Interviewer: "In your new novel, “Pale Fire”, one of the characters says that reality is neither the subject nor the object of real art, which creates its own reality. What is that reality?"
Nabokov: "Reality is a very subjective affair. I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and as specialization. If we take a lily, for instance, or any other kind of natural object, a lily is more real to a naturalist than it is to an ordinary person. But it is still more real to a botanist. And yet another stage of reality is reached with that botanist who is a specialist in lilies. You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable. You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing: it’s hopeless. So that we live surrounded by more or less ghostly objects— that machine, there, for instance. It’s a complete ghost to me— I don’t understand a thing about it and, well, it’s a mystery to me, as much of a mystery as it would be to Lord Byron." *
The same idea can be found in his lecture on "The metamorphosis" (Kafka):
"Let us take three types of men walking through the same landscape. Number One is a city man on a well-deserved vacation. Number Two is a professional botanist. Number Three is a local farmer. Number One, the city man, is what is called a realistic, commonsensical, matter-of-fact type: he sees trees as trees and knows from his map that the road he is following is a nice new road leading to Newton, where there is a nice eating place recommended to him by a friend in his office. The botanist looks around and sees his environment in the very exact terms of plant life, precise biological and classified units such as specific trees and grasses, flowers and ferns, and for him, this is reality; to him the world of the stolid tourist (who cannot distinguish an oak from an elm) seems a fantastic, vague, dreamy, never-never world. Finally the world of the local farmer differs from the two others in that his world is intensely emotional and personal since he has been born and bred there, and knows every trail and individual tree, and every shadow from every tree across every trail, all in warm connection with his everyday work, and his childhood, and a thousand small things and patterns which the other two—the humdrum tourist and the botanical taxonomist—simply cannot know in the given place at the given time. Our farmer will not know the relation of the surrounding vegetation to a botanical conception of the world, and the botanist will know nothing of any importance to him about that barn or that old field or that old house under its cottonwoods, which are afloat, as it were, in a medium of personal memories for one who was born there.
So here we have three different worlds—three men, ordinary men who have different realities—and, of course, we could bring in a number of other beings: a blind man with a dog, a hunter with a dog, a dog with his man, a painter cruising in quest of a sunset, a girl out of gas— In every case it would be a world completely different from the rest since the most objective words tree, road, flower, sky, barn, thumb, rain have, in each, totally different subjective connotations. Indeed, this subjective life is so strong that it makes an empty and broken shell of the so-called objective existence. The only way back to objective reality is the following one: we can take these several individual worlds, mix them thoroughly together, scoop up a drop of that mixture, and call it objective reality."
(updated on 2/2/2014)
My sense of reality or my belief in reality was broken the day I realised that I saw what I saw not because it was reality in front of me but because of my eyes, and other creatures that lived in this same world and looked at these same things had totally different realities.
Today I saw a dog seeing another dog. Then the image burst into bubbles of questions in my mind. Do dogs always recognise dogs of different breeds, that is, do they know that the different dogs are also dogs, the same species as themselves? Do they get mistaken? Do they have different barks like we have different languages? Do they see the differences between themselves and another dog of different breed, colour and size as smaller than the differences between themselves and a cat or some other animal that has the same colour and size? Do dogs categorise dogs into different races, groups, ethnicities the way human beings do? Do they have prejudice against and opposition to dogs of other breeds, or dogs of some certain breeds or colours? Are there racists among dogs? How do they feel about wolves?
Why do cats always have that look of arrogance and disdain? Do they think human beings are inferior?
I think one should make a camera with lens built like the structure of a fly's eye and then there should be a film filmed with that camera so that I'll know what a fly's reality is like. That would be lovely.
*: Of course Nabokov and I don't share the same reality. He's a synaesthete when concerning letters, and concerning butterflies, a lepidopterist.