In his essay “Trotsky and the Wild Orchid,” the philosopher Richard Rorty describes the personal and professional discoveries that allowed him, finally, to abandon the attempt to reconcile the twin values implicated in the essay's title: the search for some kind of justice in the arrangement of human affairs on the one hand, with an appreciation of essentially aesthetic pleasures (represented by Rorty's youthful interest in New Jersey orchids) on the other. As Rorty himself puts it:
Insofar as I had any project in mind, it was to reconcile Trotsky and the orchids. I wanted to find some intellectual or aesthetic framework which would let me—in a thrilling phrase which I came across in Yeats—“hold reality and justice in a single vision.” By reality I meant, more or less, the Wordsworthian moments in which. . .I had felt touched by something numinous, something of ineffable importance. By justice I meant. . .the liberation of the weak from the strong. I wanted a way to be both an intellectual and spiritual snob and a friend of humanity—a nerdy recluse and a fighter for justice.
It is only after rediscovering the American “pragmatic” philosophy of William James, John Dewey, and Sidney Hook that Rorty is led to see not merely the futility of trying to unite “reality and justice” in some kind of seamlessly perceived whole, but the undesirability of doing so. The consequence of such an attempt is to harden political aspirations into rigid ideologies and to distort reality by in effect aestheticizing it. A “single vision” might seem appealing as a theoretical construct, but, in Rorty‟s words, “You risk losing the sense of finitude, and the tolerance, which result from realizing how very many synoptic visions there have been, and how little argument can do to help you choose among them” if you insist on constructing it. Paradoxically, I would add, one becomes not a “friend of humanity” but merely of an abstract concept of humanity, and such an “intellectual snob” that those interests that tempted you to become a “nerdy recluse” can finally be tolerated but not really taken seriously.
Which makes it surprising to me that Rorty concludes his essay by, appropriately, validating the creation of “human solidarity” and contingent “democratic communities” over delusions of objective certainties, but in so doing declaring that the “actually existing approximations to such a fully democratic, fully secular community now seem to me the greatest achievements of our species. In comparison, even Hegel‟s and Proust‟s books seem optional, orchidaceous extras.” What is most surprising is that Rorty, having reached the conclusion that the search for the “real” is never going to get you where you think you want to go, that “justice” is itself a product of the human imagination, a kind of poetic conceit, never to be achieved in actual human life except partially and provisionally, would nevertheless suggest that finally it is indeed the achievement of the latter that ought to take precedence. That “private” enthusiasms for the likes of Proust would be judged “extras,” ancillary to the really real, after all.
Rorty‟s pragmatism has always sought to puncture philosophy‟s pretensions to supremacy as the arbiter of knowledge, as the place where all the ultimately important talk about the world and our experiences of it goes on, and he has also made the case for elevating “mere” literature to a status just as respectable as that traditionally occupied by philosophy or the other learned disciplines. At least in theory. Rorty has written about two sorts of books (at a certain point he ceases to make distinctions between works usually regarded as philosophy and those regarded as literature), those that “help us become autonomous” and those that “help us become less cruel” (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 1989). The first produce “idiosyncratic fantasies” whose authors and readers use them in the effort to “become who they are.” The second help us “notice the effects of our actions on other people” and, perhaps even more importantly, point us “to the question of how to reconcile private irony with [social] hope.”
The problem with this formulation is that no matter how much Rorty tries to validate “idiosyncratic fantasies” and to celebrate the worthiness of “autonomy,” he can‟t quite make his claims about them as endeavors just as valuable as the creation of social hope seem plausible. Irony and contingency notwithstanding, Rorty does value social hope more. Proust, whom Rorty uses as a primary example of a writer using literature as a way of asserting autonomy, is indeed an orchidaceous extra. It is as if Rorty can‟t finally be as pragmatic about his pragmatism as he‟d clearly enough like to be. Something about “justice” still seems to him a more desirable aspiration for human beings to express than whatever literally more self-ish impulses lead one to be a “nerdy recluse.”
