A Disagreement on Nabokov

by Michael Potemra

Yesterday I posted a reflection on some theological issues raised by Boswell’s anecdote about Dr. Johnson and his cat. In the comment box, a writer using the handle “Bill Adams” claims that I misunderstood both the anecdote and Nabokov’s use of it; he says that Johnson was not actually claiming that someone was going around shooting cats, but indulging in hyperbole, and that by quoting Johnson’s “Hodge shall not be shot,” Nabokov was therefore making a point about the power of literature to create real sympathy for characters in unreal situations.

In my view, Bill Adams’s analysis has two things going for it. First, Boswell refers to Johnson’s account as “ludicrous.” Second, Pale Fire is indeed a book about how fictions can overtake reality; the title is itself a quote from Shakespeare, in which the moon is described as an “arrant thief” whose “pale fire” is a mere reflection of the light of the sun. It glows with a light that is not its own, but we admire the glow anyway.

Neither of these is dispositive, of course. Referring to an event as “ludicrous” or “absurd” does not mean it didn’t really happen. (Proof: The content of the sentence “Chief Justice John Roberts opposed the Court’s four conservatives and declared Obamacare constitutional” can reasonably be described as ludicrous or absurd. And yet the sentence is factually accurate.) And the fact that Pale Fire is a novel about novels does not mean that it is not also, and more importantly, a novel about real things.

Mr. Adams concedes much of the latter point, and says he agrees with some of what I wrote even while questioning my premise. Perhaps he is right about Johnson and the cat-shooter? In any case, I thank him for the post, and recommend that anyone interested in these matters read his comment.

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