Nabokov, Orwell, and the Inflated Value of Knowing

“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” -Mark Twain

In this rant-post I want to make an argument against a form of art that is created for its ability to spread awareness in regards to contemporary social issues. I want to show how this kind of art, whether it be painting, photography, writing, etc. isn’t just ineffective but usually harmful to the social progress desired by the originator of the artwork. I also want to assert the importance of certain insights and aesthetic styles that should be considered vital factors for artmakers involved in either their own autonomous development, or an altruistic Orwellian undertaking; ultimately arguing that a lack of these factors – combined with the supposedly noble goal of spreading consciousness – is a recipe that magnifies apathy.

A mention of Nabokov and Orwell                                                                  

Vladimir Nabokov, best known as the author of Lolita, hated what he called “topical trash” and claimed that a successful work of fiction is oneOrwellNabokov that achieves “aesthetic bliss.” He dismissed having any kind of moral in tow for any of his novels and went as far as claiming that Dickens was good “in spite of” his moral message. He thought that the study of literature in terms of its social worth was “necessary only for those blind to aesthetics.” George Orwell on the other hand wanted art for arts sake debunked, and claimed that “a purely aesthetic interest couldn’t be taken in a world where Fascism and Socialism were fighting one another.” He viewed the integration of both poetry and literature in WWII pamphleteering as “a great service…that destroyed the illusion of pure aestheticism.”

Many conclusions have been drawn about these two opposing authors, most concentrating on their irreconcilable differences. I want to offer a perspective that presents both writers as integral parts of any artform striving either to induce societal change, or guide the autonomous development of the maker – both pursuits being equally worthwhile.

Spreading Awareness

Good art can’t be reduced to a formula, but a formula for bad art can definitely be exposed: prioritizing topical relevance and minimizing the importance of aesthetic style while relying on the well intentioned goal of spreading awareness to make up for any shortcomings. The credibility of a work adhering to this formula is therefore determined entirely by topical relevance, and only minimally, if at all, by aesthetic style. The ultimate result for an audience exposed to such artwork is an ever increasing weight of hyperawareness that debases any emotional relationship to the very real issue being exhibited; another photo of mountaintop removal or another painting of refugees soon impede an audience’s ability to maintain any thoughtful connection to the issues depicted; crisis is re-presented only as optionless-overwhelm to a viewer who naturally reacts by emotionally disconnecting from the topic being echoed repeatedly in print, poetry, and paintings. ‘Optionless’ because the goal of topical, awareness-raising art, is not to present a critical injustice in a new light (as Orwell, Dickens, and Mark Twain had, which could then alter perspective and prompt action) but instead to remind the viewer of an already pressing issue and reinforce the already entrenched perspective of it’s haunting, unchanged existence. 6249599_orig

Mark Twain showing us a faulted world through the eyes of a child in Huckleberry Finn, and Orwell using farm animals to act out a corrupted attempt at social welfare in Animal Farm, both rely on an aesthetic of irony that presents critical issues in a different light. These books help us understand cruelty and threats to hqdefaulthumanity in an entirely new way, and therefore help us in actually becoming sensitized to these injustices. This new understanding is the empowerment that art merely echoing a known injustice fails to offer, and it’s degree of empowerment is proportional to the aesthetic consideration given by the maker.

Inadvertent Policing  

Yet art devoid of aesthetic consideration continues to prop itself up in front of an exhausted audience that reluctantly takes on its psychic burden of unavoidable social crisis. With this aesthetic deficit and rush to “inform” the public about climate change, starvation, and war this art of awareness amounts to a policing of the psyche, contributing to an ever increasing feeling of helplessness, and therefore inaction, in much the same way totalitarian propaganda helped maintain an ever deepening crisis with its own ceaseless repetition.

When “spreading consciousness” is thought of as enough to guide the entire art making process, Nabokov’s “aesthetic bliss” takes a distant back seat. The well meaning artist ends up discounting Nabokov in favor of a greatly diminished Orwell, reducing the latter to an author merely reproducing, mirroring, the problems of the world; and an art that only mirrors, whether it be visual, heard, or written, burdens the viewer with a consciousness that disempowers.

