In the realm of aesthetics, Vladimir Nabakov got most things right. Like Susan Sontag after him, he understood that the aesthetic was its own universe with its own values, its own importance, its own meaning and its own claims upon us.
Here are some gems from his great lectures on literature to Cornell undergraduates:
"We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds, other branches of knowledge." And this: "I never meant to deny the moral impact of art which is certainly inherent in every genuine work of art. What I do deny and am prepared to fight to the last drop of my ink is the deliberate moralizing which to me kills every vestige of art in a work however skillfully written. And this: "The notion of symbol itself has always been abhorrent to me, and I never tire of retelling how I once failed a student-- the dupe, alas, of an earlier teacher-- for writing that Jane Austen describes leaves as "green" because Fanny is hopeful, and "green" is the color of hope. The symbolism racket in schools attracts computerized minds but destroys plain intelligence as well as poetical sense. It bleaches the soul. It numbs all capacity to enjoy the fun and enchantment of art. "
"Of course, no matter how keenly, how admirably, a story, a piece of music, a picture is discussed and analyzed, there will be minds that remain blank and spines that remain unkindled. 'To take upon us the mystery of things'—what King Lear so wistfully says for himself and for Cordelia—this is also my suggestion for everyone who takes art seriously. A poor man is robbed of his overcoat (Gogol's "The Greatcoat," or more correctly "The Carrick"); another poor fellow is turned into a beetle (Kafka's "The Metamorphosis)—so what? There is no rational answer to "so what." We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss. Beauty plus pity—that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual. If Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" strikes anyone as something more than an entomological fantasy, then I congratulate him on having joined the ranks of good and great readers.Hwew he is on Robert Louis Stevenson: I want to discuss fantasy and reality, and their mutual relationship. If we consider the "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" story as an allegory—the struggle between Good and Evil within every man—then this allegory is tasteless and childish. To the type of mind that would see an allegory here, its shadow play would also postulate physical happenings which common sense knows to be impossible; but actually in the setting of the story, as viewed by a commonsensical mind, nothing at first sight seems to run counter to general human experience. I want to suggest, however, that a second look shows that the setting of the story does run counter to general human experience, and that Utterson and the other men around Jekyll are, in a sense, as fantastic as Mr. Hyde. Unless we see them in a fantastic light, there is no enchantment. And if the enchanter leaves and the storyteller and the teacher remain alone together, they make poor company."
What are we to make of these statements? In light of the overwhelming barrage of readings of art utterly drenched in symbolic and moral criticism - all things Nabokov denies in a spirit at times hyperbolic - how should we regard Nabokov? Is he guilty of aestheticism of denying use to art and moral instruction. Is he indulging in mere wordplay and formal cleverness? Well no. He is onto something. He is trying to teach us that what matters in art begins precisely where ideas and morals and points leave off, and after we don't look there with what are we left? Well I shall leave you dear reader, with what the remainders look like: the very things with which Nabokov is most concerned might very well be what we have been most deeply concerned with all along.