Poshlust’, Hegelian Syllogism, and the Proverb: A Paremiological Approach to Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark

Kevin J. McKenna, University of Vermont

Apparently dissatisfied with the original title to his novel Laughter in the Dark, Vladimir Nabokov struggled with alternative titles such as “Blind Man’s Bluff,” “Colored Ghost,” and “The Magic Lantern.” In light of his clever parable on Albinus’ blindly oblivious perils and tribulations associated with the universal phenomenon the Russians label ‘poshlust,” Nabokov might have considered yet another title: “Love is Bind.” While not seriously proposing to change Nabokov’s final choice, my paper will present and analyze the implications of the timeless proverb “Love is Blind” in considering Albinus’ philistine passion for his Margot. 

True to form, Nabokov cleverly interweaves his amorous proverb parable throughout countless scenes and descriptions in the novel. For example, in response to Albinus’ proposal to collaborate on an animated cartoon from a famous Dutch painting, Axel Rex suggests “[…] designing […] a Breughel film—the ‘Proverbs’ for instance, or anything else Albinus might like to have him set in motion.” The factual absence of the proverb “Love is Blind” from the 110 proverbs in Breughel’s famous painting cannot be viewed as coincidental in Nabokov’s narrative. In fact, while Rex never gets around to designing a Breughel film, when we consider what it is that he does manage to “set in motion,” it can only be described as an enactment of the “Love is Blind” proverb as well as the famous “She hangs the blue cloak on her husband” proverb, which stands at the visual and metaphoric center of Breughel’s painting.

If “poshlust” in all its philistine vulgarity can be said to define the personalities of the principal characters of Nabokov’s novel, the fairy-tale plot of its fable-like reality revolves around a narrative enactment of the timeless “Love is Blind” proverb. The time-honored dictum ranges from a literal to a metaphoric level in the novel, with Albinus losing his eyesight in the car accident before he is able fully to “see” the cruel hoax that Margot and Rex have been playing on him. Narrative craftsman that he is, Nabokov does not limit himself to mere straightforward explication of the “Love is Blind” proverb theme. He cleverly weaves into his story a narrative enactment of the proverb-formula in a series of Hegelian syllogisms that my proposed paper will consider.