To examine the particulars of Rorty‟s position just a little further: Again I find it curious that Rorty selects the fiction of Vladimir Nabokov as an instance of the kind of literary writing that might help us “become less cruel.” In “Nabokov on Cruelty,” Rorty claims that Nabokov was led “to create a private mythology about a special elite—artists who were good at imagery, who never killed, whose lives were a synthesis of tenderness and ecstasy, who were candidates for literal as well as literary immortality, and who. . . placed no faith in general ideas about general measures for the general welfare. . . Nabokov also knew perfectly well that his gifts, and artistic gifts more generally, neither had any special connection with pity and kindness nor were able to "create worlds.‟ He knew as well as John Shade [of Pale Fire] did that all one can do with such gifts is sort out one‟s relation to the world. . .Nabokov‟s best novels are the ones which exhibit his inability to believe his own general ideas.”
Such a passage, like the essay as a whole, is really an attempt to turn Nabokov, his oft-expressed preference for the aesthetic over the “moral” value of literature, and the weight of the collective critical response to Nabokov‟s fiction more generally completely upside down, to in effect rescue Nabokov from his own artistic excesses and secure him as an ally in the fight for justice. Rorty wants us to believe that Nabokov‟s preoccupation with aesthetic values, his insistence that literature is about aesthetic delight, manifested itself in his work, through such characters as Humbert Humbert and Charles Kinbote, as a kind of paradoxical warning about the dangers of becoming preoccupied with the aesthetic! As much as I admire Richard Rorty (and I do, immensely), I, for one, can‟t believe it. As literary criticism, Rorty‟s analysis of Nabokov‟s project leaves much to be desired—most importantly, a real appreciation of what literature has to offer as something other than an adjunct to ethics or a convenient object of “redescription” for the pragmatic philosopher.
Such lack of appreciation is common enough among those outside of literary criticism/study who venture into commentary on works of literature, who to some extent understandably are more interested in how literature can be used to illuminate issues related to their own disciplinary concerns. It is more discouraging that even those calling themselves literary critics and scholars more often than not these days also don‟t have much appreciation for the aesthetic properties of literature, although in their case such disdain in deliberate and not simply an unfortunate consequence of considering literature for its socially utilitarian implications. Rorty at least finds a socially utilitarian role for literature; academic literary scholars (who have, unfortunately, mostly cornered the market on what‟s left of literary criticism) have apparently concluded that the only socially useful role literature can play is as a fairly straightforward vehicle for politically acceptable themes and attitudes, or, more often, as case studies, usually illustrating how undesirable it is to neglect such themes or fail to uphold such attitudes.
Is the aesthetic, especially in fiction, so discredited, so reflexively perceived by the intellectual class as frivolous, that its potential value can‟t even be debated, must be dismissed out of hand? That even a writer as concerned with aesthetics as Nabokov can be taken seriously only if read so gratingly against the grain of his so obvious intentions? I have long been a sympathetic fellow-traveler with the New Critics and their dictum that authorial intentions cannot be the deciding factor in a close reading of works of literature, but in this case to so thoroughly ignore the very artistic goals a writer like Nabokov set for himself seems to me merely perverse, a critical move that only winds up denying the very possibility of having aesthetic goals that aren‟t, at worst, finally meaningless, at best self-defeating. Ultimately the approach to reading literary texts taken up by both Richard Rorty and academic critical theory/cultural studies makes the actual experience of literature as literature—as something other than expository discourse—so irrelevant, so unnecessary to whatever uses one can profitably make of the text at hand as to render it effectively an illusion.
Nabokov is especially a writer whose work discloses its deeper aesthetic purposes to the reader who understands that the aesthetic can be apprehended and appreciated only as an experience, that as John Dewey describes it in Art as Experience, the free and unconditional experience of the aesthetic is the purest and most profound kind of experience one can have. In Dewey‟s analysis, art provides us with the fullest sense of what human experience is like, of what an “experience” might consist when it is most completely receptive to its incorporated elements, its potential stimulants. In this conception of the aesthetic, the ultimate value to be gained from such an interaction—in which, as Dewey puts it, “there must be an ordering of the elements of the whole that is in form, although not in detail, the same as the process of organization the creator of the work consciously experienced”—is not the perception of beauty per se, although this is certainly part of what the careful viewer, listener, or reader will finally judge to have been the lasting reward of the encounter with great art. Instead, it is inherent in the act of perceiving itself, which in tandem with the artist‟s own creative efforts produces a kind of collective expression of the possibilities of the human imagination.
