Good Readers and Good Liberals

Date01 December 2015
Published date01 December 2015
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-174U0rb73pg5q1/input 538430PTXXXX10.1177/0090591714538430Political TheoryMcCarty
Political Theory
2015, Vol. 43(6) 753 –776
Good Readers and Good
© 2014 SAGE Publications
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Liberals: Nabokov’s
DOI: 10.1177/0090591714538430
Aesthetic Liberalism
Timothy Wyman McCarty1
This article offers an interpretation of Vladimir Nabokov’s unique
contribution to political theory as seen primarily through the lens of his
novel Invitation to a Beheading. Although most frequently interpreted as an
indictment of totalitarianism, the novel depicts a form of cruelty practiced
not only by totalitarians, but also by the rulers and citizens of milder political
orders, including liberalism. The novel suggests that such cruelty is more
insidious than that familiar to readers of dystopian novels precisely because
of its universality. This article demonstrates that Nabokov’s contribution to
liberalism may be found in the surprising coherence between his aesthetic
principles and his art, both of which critique the imposition of “general
ideas” on either persons or books. What emerges is a picture of aesthetic
liberalism in which Nabokov’s model for the ideal liberal citizen is neither
the sensitive artist nor the apolitical aesthete, but rather the careful reader.
Vladimir Nabokov, Liberalism, Politics & Literature, Rorty, Shklar, Rule of
Arguably no novelist ever worked as hard to dissuade readers from interpret-
ing his works politically as Vladimir Nabokov. Anyone with even passing
1Franklin & Marshall College, Lancaster, PA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Timothy Wyman McCarty, Visiting Assistant Professor, Government Department, Franklin &
Marshall College, 415 Harrisburg Avenue, Lancaster, PA 17603, USA.

Political Theory 43(6)
familiarity with his many strong opinions is likely to have gleaned his antipa-
thy toward political fiction. Amid his broadsides at Freud, Dostoyevsky, and
philistines everywhere, Nabokov casts aspersions on “popular purveyors of
illustrated ideas and publicistic fiction”1 such as Orwell, Gorki, Mann, and
Balzac. He frequently disparaged such books as the literature of “general
ideas,” which he described as “the big, sincere ideas which permeate a so-
called great novel, and which, in the inevitable long run, amount to bloated
topicalities stranded like dead whales.”2 In such books he sees little more
than political ideologies superficially wrapped in the clothes of true art.
Perhaps even more illuminating than his unconcealed contempt for the litera-
ture of general ideas is his frequently perplexing approach to writers—includ-
ing himself—in whose work we find both political teachings and artistic
brilliance. In regard to these writers, Nabokov seems at times unwilling to
recognize any political teaching at all. With regard to his own works, he pro-
tested in a variety of venues—from interviews to essays to the forewords to
his own novels in translation—that he wrote with no political purpose what-
soever and that any attempt to discern one from the novels was at best a waste
of time.3 Unsurprisingly, he is widely considered to be a partisan of “art for
art’s sake.”4
Yet his readers have long recognized various strains of decidedly political
content in his novels, especially Pale Fire, Invitation to a Beheading, and
Bend Sinister. And in the decades since his death, scholars have begun devel-
oping more explicitly political interpretations of his work.5 Most recently,
Dana Dragunoiu demonstrated the considerable degree to which Nabokov’s
work draws upon the Russian liberal tradition, particularly the neo-idealist
school of which his father was a prominent figure.6 Building on such work,
this article offers an interpretation of Nabokov’s unique contribution to lib-
eral theory as seen primarily through the lens of his novel Invitation to a
This novel—which Nabokov called an indictment of totalitarian-
ism—depicts a form of cruelty practiced not only by totalitarians, but also by
the rulers and citizens of milder political orders, even, the novel suggests,
liberalism. This kind of cruelty is much subtler and more insidious than that
familiar to readers of dystopian novels precisely because of its universality.
While many critics—most notably Richard Rorty—seek to discern a polit-
ical teaching in Nabokov’s novels that exists contrary to his aesthetic princi-
ples, this essay argues that a fuller understanding of Nabokov’s politics is
found in the surprising coherence between his aesthetics and his art.7 Where
his essays, especially “Good Readers and Good Writers,” excoriate the aes-
thetics of what Nabokov calls “general ideas,” Invitation to a Beheading
depicts the surprising cruelty of a state that functions on the basis of the poli-
tics of general ideas. Out of this two-sided critique of general ideas emerges

