October 02, 2006

Literature and the Libido of the Lifelong Learner

As I was mulling over my recent reading last week, I bethought me of an interesting trend in the way a particular type of character is often portrayed which struck me as being worth a little extra thought. Not worthy of a major paper, perhaps, but more of a journal of sorts.

I've been reading some Nabokov lately, mostly during my break at work. I'm working on the third of his novels that I've picked up, and I've begun to notice a bit of a recurring theme which called to mind another of my favorite authors: Mervyn Peake.

I've written both frequently and at great length about the first Nabokov novel I read, Lolita, since I first encountered her a few years ago (most notably here). I'm not particularly interested in her right now, but in her revolting and sympathetic immortalizer, Humbert Humbert.

HH's career path is, essentially, "intellectual academic." He is a brilliant writer who falls back on teaching university courses when the creative well runs dry . . . or when it is too consumed with "extracurriculars" to be of any other use. By all accounts (well . . . at least, by his own account), Humbert is extremely smart, well-read, widely-traveled, a man of refined artistic tastes and delicate sensibilities, articulate, knowledgeable . . . and a pedophile and sexual predator.

He is not particularly ashamed of it (at least, for most of the novel), wandering easily into detailed descriptions of the exact numeric specifications that make up his tastes (age, build, size, personality, disposition, and so forth). His character seems to flow quite naturally from brilliant into deviant, with no marked contrast between these aspects of his personality.

The second Nabokov I picked up, fairly recently, is the lightly comical Pnin. A more different book from Lolita can hardly be said to exist. Timofey Pnin is the charming, bumbling antithesis of Humbert Humbert. He teaches a few extremely unpopular Russian courses, is widely lampooned by students and fellow faculty alike, and maintains his position at the University only through the benevolence of the head of the German department (under whose jurisdiction he somehow falls).

His English is abominable, his skill in the classroom dubious, and his skills outside the classroom virtually nonexistent. Timofey is extremely kindhearted, but intolerably timid and fussy (very like Mr. Norrell, in fact, although that is neither here nor there). He is also (of course) quite, quite impotent (sexually and in most other respects). He was married, decades earlier, to a mediocre poet named Liza who abandoned him for a mediocre psychologist (a profession which Nabokov particularly despised).

She returns, months later, pregnant and feigning reconciliation just long enough for the hapless Timofey to pay her passage to America, then revealing that she will be living there with the father of her child. Years later, she visits Timofey again to gouge money out of him for her son's education. She has him wrapped tightly around her little finger, but their relationship brings him nothing but pain in return. His subservient role in their relationship is quite possibly at the core of his lack of success and happiness.

And then, finally, there is Pale Fire . . . a very odd and interesting work indeed. I can't even pretend to come up with a brief and coherent summary of the book on my own, so I'll swipe one:

John Shade is a homebody poet in New Wye, U.S.A. He writes a 999-line poem about his life, and what may lie beyond death. This novel (and seldom has the word seemed so woefully inadequate) consists of both that poem and an extensive commentary on it by the poet's crazy neighbor, Charles Kinbote. According to this deranged annotator, he had urged Shade to write about his own homeland--the northern kingdom of Zembla. It soon becomes clear that this fabulous locale may well be a figment of Kinbote's colorfully cracked, prismatic imagination. Meanwhile, he manages to twist the poem into an account of Zembla's King Charles--whom he believes himself to be--and the monarch's eventual assassination by the revolutionary Jakob Gradus.

Charles Kinbote aka (maybe) Charles Xavier aka King Charles II is an even more difficult character to get at than Humbert Humbert. (Side note, in case you were wondering: Pale Fire (1962) came out the year before the first X-Men comic book (1963). I have no idea if Professor X's name owes anything to this book. I doubt it, but it does seem like a rather astounding coincidence.)

