Janek Z's Reviews > Invitation to a Beheading

Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimir Nabokov
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Feb 24, 11

Read from February 11 to 14, 2011

The challenge to the bourgeois class in revolutionary Russia had a tremendous impact on the assumed “natural” perspective of its political and artistic position. Generations of building a particular aesthetic had almost eclipsed the possibility of a non-bourgeois, or “collective” idea of art. I qualify “collective” in order to point out the absurdity of assuming there is a possibility for a non-communal conception of art, something Nabokov's Cincinnatus C. points out himself in “Invitation to a Beheading”: “I must at least have the theoretical possibility of having a reader,otherwise, really, I might as well tear it all up. (pg 194)”. The political position of a work of art stands in constant dialectic unity with its subject matter and internal logic, regardless of authorial intent.
“Invitation to a Beheading” details an absurd world where collectivism is drawn into a straw-man, useful for juxtaposing against the rational, and “opaque” narrator Cincinnatus C. Though never directly expressed, his crime is spoken of as “Gnostical Turpitude”, or in vague terms about opacity and transparency. The general idea is that the private and pure realm of the artist has been compromised by expectations of responsibility to those around the artist. The book describes the dual life of the one whose idealism has abstracted his relation to the material world to such a degree that he sees himself as not a part of it. Opacity is an interesting word choice, especially when we compare it to Lukacs description of Kierkegaard, whose Christian-existentialist philosophy pegs the individual as “...opaque, impenetrable 'incognito'.”(Lukacs, The Ideology of Modernism, pg. 149) Lukacs continues: “The philosophy obtained remarkable popularity after the second world war – proof that even the most abstruse theories may reflect social reality. Men like Martin Hiedegger, Ernst Junger, the lawyer Carl Schmitt, Gottfried Benn, and others passionately embraced this doctrine of the eternal incognito which implies that a man's external deeds are no guide to his motives. In this case the deeds obscured behind the mysterious incognito were, needless to say, the intellectuals participation in Nazism”(Lukacs, The Ideology of Modernism, pg.149). The narrator says of Cincinnatus: “He was impervious to the rays of others, and therefor produced when off his guard a bizarre impression, as of a lone obstacle in this world of souls transparent to one another.” (pg 24) The theme of Cincinnatus' superiority to the collective is reoccurring, such as in his referring to the inhabitants of the fiction as shades, dummies, specters, and parodies. On one level we can understand this as, “Hell is the absence of Reason,” the classic trope of rational male in irrational circumstances, but in another sense their seems to be a meta-understanding of that circumstance in the form of a commentary directed at the de-naturalization of the “pure” sphere of art (in this case for Cincinnatus as a writer)--a conservative appeal espoused by modern day right-wing pundits like Harold Bloom. The left has traditionally been skeptical of “pure” or “essential” realms, posing instead their interrelation to the circumstances in which works of art are bred; or more delicately put: “Nobody can stand above warring classes, because nobody can stand above the human race...Thus for art to be 'apolitical' means only to ally itself with the 'ruling' group.”(Brecht, A Short Organum for Theatre, 55) The idea that there is a “pure” form of art simply naturalizes bourgeois art as the natural and pure form, feigning a political neutrality. The sense that Cincinnatus is a rebellious individualist inhabitant of a collective run world is a gross reversal of the real life situation the text is mirroring: the struggle of the proletariat to eliminate a hundred years of domination by the very philosophy being posed in this text as rebellious.
Nabokov was fascinated with time in his real life, almost neurotically. Martin Hagglund suggests that Nabokov is simultaneously a chronophilliac, and a chronophobiac. “Invitation to a Beheading” emphasizes his chronophobiac side in great detail through the filter of the narrator: “There can be no disorder here--only a shifting about” (pg. 132) ,“My words all mill about in one spot” (pg 194), or, “...but no, you have to die anew every morning,” (pg 51) most telling of his obsessive desire to know the time of his death. The nature of the time-structure Cincinnatus experiences in the prison is mirrored in the very architecture: “And only then did Cincinnatus realize that the bends in the corridor had not been leading him anywhere, but rather formed a great polyhedron-”(pg 77). He desperately attempts to reach up and see out the window of his cell, only to notice the words “You cannot see anything. I tried it too”(pg 29) inscribed on the wall. Lukacs once again offers a further elucidation of this theme: “By separating time from the outer world of subjective reality, the inner world of the subject is transformed into a sinister, inescapable flux and acquires - paradoxically, as it may seem – a static character.” (Lukacs, The Ideology of Modernism, pg 157) The cycle of his circumstance is juxtaposed with his nostalgia for the early-capitalism of old: “Everything gravitated passionately toward a kind of perfection whose definition was the absence of friction. Reveling in all the temptations of the circle, life whirled away to such a state of giddiness that the ground fell away and, stumbling, falling, weakened by nausea and languor- ought I to say it? - finding itself in a new dimension as it were... Yes, matter has grown old and weary, and little has survived of those legendary days.” (pg 50-51) It is interesting that the attempt at constructing a society based on materialist dialectics is caricatured as the decay of material into an oppressive reverberation, as the idea of historical materialism (an essential concept of the Russian revolution) posses the past as cyclical, and communism an attempt to sublimation, and transcendence those limits.
