Introduction by Lorraina Pinnell
Intellectual engagement with Freud and Nietzsche can be a daunting enterprise; however, adding Vladimir Nabokov to the encounter can only intensify the philosophical and literary struggle. Boldness, a certain insight, and a little scholarly risk-taking are often necessary. Undergraduate student Festa Kusari demonstrates these qualities in the following essay which emerged from our Short Story class last semester. I found Festa’s curiosity and intellectual courage inspirational and indicative of what A.U.K students can—and frequently—do.
Freud’s Instinctual Drives and Nietzsche’s Apollo-Dionysus Dichotomy in Vladimir Nabokov’s
“Signs and Symbols”
Freud and Nietzsche bear an immediate affinity, in so far as the respective thinkers both oppose the notion of a unified human subject. The narratives of Enlightenment reason, such as the Cartesian ego which is derived from his famous conclusion “I think, therefore I am” (Belfiore1) suggest a human subject that is essentially harmonious, without any inner tensions, framing the fundamental antagonism of human existence in terms of a subject-object relationship. This drives much of modern science which attempts to understand how the subject can grasp the object, or, in other words, how we can know the world around us ( Belfiore). Both Nietzsche and Freud attack this hypothesis by challenging a fundamental presupposition to this account: how can we presuppose that the subject is something harmonious? In other words, Nietzsche and Freud introduce into their model of human subjectivity precisely this idea of an inner tension (Class notes). The human subject is not only in confrontation with the world around him, but also experiences an inner type of antagonism which is expressed in Nietzsche’s Apollo-Dionysus distinction and Freud’s instinctual drives respectively.
In the case of Nietzsche, therefore, the Apollonian aspect represents precisely the rational calculating “ego”, which we find in the Enlightenment narrative (Belfiore 3). This is the human subject who uses the laws of reason to approach the world around him or her. At the same time, however, Nietzsche also introduces a subversive element to the Apollonian, that of the Dionysian, which essentially names the irrational element of human subjectivity and behavior ( Class notes). The human subject is in tension with himself precisely because of the radical difference between the Apollonian and Dionysian concepts.
There is a clear parallel here with Freud, although Freud modifies the terms of this inner tension. For Freud, what is above all importance are the drives for self-preservation and the sexual drive respectively, or what Freud would later term the life drive and the death drives. Here, is not the case of reason, unless we consider self-preservation to be reasonable and the will to destruction irrational, but rather a will to life and a will to destruction (Class notes). Thus, Freud eliminates the preconceived notion, much like Nietzsche, that human beings are rational actors: the self-destructive behaviors of human beings, in other words, need to be accounted for in the model of human subjectivity. It is this imperative which brings Nietzsche and Freud into agreement.
In Vladimir Nabokov’s short story “Signs and Symbols”, the reader encounters the Freudian and Nietzschean ideas of a fractured and tormented human subjectivity, although one that can also be said to somewhat deviate from the Freudian and Nietzschean accounts. At the very start of the story, Nabokov addresses human subjectivity not from the perspective of rationality, but of irrationality, that is, through the phenomenon of mental illness: “For the fourth time in as many years they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to bring a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind"(Nabokov 1). Instead of a rational actor, Nabokov’s story focuses on the “irrational” of mental illness. The derangement at stake here clearly recalls the Freudian and Nietzschean attempts to explain a human subject that is constituted by an inner antagonism.
However, at the same time, Nabokov’s account of the human subject appears to differ from Freud and Nietzsche’s versions: as Nabokov states in the following line, thus providing a cause for the subject’s mental illness, “he had no desires” (Nabokov, par.11). Now this can be said to deviate from Freud and Nietzsche above all for the following reason: in both Freud and Nietzsche’s account, there appears to be a key concept of desire which shapes the tension of the human subject. For example, in Freud, we see the notions of the life instinctual drive and the death instinctual drive. In essence, one could argue that both of these drives are entirely synonymous with desire. Hence, the drive to self-preservation is the desire, simply put, to remain alive, whereas the death drive is clearly a desire of self-annihilation. The tension in the human subject is therefore the result of what appears to be two antagonistic desires. In Nietzsche, the irrational desire of Dionysus, for example, to hedonistic excess without any rational purpose, and the rational desire to understand and apply the reason and logic of Apollo, may both be considered to be desires (Class notes). Once again, the tension of the human subject is the result of the antagonism between different desires.
Nabokov paints a different picture of subjectivity. The derangement of the human being, that is to say, that something is not “right” with the human being, in this case is the result of the absence of any desires altogether. Both Nietzsche and Freud posit conflicting drives, desires or archetypes in the human being which exist simultaneously. For Nabokov, instead, the focus is on a human being who is not constituted by these opposing forces, but is rather a type of void, emptiness. In other words, we can say that for Nabokov the true “irrational” subject is not one who is constituted by opposing drives, because we are all constituted by these opposing forces: someone is truly different, someone is “deranged” from Nabokov’s perspective, when this basic human element of desire is entirely missing. Accordingly, Nabokov much like Freud and Nietzsche, focuses on an account of human subjectivity in this story which deviates from the traditional Enlightenment narratives, but then goes a step further by suggesting a new form or “irrationality” or what he terms derangement which is not entirely consistent with the Freudian and Nietzschean accounts (Belfiore 4).