Aristotle and Nabokov: Salman Mohtadi’s thoughts
In Good Readers and Good Writers, Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov outlines the way a reader must approach a literary work, and what characteristics must it have in order to become a masterpiece. Although some of his concepts overlap Aristotelian ideas on art, such as art being a catalyst of catharsis, he challenges Aristotle’s idea of holism by stating art is mixture of chaotic pieces interwoven together by the artist, points out art is not an imitation of reality, as Aristotle argued, but an invention of it; and while Aristotle claimed art creates a relationship between the reader and the writer through which emotions such as fear and pity interact with each other, Nabokov contends the first, in order to fully grasp the latter’s world, must stay aloof, or detached from his heart and emotions.
Nabokov argues that a work of art consists of fragments of the artist’s imagination harmoniously sorted out by him. This idea contrasts Aristotle’s holistic concept in which art is an imitation of an action as a whole. Nabokov states: “The material of this world may be real enough but does not exist at all as an existing entirety: it is chaos, and to this chaos the author says ‘go!’ allowing the world to flicker and to fuse” (632). Aristotle held that a story must be a copy of a complete and full action, and defined that action as that which has a beginning, middle, and end (30). There is no chaos, nothing out of order, in Aristotle’s definition of a story. Therefore its materials, actions and everything within it must exist as an entirety and not as existing random pieces fused together.
Aristotle’s definition of a story also contrasts Nabokov’s description in that one is about imitating while the other consists of creating. Nabokov states that a masterpiece is a great fairy tale in which “Time and space, the colors of seasons, the movements of muscles and minds… [all are] for writers of genius” (632). That is, the whole world is not an imitation of reality but a reflection of the artist’s imagination who is the master of the universe he creates since it is he who sets the setting –the time and space- in a story, portrays a landscape never seen or descriptions only imagined. For instance, an artist who tells a story about his character’s encounter with a wolf even though the action never happened, creates a world and describes the beast’s movements and ferocious teeth in order for the receptor to understand and immerse himself in that imaginative place. On the other hand in Aristotle’s world time and space are components the author does not create but simulates from reality and the closest that simulation is from reality the better the quality of the work and the more it engages with the audience.
Furthermore, Nabokov points out the reader must stay detached. He must not read with his heart and mind but join reason and art together to enjoy and take pleasure of the work of art (635). For Aristotle there is no particular detachment. Art is a means through which an emotional relationship between the artist and the receptor is established where the first transmits fear to the audience and the latter shows its pity, and it is in this way that the viewer takes pleasure in the work of art. Therefore, although both agree that art is a creation, whether an imitation of reality or a reflection of one’s imagination, and that it leads to an emotional catharsis which eventually leads to pleasure and delight, the way each lead to it differs.
Good Readers and Good Writers is a description of Nabokov’s point of view of art as an invention of an artist who links to his imagination to create a world, and also his perspective about how art should be viewed. Though it contrasts to Aristotle’s concepts of holism, imitation, and attachment of the viewer to the artist, it coincides on arts final goal to provoke catharsis and delight to the viewer.
Brereton, John C., and Peterson, Linda H. The Norton Reader an Anthology of Nonfiction.
New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008. Print.
Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. Joe Sachs. Newburyport, Massachusetts: R. Pullins Company, 2006.