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Thomas Basbøll

Decision and Desire:

A ‘Rain-sparkling Crystogram’ in Nabokov’s The Defence

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…and the red sun of desire and decision (the two things that create a live world) rose higher and higher, while upon a succession of balconies a succession of libertines, sparkling glass in hand, toasted the bliss of past and future nights.
                  –Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita, Ch. 17


Wittgenstein had his ‘perspicuous presentations’, Pound his ‘luminous ideograms’. Vladimir Nabokov had a variant of what I believe is essentially the same idea. Like Wittgenstein’s and Pound’s stylistic constructs, his ‘rain-sparkling crystograms’ can be taken as a unit of literary production and analysis. On this view, it is the task of the artist to produce such things and the task of the critic to bring them to the attention of the public (often the student). In a 1969 Vogue interview, Nabokov recalls the following approach.


In my academic days I endeavored to provide students of literature with exact information about details, about such combinations of details as yield the sensual spark without which a book is dead. In that respect, general ideas are of no importance. Any ass can assimilate the main points of Tolstoy’s attitude toward adultery… (Strong Opinions, p. 156-7)


He proposed to ‘fondle’ these details as they arose in the works of others during his lectures, and undertook to create them himself in his literary works. The relevant sense of ‘detail’ (Pound, we should remember, also talked about the presentation of ‘luminous details’) is a correct description of ‘transparent things’: ‘A thin veneer of immediate reality is spread over natural and artificial matter, and whoever wishes to remain in the now, with the now, on the now, should please not break its tension film’ (Transparent Things, Ch. 1).


We are looking for a ‘phenomenologically correct’ description of particular experiences. In ‘I Gather the Limbs of Osiris’, Pound tells us that luminous details, presented without comment, are ‘the permanent basis of all psychology and metaphysics’ (Selected Prose, p. 22) and Nabokov, interestingly, in his foreword to The Eye, offers his ‘rain-sparkling crystograms’ specifically to ‘a serious psychologist’, which is to say, not to a Freudian. I think there is a good sense in which phenomenology, when it is itself taken seriously, is serious psychology. The proper study of intentionality must strive to caress, but not to break, the tension film. An apt example of this intensity in Nabokov’s writing can be found in The Defence.


Only rarely did [Luzhin] notice his own existence, when for example lack of breath — the revenge of a heavy body — forced him to halt with open mouth on a staircase, or when he had a toothache, or when at a late hour during his chess cogitations an outstretched hand shaking a matchbox failed to evoke in it the rattle of matches, and the cigarette that seemed to have been thrust unnoticed into his mouth by someone else suddenly grew and asserted itself, solid, soulless, and static, and his whole life became concentrated in the single desire to smoke, although goodness knows how many cigarettes had already been unconsciously consumed. (The Defence, Ch. 6)


Here is a combination of details that yields a sensual spark, indeed, a combination that precisely presents the phenomenology of ordinary existence at a particular moment in time. Next to this, any ass can assimilate the main points of Heidegger’s attitude toward tarrying.


I read the opening, ‘Only rarely did he notice his own existence’, a bit like the ‘so much depends/upon’ of Williams’s ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, i.e., as a way of introducing some sense of a stake, which the image is then supposed to cash in. So we can take the word ‘existence’ in the most philosophical sense available, namely, the being of the Dasein of Heidegger’s phenomenology. In Being and Time, Heidegger tells us that all phenomenology is finally descriptive, by which he means that it seeks the direct exhibition and demonstration of the phenomenon under investigation ‘in terms of the ‘thinghood’ of what is to be ‘described’’ (H. 35). Nabokov teaches us to avoid ‘involuntarily sinking into the history of that object’ and rather to ‘stay at the exact level of the moment’. He describes ‘transparent things, through which the past shines’ (Transparent Things, Ch. 1). He describes their thinghood.


I’ll skip the two minor cases of physical discomfort and propose also that the last reference to the unconscious needlessly tells us what has already been shown. What remains of phenomenological interest are the following items:


an outstretched hand [Luzhin’s]
a shaking
a matchbox
a failure to evoke
a rattle of matches [not evoked]
a cigarette [one that seemed to have been thrust unnoticed into his mouth]
a mouth [Luzhin’s]
someone else [who seemed to have done the thrusting]
a sudden growth and assertion [of the cigarette, solid, soulless, and static]
a whole life [also Luzhin’s]
a concentration
a single desire to smoke


One very interesting thing to notice at this point is the lack of any straightforwardly visual imagery. Luzhin could very well have been blind and have this very same experience. It is not a visual image (like the wheelbarrow’s glazed redness). Moreover, there seem to be only two properly objective, appropriately inhuman, solid, soulless, and static ‘things’ on the list, namely, a matchbox and a cigarette. To see that these are the only two dead things in the bunch, it is enough to try to produce what Katue Kitasono described as a mere ‘aesthetic feeling’ (without ‘further development’) by the articulation of three items, using the line


a shell, a typewriter and grapes


as a paradigm. We get lines like the following.


a matchbox, a cigarette and an outstretched hand
a matchbox, a cigarette and a shaking
a matchbox, a cigarette and a mouth
a matchbox, a cigarette and someone else
a matchbox, a cigarette and a failure to evoke


All these give us more than an aesthetic feeling, which is to say, they evoke an image. Indeed, there are no three things on the list that can be put together without inadvertently producing imagery.


