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    Mimetopia and the illusion of meaning in Nabokov’s "Invitation to a Beheading", part 2

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    • 07/02/2010

    (Continued from Part 1...)

    Cincinnatus, at the end of his tether, begins to understand his circumstances for what they are. He recognises the theatricality around him, he understands that "... everything has duped me..." With this, comes the realisation of his own tragic complicity in the whole performance:

    This is the dead end of my life, and I should not have sought salvation within its confines. It is strange that I should have sought salvation...I have discovered the little crack in life, here it broke off, where it had once been soldered to something else...

    The world around him now has become for him what he has suspected all along, something has been put together, soldered to something else, a makeshift performance, where nothing is real, but where everything fixes, everything spells death. How does language operate in such a parodied world? How can anything that is written, how can the word, be trusted?

    ... how capacious my epithets must be in order that I may pour them full of crystalline sense … it is best to leave some things unsaid, or else I shall get confused again. Within this irreparable little crack decay has set in – ah, I think I shall yet be able to express it all – the dreams, the coalescence, the disintegration – no, again I am off the track – all my best words are deserters and do not answer the trumpet call, and the remainder are cripples. (117)

    They cannot be trusted. They desert him, or else they are maimed. Silence, then, a hidden language that must sit snugly in the little crack he has discovered, a crack that is at the same time a violent site of conflict and a syncopated world of meaning. He adds: "Everything I have written here so far is only the froth of my excitement, a senseless transport..." (118) His writing, his inscription must go beyond mere representation. It must go beyond the discourse of the everyday; it must move itself into what Delalande would call "Discours sur les ombres (Discourse on the Shadows)." (119)

    There is a second condition. The abyss is that which contains nothing and everything. Distinctions between objects disappear in this space where there are no gods, no idols. It is a vortex that quells its thirst for creation by devouring all that already is. Cincinnatus writes for this reason. Yet, as we have seen, his words are, in his own words, deserters and cripples, forming only the froth of the excitement. In order for his words to have any use, they need to move across a vast site of perception, to be transported to a place where the work can be engendered, or tempered. The first step in this process is the presence of the reader.

    Cincinnatus has already expressed the notion of someone who will one day read his words an d who would feel he ha awakened for the first time. His is a revelatory work, but revelation require audience. Therefore, now that he is at the end of the line, he beseeches whoever cares to listen:

    Save these jottings – I do not know whom I ask, but save these jottings ... let them lie around for awhile – how can that hurt you – my last wish – how can you not grant it? I must have at least the theoretical possibility of having a reader, otherwise, really, I might as well tear it all up. (120)

    The reader, co-conspirator, a double of sorts must be present in order for Cincinnatus to walk freely toward his mortal hour. The meaning of the work lies, then, not in the distance between reader and writer, but between reader and the work, for long after Cincinnatus has slipped into the chink, the crack, the work will still live under the treatment of the reader. Cincinnatus’ words reverberate in Kafka’s with the undertone of Samsa’s double:

    ... I shall lie very contentedly on my deathbed, provided the pain isn’t too great….the best things I have written have their basis in this capacity of mine to meet death with contentment. …indeed in the death enacted I rejoice in my own death, hence calculatingly exploit the attention that the reader concentrates on death... (121)

    "(T)he capacity of mine to meet death with contentment" implies that ties with the world have been severed. He is already dead (122), a stone. However, this contentment, this rejoicing over the enacted death of the character, is never complete unless Kafka is allowed "the theoretical possibility of having a reader". This exile in death is linked to writing. In other words, Kafka writes in order to die. Cincinnatus by the end of the novel has begun to see and accept this preposterous proposition. Preposterous though it is, once he has allowed himself the possibility that someone will read his words, he is willing to subject himself to the farce that has been his whole imprisonment. He does so to force a separation, a separation that will finally sever all ties with the material world. Kafka, too, says, "I shun people not because I want to live quietly, but rather because I want to die quietly." (123)

    Kafka’s quietude is a desire to become nothing, to die anonymously, to pass into the ether of things without a trace through writing. Through writing, one is ultimately also written. To rejoice of one’s own dying through the enactment of the death of a character, to see your own death in someone else’s is not only to effect a negation of one’s self, but also to be re-written in the form of a text. To enjoy your death seen through another’s death, that is, to die as a character in the eyes of a reader – is to enter the abyss, to become legend, to become ether, to transcend the trappings of the material world. By dying through his characters Kafka dies endlessly, but he is also resurrected endlessly. In short, to rejoice in another’s death as one’s own is to immerse oneself in the text, which is the anonymous abyss where only voices speak, and faces are unseen, like Cincinnatus’ father who leaves nothing but the trace of his voice and his essential quality. He has no face. His face is every face.

