Oct 16 2022

Left Blinker, Right Turn: Tricked by My Imagination

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Left Blinker, Right Turn: Tricked by My Imagination

In the fourth book of the Confessions, Rousseau of Geneva says his imagination was too fertile to appreciate Paris:

How contrary to what I had expected was my first sight of Paris! The external ornament I had seen in Turin, the fine streets, the symmetry and disposition of the houses, all this made me look for something better still in Paris. I had imagined a city as broad as it was fair, whose every aspect was imposing, where all one would see were magnificent streets and palaces of marble and gold. Entering by the Faubourg Saint-Marceau, I saw nothing but dirty, stinking little streets, dark and ugly houses, an air of filth and poverty, beggars, carters, old crones mending, hawkers of herbal teas and old hats. I was so immediately and so forcibly struck by it all that none of the true splendour I later saw in Paris has erased this first impression, and I have been left ever since with a secret dislike of living in this capital.

It could even be said that such time as I have spent there since has been wholly devoted to acquiring the means to enable me to live somewhere else. Such is the fruit of too lively an imagination, which exaggerates still further the exaggerations of others, and always enhances what it is told. I had always heard Paris acclaimed in such terms that I had pictured it to myself as a second Babylon, although, had I seen this city, I might perhaps have found that it, too, fell no less short of the portrait I had painted of it in my mind’s eye.

The same thing happened at the Opéra, which I rushed to visit the next day; the same thing happened later at Versailles, later still when I saw the sea, and the same thing will always happen when I see sights that have been too warmly recommended: for it is impossible for men and difficult for nature herself to outdo my fertile imagination.

(Confessions (1779), trans. Angela Scholar, ed. Patrick Coleman, (New York: Oxford, 1994, 2008), IV, p. 155.)

And these thoughts on imagination from Rousseau came to me in the middle of traffic—when I saw the blinker to the car in front of me indicating it would soon turn left. Then, of course, the car slowed down and turned right.

The expectation I imagined (of the car turning left) turned out to be false. It turned out to be the exact opposite of what one should expect from such an indication.

Chaucer might’ve said of this an example that “Thou hast a veyn imaginacioun,” (The Knight’s Tale, Part I, ll. 1091–93).

Spenser might’ve said that I have a “gross imagination” from reading too many “rude Irish books,” (See Endnote).

Milton might add to this conversation that “man will hearken to his glozing lies,” (Paradise Lost, III, 93)––whether “his” means the lies of Satan or those of other men.

But then comes Lord Bacon, to remind me that:

Fascination is the power and act of imagination intensive upon other bodies than the body of the imaginant, for of that we spake in the proper place….

But for mine own judgemt it, if it be admitted that imagination hath power, and that ceremonies fortify imagination, and that they be used sincerely and intentionally for that purpose.

(The Advancement of Learning (1605), ed. William Aldis Wright (1858), (Oxford: Clarendon, 1957, fifth edition), (II, xi, 2), p. 146.)

For “superstition,” Bacon tells readers, “erecteth an absolute monarchy in the minds of men.” Still:

There is a superstition in avoiding superstition, when men think to do best if they go furthest from the superstition formerly received; therefore care would be had that (as it fareth in ill purgings) the good be not taken away with the bad; which commonly is done when the people is the reformer.

(“Of Superstition,” Essays or Counsels Civil and Moral (1625) in Essays, ed. Brian Vickers, (New York: Oxford UP, 1999), pp. 39–40.)

I am but at the mercy of my imagination, whether it be vain, gross, rude, glozing with lies, or perhaps fascinating, or perhaps, as seems to be somewhat the case with the insincere blinker in Austin traffic, superstitious.


