Rainbow and the Horsefly: Observations on Color in Nabokov’s Dar

Color has always been — from the pre-Socratic origins of philosophy — an opaque and insoluble matter for metaphysics.

Numerous critics like Johnson and Toker have drawn attention to the frequent use of color in Vladimir Nabokov’s work. They have attribute his use of color to experiments in psychological synaesthesia or to literary devices. I believe that color in Nabokov is perhaps best approached as a distinctly philosophical problem. Nabokov was attracted to color for precisely the reason that philosophy found it so difficult to describe: no one can deny that there are colors and that we experience them, but no one can explain color. Color, for Nabokov, is the undeniable but inexplicable sensory experience of something ineffable and timeless.

In my presentation, I will discuss how, in his 1938 novel Dar, Nabokov explores this ineffableness and timelessness of color as a philosophical problem. Chapter Two of the novel is chiefly devoted to the search by Fedor, the protagonist-poet, to endow the memory of his father with the same qualities as the experience of color: he wishes, in short to make his time-bound and interpretable words about his father resistant to the ironies of history, change, and dialogue. I will explain how the images of the rainbow and the iridescent eyes of the horsefly are representative of the philosophical problems and potentials of color and of memory: they become, in Dar, a means to represent Feodor’s utopian attempts to overcome his subjectivity and mortality.