    Kafka is resurrected in each of his texts – the inmate of In the Penal Colony (124) is Kafka: society writes its demands on the inmate as does the attractive human world on Kafka; Gregor Samsa’s predicament is Kafka’s, for the latter, too, is hounded by societal requierement to be useful. The creature in The Burrow (125) who designs his grand structure but who is still filled with doubt about its efficacy and usefulness is Kafka; Joseph K. believes he can understand and function in the world based on his own system of values. His tragedy is Kafka’s tragedy – he does not realise that he can only do so if he fully embraces the human world; K secures a highly sought-after interview in The Castle (126) yet throws away the opportunity. He vacillates in dissatisfaction – all this is Kafka. All this is the abyss. To become a character in his own texts is to rise above the material. This is the motive behind Kafka’s rejoicing.

    It is for this reason that Cincinnatus can say, as his jailers arrive at the cell to take him, in an horse-drawn carriage, to his execution,

    I ask three minutes – go away for that time or at least be quiet – yes, a three-minute intermission – after that, so be it. I’ll act to the end my role in your idiotic production. (127)

    A three-minute intermission in a matinee. Cincinnatus has finally seen through the whole affair, and his own part in it. He gives himself over to the theatricality of the material world. He embraces the value system in order to overcome it, as Joseph K does not do. "I’ll act to the end." He has been nothing but a character in an "idiotic production". An idiot’s tale within which Cincinnatus is merely "a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage". (128) He embraces his fictionalising and rejoices in his death.

    This realisation has come after he has written his very last words.

    Everything that I have written here so far is only the froth of my excitement, a senseless transport, for the very reason that I have been in such a hurry. But now, when I am hardened, when I am almost fearless of...

    At this point, he runs out of paper, but manages to find one more sheet and completes the sentence with the word "death", which he immediately crosses out thinking he must say it with greater precision. A single word sits on a blank page. "Death." It is crossed out. DeathDeath.

    The very first words he writes down in his cell are these: "In spite of everything I am comparatively. After all I had premonitions, premonitions of this finale." (129) These words are crossed out as well. "I am." The imperative, to be. An affirmation of life, which he crosses out, nullifying that affirmation. It is a life that isn’t. He sees nothing ahead of him, except death. Now, though, at the end of his life, when he confronts death head on, the affirmation of death he nullifies in a similar manner. What does he see in its stead? Precisely that chink, that crack, the syncope. The written word fixes, cuts off the sentient centres that do not fall within the space of a word. That is how he recognises that some things must be left unsaid. (130) There is no death, no dying, if he rejoices in the death of the other, the death of one of the cast of stage characters that he essentially is. Like Kafka, who rejoices in his death in the death of his characters, Cincinnatus C. must rely on the theoretical possibility of a reader in order to rejoice in his own dying in the death of the literary figure of Cincinnatus.

    However, despite this realisation, despite the intimation of a freedom that is already within his grasp, he cannot shake off the fear of the idea of his head being hacked off. He understands that the wave of sickness that followed the thought of his decapitation was drawing him "into a system that was perilous to him." Yet, he can do nothing to stave off the system. He recognises that he is caught in a world of unreality, and that he is headed for a world which will transcend all this. Yet, "the sun was still realistic, the world still held together, objects still observed an outward propriety." (131)

    Cincinnatus is made to lie on the block. He is positioned to meet the down-swinging axe. It is at this point of being executed, like a word that quells all competing forces of meaning so that only one victor remains, at this point where Cincinnatus can just make out the threshold to some hidden space of release, He discovers the hidden mystic inscription:

    ... one Cincinnatus was counting, but the other Cincinnatus had already stopped heeding the sound of the unnecessary count which was fading away in the distance; and, with a clarity he had never experienced before – at first almost painful, so suddenly did it come, but then suffusing him with joy, he reflected: why am I here? Why am I lying like this? And, having asked himself these simple questions, he answered them by getting up and looking around. (132)

    He rejoices in his death, the death of the other, and walks away from the scene that is now collapsing, disintegrating all around him. He senses voices, like that of his father, like that of characters on a page, that are akin to him, and in that direction he walks, and exits the stage production of Mimetopia.

