Friday, March 12, 2010

corpses

nabokov butterfly svevo
I understand perfectly the compulsion some people have to drop everything and disappear. It's not so much about reinventing yourself as it is freeing yourself from the environment that causes you to identify who you are. As we grow older, we're constantly changing, constantly shedding previous versions of our selves. Physically, however, we will always be identifiable — our true changes will not register in this way. The sight of our face in the eyes of our friends and family will always bring up a long history that they'll use to give us our identity and personality. Even our name, mentioned by itself, is enough to bring up years of memories whose very existence make us feel like we belong to everyone we know in small, foggy puzzle pieces. After awhile we experience the feeling of dragging around 20 or 30 phantom corpses of our previous selves, versions we feel compelled to reanimate around old friends, parents, or people who knew us from a specific time in our past. It would be best to sever ties to these dead-selves at once, but we are extremely reluctant to do so because we feel that our friends and family will likely go with them.

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"My life could provide only a single note with no variation, fairly high and envied by some, but horribly tedious. Throughout my life my friends maintained the same opinion of me, and I believe that I, too, since arriving at the age of reason, have not much changed the notion I formed of myself.

The idea of marrying may therefore have come to me from the weariness of emitting and hearing always that one note. Those who have not yet experienced marriage believe it is more important than it is. The chosen companion will renew, improving or worsening, our breed by bearing children: Mother Nature wants this but cannot direct us openly, because at that time of life we haven't the slightest thought of children, so she induces us to believe that our wife will also bring about a renewal of ourselves: a curious illusion not confirmed by any text. In fact, we live then, one beside the other, unchanged, except for an acquired dislike of one so dissimilar to oneself or an envy of one who is our superior." —Svevo1, Zeno's Conscience

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"I have often noticed that we are inclined to endow our friends with the stability of type that literary characters acquire in the reader's mind. No matter how many times we reopen "King Lear," never shall we find the good king banging his tankard in high revelry, all woes forgotten, at a jolly reunion with all three daughters and their lapdogs. Never will Emma rally, revived by the sympathetic salts in Flaubert's father's timely tear. Whatever evolution this or that popular character has gone through between the book covers, his fate is fixed in our minds, and, similarly, we expect our friends to follow this or that logical and conventional pattern we have fixed for them. Thus X will never compose the immortal music that would clash with the second-rate symphonies he has accustomed us to. Y will never commit murder. Under no circumstances can Z ever betray us. We have it all arranged in our minds, and the less often we see a particular person, the more satisfying it is to check how obediently he conforms to our notion of him every time we hear of him. Any deviation in the fates we have ordained would strike us as not only anomalous but unethical. We would prefer not to have known at all our neighbor, the retired hot-dog stand operator, if it turns out he has just produced the greatest book of poetry his age has seen." —Nabokov2, Lolita






1 For anyone who might be unfamiliar: Italo Svevo is a highly regarded author and Zeno's Conscience is considered by some to be the finest Italian novel of the 20th century. (I don't regard it quite as highly — and I certainly haven't read enough Italian novels to make this claim — but I can agree that it's definitely worth reading.) James Joyce admired Svevo and helped him get published. He also met him from time to time to give English lessons when he was working as a destitute tutor. He often asked Svevo (whose real name was Ettore Schmitz) about Jewish customs, and it has been said that Svevo was somewhat of a template from which Joyce sketched out Leopold Bloom.

2 If you do not know who Vladimir Nabokov is, please click HERE.

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