Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.

16 Responses to “Nabokov, Longinus and the tingle”

  1. jeane

    “a great writer an enchanter. Someone who creates an entirely new world and maintains it without crack or fissure in its enclosure. ” That was fabulous! These are the books I love to read; the ones that are so real to feel I am there that I do get that “tingle” spoken of!

  2. Ann Darnton

    Something else which Dickens does (whether deliberately or innately I couldn’t say) is change his established patterns to change the reader’s response and involvement. So, at the moment in ‘Tale of Two Cities’ when they are trying to leave Paris so that Charles can avoid the guillotine Dickens moves from the third person singular to the first person plural and from the past to the present tense and suddenly there we are in the carriage with them. Brilliant.

  3. Amateur Reader

    Excellent post. Very rich stuff. The shifts in rhetoric and tone, like Ann identifies in “A A Tale of Two Cities”, and so evident in “Bleak House”, are something Dickens develops over time. They’re much less common, and much less deft, in his earlier novels. Learned, not innate.

    The link between Nabokov’s ideas and Longinus is well-observed. This is related to our earlier discussion of Austen. You’ll have noticed how Nabokov compares Dickens description of the sea to Austen’s good but much more conventional description in “Mansfield Park”. Much more could be said here.

    “But greatness appears suddenly; like a thunderbolt it carries all before it and reveals the writer’s full power in a flash.” (Longinus, end of section 1)

  4. Melanie

    Having just read this Nabokov myself, I really appreciate your study of ideas between he and Longinus. I didn’t know of Longinus, so missed all the depths waiting to be plumbed by someone more aware. This post is illuminating, and shares some wonderful quotes!

  5. Dorothy W.

    Wonderful! I didn’t realize Nabokov could be so astute about literature’s physical as well as cerebral effects. The Lectures on Literature is a must-read I see.

  6. verbivore

    Jeane – I couldn’t agree with you more. Aren’t those the books that make reading such pure pleasure?

    Ann – You make me want to jump into Tale of Two Cities right away. I am going to have to take a small break from Dickens, however, to make sure I appreciate him properly on the next go round.

    Amateur Reader – I almost included the exact Longinus quote you bring up – the thunderbolt! I had a mixed reaction to his comparison of Auste and Dickens but ultimately had to agree with him.

    Melanie – Glad you enjoyed it, isn’t the Nabokov book good? He sets a certain tone we have to get used to but if we accept it, he’s a great voice to let parallel our reading.

    Dorothy – I would love to know what you think about his lectures on literature as well, I have been really enjoying them!

  7. Litlove

    That is a wonderful quote from Nabokov! Do you know I have never read anything by him? I really ought to begin somewhere…

  8. Juliette

    Incurable Logophilia – what a great post!

    I have never read any Nabokov. Where should we begin, what would you recommend? I know exactly what he means about the physical tingle – I felt it as I was reading War and Peace. I may well use his idea when I finally write my reflections on that great tome.

  9. Stefanie

    “Let us worship the spine and its tingle” I love it! And a very nicely written post too! You make me want to run to my shelves and take all of Dickens with me to a very quiet place far, far a way. I can’t help but think that by the time I emerge I will be a better person for the experience. Now to find that quiet place! 🙂

  10. verbivore

    Litlove – I certainly haven’t read enough by him and am trying to correct that this year!

    Juliette – I’m glad you enjoyed it. I started reading Nabokov through short stories that I found here adn there. My first Nabokov novel was Lolita and it was a tremendous read. I am now hoping to get to some of his other novels this year. His Lectures have been great as well.

    LK – 🙂

    Stefanie – I love your idea of taking Dickens to a very quiet place far, far away. Even funnier because you could take your cat too 🙂

  11. Bellezza

    You won the second prize in the Japanese Literature Challenge. Shoot me your address, and I’ll ship it off to you this week. Congratulations!

  12. Derek Catermole

    Hi Verbivore,

    What you say is right and correct, though the sublime doesn’t really become a physical (or physiological) matter until the eighteenth century. I recommend that you look at Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry Concerning the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. It changes some important elements of the Longinian sublime and does a lot to get us from what you’re describing at the beginning of your post to the way Nabokov deals with sublimity.

  13. verbivore

    Hello Derek, and thank you for the suggestion. I am looking forward to re-reading Burke on the Sublime once I’ve finished my re-read of Longinus. Is he the one that equates the Sublime with, for lack of a better word, horror? I have memories of a version of the sublime that pushes us past our comfort zone…is that Burke?

  14. Derek Catermole

    Pretty much. Burke says, “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.” Parts of the argument resort to some pretty wacky physiology, but the influence of Burke’s treatise is crucial.

  15. verbivore

    Derek – that’s right, now I remember. Thank you. I will definitely have to read that one again. And pay closer attention than I did the first time. I read it first in a grad school course on aesthetics, along with far too many other readings in too short a time period. I think it’s fascinating to trace the development of the sublime and how it has affected our reaction/understanding/creation of literature.

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