    Cincinnatus’ anonymity is achieved, not from shunning the world completely. The world, to be sure, is seamless, like the endless tapestries of the Gods. Yet, Cincinnatus, like Gregor Samsa, like the Woolfian narrator, like Kafka, has discovered certain omissions within the fabric of language, the language we must all speak in order to be. That omission, the distance between the structure of this language and the apprehended world forms the concentration of ambiguity. However, in order to gain access to this centre of ambiguity, one must be of the world in order to die with the world. In other words, the world, which consists of a language that seeks to define and fix, is already a world that is dead, inasmuch as it believes in its own facticity and truth. The beyond, contained in a crack, is always already the abyss, the outside that speaks, that dies and is always dying, but which must be resurrected in order to die repeatedly. This circularity, like an undercurrent that is always flowing just under the skin of language is where Cincinnatus disappears. He becomes the abyss, not by challenging the world, but by being of it in order to discover the chink within which the voice of his father and the voices of those other literary figures resonate.

    Literature, therefore, is this abyss, this anonymous, absent, omitted language that resounds like an invisible inscription, a trace that forces its way to the Outside of fixity and definition. Cincinnatus’ jottings have been saved, and we read them as a text from cover to cover. Who has written the text? Which cincinnatus has written it? Is it the one who was unnecessarily counting to ten, or the one who had managed to move the unmovable table in the cell and who had dissembled himself, skullcap included? What we are left with these musings is not a fixity or definition, but merely a trace of voices. They are all that remain of the text, of Literature, from which nothing is graspable, but from which everything is discernible.



    (1) Michel Foucault, Aesthetics, trans. Robert Hurley and Others, Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, ed. Paul Rabinow, 1st ed., vol. 2, 4 vols. (London: Penguin Books, 1998). 148

    (2) Foucault, Aesthetics. 149

    (3) Foucault, Aesthetics. 154

    (4) Foucault defines ‘attraction’ in his essay The Thought of the Outside (Essential Works, Vol.1): "To be attracted is not to be beckoned by the allure of the exterior, rather, it is to suffer – in emptiness and destitution – the presence of the outside and, tied to that presence, the fact that one is irremediably outside the outside (154)." Attraction, therefore, is not a positive movement toward something, but an undeniable condition, a burdensome, existential relation similar to the relation between an unsupported stone and the ground.

    (5) Samuel Beckett, Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose 1929-1989, ed. S.E. Gontarski (New York: Grove Press, 19995). 109

    (6) Foucault, Aesthetics. 206

    (7) Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillain C. Gill (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985). 347

    (8) Foucault, Aesthetics. 157-8

    (9) Plato, The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee, vol. Part vii (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1955). 316-25

    (10) Maurice Blanchot, The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).

    (11) Vladimir Nabokov, Invitation to a Beheading (Harmondsworth, Middlesex and New York: Penguin Books, 1983).

    (12) Nabokov, Invitation. 21

    (13) Nabokov, Invitation. 21

    (14) Nabokov, Invitation. 191

    (15) Nabokov, Invitation. 78

    (16) Nabokov, Invitation. 77

    (17) Nabokov, Invitation. 77

    (18) Nabokov, Invitation. 76

    (19) Foucault, Aesthetics. 157-8

    (20) Nabokov, Invitation. 27.

    (21) Nabokov, Invitation. 27

    (22) Nabokov, Invitation. 27; (italics my emphasis)

    (23) Nabokov, Invitation. 27

    (24) Nabokov, Invitation. 21

    (25) Nabokov, Invitation. 38

    (26) Nabokov, Invitation. 47

    (27) Timothy Langen, "The Ins and Outs of Invitation to a Beheading," Nabokov Studies 8 (2004). 62

    (28) Nabokov, Invitation. 11

    (29) Nabokov, Invitation. 12

    (30) Dana Dragunoiu, "Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading and the Russian Radical Tradition," Journal of Modern Literature XXV.1 (2001). 56

    (31) Nabokov, Invitation. 129

    (32) Nabokov, Invitation. 130

    (33) Nabokov, Invitation. 131

    (34) Dragunoiu, "Nabokov's Invitation." 56

    (35) Dragunoiu, "Nabokov's Invitation." 54

    (36) Nabokov, Invitation. 61

    (37) Dragunoiu, "Nabokov's Invitation." 56

    (38) In all four dystopias, the illegality of the ‘soul’ as a spiritual element in the make up of the individual body and the body of the social is manifest in the ostracising of writing, that which calls to existence what is inadmissible in a materialist monism. We shall come back to this at a later stage.