The dual nature of the self in the philosophy of Rene Descartes plays a perhaps accidental but important roll in “Invitation to a Beheading.” Cincinnatus is essentially trapped by his assumptions about his self-hood, namely that his real and introverted personality is incompatible with the changing world around him. In the text Cincinnatus is literally divided into two selves, one that mechanically maneuvers along with its circumstances, while the inner-self pouts and submits entirely. One self that he “would remove...to a safe place,” (pg 24) and one “that accompanies [him]...doing what [he] would like to do at that very moment, but cannot”(pg 25). The recession into sleep, or opaque darkness conjures the image of the mother's womb with thick safe walls; only here can one experience a self-hood not molded by socialization. Chronophobia also plays a roll in the desire for rescission in the narrator's fetishization of the 19th century bourgeois society. Being trapped in a delusional relationship to an assumed natural self causes Cincinnatus, like Descartes, to assume that everything around him is illusionary “only senseless visions, bad dreams, dregs of delirium, the drivel of nightmares and everything that passes down here for real life.”(pg 36) The two selves constantly referred to by the text are actually one self: the division is only created artificially by abstracting a dialectic self which maintains individuality, while being shaped and molded by collectivity. The relationship of Cincinnatus to Descartes doesn't end there. His thought process is a mirror of the Cartesian 'Meditations': “I don't know how to describe it, but I know this: through the process of gradual divestment I reach the final, indivisible, firm, radiant, point, and this point says: I am!”(pg 90) He says, “no one shall take me away from myself.”(pg 91). The assumption that life is a dream, or the work of some malicious entity, is nearly a caricature of the paranoid idealist position, a struggle against even the most simple realizations of materialism. Another example from the text almost screams “Cogito ergo sum”: “I repeat: there is something I know, there is something I know, there is something...” (pg 95). The narrator vaguely describes being alienated by other children, but we are generally expected to believe there is an essential quality to Cincinnatus causing his opacity, particularly when his mother explains that his father had a similar problem; (It's genetic alienation!). Despite that the other children's reluctance to allow him to join their game would have happened during his nostalgic and delusional representation of pre-revolutionary Russia, the narration attempts to frame it as a part of some general collectivist conspiracy. Rather than understanding the change occurring in Russia as one of unlimited potential, one that could alter the way we consider community, Cincinnatus champions a past that never existed, and lets his neurosis about the future get the better of him. The conclusion of the novel finds the narrator's mind rather poignantly separated from the neck down, and the ties to a material life officially severed. In the realm of fiction, Cincinnatus' non-material half is simply able to walk away, with the set of the fiction crumbling away at his feet. As he walks he makes his way toward where he thinks there may be “beings akin to him,” (pg 223). The parallels to the individualistic philosophy of another Russian émigré, Ayn Rand, are apparent. The accusation of individuality displayed as a philosophy in the text comes from the reoccurring instances of characters telling Cincinnatus to repent, the implication being that he has this option. The fictional specters of the text make announcements about things which will occur after Cincinnatus' beheading, referring to the planning of a comic opera called “Socrates Must Decrease,” ironically equating the haughty Cincinnatus with Socrates who was condemned to death for corrupting the youth of Athens with his philosophizing.
Of course one can't blame Cincinnatus for reacting the way he does, at least within the logic of the fiction, but it certainly seems to be a guided tyranny, constructed for the purpose of acting in absurdity (constructed being the key word as the references to the whole affair as a theater are another motif of the book.) The ability to form a dialect relationship with a community is hidden under a dasein of absurdity and tyrannical collectivism; without this option the decay into gnosticism is inevitable, like Hegel's “Unhappy Conscience” which can only keep itself going on the promise of some millenarian possibility. Transcendence is only possible in the materialist sense as a a historical possibility available to everyone through a dialectic model, which inherently incorporates collectivism. The distortions of this idea in the form perpetrated by western Christians in fascism are outside the scope of the narrative, as is the murderous cult of individualism presented by modern capitalism; however, the political implications one draws from a piece of art are as important as internal integrity, if not more. As in Ayn Rand's “Anthem,” the reactionary communist-dystopia concept is an uncritical, distorting model for a fiction, however delightful and well written.




- Lukacs, Georg. The Ideology of Modernism. Marxist Literary Criticism. Ed. Terry Eagleton, and Drew Milne. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. 141-162
- Brecht, Bertold. A Short Organum for Theatre. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. Ed. and trans. John Willett. London: Methuen, 1964
- Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Trans. A. V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977
- Rand, Ayn. Anthem. London: Cassell, 1946
- Descartes, Rene. The Essential Descartes. Ed. Wilson, Margaret D. New York: Penguin, 1969
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