From Nabokov’s chapter on Bleak House in his Lectures on Literature:
Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.
Reading this passage last night reminded me that our reaction to truly great literature is physical rather than cerebral. A fact that writers, philosophers and literary critics have been attempting to dissect and understand for a very long time.
One of the earliest attempts was by Longinus (first century AD) with his treatise On the Sublime. It has been a few years since I sat down meaningfully with this text so my memory of it needs refreshing. But what I do remember is an eloquent endeavor to appreciate and explain our complicated emotional reaction to words either read or heard. Longinus discusses writers like Sophocles, Homer, Aeschylus and Euripedes and details their little flashes of genius, those instants when the listener experiences “the tingle”.
The tingle is the sublime. The moment we lose rational thought and absorb or react to a text with our senses alone. For Longinus the sublime is created by something he calls elevated language. And elevated language is the result of five conditions:
First and most important is the power of forming great conceptions, as we have elsewhere explained in our remarks on Xenophon. Secondly, there is vehement and inspired passion. These two components of the sublime are for the most part innate. Those which remain are partly the product of art. The due formation of figures deals with two sorts of figures, first those of thought and secondly those of expression. Next there is noble diction, which in turn comprises choice of words, and use of metaphors, and elaboration of language. The fifth cause of elevation–one which is the fitting conclusion of all that have preceded it–is dignified and elevated composition.
I love how his definition encompasses both innate and learned elements. Which is what makes writing an art form and not simply uncontrolled instinct. To my thinking, literature is too important to be left to such hazard. I want to believe that great writers have worked and reflected and struggled to produce their beautiful objects, but at the same time, they wouldn’t have been able to succeed without some innate gift.
So how does elevated language result in the sublime? Longinus writes:
The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport.
Transport. This is exactly what Nabokov is talking about in the introductory essay to his Lectures when he calls a great writer an enchanter. Someone who creates an entirely new world and maintains it without crack or fissure in its enclosure.
Nabokov echoes Longinus elsewhere in his Bleak House essay when he praises Dickens for his “vivid evocation”, his ability to combine words to extraordinary affect. He cites a moment when Dickens describes an ocean scene through Esther’s eyes – when the sun shone through the clouds, making silvery pools in the dark sea and then just after, she continues to explain the way these ships brightened, and shadowed, and changed. Nabokov reminds us that in a few simple words Dickens creates a new image. More than that, he creates a revelation:
…in comparison to the conventional blue sea of literary tradition these silvery pools in the dark sea offer something that Dickens noted for the very first time with the innocent and sensuous eye of the true artist, saw and immediately put into words. Or more exactly, without the words there would have been no vision; and if one follows the soft, swishing, slightly blurred sound of the sibilants in the description, one will find that the image had to have a voice too in order to live.
Bleak House contains thousands of similar moments. Tiny word combinations that take us less than a second to read. Our eyes fly across the sentences. But in those perfect instances, the sublime pulls us up short. We stumble, absorb the image or idea with our physical being. We react and the memory of that reaction becomes a physical recollection and therefore that much stronger. It will be hard to let go.
I want to let Nabokov say this again – Let us worship the spine and its tingle.