    (39) Nabokov, Invitation. 27

    (40) Langen, "Ins and Outs." 61

    (41) Foucault, Aesthetics. 177

    (42) Nabokov, Invitation. 150

    (43) Nabokov, Invitation. 69

    (44) Nabokov, Invitation. 78

    (45) Nabokov, Invitation. 19 (italics my emphasis)

    (46) Nabokov, Invitation. 34

    (47) Nabokov, Invitation. 34; (italics my emphasis)

    (48) His beheading has already been scripted. The performance, that is, the court hearing, the incarceration, the whole comic episode with M’sieur Pierre, the spider in the cell, the apparent goodwill of his jailers, and so on, is put on merely to provide the already determined ending with a narrative continuity – C is imprisoned; Pierre masquerading as a fellow-inmate befriends him in an attempt to become his brother or double; When thus conjoined, both executioner and prisoner can truly become one when axe meets neck.

    (49) Nabokov, Invitation. 60

    (50) Nabokov, Invitation. 31-2

    (51) Foucault, Aesthetics. 178

    (52) Julian W. Connolly, Nabokov's Early Fiction: Patterns of Self and the Other, Cambridge Studies in Russian Literature, ed. Malcolm Jones (Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh: Cambridge University Press, 19992). 167

    (53) Nabokov, Invitation. 102

    (54) Nabokov, Invitation. 78

    (55) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). 142

    (56) Nietzsche, Birth. 143

    (57) Nietzsche, Birth. 149

    (58) Nietzsche, Birth. 146

    (59) Nabokov, Invitation. 21

    (60) Nabokov, Invitation. 23

    (61) Nabokov, Invitation. 24

    (62) Nabokov, Invitation. 29

    (63) Nabokov, Invitation. 27; (italics my emphasis)

    (64) Sigmund Freud, Collected Papers Volume 5, ed. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press, 1971). 175-180

    (65) Nabokov, Invitation. 191

    (66) Blanchot, Space. 44

    (67) Virginia Woolf, A Haunted House: The Complete Shorter Fiction (London: Vintage, 2003). 77-83

    (68) Woolf, Haunted House. 77

    (69) Woolf, Haunted House. 77

    (70) Woolf, Haunted House. 80

    (71) Nietzsche, Birth. 144

    (72) Woolf, Haunted House. 81

    (73) Woolf, Haunted House. 81 (italics my emphasis)

    (74) Foucault, Aesthetics. 74

    (75) Woolf, Haunted House. 83 (italics my emphasis)

    (76) Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1988). 11

    (77) de Certeau, Everyday Life. 17

    (78) Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978). 11

    (79) Nabokov, Invitation. 12 (Italics my emphasis)

    (80) Nabokov, Invitation. 33

    (81) Nabokov, Invitation. 27

    (82) Nabokov, Invitation. 29

    (83) Nabokov, Invitation. 41

    (84) Nabokov, Invitation. 104

    (85) Robert Alter, "Invitation to a Beheading: Nabokov and the Art of Politics," Nabokov: Criticism, Reminiscences, Translations and Tributes, ed. Alfred Appel, Jr., and Charles Newman (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971). 54

    (86) Nabokov, Invitation. 44

    (87) Connolly, Early Fiction. 173

    (88) Nabokov, Invitation. 45

    (89) Franz Kafka, The Diaries 1910-1923, trans. Martin Greenberg and Hannah Arendt, ed. Max Brod (New York: Schoken Books, 1976). 295

    (90) Kafka, Diaries. 409

    (91) Kafka, Diaries. 302 (italics my emphasis)

    (92) Franz Kafka, Collected Stories, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (New York, London, Toronto: Everyman's Library, 1993). 75-128

    (93) Kafka, Stories. 77 (italics my emphasis)

    (94) Nabokov, Invitation. 22

    (95) Franz Kafka, The Blue Octavo Notebooks, trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins, ed. Max Brod (Cambridge: Exact Change, 1991). 1

    (96) Kafka, Stories. 85 (italics my emphasis)

    (97) Connolly, Early Fiction. 174

    (98) Nabokov, Invitation. 80

    (99) G.M. Hyde, Vladimir Nabokov: America's Russian Writer (London: Marion Boyars Pulbishers, 1977). 134

    (100) Nabokov, Invitation. 81 (italics my emphasis)