Trojan Horse, Assembly Required


Artists that have successfully changed my understanding, and further sensitized me to a cruelty I wasn’t able to identify with, have done so not by reproducing reality, but by redescribing it. A friend’s comic helped me better understand what it’s like for any woman to take a bike ride and deal with being cat-called and harassed. She managed this by seeming to tell me another story that kept getting interrupted by the harassment, and by illustrating a cartoon that could be anthropomorphized into any real woman. A moral decree was never bluntly stated, instead the reader found their perspective switched back and forth between the woman and the man; in place of direct conclusions being drawn out for us by the artist was the unresolved room necessary for the reader to build their own conclusion and arrive at their own newfound understanding. Simply knowing it isn’t right to harass someone was worth much less than being more sensitized to the actuality of her life, which the maker of the comic managed to do with the right amount of irony and the essential breathing room for the reader to process the irony and accordingly build a new perspective independently. Facilitating the actual building of a new conclusion by the individual regarding the artwork for the first time can expand “knowing” into a sensitized perspective, and hence prompt new actions against an injustice that would otherwise go unchallenged if it were simply mirrored.

Don’t Fake It

Chances are you’re not an Orwell, i.e. what you want to create will not coincide perfectly with an artform that can challenge social injustice. So we should make what we are driven to make without artificially tailoring it towards another end, be as honest as we can about our motives (which of course means admitting to a good amount of vague self-understanding) and do as excellent a job as is possible – regardless of how absolutely fucked the world is. Then (instead of trying to convince ourselves that building a soda can sculpture will challenge society’s waste problem by raising awareness) make some time to remedy a social woe of our choosing: volunteer, mentor, raise some money, whatever. Pay no heed to the political milieu that prioritizes selfless altruism in all art making; a maker’s self-realization is always the guiding compass of creativity, and if our autonomous development has more to do with realizing aesthetic bliss than conquering social woes – so be it; it’s far better to realize a Nabokovian aestheticism than compromise in the name of current events and end up failing on both fronts. Even Orwell himself came to a point when he realized that his own physical participation in the Spanish militias being thrown at the Nazi’s was a more valuable use of his time than writing. With all that said, it’s wise to be just as wary of limiting our existence to the pursuit of aesthetic bliss, which could ultimately replace our community with objects, along with some other unfortunate outcomes mentioned below.  

Self-Produced Cruelty

None of the above should suggest that an Orwellian maker couldn’t learn just as much from Nabokov. Although societal injustices at large are left out of Nabokov’s writing, we do encounter a different kind of cruelty, the cruelty that a maker can be blind to when in pursuit of their goal. In Lolita we are shown the many bizarre rationalizations made by Humbert as he tries to justify both his actions and the reactions of his “nymphette” 041513-fine-wine-lolita-03during their cross country courtship. In place of a direct moral message we are shown, through the protagonist’s own beautiful prose, how he wills their relationship to stagger on with his ever escalating selfish design. The reader, left room to process all this, becomes sensitized to a cruelty that can be created unknowingly by someone obsessed with their goal, someone seemingly oblivious to their own growing wickedness and objectification. The ability to gain a sense of this kind of cruelty in ourselves is vital for both autonomous development and anyone engaged in a more Orwellian pursuit, as can be attested to by glancing at the post-revolutionary tribunal that has risen to power in spite of its own undiscerned cruelty. 


There are an infinite number of factors that we can be sensitized to by art – cruelty and injustice being only two of many. Ultimately this post was an attempt to better direct the energies of the maker by arguing that the crucial difference between sensitizing someone to an injustice/cruelty versus merely making them aware of an injustice/cruelty is far more than semantics. I also wanted to sketch out an alternative perspective for any Nietzschian-Nabokovs that have strayed confusedly into a concern for societal wellbeing with their uniquely autonomous art, and for any Altruistic-Orwellians that have built a shaky aesthetic foundation with an art for awareness sake.

