May 2020

“Speak, Memory”

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) is legendary among Russian writers, and his collection of autobiographical essays, “Speak, Memory,” is considered some of his best work. Reviewed extensively elsewhere, I will not go into detail about this book, but I simply note that, to me, it seems the great Russian writers have this tremendous ability to bring the reader into the story and place them in the scene.

A couple of points pleased me greatly about “Speak, Memory” and those are his recognition of the spiral nature of reality, and the fundamental misdirection of human understanding which is highlighted in times of crisis. We rightly struggle with the concept of time. It is often described as a cyclic or (especially on charts) as a line. It is perhaps better described as a combination of these two: a spiral. It is cyclic, but it never quite arrives back at its same point. You cannot put your foot in the same stream twice. Nabokov describes it this way in Chapter 14:

The spiral is a spiritualized circle. In the spiral form, the circle, uncoiled, unwound, has ceased to be vicious; it has been set free. I thought this up when I was a schoolboy, and I also discovered that Hegel’s triadic series … expressed merely the essential spirality of all things in their relation to time. Twirl follows twirl, and every synthesis is the thesis of the next series. ….
A colored spiral in a small ball of glass, this is how I see my own life.

I have found this conceptualization of life and time found in the structures of reality in other authors and thinkers (e.g. Alan Watts; Metropolitan Kallistos; and others), and to me it makes great sense.

As to fundamental aspects of human life that force themselves to the surface at times of crisis, I found his thoughts as he prepares to flee war-torn Europe especially relevant today. From the book’s final chapter set in the chaos of the start of the Second World War:

They are passing, posthaste, posthaste, the gliding years…. [M]echanically minded idiots are tinkering and tampering with forces of nature that mild mathematicians, to their own secret surprise, appear to have foreshadowed; so perhaps it is time we examined ancient snapshots, cave drawings of trains and planes, strata of toys in the lumbered closet.
…. “Struggle for life” indeed! The curse of battle and toil leads man back to the boar, to the grunting beast’s crazy obsession with the search for food. You and I have frequently remarked upon the maniacal glint in a housewife’s scheming eye as it roves over food in a grocery or about the morgue of a butcher’s shop. Toilers of the world, disband! Old books are wrong. The world was made on a Sunday.

Nabokov has left us what some would describe as great. I prefer to use beautiful.

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