Anyway, putting aside all questions of whether Kinbote even exists, whether he is insane, whether he is hallucinatory, schizophrenic, and paranoid, whether the poet he idolizes exists, and so on . . . Putting all of that aside and taking Kinbote at face value (dangerous from a Nabokovian first-person at the best of times), what do we have?

An extremely obsessive academic (Professor of literature, actually); a compulsive liar; unbearably arrogant, sneeringly superior, pretentious (but then, he might be royalty, after all); and an unabashed sodomite to the most hedonistic degree, frequently indulging in oily digressions to drool over the lithe form of some young buck.

Humbert is certainly a slimier character than Kinbote, but Kinbote lacks Humbert's charisma. Poor Pnin is just pathetically pitiable.

In Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, there are a plethora of extra-special characters, but few are as special as the castle's professorial staff: Bellgrove, Cutflower, Perch-Prism, Opus Fluke, Throd, Shred, Shrivell, Splint, Spiregrain Flannelcat, and the rest. One of the most memorable and entertaining sequences in the novel (although it has little or nothing to do with any of the central plot threads) takes place when Irma Prunesquallor, Gormenghast's only eligible spinster, invites all of the professors to a party with the intention of marrying one of them.

The professors are immediately thrown far outside of their comfort zones at the prospect of encountering even one member of the opposite sex. No one knows quite how to react, but they all agree to go. The opening minutes of the party are excruciating, but it takes the reaction of one in particular to really freeze things over:

And it was then, at her third convulsive stride in the headmaster's direction that something happened which was not only embarassing but heart-rending in its simplicity, for a hoarse cry, out-topping the general cacophony, silenced the room and brought Irma to a standstill.

As every head was turned in the direction of the sound a movement became apparent in the same quarter where, from a group of professors, something appeared to be making its way toward its rigid hostess. Its face was flushed and its gestures so convulsive that it was not easy to realize that it was Professor Throd.

On sighting Irma, he had deserted his companions Splint and Spiregrain, and on obtaining a better view of his hostess had suffered a sensation that was in every way too violent, too fundamental, too electric for his small brain and body. A million volts ran through him, a million volts of stark infatuation.

He had seen no woman for thirty-seven years. He gulped her through his eyes as at some green oasis the thirst-tormented nomad gulps the wellhead. Unable to remember any female face, he took Irma's strange proportions and the cast of her features to be characteristic of femininity. And so, his conscious mind blotted out by the intensity of his reaction, he committed the unforgivable crime. He made his feelings public. He lost control. The blood rushed to his head; he cried out hoarsely, and then, little knowing what he was doing, he stumbled forwards, elbowing his colleagues from his path, and fell upon his knees before the lady, and finally, as though in a paroxysm, he collapsed upon his face, his arms and legs spread-eagled like a starfish.

While all of Throd's colleaugues and Dr. Prunesquallor gather around him an academic fascination, Headmaster Bellgrove moves in on Irma and whisks her out to the garden to woo her off her feet. Their dialogue is straight out of a third-rate melodrama . . . Naturally, since that is the closest either of them has ever been to genuine romance. In the midst of this, Prunesquallor manages to pull Throd out of his catatonic state and the professor makes a most undignified exit, streaking naked out the window, through the garden and over the wall, never to be seen again.

The point of all this (which I've been such a very long time getting to, I admit) is that the old "nerd" stereotypes from high school and beyond are carried one step further in literary circles. Academics don't get girls, either because they don't want them or because they simply can't. I found it very interesting that, over and over, I see academics in literature imbued with a somehow deviant or defective version of what is commonly viewed as the "normal" sex drive. I'm not entirely certain why this is, but it happens a lot.

A few other examples of this which come to mind: Cecil Vyse (A Room With a View), Frederick Chasuble (The Importance of Being Earnest), Quentine Compson (The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom). With a bit of reaching or speculation, I could spin out a couple dozen more candidates as well. Any thoughts (if you're still here)? Perhaps Wilson could ask that History of Sexuality chick what she thinks . . .

Posted by Jared at October 2, 2006 04:24 PM | TrackBack