- The Return of Charles Kinbote: Nabokov on Rorty *
In 1996, Vladimir Nabokov, an author who continually claimed that a “work of art has no value whatsoever to society,” 1 paradoxically found himself at the center of a debate between Alexander Nehamas and Richard Rorty over the proper “political” interpretation of Pale Fire. 2 The background to this dispute—which also involved such luminaries as Martha Nussbaum and Richard Posner 3 —concerned the extent to which it might plausibly be claimed that immersing oneself in the works of “Great Authors” might serve to make one a better citizen of a democratic polity. Rorty, for the record, argued that it would; Nehamas that it would not. Setting the broader debate aside, this article will focus on Richard Rorty’s contribution to the discussion—a contribution made largely through his reading of Vladimir Nabokov’s later American novels. It will argue that Rorty’s reading of Nabokov provides us with a clear illustration of both the contribution that literature can make to the field of political theory, and the costs of such a contribution to an author’s text. In addition it will suggest that rereading Rorty on Nabokov reveals something very interesting and unexpected about the Rorty-Nabokov relationship, something that forces us to examine in a new light Nabokov’s strangely prophetic claim that: “one day a reappraiser will come and declare that, far from having been a frivolous firebird, I was a rigid moralist kicking sin, cuffing stupidity, ridiculing the vulgar and the cruel—and assigning sovereign power to tenderness, talent and pride” (SO, p.193).
Even the briefest description of Rorty’s work—work which Bernard Williams once famously characterized as “deeply shallow” 4 —should perhaps be enough to alert the careful reader to the suggestion that [End Page 65] there is more to the Nabokov-Rorty relationship than merely that of author and critic. Rorty sprang to public attention in 1979 with the publication of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. In this book, and the ones that followed, Consequences of Pragmatism, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, three volumes of Philosophical Papers, and in his most recent work on Leftist politics in the United States, Rorty takes seriously certain passages in Wittgenstein which suggest that we should abandon philosophical thinking in favor of a more problem-solving approach to life. Once we do this, Rorty suggests, we can simply give up certain perennial philosophical questions—such as the nature of reality, the existence of Truth, and even epistemology itself—as being unnecessary diversions from the task of coping with the world. The knight’s move in this process is, of course, the abandonment of the representational theory of truth, that which suggests that knowledge is merely a matter of “getting reality right,” of finding the correct piece of description to match the corresponding fact in the external world. Having abandoned representationalism, says Rorty, we can begin to accept our own role in creating the world in which we live. “Truth,” he writes, “cannot be out there—cannot exist independently of the human mind—because sentences cannot exist, or be out there . . . descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own—unaided by the describing activities of human beings—cannot.” 5
Politically Rorty suggests that his brand of postfoundational philosophy means that “democracies are now in a position to throw away some of the ladders used in their own construction.” 6 Instead of having to justify their existence with reference to some fictitious social contract or metaphysical thought experiment, liberal democracy can, on Rorty’s scheme, now justify itself simply by recognizing the value of Judith Shklar’s observation that “cruelty is the worst thing we can do.” 7 Unlike the claims of many previous liberals, Rorty’s argument does not rest upon an unprovable assertion about “human nature,” but rather upon the suggestion that “as little cruelty as possible” is simply a good basis for modern society. Rorty’s support for American style liberal institutions—such as procedural justice, rights and the rule of law—is predicated upon his pragmatic belief that they represent the best means of reducing cruelty at the...