The crystogram uses body parts (a hand, a mouth) and movements (shaking, thrusting) as preconditions (a priori conditions) for the (experience of the) solidity and soullessness of things (a matchbox, a cigarette). This contrast renders the things transparent or ‘rain-sparkling’, while giving the person, Luzhin, his necessary opacity. Somewhere around here we may locate the tension film, the ‘thin veneer of immediate reality’. The next step will be to understand the composition of the thingly and personal items in this image in their relation to ‘the whole life’ or ‘existence’ described.


Let’s look briefly at the items that specifically indicate the desire to smoke and those that indicate the correlative beliefs of the smoker. First, the component of the image that indicates a desire:


a sudden growth and assertion
a whole life
a concentration
a single desire to smoke


Now, I don’t want to suggest that our heroic smoker actually animates a ‘live world’ so I will not, at least immediately, go looking for the indication of a decision here. But what we can see quite clearly is the trace of Luzhin’s beliefs. These are as tacit as his existence, as his desire to smoke (dulled by its continuous satisfaction), but they are explicated by a sudden discovery.


a shaking
a matchbox
a failure to evoke
[a false belief in a cigarette]


Discovery is to belief what decision is to desire. Just as a decision may obey or disobey desire, so a discovery may confirm or disconfirm a belief. Luzhin discovers that there are no matches in the box; his shaking hand indicates the tacit belief that there would be. This belief is not explicated by Nabokov, which is a nice touch. Faced with the falsity of this belief, he now also faces his desire. His world dies a little. He must decide to reconstitute it, to let the red sun rise again.


The intentionality of Luzhin’s experience, his directedness toward the (non-existent) match, is here presented in vivid terms. The crystogram of Luzhin’s vague existence works because it manages to connect a desiring subject (the smoker) with an object of belief (the unlit cigarette) through a series of haptic events (movements) that together form a live world. When the automatism of removing a cigarette from the pack, picking up the matchbox, shaking it and evoking a rattle (apparently normally only registered unconsciously), extracting the match and lighting it, holding it to the end of the cigarette, etc., is thwarted by the emptiness of the box of matches, the image crystalizes, i.e., sparkles with rain. A ‘whole life [is now] concentrated in the single desire to smoke’; and a whole world, we might say, is concentrated into a single soulless thing stuck in his mouth. These are aspects of one and the same moment.


The singularity of the desire is not trivial. Luzhin becomes aware of his existence as this existence, this life–this entity which, as Heidegger emphasised, ‘is in each case mine’ (H. 41). Heidegger (H. 171, 358) and Pound (Canto LXXXI/535), however, both assume the primacy of seeing (though one gets the sense that Heidegger is more aware that this is a historically contingent metaphysical bias). Heidegger, like Pound, invoked light imagery at every turn. Both, after all, were influenced by Duns Scotus. But while Nabokov’s books are full of light, full of things that shine and glisten and sparkle and twinkle, they are also, as in this case, full of motion: shaking, rattling, thrusting. The transparencies of the match and cigarette depend on what might be called manual imagery.


Whether one deploys manual or visual imagery, the idea is the same. We must not break the tension film of immediate reality that is neither the object nor the subject of literature (literature has neither a subject nor an object) but is, as Heidegger might say, its proximate theme, or, to invoke Catholic psychology, its proximate occasion. Identifying rain-sparkling crystograms (Nabokov), luminous ideograms (Pound), and perspicuous presentations (Wittgenstein) is the means by which the critic locates the ‘here’ of the literary text. It also identifies its ‘there’, the intention by which it is directed at something, and so begins to indicate its meaning.


To recap, we have a growth set against a shaking, a whole life set against a matchbox, a concentration against a failure, and a desire leaning on a belief that remains implicit. We are dealing with simple cases, just as Wittgenstein would build a philosophy of arithmetic on an analysis of the proposition that 2 + 2 = 4. The decision that is required is not especially difficult to make nor is the belief difficult to grasp. Still, that is what this image evokes as we raise our rain-sparkling crystal to the sun.

Thomas Basbøll

Thomas Basbøll

Thomas Basbøll is the resident writing consultant at the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy at the Copenhagen Business School. He has published criticism and poetry in Fascicle, Typo, and Word For/Word. He blogs about academic writing and organization theory at Research as a Second Language (, and about poetry and philosophy at The Pangrammaticon (

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