Nabokov on Time

I was writing about Harold Bloom’s “Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds“, specifically first about Virginia Woolf, and then about Octavio Paz. There is a really good excerpt from Paz’s Conjunctions and Disjunctions on page 538, and wonderfully enough, it is Paz the poet-prophet speaking about time…and then I thought that I should drop everything and post possibly my favorite lines from Nabokov on the same topic. I’m posting them because I have grown to be terribly appreciative of Nabokov; I don’t think that there’s another English-language author who quite captures the scope of his vision or has the gift of his language, which is at times is exuberant, inquisitive, self-absorbed in a universal sort of way, and intimidatingly diverse.  There is this subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) lyric eroticism that tinges almost every sentence.

To give you my measurement of the scope of his language and the breadth of his knowledge, my family is very literary. My parents both have multiple graduate degrees, and the family reads what I can only describe as an insane, breakneck pace. My brother dissected Webster’s 3rd New International Dictionary to win the National Spelling Bee; my vocabulary, while not as extensive as his, is formidable. It is rare in reading that I require recourse to a dictionary (and that holds true even for most of my academic reading. But when I read Nabokov, alone amongst all authors I read, I need to have ready access to a dictionary, and sometimes for more than one language, for he is a master of language, reckless and improbably fluid with words.

Below the fold, here is part of Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, book 4 (non-gated):

My purpose in writing my Texture of Time, a difficult, delectable and blessed work, a work which I am about to place on the dawning desk of the still-absent reader, is to purify my own notion of Time. I wish to examine the essence of Time, not its lapse, for I do not believe that its essence can be reduced to itslapse. I wish to caress Time.

One can be a lover of Space and its possibilities: take, for example, speed, the smoothness and sword-swish of speed; the aquiline glory of ruling velocity; the joy cry of the curve; and one can be an amateur of Time, an epicure of duration. I delight sensually in Time, in its stuff and spread, in the fall of its folds, in the very impalpability of its grayish gauze, in the coolness of its continuum. I wish to do something about it; to indulge in a simulacrum of possession. I am aware that all who have tried to reach the charmed castle have got lost in obscurity or have bogged down in Space. I am also aware that Time is a fluid medium for the culture of metaphors.

Why is it so difficult—so degradingly difficult—to bring the notion of Time into mental focus and keep it there for inspection? What an effort, what fumbling, what irritating fatigue! It is like rummaging with one hand in the glove compartment for the road map—fishing out Montenegro, the Dolomites, paper money, a telegram—everything except the stretch of chaotic country between Ardez and Somethingsoprano, in the dark, in the rain, while trying to take advantage of a red light in the coal black, with the wipers functioning metronomically, chronometrically: the blind finger of space poking and tearing the texture of time. And Aurelius Augustinus, too, he, too, in his tussles with the same theme, fifteen hundred years ago, experienced this oddly physical torment of the shallowing mind, the shchekotiki (tickles) of approximation, the evasions of cerebral exhaustion–but he, at least, could replenish his brain with God-dispensed energy (have a footnote here about how delightful it is to watch him pressing on and interspersing his cogitations, between sands and stars, with vigorous little fits of prayer). Lost again. Where was I? Where am I? Mud road. Stopped car. Time is rhythm: the insect rhythm of a warm humid night, brain ripple, breathing, the drum in my temple—these are our faithful timekeepers; and reason corrects the feverish beat. A patient of mine could make out the rhythm of flashes succeeding one another every three milliseconds (0.003!). On.

What nudged, what comforted me, a few minutes ago at the stop of a thought? Yes. Maybe the only thing that hints at a sense of Time is rhythm; not the recurrent beats of the rhythm but the gap between two such beats, the gray gap between black beats: the Tender Interval. The regular throb itself merely brings back the miserable idea of measurement, but in between, something like true Time lurks. How can I extract it from its soft hollow? The rhythm should be neither too slow nor too fast. One beat per minute is already far beyond my sense of succession and five oscillations per second make a hopeless blur. The ample rhythm causes Time to dissolve, the rapid one crowds it out.

Give me, say, three seconds, then I can do both: perceive the rhythm and probe the interval. A hollow, did I say? A dim pit? But that is only Space, the comedy villain, returning by the back door with the pendulum he peddles, while I grope for the meaning of Time. What I endeavor to grasp is precisely the Time that Space helps me to measure, and no wonder I fail to grasp Time, since knowledge-gaining itself “takes time.” If my eye tells me something about Space, my ear tells me something about Time. But while Space can be contemplated, naively, perhaps, yet directly, I can listen to Time only between stresses, for a brief concave moment warily and worriedly, with the growing realization that I am listening not to Time itself but to the blood current coursing through my brain, and thence through the veins of the neck heartward, back to the seat of private throes which have no relation to Time.

The direction of Time, the ardis of Time, one-way Time, here is something that looks useful to me one moment, but dwindles the next to the level of an illusion obscurely related to the mysteries of growth and gravitation. The irreversibility of Time (which is not heading anywhere in the first place) is a very parochial affair: had our organs and orgitrons not been asymmetrical, our view of Time might have been amphitheatric and altogether grand, like ragged night and jagged mountains around a small, twinkling, satisfied hamlet. We are told that if a creature loses its teeth and becomes a bird, the best the latter can do when needing teeth again is to evolve a serrated beak, never the real dentition it once possessed. The scene is Eocene and the actors are fossils. It is an amusing instance of the way nature cheats but it reveals as little relation to essential Time, straight or round, as the fact of my writing from left to right does to the course of my thought.


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