The Books of My Numberless Dreams

The definition of art

Posted on: August 3, 2007

Of course, no matter how keenly, how admirably, a story, a piece of music, a picture is discussed and analyzed, there will be minds that remain blank and spines that remain unkindled. “To take upon us the mystery of things” — what King Lear so wistfully says for himself and for Cordelia — this is also my suggestion for everyone who takes art seriously. A poor man is robbed of his overcoat (Gogol’s “The Greatcoat”, or more correctly “The Carrick”); another poor fellow is turned into a beetle (Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis”) — so what? There is no rational answer to “so what”. We can take the story apart, we can find out how the bits fit, how one part of the pattern responds to the other; but you have to have in you some cell, some gene, some germ that will vibrate in answer to sensations that you can neither define, nor dismiss. Beauty plus pity — that is the closest we can get to a definition of art. Where there is beauty there is pity for the simple reason that beauty must die: beauty always dies, the manner dies with the matter, the world dies with the individual.

From “The Metamorphosis”, an essay in Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov 

12 Responses to "The definition of art"

More Nabokov! Yay! Love your new header. 🙂

Ha! I’m more than a little tempted to turn by my blog entirely over to Nabokov quotes. :p And thanks, glad you like the header! I was looking for something fresher and more spare than the usual paintings.

Thanks for sharing some more of this with us. It’s good provocation for conversation! I so admire his talent for distillation. I love his analysis of the mystery but in this case I dislike his formula – ‘beauty,’ perhaps (usually, but not always) but ‘pity?’ That seems sort of condescending – doesn’t it? Perhaps pity accompanies tragedy, I can see it in Bleak House for instance or The Great Gatsby, but pathos has got to be more than pity! And great art is more than pathos. I can’t look at Jane Austen as a combination of those two ingredients, nor do I see it in some of my favorite paintings by Matisse… but I must admit, I’m having a hard time coming up with examples! But what about comedy and what about grungier art that revels in the ugly? Are there example you can think of of great art that are not beauty + pity, or not merely those two?

“I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile-some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.”-VN

April 19, 1969-Vladimir Nabokov invents the Smiley Emoticon

Ted well, I think “ugly” art could come under the heading of “beauty” as there must be something in it that appeals on a certain level. As far as “pity” goes he may referring to an absence of mercilessness in regards to the artist’s subject? I have not finished his Kafka essay so I cannot explicate his position as yet. It’s a bit mean of me to post these lonely excerpts, perhaps.

Steven well then, I wonder what that was in response to?

“Steven well then, I wonder what that was in response to?”

It’s a sidebar to your Nabokov Fest!

Re: “pity”: Isn’t VN invoking the Artist’s awareness that transcience/death will surely take all beauty from us, even as we struggle to keep it…Art being a formal attempt at (futile) immortality?

His definition would seem to encompass non-Art as well, unless there is a Beauty, without pity, that doesn’t involve the Artist’s futile effort…flowers, sunsets, rainbows and tropical fish and so forth. It’s less a pity that a flower will wilt eventually than that all Picassos will vanish the moment we die.

Anyway, like all the best aphorisms, “Art equals Beauty plus Pity” wouldn’t stand up to a vigorous cross-examination in a court of law….

Love your new header image and keep the Nabokov coming (until I get my own copy of course!)

Whoops. I thought I had commented here already? The old brain rots at last….

Steven oh I know that, I wondered to what and to whom Nabokov was responding to when he came up with that line.

As for your take on what he was referring to I bow to your accuracy. I posted it not because I thought it particularly insightful but because it read well. (Rhythm, images and all that.)

Verbivore I shall try! I tend to find analysis of Kafka rather meh but we’ll see how it goes.


“…I wondered to what and to whom Nabokov was responding to when he came up with that line.”

Give me a day to dig it up again….(larf)….


Okay, I have it: The Nabokov “Smiley Face” invention (as cited above) was a response to this question, posed to him by Alden Whitman in an interview that was published in The New York Times:

“How do you rank yourself among writers (living) and of the immediate past?”

Ha! I think he answered a similar question in the Paris Review interview; I’ll have to go and dig it up. Thanks so much for actually getting the source.

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