And, although the following is another topic in itself, I hope I’ve been able to somewhat discredit the belief that societal institutions need to be evaluated in terms of how well they limit the egoistic drive, which in some ways is only a symptom of a problem; instead these institutions should be evaluated in terms of how well they promote an individuals ability to become sensitized towards the cruelty and injustice either happening around them or caused by them.

For now I need to get back to painting, thank you for reading!

Some books I either robbed blind or was influenced by while writing this:

Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity by Richard Rorty

Pure Immanence by Gilles Deleuze

Nihilist Communism by Monsieur Dupont


10 thoughts on “Nabokov, Orwell, and the Inflated Value of Knowing

  1. Beautifully written and well argued! I would generalize further and note that artists have other “awareness-raising” goals besides social justice, and that when art fails aesthetically, it also fails to convey its “message” to a receptive viewer. It’s like dishing out healthy food without regard to taste or presentation. What we see more often are naive artists who have not developed their aesthetic sense sufficiently to appreciate the power of media divorced from overloaded meaning. I’d take this further: divorce the image entirely from the mental dominance and manipulation of images, and ask oneself, does it still work?

    • Great questions and a great analogy of healthy food delivered with no thought regarding it’s taste. And, it’s certainly true that social justice is just one of many possibilities; I chose to focus on it here because of a personal bias of concern for its misuse, and the counterproductive consequence that can result from this. Thanks for commenting Diana!

  2. Your last paragraph says it all- and for me it wraps up to: limiting ego to enhance sensitivity is too simplistic, and won’t work. There are diminsions of the human psyche yet undiscovered by many societies; and in those diminsions lie amazing possibilities for evolving mankind. I think we must evolve, and hurry up about it, its late in the game for long term survival! So is anyone concerned about this serious need to evolve? For me all concerns fall into this basket. When concerns for a healthy economy are larger than concerns for the health of human beings, we are really stuck.

    • Thanks for replying Lynda! I’m glad you were able to identify with that last paragraph, I think the difference is very important. If there is one thing a healthy society can do it is to expand upon our being only partially sensitized to cruelty and injustice; not in the sense of elevating guilt or pity, but by helping people separate the question “are you like me” from the question “are you in pain”. (That last bit is definitely stolen from Rorty.)

      • Another twist: Have you seen any of the David Eagleman series on the brain? Well, the studies show that human beings who don’t identify others suffering and pain, have a certain area of the brain that is not active, not lit-up, so to speak. Now we are looking at the problems in a totally new way- social ideas of good and bad don’t make sense here. Next, he asks how a whole group of people can kill another group of people??? What is going on in these brains simultaneously?. Haha I think I am beginning to rant!~! But they are very interesting series- if you happen to catch one.

    • First, thanks for actually reading this! I don’t think 10 people total actually have…

      To answer your question, I would say that if injustice and oppression inform your paintings, as you said, and influence you in choosing your subject matter, then keep it up! You have to paint what you want to paint.

      The point I was arguing in the post I wrote was that artists should be careful to think that their works (if influenced by current events, injustice, etc) are having some sort of positive effect on the issue depicted in their artwork. Their isn’t anything wrong with depicting what you want to depict, however I think that artists overrate their ability to contribute to positive change with politically charged work.

      So, if the painting depicts refugees, it is a painting of refugees. However, it’s not necessarily going to make the refugee crisis any better. This doesn’t mean it’s somehow a bad painting, but it does mean that, as a painting, it shouldn’t be waved around like a tool for social progress.

      I hope that answers your question, if you have any more please ask.

      • I think that you may be over thinking this, I’m sure that I’m not the only painter who is influenced by their personal and world events, how can you not be? My first aim in painting is to create something of beauty, that is visually exciting to the eye, the meaning provided by the viewer, maybe entirely different to my meaning. That doesn’t stop me writing about what it means to me.
        If you are speaking of artists who are using current events to hang their hat on, then I agree with you, as their work’s meaning is fake.

        • I think we agree on this, though I’m not positive. Feel free to elaborate more if you like, I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your comments.

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