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October 21, 2010



I take Nabokov to be sympathetic to the idea that pure aestheticism is a form of aggression against tyranny. He does write in 'The Art of Literature and Commonsense': "The twinkle in the author's eye as he notes the imbecile drooping of a murderer's underlip, or watches the stumpy forefinger of a professional tyrant exploring a profitable nostril in the solitude of his sumptuous bedroom, this twinkle is what punishes your man more surely than the pistol of a tiptoeing conspirator. And inversely, there is nothing dictators hate so much as the unassailable, eternally elusive, eternally provoking gleam. One of the main reasons why the very gallant Russian poet Gumilev was put to death by Lenin's ruffians thirty odd years ago was that during the whole ordeal, in the prosecutor's dim office, in the torture house, in the winding corridors that led to the truck, in the truck that took him to the place of execution, and at that place itself, full of the shuffling feet of the clumsy and gloomy shooting squad, the poet kept smiling."

I sometimes take his stance to be that art that emphasizes some social or political message suffers aesthetically - the poet is forced to stop smiling in order to deliver his sermon. Presumably, this rule applies even when one is safely ensconced at Cornell. Perhaps the problem you're noticing is that the implied aggression of pure aestheticism is easier for an audience (or a dictator) to miss when the artist is out his opponent's physical reach. It thus fails to enter into a true confrontation.

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