    (101) Nabokov, Invitation. 81

    (102) Hyde, Nabokov. 140

    (103) Blanchot, Space. 44

    (104) Kafka, Diaries. 134 (italics my emphasis)

    (105) Connolly, Early Fiction. 175

    (106) Nabokov, Invitation. 102 (italics my emphasis)

    (107) Nabokov, Invitation. 11

    (108) Nabokov, Invitation. 103

    (109) Nabokov, Invitation. 103

    (110) Nabokov, Invitation. 118

    (111) Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. Maria Jolas, 1994 ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994). 47

    (112) Kafka, Notebooks. 1

    (113) Nabokov, Invitation. 112

    (114) Nabokov, Invitation. 116

    (115) Nabokov, Invitation. 180

    (116) Nabokov, Invitation. 181

    (117) Nabokov, Invitation. 175

    (118) Nabokov, Invitation. 176

    (119) Nabokov states in his Forward that "the only author that I must gratefully recognise as an influence upon me at the time of writing this book", is Pierre Delalande. A quote from Delalande’s book, Discours sur les ombres, serves as the epigraph to Invitation: "Comme un fou se croit Dieu, nous nous croyons mortels" (As the insane believes in God, we believe we are mortals.). Delalande is a spectre, a Nabokovian invention.

    (120) Nabokov, Invitation. 165 (italics my emphasis)

    (121) Kafka, Diaries. 321

    (122) Blanchot, Space. 92

    (123) Kafka, Diaries. 295

    (124) Kafka, Stories. 131-160

    (125) Kafka, Stories. 467-503

    (126) Franz Kafka, The Castle, trans. Willa and Edwin Muir (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1957).

    (127) Nabokov, Invitation. 179

    (128) William Shakespeare, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994). 1076

    (129) Nabokov, Invitation. 12

    (130) Nabokov, Invitation. 175

    (131) Nabokov, Invitation. 183

    (132) Nabokov, Invitation. 191 (italics my emphasis)



    Alter, Robert. "Invitation to a Beheading: Nabokov and the Art of Politics." Nabokov: Criticism, Reminiscences, Translations and Tributes. Ed. Alfred Appel, Jr., and Charles Newman. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1971.

    Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. 1958. Trans. Maria Jolas. 1994 ed. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.

    Beckett, Samuel. Samuel Beckett: The Complete Short Prose 1929-1989. Ed. S.E. Gontarski. New York: Grove Press, 19995.

    Blanchot, Maurice. The Space of Literature. 1982. Trans. Ann Smock. Lincoln, London: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

    Connolly, Julian W. Nabokov's Early Fiction: Patterns of Self and the Other. Cambridge Studies in Russian Literature. Ed. Malcolm Jones. Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

    de Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1988.

    Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.

    Dragunoiu, Dana. "Vladimir Nabokov's Invitation to a Beheading and the Russian Radical Tradition." Journal of Modern Literature XXV.1 (2001): 53-68.

    Foucault, Michel. Aesthetics. Trans. Robert Hurley and Others. Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984. Ed. Paul Rabinow. 1st ed. Vol. 2. 4 vols. London: Penguin Books, 1998.

    Freud, Sigmund. Collected Papers Volume 5. Ed. James Strachey. London: The Hogarth Press, 1971.

    Hyde, G.M. Vladimir Nabokov: America's Russian Writer. London: Marion Boyars Pulbishers, 1977.

    Irigaray, Luce. Speculum of the Other Woman. Trans. Gillain C. Gill. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1985.

    Kafka, Franz. The Blue Octavo Notebooks. 1954. Trans. Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins. Ed. Max Brod. Cambridge: Exact Change, 1991.

    ---. The Castle. 1930. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1957.

    ---. Collected Stories. 1933. Trans. Willa and Edwin Muir. New York, London, Toronto: Everyman's Library, 1993.

    ---. The Diaries 1910-1923. Trans. Martin Greenberg and Hannah Arendt. Ed. Max Brod. New York: Schoken Books, 1976.

    Langen, Timothy. "The Ins and Outs of Invitation to a Beheading." Nabokov Studies 8 (2004): 59-70.

    Nabokov, Vladimir. Invitation to a Beheading. 1960. Harmondsworth, Middlesex and New York: Penguin Books, 1983.

    Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    Plato. The Republic. Trans. Desmond Lee. Vol. Part vii. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1955.

    Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Glasgow: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.

    Woolf, Virginia. A Haunted House: The Complete Shorter Fiction. London: Vintage, 2003

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