• What Nabokov can teach us about reason

    There will be a bout of radio silence for next week, more than likely.  I know we’re supposed to submit one article a week, but I have both a conference to present at and fellowship paperwork to prepare, so that will have me tied up for some time.

    A while back Sam Harris made the remark that “reason is so much larger than atheism”.  One sees the point; most who read this will be aware of the baloney detection kit, but what does applying reason in every day life mean, beyond occasionally saying that astrology or homeopathy are bunk?  Why is reason, a method and not a set of beliefs, vital to our day to day existence?  What is so bad about unreason?

    In understanding this, I could recommend many, but only a few would be better than Vladmir Nabokov.  His writing offers a hard course of learning in the evil – the real, unmistakable evil – of unreason.  Few have better understood the connection between unreason and cruelty.

    Every so often you will come across a story about some stone-faced moron of some educational bureaucracy who tries to have Lolita suppressed on charges of public indecency.  If you find someone like this, please feel free to throw things and laugh.  Lolita is emphatically not a book about pedophilia, much less a celebration of the same.  The sex that there is within the book is skin crawling and hidden underneath layers of metaphor and euphemism.

    That is the point.  The evasion of reality is the point.  Lolita is fundamentally a book about human cruelty, and the essence of cruelty is the denial of reality, the denial of reality of another human being.  Humbert Humbert is a monster because he systematically cancels out the reality of other people, in particular poor Dolores Haze, and substitutes their reality with his own fantasy, the role he has selected for them to play in his fantasy.  That is what makes Lolita such a disturbing read.

    Very, very few of us, thank goodness, would ever abduct and rape an adoptive daughter for two years.  But many more of us are likely, at least at some point, to deny the reality of another person in some way.  The father who expects his son to enjoy football when he clearly prefers books, or the girlfriend who thinks her boyfriend just has to enjoy something – these are both examples of forgetting and denying that other people are really real.  Independent entities with their own natures.

    The pejorative “thoughtless” is the perfect word for this.  The unwillingness to think and understand what someone else really is, is the foundation of all cruelty and evil.  A while back there was one of those stupid spats about the comic “Tintin in the Congo”, where everyone involved was missing the point.  The whole argument was over whether or not the book was “offensive”.  Well, yes.  Depicting Africans as golliwogs with lines like “By my ancestors, me myself kill miserable white man” probably is ‘offensive’.  It also completely misses the point, which was only accidentally stumbled across by one of the books defenders.

    Quoting from Wikipedia:

     Similarly, Tintinologist Jean-Marie Apostolidès maintained that Hergé was not intentionally racist, but that he portrayed the Congolese as being like children, displaying friendliness, naivety, cowardice, and laziness

    And that is what is wrong with it.  The evil of racism isn’t “hate” – another stupid word – but dehumanization.  In the same way that Humbert Humbert imagining Dolores as a perfect, princess, beautiful nymphet allows him to rape and torture, the vision of the Congolese as somewhat childish, good-natured little folk who can be a bit silly at times, was exactly what allowed Herge’s fellow Belgians to kill eight million Congolese.

    Has that attitude vanished?  Listen to the sort of stuff coming out of the “Live Aid” windbags and the fact that no one is willing to speak about what the UN gets up to in that part of the world.

    It is a constant effort to keep yourself constantly at full rationality, to try to always see what is there rather than what you would prefer there to be.  But it is the foundation of all morality, and something we must not avoid.  In this rather difficult task, it is nice to be able to get a bit of help from a charming old entomologist, and if I’ve succeeded in convincing at least some of you to give him a try, this post will have been worth it.  Start with Pale Fire.  In remembering your own reality, I will limit myself to saying, you probably won’t regret it.

    Category: Life and Reason

    Article by: The Prussian

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    • I liked this article. It’s a thought provoking one. No I’ve got Nabokov on my to-read list, which keeps getting bigger and bigger.

      Thank you!

    • Pingback: Leaving the circle | The Prussian()

    • Goosebumps

      Came here from your latest post. Both were great to read!

      Am I correct in saying that this post deals only with non-psychopathic evil? There are people who derive pleasure from others’ pain, and they must be in a different category. But to not be a psychopath and still perpetuate suffering must require a denial of reality, I suppose.

      I completely agree that the essence of why racism is evil is the dehumanization. I’m just wondering, though, how steretyping a people as good-natured and childish can lead to genocide. The Nazis believed that the Jews were conspiring to keep the Aryans down. The Communists told themselves that the bourgeois class was oppressing the proletariat (sorry if I’ve used wrong terminology here, too lazy to check, you get the picture). Both these movements killed millions and both demonized their victims as oppressors. How do the Belgians’ atrocities in the Congo follow naturally from their picture of the Congolese? Was it just a case of a superiority complex? There have of course been genocides in history motivated by such a feeling, the Arab genocide of black peoples in the Sudan being the most recent. But it didn’t seem like that was what you were saying.

      • ThePrussian

        Question: what is the difference between a pet and vermin? Only the whim of the owner. When you have defined a people as nonhuman, even if you define them positively, you have put into place the most basic requirement for extermination.