The Silence of Madness in "Signs and Symbols" by Vladimir Nabokov

by Jacqueline Hamrit

March 19, 2006


In this paper, I try to wonder about the way madness and literature can be linked and/or separated, through the analysis of a short story by the Russian American writer Vladimir Nabokov entitled "Signs and Symbols" as both literature and madness are linked to the issue of reference as well as meaning.. The short story narrates the case of a deranged young man for whom "everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme" and shows how madness, unlike literature, fails in the quest of meaning and is therefore associated to silence, as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida suggested, whereas literature, although sometimes verging on madness, is characterized by the desire to live and to move away from the silence of death.



Madness has always fascinated writers and has a privileged relationship with literature, being sometimes more than a mere metaphor and rather corresponding to a thematic network underlying a text. It has even been compared to the reading and/or writing activity of literature. I intend in this paper, to make a comparison between madness and literature, to wonder about the way they can be linked and/or separated, through the analysis of a short story by Vladimir Nabokov entitled "Signs and Symbols" which was written in 1948.

     Being himself subjected to auditory and visual hallucinations, Nabokov staged many characters tempted by madness. Thus, the protagonist Luzhin who is a chessplayer in The Luzhin Defense is the prey of a monomaniac passion which ends in a suicide. Nabokov has also dealt with sexual deviations such as paedophilia in Lolita in which the protagonist Humbert Humbert is cured in psychiatric hospitals. And the main character, Krug, in Bend Sinister, becomes mad at the end of the book when he learns about the death of his son.

     But what does it mean to be mad? For Maurice Blanchot, madness should only exist in the interrogative form. For him, saying Holderlin is mad, corresponds to saying: is he mad?1 Jacques Derrida devoted two texts to madness, "Cogito and the history of madness" written in 1963 and published in Writing and Difference, and "Being just with Freud. The History of Madness in the Age of Psychoanalysis" published in Resistances in 1996. Derrida alludes to Foucault when he declares: "To make a history of madness is therefore to make the archaeology of a silence."2 Derrida adds, "And if madness in general, beyond any fictitious and determined historical structure, is the absence of work, then madness is indeed, essentially and generally, silence, stifled speech."3 I shall test this hypothesis, which associates madness with silence, through the analysis of Nabokov’s short story "Signs and Symbols."

     The short story narrates a day--a Friday--in the life of an old couple of Russian Jewish immigrants who, being themselves deprived of any name, live in a nameless city in the United States. Their twenty-year-old son had been treated in a psychiatric hospital for four years because, the narrator tells us,"he was incurably deranged in his mind." Confronted with the problem of the choice of a birthday present for their son who was frightened by objects perceived by him as being "vibrant with a malignant activity," the parents decided upon a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars. They were, however, not allowed to visit their son when they arrived at the hospital because he had tried to commit suicide. When back home, the husband retired to his bedroom after the evening meal while the mother examined an album of photographs. After midnight, the husband came back to the living-room and announced that he wished to bring their son back home in order to keep and nurse him. In the middle of the conversation, the telephone rang. It was a wrong number. Some girl had asked to speak to some Charlie. Then, their conversation is once more interrupted by a telephone call which happened to come from the same girl. After the mother had explained her why it was an incorrect number, the couple sat down to their midnight tea. As the husband was re-examining the small jars, spelling out their labels, the telephone rang again. Thus ends the short story.

     The ringing of the telephone sounds like an interruption in a story imbued with silence. Divided into three parts, the story offers a dialogue, a conversation in direct speech, only in the last part. The narrator mainly uses indirect speech to narrate the conversation between the father and the mother, or between the parents and the nurse. Silence is frequently rendered by the perception of noises. Thus, when they took the underground train to go to the hospital," one could hear nothing but the dutiful beating of one’s heart and the rustling of newspapers."4 The bus they took subsequently was "crammed with garrulous high-school children." 5 On their way back, "he kept clearing his throat in a resonant way he had when he was upset"6 and they "did not exchange a word"7 during the long ride to the underground station. They came back home and dined "in silence," the son’s disease being at the origin of this atmosphere characterizing the resigned world of the family.

     We are then informed rather ironically that "the system of his delusions had been the subject of an elaborate paper in a scientific monthly"8 and that it had been called "referential mania" by a certain Herman Brink who stated:

    In these very rare cases the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence. He excludes real people from the conspiracy--because he considers himself to be so much more intelligent than other men. Phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes. Clouds in the staring sky transmit to one another, by means of slow signs, incredible detailed information regarding him. His inmost thoughts are discussed at nightfall, in manual alphabet, by darkly gesticulating trees. Pebbles or stains or sun flecks form patterns representing in some awful way messages which he must intercept. Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme.9

