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Nabokov Studies 5 (1998/1999) DANA DRAGUNOIU (Toronto) Dialogues with Berkeley: Idealist Metaphysics and Epistemology in Nabokov's Bend Sinister I admit that the night has been ciphered right well but in place of the stars I put letters, and I've read in myself how the self to transcend and I must not be overexplicit. Vladimir Nabokov, "Fame" Three citations constitute my point of departure. The first comes from Brian Boyd's Vladimir Nabokov: The Russian Years, where he argues that "[f]he true story of Nabokov's art is the story of his finding the formal and fictional inventiveness to express all the problems his philosophy poses" (292). The second is from Vladimir Alexandrov's Nabokov's Otherworld, where he claims that "Nabokov's textual patterns and intrusions into his fictional texts emerge as imitations of the otherworld's formative role with regard to man and nature: the metaliterary is camouflage for, and a model of, the metaphysical" (18). And the third comes from Strong Opinions, where Nabokov supplies us with one of the very rare occasions where he acknowledges influence. In his response to Jeffrey Leonard's critical article on Ada, he writes: "Mr. Leonard would have lost less of it had he gone straight to Berkeley and Bergson" (290). While scholars have explored the relationship between Nabokov's fiction and Bergson's philosophy, the Berkeleian aspects of his work have been ignored. This essay combines the three statements quoted above to offer a new interpretive framework for Nabokov's philosophical concerns and metaliterary techniques . It argues that Bishop Berkeley's idealist cosmogony not only informs the problems posed by Nabokov's philosophy mentioned by Boyd, but also offers a metaphysical framework which correlates with Nabokov's metaliterary model referred to by Alexandrov. I will contend that a crucial concern in Nabokov's epistemology is the tension between philosophical realism (the view that the external world exists independently of the mind) and idealism (the view that the external world is dependent on the mind). Nabokov was not alone in grappling with this ques- 48 Nabokov Studies tion: the realist-idealist debate was a familiar one on the broader intellectual scene at the turn of the twentieth century. In Paris, Bergson published his Matière et mémoire (1896), where he claimed to be able to reconcile the conflict between Cartesian realism and Berkeleian idealism with a new epistemology . In England, Bertrand Russell addressed the debate in The Problems of Philosophy (1912), where he first praised Berkeley for questioning traditional theories of appearance and reality, and then proceeded to refute him. Also in England, F. H. Bradley (the idealist whose work would become the subject of T. S. Eliot's doctoral dissertation) was teaching at Oxford, while J. M. E. McTaggart was converting G. E. Moore to idealism during Moore's first years at Cambridge. In 1903, Moore published his famous work "The Refutation of Idealism," which had a direct influence on Leonard Woolf, J. M. Keynes, and E. M. Forster (then students at Cambridge), and an indirect impact on other members of the Bloomsbury Group (see Rosenbaum). Evidence that this realist-idealist debate permeates the work of these and other writers is seen in the introductory passage of Forster's The Longest Journey, in Andrew's description of Mr. Ramsay's work in Woolf s To the Lighthouse, in the Berkeleian epigraph to Beckett's Film, and in Yeats's adoption of his own pagan version of Berkeley's idealism. As Yeats wrote, "Descartes, Locke, and Newton took away the world and give us its excrement instead. Berkeley restored the world.... Berkeley has brought back to us the world that only exists because it shines and sounds" (41-42). As his comment in Strong Opinions suggests, Nabokov did not remain unaffected: his familiarity with and interest in the philosophies of Bergson and Berkeley made him a participant in an intellectual debate that was taking place both in England and France during the first half of the twentieth century. This philosophical debate poses the fundamental and as-yet unanswered question regarding perception and the nature of reality. The "problem of perception " (as it has come to be known...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9965
Print ISSN
1080-1219
Pages
pp. 47-62
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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