An endnote from Spenser:

Eudox. Believe me, this observations of yours, Irenaeus, is very good and delightfull; far beyond the blinde conceipt of some, who (I remember) have upon the same word Ferragh, made a very blunt conjecture, as namely Mr. Stanihurst, who though he be the same country man borne, that should search more nearly into the secret of these things; yet hath strayed from the truth all the heavens wyde, (as they say,) for he thereupon groundeth a very groose imagination, that the Irish should descend from the Egyptians which came into that Island, Irish should descend from the Egyptians which came into that Island, first under the leading of one Scota the daughter of Pharoah, whereupon the use (saith he) in all their battailes to call upon the name of Pharaoh, crying Ferragh, Ferragh. Surely he shootes wyde on the bow hand, and very far from the marke. For I would first know of him what auncienet ground of authority he hath for such a senselesse fable, and if he have any of the rude Irish books, as it may be hee hath, yet (me seems) that a man of his learning should not so lightly have bin carried away with old wives tales, from approvance of his owne reason; for whether it be a smack of any learned iudgment, to say, that Scota is like an Egyptian word, let the learned iudge. But his Scota rather comes of the Greek [Greek], that is, darknes, which hath not let him see the light of the truth.

(A View of the State of Ireland (c. 1596, 1633), eds. Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley, (Oxford: Blackwell’s, 1997), p. 60.)

Apr 1 2014

Nabokov’s “Lolita” (a second reading)

bookbread Canterbury
I read Lolita for the first time about five years ago and was overwhelmed by the style but thought it lacked substance in terms of plot and character. Upon a second reading I would concede the book has substance, and my initial sense of something lacking was really a reflection of my belief that the novel contains no likeable characters. I find nothing to like or sympathize in Humbert, Lolita, or Quilty.

Lolita’s name is Dolores—“pain” in Spanish––Lolita is a “pain” and painful for Humbert.

The book is setup as a confession: Humbert is definitely no St. Augustine, though he may have read some Rousseau. I have not read Rousseau’s Confessions (1782), but as a reader, I find the company of the literary children of James Joyce more tolerable than that of their father. In other words, the linguistic acrobatics of Nabokov’s Lolita, as well as Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), work in ways Joyce never mastered. The Irish Oscar Wilde taught art-for-art’s-sake, and later Irish James Joyce believed in style-for-style’s-sake—but Nabokov and Burgess both know that the best formula is style-for-story’s-sake.

It’s quite a writer’s trick for Nabokov to make the narrator a professor of French poetry. Throughout my reading this trick made it difficult for me not to confuse Nabokov-the-author-poet for Humbert-the narrator-poet.

Early on Humbert confesses: “I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita,” (Part I, Ch. 15). This line might be compared to a reflection made by the character of Thomas Buddenbrook:

“I know that the external, visible, tangible tokens and symbols of happiness and success first appear only after things have in reality gone into decline already.” (Buddenbrooks, VII, vi, 378–79)

Later Humbert dreams of eventually impregnating Lolita (Part II, Ch. 3), so that he can have a second Lolita, somewhat like the character of Manfred in Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764), P. B. Shelley’s remark that incest is the most poetic of all circumstances, and sentiments of the villain Noah Cross at the climax of the film Chinatown (1974). Nabokov’s line “my impossible daughter” (Part I, Ch. 29) is brimming with multiple meanings and interpretations.

I remain ambivalent but more accepting of Lolita after this second reading, but Nabokov has thought about the idea of re-reading, as found in his lectures on literature:

“I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book:  one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.” (“Good Readers and Good Writers,” 3)

For Nabokov, a writer is a storyteller, a teacher, and an enchanter:

“There are three points of view from which a writer can be considered: he may be considered as a storyteller, as a teacher, and as an enchanter. A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer…. The three facets of the great writer—magic, story, lesson—are prone to blend in one impression of unified and unique radiance, since the magic of art may be present in the very bones of the story, in the very marrow of thought.” (“Good Readers and Good Writers,” 5–6)

Finally, here’s Nabokov on artists and morality:

“I never could admit that a writer’s job was to improve the morals of his country, and point out lofty ideals from the tremendous height of a soapbox, and administer first aid by dashing off second-rate books. The writer’s pulpit is dangerously close to the pulp romance, and what reviewers call a strong novel is generally a precarious heap of platitudes or a sand castle on a populated beach, and there are few things sadder than to see its muddy mat dissolve when the holiday makers are gone and the cold mousy waves are nibbling at the solitary sands.” (“The Art of Literature and Commonsense” 376)



Mann, Thomas Buddenbrooks, Verfall einer Familie. Berlin: S. Fischer. 1901. Translation by John E. Woods published as Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family, 1993.

Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, New York, NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1982.