carlos rojas

naked gaze 肉眼


Cultural Critique
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May 19, 2006



Nabokov's precision had other sources, his Russian poetry not being the least of these, and his scientific interests such as lepidoptery ("... the passion of the scientist, the precision of the artist ..."); his exposure to English (and French)was also early, via governesses ... Conrad may be a better instance, having truly picked up English as a second language in his 20's.


A lovely discussion about immigrant hyper-orthodoxies--a subject very much on my mind these days. I like your use of Li Yongping and Nabokov as examples, though in _Speak, Memory_ Nabokov does claim somewhat perversely that his first language was English (thanks to a British governess, a "languid and melancholic" Miss Norcott). This, of course, comes from the same memoir that the author describes as a "re-Englishing of a Russian re-version of what had been an English re-telling of Russian memories in the first place...” Certainly we have been properly warned not to take him too much at his (at the very least mono-linguistic) word.
And of course there is no better instance of the not-my-native-tongue in-your-face bravado (the rhetorical equivalent of 'whatever fred can do, ginger can do in three-inch heels and backwards') than in Nabokov's famous postface to _Lolita_: “My private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern, is that I had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses—the baffling mirror, the black velvet backdrop, the implied associations and traditions—which the native illusionist, frac-tails flying, can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way.”
I think that in _Akeelah and the Bee_, only Javier engages in this sort of language play, and this fact already marks him as quite different from the usual sort of spelling bee finalist (at least as seen in _Spellbound_), and one could argue, from the usual sort of stereotype of the 'ethnic' writer. Dylan and Akeelah are both deadly serious: in different ways (though interestingly enough filial piety figures largely in both their stories--another familiar minority/immigrant narrative trope, of course!) the stakes are too high for them to 'play' at language. We don't know what Dylan's father does, but he has an accent, seems waaaay too invested in his son's success, and as Dylan says, "has never won a thing in his life"; Akeelah's father was a too-young victim of a drive-by shooting. Whereas Javier's father, we are told, is "a journalist who has written several books"--which have obviously done well, judging by their beautiful spread in the suburbs. Might the contrast between minority hyper-correctness and Nabokovian multilinguistic play lie in that difference? Immigrant or emigré--that is the question.


Thanks, nnyhav and eileen for your comments.
Thanks nnyhav for the suggestion about Conrad. Regarding Nabokov, however, I have a couple of responses.

First, your point that Nabokov's linguistic precision was overdetermined is a good one (and, indeed, he apparently took great pride in the precision of his Russian as well). My comparison of Nabokov to Li Yongping (who does indeed write in his first language), however, made clear that my point here was not specifically premised strictly on linguistic alienation per se.

Second, the question of Nabokov's primary language is hardly straightforward. While it is true that he started learning English (and French) early, he didn't start writing fiction in English until his late 30s. Furthermore, his comments about writing in English (including the wonderfully ironic remark Eileen quotes from the postface to Lolita--in which his own use of English deliberately flaunts the points he is ostensibly making about it) suggest that his relationship to the language (and, indeed, to language in general) was far from simple.

And eileen, thank you for the wonderful comments about both Nabokov and Akeelah. I am intrigued by the distinction you suggest between hyper-correctness and "multilinguistic play." I had originally tried to suggest that the two can easily come full circle with each other, but perhaps you are correct that there are important differences of emphasis between the two. (Regarding the actual film, however, I would suggest that Akeelah is actually quite playful in her use of language--representing perhaps a synthesis of Dylan's seriousness and Javier's playfulness).


Yes, Nabokov's relationship to language was complex. Particularly with idiom and proverb. Too complex to serve your point, I think (his productive disruption was exile; he did not assimilate in Berlin, never mastering German), though it does circle back to that creative misuse of language, albeit by a longer way round.

Via, PoetryLondon reverses the field.


Regarding Nabokov, I would simply like to clarify that I am not speaking here about strict linguistic competency, but rather the ways in which attitudes toward language usage are inflected by, and overlap with, an array of cultural, national, and ethnic connotations (and, regardless of how one reads N's various comments on language, it is clear that English carried varied different connotations for him than did his ostensible "mother tongue," Russian. Indeed, all of the examples I cite in my post (including not only Nabokov, but also Li Yongping, the three fictional protagonists of Akeelah and the Bee, and even the children in Lisaux's study) were either native speakers of the languages in question, or learned them at a very young age (all of the children in Lisaux's study were between 5 and 7 years old, and therefore well within the window allowing them to attain native fluency in their new language).

Thank you, also, for the Poetry London link. The comments are very interesting (my friend Eric Hayot has written an excellent book on related issues: Chinese Dreams: Pound, Brecht, Tel Quel. Indeed, these discussions of attitudes towards Chinese characters illustrate particularly clearly the ways in which language itself is inevitably bound up with a a complicated nexus of cultural and ethnic connotations.


Sorry, I don't mean to seem disputatious. What I was trying to get at was that N. strikes me as too extreme (eg in his command of both English and Russian) to be an exemplar of what you describe. Language acquisition I don't know much about, Nabokov, about as much as one can without having Russian. (If it's not too far offtopic, one thing that drew me in was a coincidence: the rhesus/Reese's plays against a rhizome/rissole bit of fun in recent Clive James on ADHope, who in turn was close to an Ern Malley perpetrator. But I digress. As is my wont.)

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