     I will mainly dwell on the first and last sentences of the description, namely "everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence" and "everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme." The patient imagines that he lives in a closed world of which he is the centre of and the target. It is a narcissistic world losing itself in a megalomaniac "I". The patient suffers from paranoia since he feels superior to others and since he feels hostility and malignity from the persecuting world which, represented by a nature evoking that of the British Romantic poets, spies him wherever he goes and interprets his actions. Reality loses the brilliance of its reference to become a mere sign. He is moreover interpreted, judged, like a patient subjected to a doctor’s observation but he also tries to interpret the world and decode "the undulation of things." He fails, nevertheless, in his quest for meaning because meaning is deprived of the restraint and the security of the law. The relationship between the patient and reality is dual, not split by either the triangular caesura of the referent separating the signified from the signifier, or the otherness of the other cracking the fusion of the "I" with the world. The patient fails in his quest for meaning because he is unable to recognize how"unquenchable"10 reality is, to use Nabokov’s expression, and because he refuses to comply to the law of reality. Imprisoned in a closed world, he fails to be aware of the gaping chasm of meaning which regenerates with the remainder, the law of the other and of the world. This is what Derrida tries to explain when he writes:

    What I call " exappropriation" is this double movement whereby I direct towards meaning and try to appropriate it, but both knowing and desiring, whether I admit it or not , desiring that it remains strange to me, transcendent, other, that it remains where there is otherness. If I could totally reappropriate meaning, exhaustively and with no remainder, there would be no meaning. If I do not want to appropriate it, there would be no meaning either.11

     Meaning fails but it is at the same time necessary and this is what the patient is unable to understand because he expands in imagination and is unable to conquer speech which demands the acknowledgement of the law and the other. Madness is silence because it is deprived of the space of speech.

     Moreover, in a letter dated March 17, 1951 and addressed to the New Yorker editor Katharine A. White, Nabokov alluded to "Signs and Symbols" by mentioning the story of an old Jewish couple and their sick boy, saying: "Most of the stories I am contemplating [. . .] will be composed on these lines, according to this system wherein a second (main) story is woven into, or placed behind, the superficial semitransparent one."12 Thus, mise en abyme and situated within or behind or under the story of the sickness of a young boy, there would be another story, that, may be--this is a hypothesis--of the specificity of literature as opposed to madness. Literature would be, in some way, analogous to but also different from madness.

     It is indeed possible to compare literature to madness as both are linked to the issue of reference--the perception of reality and its restoration in the imaginary world--as well as the issue of meaning. The madman, as exemplified in the short story by the son, tries to interpret the world. As for readers or literary critics, they may sometimes give evidence of an interpretative frenzy resembling the experience of a delirium and characterized by a deviation from the straight line of meaning as we know from the etymology of the word "delirium" that it is formed of the Latin word "lira" which means a furrow and the prefix "de" which may signify "out of".

     The short story is indeed a narrative which expands within a certain time. The reader is given information which is sometimes hidden in the text. For example, one may wonder where or who the telephone call at the end of the story comes from. Is it due once more to a wrong number or is it the hospital announcing the death of the son? Death is foreshadowed throughout the story thanks to repetitive details. The mother is indeed dressed in black. On their way back home, the couple encounter "a tiny dead unfledged bird" evoking the son as we had been informed he had tried to fly when he attempted to commit suicide. Symbols which are mentioned in the title of the story become signs the reader has to decipher. The interpretative activity of the reader resembles the experience of madness which, according to Derrida, is "adventurous, perilous, nocturnal and pathetic"13 Literature keeps its secret--we shall never know who telephoned at the end of the story--and madness its mystery--the son is unable to communicate with sane persons.

     The short story unfolds therefore within a lapse of time which, although shortened into a brief day in the life of a couple, is lengthened by waiting and memory. Thus, the couple waits in the underground train because of a breakdown; they wait for the nurse at the hospital. They are facing an uncertain and threatening future. The reader is also aware of the past as the mother examining an album of photographs is overwhelmed by memories--personal memories of Russia, Germany, exile and immigration but also memories of the different ages of her son. To each photograph corresponds a step in the evolution of his sickness. Thus, when he was a baby, "he looked more surprised than most babies."14 At four, he was afraid of animals. Aged six, "he drew wonderful birds with human hands and feet and suffered from insomnia."15 Then he suffered from phobias. Thus, through the photographs, the mother wonders about what may have foreshadowed his sickness whose symptoms seem to appear more and more precisely as he grows. Yet, although time does not exist for the patient, his sickness is not merely labelled or classified. The recall of its history allows the reader to perceive how it is a very subjective experience.

     Moreover, insistence is put on the parents’ emotions. Contrary to the apparent indifference of the son due to his retreat and his solitude, the mother suffers. When she was on the bus, "she felt the mounting pressure of tears."16 At night, "she thought of the endless waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband had to endure; of the invisible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fashion; of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness which is either crushed, or wasted, or transformed into madness [. . .] "17 Literature is able to reveal the emotional depth of sickness.

