Transitions: Questions of Form, 1945-Present

  • William Tucker (Participant)

Activity: Participating in or organising an eventParticipation in conference


The Evolution of Sense, in a Sense, as Nonsense: Conceptualizing a Postmodern Transition through Nabokov’s Non-Conceptual Literary Liminality

Vladimir Nabokov once stated, ‘A writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.' Aside from being lauded for his complex word play, emotional acuity, and experimental form, Nabokov was also an accomplished entomologist in the field of lepidopterology. This penchant for entomology would carry over into how he conceptualized and taught literature. Liked a seasoned lepidopterist, Nabokov expected his students to judge texts based on both aesthetic and empirical characteristics. It is then curious, however, that Nabokov promoted an analytic and critical engagement with texts while simultaneously rejecting the rigid hermeneutical practice of classifying authors and works into sub-genres—à la literary taxonomies. Nabokov embraced indeterminacy in his work and rebelled from conventional identification within the canon. But the great irony here is that stance, or perhaps non-stance, makes him the embodiment of a nebulous postmodern epoch that seeks to implement and reinforce as much as undermine and subvert literary conventions. The aim of this paper, however, will neither be to rigidly define a postmodern epoch that I believe by its very definition avoids strict categorization nor to suggest that Nabokov, as well as his contemporaries such as Beckett and Borges, should be treated as the transitioning point between modernism and postmodernism. Instead, the focus will be on suggesting that the liminal and enigmatic aspects of Nabokov’s life and work is symbolic of the aesthetic, critical, and cultural trends that allowed for such a postmodern transition to simultaneously emanate while also being an unwarranted qualifier within the canon. This transition is difficult to comprehend and articulate because if such a transition occurred it could effectively be conceptualized as being one towards anti-categorization, which Nabokov perhaps alludes to in Pnin (1957) when writing, ‘The evolution of sense is, in a sense, the evolution of nonsense.' With the evolution of literature towards postmodern categorization comes the proportional, degenerative enigma that vehemently resists categorization. In order to illustrate this, Nabokov’s rhetorical strategies, meta-treatment of language, and simultaneous marginalization and promotion of authorship will be analyzed in order to better understand the epistemological preoccupation with literary categorization as well as the non-conceptual conceptuality that both enables and hinders the notion of a postmodern transition. Ultimately, scholars are free to classify Nabokov's works, but at the same time it must be recognized that this essentially necessitates treating the text like one of Nabokov’s butterflies—either the autonomy and form of the open text can be respected from a distance or the distinct parts of the text may be pinned down in order to be analyzed and categorized, but the latter unavoidably requires an act of killing.
Period5 Sept 2014
Event typeConference
LocationBristol, United KingdomShow on map