the picture of liberalism that animates Nabokov’s politics: an idiosyncratic
basis for respecting individuals that comes not from God, nature, utility, or
contract but rather from aesthetics. Nabokov does not present a conception of
liberalism per se or a defense of particular institutions, but instead provides—
by way of his depictions of the horrors of cruelty, both personal and institu-
tional—a picture of what might be called liberal virtue. Nabokov’s model for
the ideal liberal citizen is neither the sensitive artist nor the apolitical aes-
thete, but rather the careful reader. Drawing out the virtues of Nabokov’s
ideal reader as a model for political virtue allows for a reconciliation of his
ostensibly divergent approaches to politics in his art and his aesthetics. In the
vision of aesthetic liberalism that emerges, a good citizen has the virtues of a
good reader, and demands that individuals be treated as a good reader treats
a good book.
A False Dichotomy
Those looking for evidence of social irresponsibility in Nabokov will find
plenty of fodder, not least in his suggestion that his opposition to the totalitar-
ian regimes of Hitler and Stalin was based primarily in aesthetic, rather than
moral or political, considerations. This privileging of the aesthetic over the
moral or political has made Nabokov a hero and villain to many, depending
on their stance toward the notion of art for art’s sake.8 To solve this prob-
lem—and save Nabokov’s novels from the slums of pure aestheticism—some
politically minded readers have sought to divorce the moral and political
teaching of Nabokov’s novels from his apolitical aesthetics, going as far as to
consider the former an indictment of the latter. Most notable among these,
particularly for a political science audience, is Rorty’s take on Nabokov in
Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Rorty writes, “Nabokov was unable to
free himself entirely from the Kantian association of ‘art’ and the ‘aesthetic,’
and this helped to blind him to the possibility of liberal ironism” (Rorty’s
italics).9 At the conclusion of his chapter on Nabokov, he doubles down on
this point, asserting, “Nabokov’s best novels are the ones that exhibit his
inability to believe his own general ideas.”10 Seeking the political teachings
of his novels in contrast to his ostensibly anti-political aesthetics fails to
account for both the complexity of Nabokov’s aesthetic thought and the
degree to which his fiction is shot-through with it.11
Rorty rightly notes that the novels of Nabokov and Orwell share a deep
concern for cruelty, but in rejecting what he perceives as Nabokov’s false
dichotomy between the aesthete and the moralist, he has created a new,
equally false, dichotomy:

Political Theory 43(6)
Nabokov wrote about cruelty from the inside, helping us see the way in which
the private pursuit of aesthetic bliss produces cruelty. Orwell, for the most part,
wrote about cruelty from the outside, from the point of view of the victims.12
That Nabokov depicted the cruel aesthete is true enough of the major
English novels that occupy Rorty’s analysis (Lolita, Ada, and Pale Fire), but
it cannot be affirmed as a generalization about his fiction if we recall Pnin,
Invitation to a Beheading
, or The Defense, all of which feature protagonists
who are primarily the victims rather than perpetrators of cruelty.13 As a justi-
fication for juxtaposing Nabokov’s later novels with those of Orwell, this is a
fine enough distinction, but it does not hold water as a description of
Nabokov’s novels generally.
Rorty’s disdain for Nabokov’s aesthetics leads him to ask a number of
intemperate rhetorical questions of his lectures on Bleak House:
Why does Nabokov insist that there is some incompatibility, some antithetical
relation, between Housmanian tingles and the kind of participative emotion
which moved liberal statesmen, such as his own father, to agitate for the repeal
of unjust laws? Why doesn’t he just say that these are two distinct,
noncompetitive, goods?14
While these seem like reasonable questions, he asks them without realizing
that, like so many clever but impatient students, the answers would be evi-
dent if he had taken better notes earlier in the semester. In the essay “Good
Readers and Good Writers,” which opens his Lectures on Literature (and
served as his introductory lecture), Nabokov explains the method of reading
and interpretation required to be a good reader of great books:
In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There...

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