Signs and Symbols: Psychosis in the Modern World

Before Science, science was psychosis, and to live in accordance with Nature, rather than perpetually floundering to control it, was diagnosed as best practice, as to live in accordance with Nature was to live in accordance with the entire universe. In the pre-Enlightened world, the universe was a completely rational and well-ordered system, and therefore all phenomena therein existed with a kind of divine harmony such that everything happened exactly when and how it was intended. Phenomena, instead of submitting to the causal reduction of simplest terms, was known teleologically in the terms of the purpose that those same phenomena served and not, like science, of the cause by which they arose. The universe was known, completely rational, and with grand purpose; therefore, it would not have been farfetched to refer to its seemingly disseminated parts as an intricately designed whole, a vast system of interconnected reference. 

Nabokov’s Signs and Symbols explores this philosophy of vast interconnectedness in its unnamed sanatorium-bound character’s diagnosis of “Referential Mania,” a diagnosis in which “the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence.” This story-element works as a pithy trinity: a philosophical exploration of the aforementioned teleological principles, a brief venture anent the idea of Resistentialism, and a meta-critique of how we read literature and our subsequent expectations thereof.

Garnered most topically would be the unnamed invalid’s difficulties with a teleological consciousness in a scientific world, for “phenomenal nature shadows him wherever he goes.” The world, as Science has informed him to think, is not merely a chaotic sphere on the face of which the Darwinian nightmare continues until nihilism cures all our spiritual woes; he sees patterns and meaning in all things:

“Clouds in the staring sky transmit to each other, by means of slow signs, incredibly 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, and he is the theme. Some of the spies are detached observers, such as glass surfaces and still pools; others, such as coats in store windows, are prejudiced witnesses, lynchers at heart; others again (running water, storms) are hysterical to the point of insanity, have a distorted opinion of him, and grotesquely misinterpret his actions.”

This sounds a lot like neurotic paranoia bordering on psychosis. And, with regard to the scientific paradigm of knowledge in which we all live, it is. Epochs change, however, as how we understand information to change. A conscious existence is similar to that of our unnamed friend’s “dense tangle of logically interacting illusions,” which entails that “he must be always on his guard and devote every minute and module of his life to the decoding of the undulation of things.” And, with this teleological outlook comes a different approach to existence, a vastly dissimilar view from that of today’s era of things: “The very air he exhales is indexed and filed away…the silhouettes of his blood corpuscles, magnified a million times, flit over vast plains; and still farther, great mountains of unbearable solidity and height sum up in terms of granite and groaning firs the ultimate truth of his being.” This kind of über-consciousness, however, is not one of distinct ease.

Resistentialism, originally a satirical theory developed in the wake of existentialism, is a philosophical idea that inanimate objects harbor spiteful feelings toward humans, manifesting those ill-feelings by way of emitting malevolent airs from their person similar to those “little phobias” that the unnamed boy experiences: “He had no desires. Man-made objects were to him hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in his abstract world.” Resistentialism’s main assertion is that inanimate objects endeavor to cause problems for humans. In Signs and Symbols, the boy’s parents, who are unaware of any kind of cosmic interconnectedness, are consistently met with difficulty presented to them by way of inanimate objects. Consider the inconsiderate nature of “the thunder and the foul air of the subway” that both parents experienced, or mom’s “soiled cards” or dad’s “hopelessly uncomfortable dental plate.” The ultimate sign of this theory at work is during the father’s being locked out of his home, as he “he had given her his keys earlier that day.” His son’s suicide imminent, the father states to his wife that “‘I am dying.’” Rilke’s tiger is prowling in his cage. So full of virility, yet so impotent. 

Moreover, each of these examples could very well be a Nabokovian mind game, and therefore a meta-narrative of how the modern reader reads with the preconceived notion that he is supposed to find signs and symbols in everything; he supposed to solve the story much like a scientist, mathematician, or chess player would solve something quantitatively. Everything above-delineated could merely be an over analysis of things immaterial— precisely nothing of substance—proving this analysis a faulty tool, as analysis is predicated upon inexact axioms. Then, what exactly could this story mean? It could be endlessly evaluated for the signs and symbols located therein. Why not allow it to be? Why not take it for what it is? Why become psychotic? 

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