     The parents had nevertheless not managed to diagnose their son’s sickness,18 since they had considered his phobias as "the eccentricities of a prodigiously gifted child." This corresponds to the cliché considering madness as a form of genius, as in Nietzsche, Artaud, Van Gogh, etc. Nabokov was adamantly against such a position as he declared during a lecture at Stanford University in 1941:"Genius is the greatest sanity of the spirit."19 Although he admits that inspiration may resemble the experience of madness, the artist, according to him, manages to create a new world whereas the lunatic can only dismember it. The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze also considers that literature is healthy and that one does not write with one’s neuroses. According to him, the writer is more a doctor than a patient, a doctor of himself and of his surrounding world. However, Deleuze writes:" The writer carries language out of its furrows, it makes it go delirious. . . . But when delirium becomes a clinical issue, words end up on nothing, nothing is heard or seen through them except the night."20 The madman does not produce anything, madness being for Foucault "the absence of work." In the short story, nothing happens except the ingenious attempts of suicide by the son. The parents, on the contrary, make decisions and choices: they choose their son’s birthday gift, they decide to take their son back home. The son is absent and silent. Saying nothing, he does nothing. The nocturnal atmosphere and the night of madness are rendered by the constant play between light and "the monstrous darkness."21

     If pathological delirium is linked to the night, and if night corresponds to approaching death, sanity is therefore a desire for life. Thus, when the mother noticed that one of the passengers was weeping on the shoulder of an older woman, she indeed felt compassion but she was, we are told, mainly given a shock of wonder. The so important word "wonder" in Nabokov’s work corresponds to the sparkling awareness of the magical beauty of the world and of life. Thus, whereas the patient is said to have no desires, the parents still hope for a recovery being thereby in accordance with Nabokov’s plea for life.

     Madness is also a symbolical prison as we learn that the son "wanted to tear a hole in his world and escape."22 Literature is therefore different from madness because, according to Derrida, it is characterized by its unconditional freedom. In Donner la mort published in 1999 and translated as The Gift of Death, Derrida considers the idea that literature implies the right to say and hide everything. Speech, on the contrary, is stifled in madness and should be freed. One must therefore try to dialogue with madness, approach it but also move away from it in order to be able to live. Writers know this. Joyce, for example, speaking of Ulysses wrote:" In any event this book was terribly daring. A transparent sheet separates it from madness."23One may therefore verge on madness but one must take one’s distances. This is what Derrida explains when he writes :

    But this violent liberation of speech is possible and can be pursued only in the extent to which it keeps itself resolutely and consciously at the greatest possible proximity to the abuse that is the usage of speech – just close enough to say violence, to dialogue with itself as irreducible violence, and just far enough to live and live as speech.24 Living is therefore moving away from the silence of death.

(This paper was first published in the French review, Synapse, and is published here with the kind permission of that journal.)  


End Notes

1 Cf Maurice Blanchot, Le Pas au-delà (Paris : Gallimard, 1973) 65-66.

2 Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference 1967 ( London: Routledge Classics, 2001) 41.

3 Derrida 65.

4 Vladimir Nabokov, "Signs and Symbols," Nabokov’s Dozen 1958 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1960) 53

5 Nabokov 53.

6 Nabokov 54.

7 Nabokov 54.

8 Nabokov 54.

9 Nabokov 54-55. Brink is here referring to what psychiatrists call "ideas of reference" which are usually an early form of paranoia or delusion and correspond to a symptom where the patient believes he is connected to various phenomena in the world. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association (Fourth Edition, Washington DC, 1994), these ideas of reference are frequent in Schizotypical Disorders (p 641, 645) and are to be distinguished from "referential delusions" which are frequent in Schizophrenia (p.275) or in Delusional Disorder (p. 238). According to Dr Arnaud Plagnol (whom I wish to thank for having provided me with these references), these ideas of reference are also very frequent in Brief Psychotic Disorders (cf. Plagnol, Arnaud. Espaces de Représentation: Théories élémentaires et Psychopathologie. Edition du CNRS, Paris, 2004, p. 108).

10 Vladimir Nabokov, Strong Opinions 1973 (New York : Vintage International, 1990).

11 My translation of the citation situated in Jacques Derrida, Echographies (Paris: Galilée-INA, 1996) 123-24.

12  Vladimir Nabokov, Selected Letters 1940-77 1990 (London: Vintage, 1991) 117.

13 Derrida, Writing and Difference 39.

14 Nabokov, Nabokov’s Dozen 56.

15 Nabokov, Nabokov’s Dozen 56.

16 Nabokov, Nabokov’s Dozen 54.

17 Nabokov, Nabokov’s Dozen 57.

18 Nabokov, Nabokov’s Dozen 56. In fact, the whole story does revolve around three failures to communicate: the son’s failure to understand his world, the parents’ failure to reach the son; the wrong number. Birds are also traditionally symbols for a messenger, a communicator from the gods or from another person.

19 Vladimir Nabokov, "The Art of Literature and Commonsense," Lectures on Literature 1980 (London: Picador, 1983) 377.

20 My translation of a citation situated in Gilles Deleuze, Critique et Clinique (Paris: Minuit, 1993) 9.

21 Nabokov, Nabokov’s Dozen 57

22 Nabokov, Nabokov’s Dozen 54.

23 Quoted in Derrida, Writing and Difference 36.

24 Derrida, Writing and Difference 74.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Jacqueline Hamrit "The Silence of Madness in "Signs and Symbols" by Vladimir Nabokov". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. December 15, 2009. Available March 19, 2006 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: March 3, 2006, Published: March 19, 2006. Copyright © 2006 Jacqueline Hamrit