- Animal Moments in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin and Saul Bellow’s Herzog
Posthumanism is often associated with more recent postmodern novelists who “problemat[ize] the traditional divisions between human and nonhuman” (Giles 2011, 164-65). It is not commonly associated with, for example, the long tradition of liberal humanists, where most critics place Saul Bellow (Smith 2013, 102), and some critics place Vladimir Nabokov (McCarthy 2009, 133)—though he is a writer who resists overt categorization. It is, however, the contention of this paper that both Bellow’s and Nabokov’s texts exhibit a consciousness about the non-separation of the human species from the animal species—a contention made all the more interesting by the two writers’ distinctly different artistic concerns and their long history of mutual, publicly acknowledged antipathy. Both Bellow and Nabokov create striking images of animals in order to, first, problematize the distinction between animals and humans, and second, create distinctly animal moments within human narratives. The essay explores such animal moments chiefly in Bellow’s Herzog and Nabokov’s Pnin, using Ralph R. Acampora’s model of “corporal compassion,” “symphysis” and mutual “bodiment,” ecophenomenological insights from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Paul Giles’s discussion of posthumanism. By exploring the coming together of animals and humans in these two novels, the essay also troubles the difference between humanism and posthumanism in literary representations of animality.
The connections between Merleau-Ponty and Acampora have been discussed before. Acampora extends Merleau-Ponty’s interspecies consciousness, to explore the posthumanist potential of the relationship between humans and animals: Acampora “argues that while Merleau-Ponty provides clues as to how to develop a multispecies ethics, he does not acknowledge or develop as fully as he could the fact that nonhuman animals can be sources of meaning in their own right” (Willett 2014, 180). Indeed, in his discussion of modernity, Merleau-Ponty suggests a rather anthropocentric understanding of the human relationship with the animal/natural world: [End Page 119]
We are once more learning to see the world around us. … We are rediscovering our interest in the space in which we are situated. Though we see it only from a limited perspective—our perspective—this space is rediscovering in every object a certain style of being that makes it a mirror of human modes of behaviour. So the way we relate to the things of the world is no longer as a pure intellect trying to master an object or space that stands before it. Rather, this relationship is an ambiguous one, between beings who are both embodied and limited and an enigmatic world of which we catch a glimpse (indeed which we haunt incessantly) but only ever from points of view that hide as much as they reveal, a world in which every object displays the human face it acquires in a human gaze.(2004, 69-70; our emphasis)
Notably, Merleau-Ponty speaks of objects (and animals, in the context of his book) as “acquiring a human face” through a “human gaze,” rather than humans reflecting objects/species in a process of mutual relation.
We argue that the difference between Merleau-Ponty’s and Acampora’s paradigms of animals/humans reflects the difference between the conceptualization of animals/humans in Bellow and Nabokov: animal moments in Bellow’s texts can resemble Acampora’s concept of “corporal compassion,” while in Pnin, animal moments are more in line with Merleau-Ponty’s paradigm. Yet, the concerns the two writers exhibit in their novels—exploring the nature of the relationship between humans and animals—are remarkably similar, considering the otherwise almost unbridgeable gap between them as writers and artists, as well as their rare, even for the literary world, burning hostility towards one another. Despite the fact that a writer like Martin Amis draws inspiration from both Nabokov and Bellow, calling them his “twin peaks, like two mountains” (Amis and Paz Soldán 2011), there is little likeness and certainly even less liking between the two writers. In one of his private letters, Nabokov complains that “Saul Bellow, a miserable mediocrity, should never have appeared on the jacket of a book about me” and...