. "
Knowing more – that which cannot be conveyed using the words “direct utterance”, is expressed in Nabokov’s prose through hoaxes (“The Return of Chorb”, the story “The Spy”), visions and transformations (early stories “The Word”, “The Beat of the Wing”, autobiographical novels “Gift” (1938) and “Other Shores” (1954).
The originality of prose enters through windows and mirrors, door slits, overheard conversations of heroes. The angelic presence is expressed in Nabokov in the sensation of an incomprehensible rational mystery in which a person is immersed from the moment of birth. The irrational, beyond the control of reason, spins into the funnel of mystery.
There are allegations of the gloom of Nabokov – however, this is only the first, external cast of his letter, because darkness can be a thickening of light, hiding beauty. The contemplation of beauty is painful – "whether it is a specially colored sunset, a luminous face or a work of art – it makes us unconsciously look back at our own past, compare ourselves, our soul with the unattainable perfect beauty that has been revealed to us." Angels in this lurking beauty are not necessarily beautiful – they can be terribly ugly, ugly, take on the images of mice, or – most often with Nabokov – appear in the form of butterflies:
“… a black shrunken creature the size of a mouse quickly crawls up the wall. It has been waiting for this for so long, and now it has slowly and miraculously grown. Crumpled shreds, velvet fringes unfolded slowly, fan veins growing stronger, filling with air. It became winged imperceptibly, just as an imperceptible face becomes imperceptibly beautiful. And the wings – still weak, still wet – all continued to grow, straighten, now turned to the limit – instead of a lump, instead of a black mouse – a huge nocturnal butterfly, Indian silkworm. And then … open wings, bent at the ends, sighed in a burst of tender, delightful, almost inhuman happiness. "
Because “where the angels are there is paradise,” and in paradise it is a close approximation to the inexpressibility of a mystery in which, like a bird, it shakes something incomprehensible, touched by the touch of the Nabokov logo, or even more precisely – by its metaphysical intuition.
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