Nabokov is additionally a writer known to privilege aesthetic beauty, both in theory and in practice, but the aesthetic pleasures in Nabokov‟s fiction do not lie in such conventional features as harmony of plot or lyricism of prose style. Certainly almost everything in his stories and novels works against any possible association of them with the “beautiful” in its sentimental varieties. Nabokov‟s novels are not short on plot, but they‟re hardly of the “well-made” sort the subtle manipulations of which lead some readers and critics to find their dramatic delight. Lolita is basically a picaresque narrativethat proceeds not through delicately modulated moments of emotional intensity, or even just skillfully rendered turns of plot, but through accumulated episodes of increasingly outrageous black humor that in themselves challenge received notions about aesthetic beauty. Similarly, Nabokov‟s prose, while energetic, expressive, even “lush,” couldn‟t really be categorized as lyrical:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.
She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dottedline. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girlchild. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.
Such writing is surely delightful to read, but it doesn‟t seek to be conventionally elegant. It is in some ways a mockery of a “fancy prose style.” The lilting cadences, the alliteration, the blatant interplay of assonance and consonance, all work to create an impression of liveliness that as Humbert Humbert continues with his account of his own pederasty comes to seem increasingly incommensurate with the sordid story being related. Thus, one of the most immediate issues a reader must grapple with in coming to terms with a work like Lolita is how to negotiate this breach between the narrator‟s impeccable and enlivening prose style and the fact that the narrator is himself otherwise an unsympathetic and finally thoroughly contemptible character.
What such negotiation requires, I would maintain, is precisely the sort of intensive concentration on the “ordered elements” that a literary text puts into play, even when the order seems at first a kind of disorder, a mismatch between style and substance. One could say that what is required is what is usually called “active reading,” an affirmation that with works of literature readers have their own role to play in bringing a text alive, in making the reading experience a consequential one. But it cannot be the kind of active reading that seeks to confine the text to its perceived unitary meaning—even though it has partly been created by the reader—but instead ought to be open to even those features that want to disrupt the process by which we often want to construct such meaning. InLolita, this requires being open to the possibility that Humbert Humbert won‟t be appropriated to any imposed scheme, ethical or aesthetic, that places him as a literarycharacter in a pre-established context or according to a set of inherited expectations about characterization in fiction. Humbert Humbert is finally sui generis, which ultimately means that Nabokov has turned the stylistic and formal resources of fiction to account in a singular and distinctive way, giving Lolita aesthetic qualities only a careful, receptive reading can reveal.
The recent controversy about the possibility Nabokov “borrowed” the story of Lolita from another writer in my opinion only reinforces the case to be made for theproperly aesthetic originality of this novel. Situation and plot provide only the scaffolding, the narrative skin, for a literary work the inner core of which has to be reached through the reader‟s ability to accept this scaffolding for what it is: the means bywhich Nabokov summons up the voice of Humbert Humbert, by which Humbert Humbert himself is permitted to write in his inimitable way. Rorty begins to get at the complexities inherent in Humbert‟s performance when he writes that Nabokov‟s books “are reflections on the possibility that there can be sensitive killers, cruel aesthetes, pitiless poets—masters of imagery who are content to turn the lives of other human beings into images on a screen. . . .” But Rorty can‟t quite settle for the literary exploration of such unsettling possibilities and immediately resolves Nabokov‟s complexities into the simpler ethical problem by which these “masters of imagery” are incapable of “noticing that these other people are suffering.”
Rorty believes that Nabokov must finally be seen as an ethical writer who struggles with his unfortunate “aestheticist” tendencies but who even in this very struggle only demonstrates a paradoxical obsession with ethical matters, with, if nothing else, the ethical implications of struggling with aestheticism. Rorty further believes that the sort of aestheticism to which Nabokov was so strongly attracted doesn‟t really exist, is just another essentialized concept the efficacy of which can finally be measured only in its real-world consequences. But it‟s hard to see how, through assigning to works of literature the task either of illustrating “personal autonomy” or helping us “become less cruel,” Rorty himself has avoided closing off the potential utility of literature in an almost dogmatic way. “Master of imagery” is of course a description of Vladimir Nabokov as a writer of fiction as well as his “cruel aesthetes.” Can we readers not, if we choose, take Nabokovian “imagery” at face value, as the literary creation of a masterly writer able to provide us with aesthetic experiences, however disturbing, of a sort we‟ve not really enjoyed before? Is it not at least as justified on purely pragmatic grounds to approach a novel like Lolita in this way, without having to pronounce the experience an “orchidaceous extra”? Perhaps Nabokov is himself never more the “pitiless poet” than when through his fiction he demands of us that we confront such choices in the first place.