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One Brilliant Passage From Pale Fire

Pale Fire is no doubt a strange book that’s guided by a strange man–the main character John Kinbote. He’s crazy, literally.

But like many crazy people, he has moments of genius. As the reader, you really have to be prepared for that with this novel. Kinbote is one of the most unreliable narrators you’ll ever read, and Nabokov does an outstanding job of mixing insanity and unreliability with genius and profound wisdom.

This passage describes an assassin named Gradus–who has been hired to assassinate the King of Zembla. Yeah, I don’t have time to really explain that right now, so just go with me here.

Anyway, here’s how Kinbote describe this assassin.

One essential dislike, formidable in its simplicity, pervaded his dull soul: he disliked justice and deception. He disliked their union–they were always together–with a wooden passion that neither had, nor needed, words to express itself. Such a dislike should have deserved praise had it not been a by-product of the man’s hopeless stupidity. He called unjust and deceitful everything that surpassed his understanding. He worshiped general ideas and did so with pedantic aplomb. The generality was the godly, the specific diabolical. If one person was poor and the other wealthy it did not matter what precisely had ruined one or made the other rich; the difference itself was unfair, and the poor man who did not denounce it was wicked as the rich one who ignored it. People who knew too much, scientists, writers, mathematicians, crystalographers and so forth, were no better than kings and priests: they all held an unfair share of power of which others were cheated.

I love Kinbote’s wording in that passage. He takes a thought–generalizations are stupid–and carries it to the next level.

In American culture (I can’t speak to other cultures), we’re quick to judge both rich and poor for different reasons. With the rich, we presume they are evil and greedy and stepped all over people to get where they are–which is an awful generalization. And with the poor, we presume that they don’t work and mooch off the government and are lazy–and that’s another terrible generalization as well.

Through Kinbote, Nabokov perfectly describes our tendency to generalize–we generalize because we’re ignorant. We don’t understand the specifics of everyone’s situation, so we default to whatever we grew up thinking or whatever we’ve been told is the right way to view an entire class or segment of people. As Kinbote says, “He called unjust and deceitful everything that surpassed his understanding.” So true.

Another great example of how fiction can open your eyes and teach. If you don’t think you can learn from reading fiction, then you’re reading the wrong fiction.

Profound stuff in that passage.

My Pale Fire review is coming next week.

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11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Curiously, I read that passage many years ago and immediately thought of the American liberal, his tendency to disregard the merits of the successful enterpreneur and instead vilify and envy him, his assumption that the economy is a zero sum game so that no one succeeds without someone else having suffered, the principle that equality of results trumps any other concern so that one must ignore the individual choices of the participants which lead to the corresponding consequences and instead demand a redistribution of the prizes.

    Like

    January 24, 2013
    • I don’t want to turn this political, but I guess I opened up that possibility. I see both the liberal and the Tea Partyish right winger in that passage. Both generalize and make assumptions out of “hopeless stupidity,” as Kinbote might say. They don’t trust what they don’t understand so they automatically assume the worst.

      Like

      January 24, 2013
  2. So very powerful. Thanks Robert 😉

    Like

    January 24, 2013
  3. Hence the utmost importance of a well-rounded education, involving more than books. Learning about and knowing the “other.” Becoming friends with “the other.” Finding out that you do, indeed, share common ground—and those commonalities are rendered in the specific.

    You can also apply this to writing: a writer must be concerned with the specific, leaving the generalities at the door.

    Like

    January 24, 2013
    • Great point about writing. Very true.

      Like

      January 25, 2013
  4. ifnotread #

    Thank you sharing this – incredible stuff! “The generality was the godly, the specific diabolical” – indeed.

    Like

    January 24, 2013
  5. Thanks for sharing that specific example of the use of generalities. Diving into the wreck of the text provides us with a specificity lacking in a general statement about a text without evidence. As to what is being said in the passage, it occurs to me that language is so slippery, between what a person thinks she is saying, what is said, what the audience expects to hear, the cultural and experiential uniqueness of the audience member, and what is understood by the audience from the words used, that the prejudicial perspectives of which Kinbot rants may simply represent an inability to be specific even with specific examples on specific subjects. Some of the reader comments above speak directly to this. Are not the terms justice and deception inexpressibly subjective terms? If so, how does one hate the vague? How does one apply specific emotion to generalities and then rail against the general? Says much of the character Kinbot and Nabokov’s often bleak outlook for humanity.

    Like

    January 24, 2013
  6. I just read a lot about this book in another book–I already had it on my TBR list, but now I think I’ll read it sooner than I planned.

    Like

    January 25, 2013
    • Don’t expect it to be quite as powerful as that passage. It’s definitely an unusual book that you have to settle into.

      Like

      January 25, 2013
      • It’s the whole premise that has me intrigued.

        Like

        January 25, 2013

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  1. Book #52: Pale Fire | 101 Books

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